April 20, 2009
Source: Piedmont 2007

Reiss, John
English Department


Project Summary

I began the summer with a rough syllabus in mind for a course on “American Literature and the Transformation of the Environment.” I saw it as a course that would trace the historical evolution of environmental consciousness in American literature from the period of industrialization onward, and that would introduce some key terms in eco-criticism and environmental studies to help students generate analyses of these literary texts. The Piedmont Project helped me radically re-imagine the course.

First, I feel much less obliged to present the material “responsibly.” Our walks in the woods, our free-wheeling brainstorming sessions, and our cross-disciplinary conversations all encouraged me to loosen both the structure and the content of the course. I would like an element of wildness – a sort of intellectual wilderness – to surface and to break my containers. So I have scrapped the idea of a historical trajectory and am teaching books and essays, mostly from the 20th and 21st centuries, that I think will raise the temperature of the class: writings that look ecological change, catastrophe, and collapse squarely in the face and ask us to imagine how we got to this point and what comes after. Because this is a freshman course, I don’t want to take any chances with making this a dry or pedantic exercise.

The second major change is that I want to give students more ownership over the course. I am not an expert in climate change or environmental studies, so I will want to draw on their investigations as much as I will formally present ideas and information to them. To that end, I am having each student take control of two parts of the syllabus. First, although we will all be reading the New York Times to frame our discussions with contemporary ecological concerns, each student will be responsible for tracking one additional major media outlet (magazine, newspaper, TV news program, etc.) and reporting back to the class through Blackboard on how issues of environmental concern are framed. Second, each student will be responsible for selecting a “text” to examine in terms developed in the class: a poem, a brochure, an advertisement, a film, a website, etc. – anything that complexly, perhaps strangely, enfolds environmental issues in a broader discourse. Students will make a formal presentation and write a research paper based on their object.

Finally, I will have periodic “out of the box” days in which we brainstorm, walk in the woods, free-write, or talk with visitors. I hope that these days will interrupt our usual ways of relating to each other as classmates, students, and professor, and will allow us to respond to one another as citizens of the campus and of the planet.

Course Syllabus attached.

Download: Reiss_2007.pdf (123.2 KB)

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