Environmental Ethics in the Composition Classroom

Article excerpt


The college composition classroom, specifically one devoted to writing across the curriculum, is a perfect place to introduce environmental ethics as a preparation for future classes in environmental literature, After developing a basic understanding of philosophical ethics and securing basic writing skills in parallel, students can move on to engage with seminal texts of environmental ethics. Next, they can tackle specific environmental issues such as logging, nuclear power, recycling, or global warming by discussing and writing about both sides of each topic. Thus, they achieve the outcome of arguing regardless of their personal opinion as well as gathering information about nature. Finally, the basis of an environmental ethics allows the students to come to terms with belletristic environmental literature in a way that pure literature classes cannot, leaving them better writers and readers.


While the importance of nature in belletristic literature from the Bible to The Poisonwood Bible has almost become a commonplace, the actual basis of our engagement with the environment is not always as clear. In particular, there is no social or cultural consensus for the ethical foundation from which we evaluate our own lives as well as artistic and literary representations of the environment. The most obvious philosophical school that we might draw on here is utilitarianism. However, even weighing the benefits of actions that have an impact on the environment against their drawbacks begs the question of whether nature has any value in its own right, as opposed to its effect on humans in the present and future. For that reason, it is important that we encourage our students to question their preconceptions and develop an environmental ethics. In addition, only this philosophical foundation really provides a framework in which to evaluate environmental fictional literature, which in many classes is simply introduced into the literature curriculum without criteria for assessment.

The college composition classroom is a good place to pursue these outcomes because it is an arena where students are trained in argumentation, the focus there is not exclusively on the environment, and this course usually precedes literature classes. My own success teaching a class in environmental ethics at Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans was mixed, but in the experience I learned how to construct a more effective class.

Writing and Argumentation

As all composition teachers at the college and university level know, writing is inseparable from argument. Just as our students cannot produce good essays without knowing the basic rules of spelling, punctuation, and grammar, linguistically perfect texts can never receive good grades without interesting content. Therefore, composition classes need to have subject matter. Philosophical topics particularly lend themselves to this task because they inherently require articulating arguments rather than just transmitting knowledge--most students I have taught are used to collecting information from advanced high school classes, but are not yet familiar with casting it into an argumentative form. Within the field of philosophy, the environment is especially useful because it concerns students in their daily lives. Every student drinks from aluminum cans, prints reams of paper, breathes polluted air, and eats mass-produced food and therefore has an inherent interest in environmental ethics.

Of course, composition classes--which most students have to take in their first year at college--can never be exclusively dedicated to the environment since the mechanics of writing play an important part. Still, that learning cannot take place in a vacuum but can be achieved with environmental topics in mind. In any case, it is perhaps not a bad thing if nature is not the sole focus of the class, since in my experience our students perceive such a concentration as their professors trying to promote a progressive ideological agenda--the stereotype of the 'tenured radical. …