Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

Environmental Ethics in the Composition Classroom

Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

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.'

The class in environmental ethics I taught at Xavier University took place in the spring semester. At Xavier, professors can apply to have their classes count towards the environmental studies minor if they contain relevant content, and my course was such a class. The concentration on the environment was indicated in the printed university bulletin, but unfortunately not in the online version of the course catalog. Since most students chose their classes before the printed catalog was released, it turned out that many arrived in my classroom unaware of the focus, which created a problem for a few since they had absolutely no interest in the topic and immediately realized that they had stumbled into a class where they were expected to be actively engaged. In addition, this was my first year at Xavier, and I did not know that the composition class in the spring semester was made up almost exclusively of students who only had very rudimentary writing and reading skills--they had failed the class before or taken a remedial class the previous semester. Therefore, they found the literature I assigned difficult to read and had trouble translating it into writing. The first lesson I drew from this experience was to learn the academic level of my students. Today, many universities have subject-oriented (writing across the curriculum) composition classes or writing-intensive first-year seminars, and environmental ethics is best suited for these classes. Similarly, honors classes are a good venue. In regular or remedial writing classes, the reading load needs to be reduced. The second lesson was to make sure that students know what to expect before they register for class.

Five Units

On the basis of my experience at Xavier--reinforced by conversations with students and their evaluations--and with the stipulations described, I concluded that a class in environmental ethics that students enjoy and benefit from includes five units, each of about three weeks. As described above, each of these units of course includes elements of composition that are external to the discussion of the environment--but the two parts should always be integrated.

The first unit lays the basis for ethical discussion. The readings I used in this unit included "The Singer Solution to World Poverty" by Peter Singer as well as sections from the same author's Practical Ethics. Singer's article is a provocative exposition of utilitarian ethics, written for an educated newspaper audience--he argues that we should all give away all of our income above $30,000 a year, a proposition that is sure to excite students. The first chapter of Singer's book gives an overview of ideas about ethics in a conversational yet rigorous style and introduces a universalist utilitarian approach; the tenth chapter explores the limitations of that approach with regard to the environment. Singer's basic utilitarian stance is that an action is ethical when it results in more benefits than drawbacks for the people affected, but of course nature is not a person in any definition of that term. Instead, Stager suggests the possibility of considering actions ethical that contribute to the survival and growth of a system, whether that system be the individual human being, a human community, or nature. Since this is the beginning of the semester, the assignments in this section of the course ascertain basic writing skills such as personal ethical narratives, an emotional response to Singer's article, or summaries of his philosophical argument while testing mechanical skills such as spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Students learn to understand the two different registers of style and start thinking about their own audience. As Robert Boyd has argued, the principles of philosophical logic can contribute to the logic of students' arguments; similarly, ethical arguments can contribute to the students' writing abilities as well as the development of their own ethics.

Once the basis of philosophical ethics is laid and fundamental writing skills are available from the previous unit, we move on to environmental ethics. In this unit, students read some of the seminal texts in this area, such as Aldo Leopold's "The Land Ethic," J. Baird Callicott's "The Land Aesthetic," Holmes Rolston III's "Values Gone Wild," or Karen Warren's "The Power and the Promise of Ecological Feminism." These and similar texts are easily accessible in anthologies such as Louis Pojman's Environmental Ethics or Andrew Light and Holmes Rolston III's Environmental Ethics. Here, students analyze arguments in their content, structure, and rhetoric. Assignments include breaking texts down for their outlines, summarizing them, or assessing them according to specific criteria presented by the teacher or developed in class. Donald McAndrew has shown that ecofeminism and composition studies share many ideas and assumptions, so reading Warren's article on ecofeminism also allows students to formulate and clarify assumptions of their own.

In the third unit of my class on environmental ethics, students move on to specific practical issues. The instructor offers a series of articles addressing two sides of topics like vegetarianism, logging, or nuclear power, i.e., arguments in favor or against becoming a vegetarian, continuing extensive logging, or promoting nuclear power. Such articles are easy to locate either on the relevant research databases or in anthologies like Thomas Easton and Theodore Goldfarb's contribution to the Taking Sides series, Clashing Views on Environmental Issues. Seeing two sides of one issue argued in detail helps the students distinguish between facts and their assessment, between information and the use of that information. Their assignments during this section reflect the specific issues, force them to recognize the difference described, and ask them to begin forming their own opinion. If the previous two units have seemed somewhat dry to some students--and of course this problem should be anticipated with lively classroom interaction and interesting assignments--here they begin to develop a more personal engagement.

With that knowledge, students move on to address the issues that they are most interested in themselves. At Xavier, my students at this stage chose to discuss pollution, global warming, recycling, religion and the environment, and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but of course the topics in units three and four are interchangeable according to the geographic location of the institution (students might be more interested in nuclear power at a school near Three Mile Island) or political developments (ANWR is interesting while the Bush administration is trying to pass legislation to allow drilling there). As part of this section, students are introduced to library research and citation formats with detailed assignments on their individual subjects. While many formats are imaginable in this unit, I chose to have students work on topics in groups. I asked them to sign up for the 'pro' and 'con' sides of each issue--thus forming their own groups--and had them perform panel presentations. I specifically told the students I was not interested in their personal opinions, but wanted them to develop arguments for whatever position was available, i.e., I made it clear that they were working on their intellectual skills rather than confirming already formed beliefs. Also, since I end my composition classes with serious research projects, I recommended that my students use their panel presentations to begin that research. The main problem at this stage was to focus the discussions and research in a way that was useful for the students giving the presentations as well as for the students listening (and participating by contributing questions or comments), but after the first panel students understood what they had to do. Two other possible solutions to this problem are to develop rubrics for presentations with class as a whole so that the students are involved in the process, or to give a presentation myself to serve as a model.

Environment and Interdisciplinarity

As a final unit, building on the foundation laid in the previous sections, the class in environmental ethics incorporates literary texts. The range of these texts depends on the specific class and situation. If we choose a longer text such as Barbara Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible, our students have to start reading it earlier in the semester. More spontaneously, short stories or essays by Annie Dillard, Robert Morgan, Leslie Marmon Silko or Rick Bass are options as well. The advantage of shorter texts is that, as in unit four, students can be involved in their selection--by the time the students have acquired enough information to choose a text, it is too late to order, assign, and read an entire novel, but there is plenty of time for short stories. Unit five as a whole expands the course because it extends the idea of what counts as environmental literature by linking ethical and belletristic texts. In other words, it illustrates retrospectively that environmental ethics is also a form of literature and makes it clear that fictional texts cannot be understood properly without a seriously reflected evaluative framework. The final unit shows the advantage of my class over purely literary classes on the environment because it leads the students through a series of thoughts and assignments that give them a clearer understanding of what the environment means. For instance, each of the texts in the course on environmental literature that Rick Van Noy outlines supposedly "demonstrates what it is to think ecologically--as a part of a natural system--and not hierarchically" (206), but the author does not show how the students are led to that realization. While his course structure appears to assume that authors such as Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Edward Abbey possess knowledge that students are apparently supposed to absorb, I see the students' stance towards the environment as something they can develop on their own in their engagement with a framework of philosophical ethics, specific environmental issues of their choosing, and selected literary texts. Thus, they own the opinion they form themselves, understand arguments better from both sides, and will ultimately be stronger in their beliefs and positions. In environmental ethics as in writing, they will have flexed their intellectual muscles and arrived at a style and knowledge of their own.


Boyd, Robert. "Teaching Writing with Logic." College Teaching 43.2 (Spring 1995): 53-6.

Easton, Thomas and Theodore Goldfarb (eds.). Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Environmental Ethics. 10th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002.

Light, Andrew and Holmes Rolston III (eds.). Environmental Ethics: An Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.

McAndrew, Donald. "Ecofeminism and the Teaching of Literacy." College Composition and Communication 47.3 (October 1996): 367-82.

Pojman, Louis (ed.). Environmental Ethics: Readings in Theory and Application. 3rd ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2000.

Singer, Peter. "The Singer Solution to World Poverty." The New York Times, September 5, 1999, Sunday Magazine 60-63.

Singer, Peter. Practical Ethics. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Van Noy, Rick. "Teaching Nature, Teaching Writing: A Course on Environmental Literature." Teaching English in the Two-Year College 21.3 (October 1994): 206-14.

Norbert Schurer, California State University, Long Beach

Schurer is assistant professor in the English department. His main areas of teaching and research are eighteenth-century British literature and literary theory.

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