Non-Human Community

My department recently hosted a three-day Teaching with Technology seminar. I feel I’m already fairly plugged in enough that I have most of the skills involved in teaching using the Internet and social media, though sometimes I do need to be exposed to ideas why this might an area in which I’d want to increase my abilities. I have students in my Science Writing class write blogs over the course of the semester, with some mixed results, but by and large I’m a pen-and-paper kind of composition instructor. Part of it is practical: in a large state university, we’re not providing the students with laptops or tablets, and I can’t necessarily count on students having regular and unimpeded access to devices during class-time. I’m also hyper-vigilant about electronic technologies distracting students from the task at hand during the class, and flipping open a laptop screen reveals at times too many temptations to students, and too many distractions to other students seated behind them.

At the same time, I acknowledge and am a living example of how much actual writing going on in the world is occurring on-line, or at the very least, is occurring while a small stream of on-line information is being held at the ready. Even when writing about nature, I find I’ll have several browser tabs open with scientific or natural history information. I think it’s important to get students aware of and working with these tools in a way that strengthens their own arguments and develops a sense of writing as in part a community process.

So I came away with at the very least a renewed commitment to pushing my students more dramatically toward doing their work online, making the Internet part of the classroom rather than simply a distraction, and particularly my more advanced writing students. I’m still on the fence about whether to drop my usual writing journal requirement for my Writing as a Naturalist class in favor of a blog, as there are still so many advantages in getting students in the habit of taking in-the-field notes. Certainly I will make every effort to either get them to bring laptops or if that fails make machines available to them during class to do collaborative peer-editing on Google Docs, so that not only can I see what revision suggestions are for student drafts but I can also share the drafts with the class for discussion and further revision.

At one seminar meeting, we were asked to consider also how opening the classroom out into the Internet also means opening the class out into the immediate community, and to develop an assignment that reflects it. And in my Writing with a Naturalist class, there’s not much of an outside community that we’re working with so much as an outside world that sustains us all, so I thought I’d consider how getting students to take advantage of online resources and moving their writing work online might engage and affect that outside world, and indirectly or directly the other communities that support it. So I wrote a prompt for a blog post and I posted it on the seminar blog. I’m also reproducing it verbatim below, just to have it here, though you can also view it there.

The nature and content of the prompt below also raises additional questions for me and the class. How might you engage fledgling nature writers with larger issues of community and environment in ways that aren’t specifically environmental advocacy? Clearly that’s a paramount concern currently when we think about writing about nature, but it certainly doesn’t exhaust the purposes one might have in writing about it. Some, like purely aesthetic and spiritual approaches, I don’t find particularly effective as a focus in the classroom – and, sadly, I think I’m just about cured from ever teaching Annie Dillard again. Oh, the awful messes that result when students try to emulate her. So, anyway, what approaches or focuses other than preservation or conservation might be effective in getting students to think about larger contexts or audiences for writing about the natural world outside specific research and professional contexts?



a native wildflower

jack in the pulpit

I go for a lot of walks, and I tend to take pictures of flowers that I encounter. At first I didn’t know much about what I was looking at, other than I found them pretty to look at, and the photos helped me to identify what I had seen. There are any number of identification aids online, and for some flowers I spend quite a bit of time in different databases looking for a match. This is a good one. So in that way I had an experience, a record, and eventually some knowledge about each flower – its range, its season, and bits and pieces of its natural history.

Going for walks in what we offhandedly call nature involves moving across environments that may seem wild but are invariably to some degree or another affected by human presence and activity. Affected to some degree or another by your presence and activity. And vice versa: this wilderness affects you too, and not just during allergy season, but in a variety of ways from indirect and unnoticed influences on your well-being to the deep transformations of your self and outlook that might be occasioned by an unexpectedly beautiful sight. This is your neighborhood, too. Your community.

With knowledge, with community, comes responsibility, and in tandem with an appreciation for natural beauty comes a sense of obligation for its protection and value. This is certainly true of wildflowers, because as I gained knowledge about the flowers individually, I also begin to understand the extent to which the flowers of whom I have a naive appreciation of their beauty are considered non-native, and even potentially aggressively invasive, and therefore a threat to the stability and conservation of the neighboring wildernesses. Wildflowers it turns out have competing levels of value, and knowing this entails a certain level of engagement

An effort to integrate appreciation, understanding, and then responsible action, I discovered the NJ Invasive Strike Team has developed smartphone apps to help with the identification of invasive species that will also function as a locator for databases that are being compiled of invasive species in the New Jersey area.

an aggressive invader

garlic mustard

There are also collective efforts to provide native alternatives to potentially invasive species for gardeners, such as those compiled by the Native Plant Society of New Jersey. Here, even more than providing information that might lead to further remedial action, there’s an opportunity to actively position and place the results of your appreciation as a tangible expression of the green world.

So your assignment is to complete a similar process of appreciation, investigation, and then obligation. Take your phone with you on a walk, and document the natural elements of that walk as you encounter them – and there’s no reason to document everything; you’re perfectly free to let your fancy and impulses direct your choices. Use the photographs and the Internet to locate first more information about what you’ve seen, and then to explore what obligations that knowledge may place upon you. Are these features to be encouraged, condemned, left alone? Why? And how do we know? And then finally, given this knowledge what actions would now be expected of a responsible member of a community?

Your blog post should include two images, three links, and a minimum of 500 words. I look forward to reading it.




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Filed under nature, teaching, writing

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