Nature, Environments, and Place in American Thought
In the spring of 2012 I had the opportunity to participate in the inaugural Magnolias Curriculum Project. The readings and discussions in the workshop quickly revealed the big questions of sustainability: How does personal behavior and choice relate to global phenomenon? What do we hope to sustain, and who benefits? These issues are not only about the earth’s future, but also prompt deeper reflection about our history, relationships to places, capacity for self-awareness and change, and sense of responsibility to others.
I wanted to further explore these big questions in a First Year Seminar that I offered in spring 2014 titled Nature, Environments, and Place in American Thought. My intention was to introduce students to traditions of environmental thought and help them explore their relationships to places, nature and social action. The class was organized as a journey from inner reflection to public outreach, culminating in a web exhibit. After reading classic and contemporary nature writing pieces, the students first created group photo essays that visually tell a story and make an interpretive point about human relationships to nature. Some groups chose to investigate personal relationships to significant places, while others depicted Wake Forest’s efforts to promote sustainability.
Meanwhile, the class visited Old Salem’s heritage gardens, Reynolda House Museum of Art, and Reynolda Village to make connections to scholarly arguments about landscape design, cultural values, and sustainability featured in the readings. Each student then chose one place in Winston-Salem to research in-depth, endeavoring to interpret the environmental and social histories of familiar and everyday places – a trail, lake, neighborhood, park – in novel ways. The final project was to create a podcast based on an interview with an environmental actor. The groups traveled around the Piedmont to visit organic farms, a prayer center, and the site of the Dan River coal ash spill to conduct interviews. Throughout the semester the students worked with Digital Initiatives Librarian Chelcie Rowell to build a digital exhibit featuring text, images, audiovisual presentations, and a map of place studies. In doing so, students had the opportunity to reflect on the power and limitations of technology to represent nature and educate and inspire others. Most crucially, the course allowed students to both think through their personal relationship to environments within the context of intellectual traditions, and to link these ideas to cooperative action and collective responsibility.
View the students’ web exhibit at: http://cloud.lib.wfu.edu/fys100fff
By Lisa Blee, Assistant Professor of History