Teaching the New Ecology: A Course I Taught and the Books We Read

by Randall Honold 

A benevolent associate dean gave me a gift recently: he let my course run with only four students. Granted, it was a requirement for students at a certain stage in DePaul’s Master of Liberal Studies program, but still, he didn’t have to do this. Universities are loath to put it in these terms, but a course with so few students is a money-loser. Thus we were on our way, face-to-face on Wednesday evenings, over cups of tea and plates of cookies, through the dark depths of a Chicago winter, studying “environment and society.” (What else is there?!) I wanted to bring to the group some recent books that I’ve found especially thought-provoking and disruptive of standard policy-oriented accounts of environmentalism and related decision-making.

Here’s a brief report on what we read and how that went. Hopefully it’ll be helpful to anyone who’s teaching something similar and casting about for texts.

We started with selections from How Nature Speaks: The Dynamics of the Human Ecological Condition, a volume of essays derived from a conference in Finland a few years back.

I wanted to have us get some exposure to theories of dynamical systems, developmental systems, and complexity. The contributions by Haila, Oyama, and Dyke lay out these ideas in the most accessible and interdisciplinary way I’ve come across. Each of these topics is worthy of a whole course (which I need to take, frankly) but we were able to get comfortable with key terms and concepts in a few hours. I used this book as a primer, which is unfair to its breadth, but you have to be ruthless sometimes with only ten meetings to play with.

Our second book was my favorite bit of academic writing from last year: Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things.

A political scientist by training, Bennett draws deeply from philosophy as well, with the goal of bringing physical things and forces into greater awareness and ultimately the sphere of public deliberation. If this kind of emphasis on objects in their own right and speculation about what the world looks like from their perspective is starting to sound familiar to readers of this blog and other repositories of speculative realism, object oriented ontology, and the like, it should. Bennett is a major contributor to these debates. Our classroom discussions of her analyses of chemicals and food were particularly lively, and we were brought to a more sophisticated understanding of how our personal and collective choices are always already intertwined with materials that have their own agendas. Despite my enthusiasm, I’m afraid my students weren’t always feeling it, however. They were more enthralled by the last two books we read.

As part of our discussion of The Ecological Thought, by Timothy Morton, Tim graciously Skyped in for the better part of an hour one evening.

He helped us through his novel formulations of “hyperobjects,” “dark ecology,” and “the ecological thought.” I think these are some of the most provocative current ideas about how we might come to terms with global climate change, and for this reason alone (I am the instructor, after all!) the book was something I felt we needed to read together. I also asked everyone to watch one of his lectures on YouTube outside of class, and as a result one perceptive student asked him a question about the performative character of his work that slightly disarmed him. (Supplementing the reading of this book with the viewing of his lectures is highly recommended.) We could have bumbled through the book without Tim’s virtual presence that evening, I suppose, but his guest appearance was most welcome. And after he signed off we had the best discussion all term, especially regarding the role of art in a society that’s confronting overdetermined environmental problems.

William Jordan III’s The Sunflower Forest: Ecological Restoration and the New Communion with Nature brought the class to a close. 

I persuaded the RL Bill (i.e., in the flesh) to join us on an unseasonably warm March evening for a leisurely stroll through his now nearly decade-old – dare I say – classic. The conversation was quality from the get-go. We were able to hit all the high notes: shame, community, value-creation, and ritual. More than anything, the students liked Bill’s book (and Bill) because it (and he) gave them a way to think about how everyday being-in-the-world can be infused with beauty – even (and especially) within environments under duress.

A course on environment and society, if it is on track at all, is not a smooth and pleasant journey. The books we read were not sanguine about the future. But in and through conversations about the ideas we encountered in them our quintet was some place different and better in March compared to where we started in January. I’d like to thank my travel partners Vensa, Nan, Noelle, and Miki for helping me get to that place.

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Filed under Environmental Ethics, Objects, OOO, Uncategorized

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