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American Environmental Writing

English 347/ENV 347/AMS/347 

Professor Meehan | Washington College

Office: 116 Goldstein | Hours: MWF 10.30-11.30 and by appointment

All course information (including assignment schedule) available on this Web site: (bookmark and use often)

I am no scientist. I explore the neighborhood.

Annie Dillard

Course Description:

We have become familiar these days with the adjective “green” applied to any number of words, ideas, and even institutions: as in, “George goes green.” In recent years this emergence of an environmental or ecological or “green” perspective has also found its way into literary studies. What does it mean to be green from a literary point of view? This course begins to take up that question in exploring a dynamic and provocative interaction of environmental perspectives and American literature and writing. We will observe and consider this interaction (the nature of American nature writing, if you will) across three registers: historical, theoretical, practical. [1]Historical: tracking a literary tradition of environmental writing in America from Thoreau to Leopold to Dillard to Berry and other contemporary writers. [2]Theoretical: observing the more recent influence of interdisciplinary, ecological perspectives in criticism and theory (the emergence of ‘eco-criticism’) and considering their implications for the interpretation of literature and the creation of writing, as well as the exploration of ethical issues. To borrow a line from the writer Wendell Berry, we will explore how reading changes when we shift to solving for pattern rather than problem. In doing so, we will also be looking to other disciplines (biology, chemistry, economics, environmental studies, sociology, philosophy) on campus and seeking a better understanding of what “eco” means in their fields of study. [3]Practical: applying these historical and theoretical lessons to our own writing, becoming environmental writers ourselves through the writing projects of the course.

Course Goals:

Students who have taken other courses with me will recognize Thoreau’s insistence that we be deliberate in our reading and writing. In the context of this course, we might consider this as an ecological perspective (a kind of systems thinking). But this is an ecological perspective also important for learning in the field of literature and writing. Thus, the overall objective of this course is for you to learn about American environmental writing by becoming more deliberate as a reader and writer in/of our American environment. There are three more specific objectives that follow from this, that relate to the three registers of our exploration of American environmental writing, and that correlate with several English Departments goals and learning objectives.

[1]Students will better understand the rich tradition of environmental writing in American literature. This correlates with the Literary History goal of the English Department: Students in English should understand the breadth, variety, and depth of literature written in English across a range of genres and time periods.”

[2]Students will develop a grasp of important issues and implications of the emergence of ecocriticism in literary study—of reading and writing literature informed by ecological and environmental perspectives. This correlates with the Critical Reading goal of the English Department: “Students in English should employ a variety of analytic and interpretive skills to evaluate literary and non-literary texts.”

[3]Students will demonstrate this grasp and understanding in their own environmental writing—specifically a final project in which they develop a substantial essay informed by the readings and explorations of the course. This correlates with the Rhetorical Knowledge goal of the English Department:Students in English should write and produce texts that are imaginative and intelligent.”


With this final project as a starting point, I encourage all students to consider submitting their essay for the William Warner Prize (writing about nature and the environment). It comes with a cash prize (much better than merely getting an A), an amount greater than what it cost Thoreau to live at Walden for two years. More on the project as we go on.

Required Course Texts:

Available at the College Bookstore.

Lawrence Buell, The Future of Environmental Criticism.

Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden (Norton Critical Edition).

Bill McKibben, ed., American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau.

Selected readings available through Canvas or online.


Course Expectations and Experiences:

Deliberate reading:

Following the example of Thoreau (among many other writers), I will require that you keep some form of a reader’s/writer’s journal as a medium for you to engage the reading, the writing, and your environment more deliberately. Approximately once a week (usually on a Friday) you will post a section from your journal and your thinking using blogging technology.  I think of this blog as a kind of cyber sauntering—a contradiction, perhaps, (digital technology in a nature writing course, with Thoreau at the center, no less) that I would like to discuss and explore further. Any time a reading assignment is due, you should be prepared for discussion and possibly a quiz.  Any homework assignment or in-class work or quiz not turned in when due will not receive credit, unless you have made an arrangement with me in advance. There will also be two presentations you will make to the class related to reading—details to follow.

Writing Projects:

In addition to the journal writing and the blog there will be two shorter critical essays (4-5 page variety) in response to reading and a more substantial essay you will develop for your final project (7-10 page variety). For each of these, we will give attention to writing process and revision, since this is a Writing Intensive course. You will find detailed descriptions for these under Writing Projects.

Late Policy: Writing projects turned in late, without prior discussion with me, will lose credit (approximately half-grade per day). No project will be accepted more than one week late. As always, communication with me in advance regarding any difficulties you are encountering is the best way to go.


I expect active and engaged participation in discussions of our readings and in the various field study experiments we will do—including getting outside and observing, exploring, tracking the environment. I will sometimes present ideas and focal points for discussion—but don’t expect a lecture course. If you don’t participate, class time will be far too silent. Your participation will be assessed, along with attendance, as part of your overall grade. I suggest you check in with me during a conference if you want to know how you are doing or ways you might improve your engagement. At the end of the course, you may choose to submit your journal to bolster your participation grade. A rubric for participation assessment:

  • 90-100: very strong to excellent; thorough engagement in all aspects of course; exceeds expectations.
  • 80-89: strong engagement in all aspects, including daily discussions; meets expectations.
  • 70-79: average to sufficient, room to improve engagement including discussions; below expectations.
  • 60-69: weak to average; need to improve engagement in most areas, little presence in class discussion; significantly below expectations
  • below 60: failing

Attendance Policy: Since participation counts in this course (and in learning writing), your attendance matters. Every student is granted up to two absences during the semester for whatever reason. Three or more absences (excused or unexcused) will begin to affect your final participation grade (approximately a half-grade per absence). Any student missing more than 9 classes during the semester should not expect to pass.  I am flexible and reasonable (was once a student, have kids, get sick, etc)—so communicate with me regarding your attendance. But be aware that I consider it very important for a course such as this.

Technology Policy: Good participation requires a learning environment where attention and invention are possible. As you already know, I am interested in the inventiveness of writing technologies and will encourage you to explore them with me. Having a laptop or other technologies in class can be productive if you can use it to attend to our focus, but not if you are distracted easily by “the restless, grazing behavior of clicking and scrolling” (to cite Birkerts). Since such clicking distracts me, I will expect you to use technology thoughtfully. Here are my guidelines for thoughtful use:

  1. No cell phones in class. I’m not interested in them; sorry. I recommend leaving it in your room or car or somewhere else, not on you. However, if that’s not possible, then the cell phone must be put away in a bag when you enter; it may not be left on the table/desk or anywhere visible. It must also be shut off.
  2. No laptops out or open in class unless I have (in advance on the assignment page) invited you to use them. On days when a reading assignment is electronic (eg. a pdf) or we are workshopping a draft that you have submitted to Canvas, then I will invite laptop use. However, even on those days, the laptop will also be closed at times when we are not directly using them. For anyone who is in need of the use of a laptop for notes, rather than handwriting in a notebook, please come talk with me to make your case and make arrangements.
  3. Notebook and Pen and Book/Text assigned for class that day must be out and ready for use. These are also technologies and we will use them every class as a basis for discussion and further reading and argumentation.

I will give a friendly reminder only once if there is a violation of any of these (cell phone away, put laptop away, get your book out). After that the participation grade will be affected and a conference will be advised.


A key principle of ecology is the importance of information feedback in the growth and health of the system. Education, too, is an eco-system; we need to know where we are. This applies certainly to my obligation to you as your teacher: I plan to give you a range of feedback and information about your progress and learning—in class, in conferences, on informal assignments and my evaluations of your formal writing projects. I will also ask for your feedback (don’t be alarmed) at various points in a class or a conference. I always want to know what questions you have, about the course as well as your learning, and will frequently ask you for your questions. A great way to demonstrate engagement and learning, especially with a difficult or challenging text or topic, is to ask a question about what one doesn’t understand. I value questions as a rich form of communication—in fact, many of our discussions will begin and end with exploring and updating the kinds of questions you have.

Another valuable resource for communication and experimentation: the Writing Center (106 Goldstein). We will at times make use of the WC’s talent and services as a class; I encourage you to do so individually as well, to discuss ideas, workshop a draft, follow up on a grammatical or rhetorical issue of interest to you and your progress as a writer, begin to map out ideas for your first book or screenplay. Enough to say, I wish I had a Writing Center when I was an undergraduate.

Academic Integrity:

Washington College has the following policy regarding academic integrity and plagiarism: Plagiarism is defined by the Honor Code as “willfully presenting the language, ideas, or thoughts of another person as one’s original work.”  Turning in someone else’s work as your own is obviously plagiarism.  Quoting or paraphrasing someone else’s words or ideas without properly citing your source is also plagiarism.  If you ever have any question at all about whether you are using a source correctly, ask me about it to make sure.  Submitting a paper for this class that contains all or part of a paper that you submitted in another class, without the permission of both professors involved, is also a violation of the honor code. A student found guilty of plagiarism may fail the assignment or the course, and may be referred to the Honor Board for further adjudication.  Whenever you hand in a paper for this course, you must include in your essay a statement that your work has been completed in compliance with the Honor Code.

Washington College has contracted with, a web-based plagiarism prevention service. You will be submitting copies of your writing projects to

Integrity suggests wholeness; a synonym would be ecology. Your integrity affects the integrity of the whole learning environment here, in the class (where you are relying upon the response of your peers) and on campus. We will be talking further about the integrity of your writing and the ways that your writing can be inventive without being plagiarized. The point is that I take plagiarism seriously, but as such, also want you to learn and ask questions about it.


I will be emphasizing a range of assessment techniques as a way to communicate with you and provide response to your learning and progress beyond simply assigning a grade. In terms of the final grade, it will be determined using the following categories (with approximate percentages of weight)

Participation (including attendance): 10%

Reading (blog postings, presentations, quizzes): 25%

Writing projects: 40%

Final project: 25%

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