National Collegiate Honors Council


Date of this Version



Honors in Practice, Volume 8.


Copyright © 2012 National Collegiate Honors Council


Trained in American environmental literature, I typically teach one to three interdisciplinary courses a year built in some way around this subject, with special attention to the rich American traditions of literary nature writing and environmental activism. Most often I teach Nature’s Nation, focusing primarily on literature, and Eco-Freaks, centered on activism (the title is offered tonguein- cheek to suggest how activists tend to be seen by the mainstream). Beyond teaching about the key figures, movements, and milestones in the American experience of nature, I hope to inspire in students a desire to know more about our local biome, located in the southern foothills of the Ozarks; to give them ways to sharpen their powers of perception; and to encourage them to explore the relationship between knowledge and value, i.e., between ecology and ethics. In addition to the traditional readings, formal paper, and final exam, I include one more assignment in my seminars, to be pursued throughout the semester: students must select a specific place on campus that they will visit at least once every week for at least thirty minutes at a time, about which they will compile a “place journal.” I recommend using a simple, lightweight notebook, into which blank, letter-sized paper can be manually inserted. The entries comprising this journal are each composed of two parts: a page or so of original writing (by hand, preferably) and a page or so of original, handmade drawings.

Our campus is blessed with a fifteen-acre nature preserve featuring a mix of southern bottomland woods and remnant prairie; most students choose a section of it for this assignment, though they are free to choose any corner of campus they wish as long as it is outdoors. As one would expect, the students write about what they see, hear, smell, touch, and perhaps even taste during each visit. At the top of each entry they record the date; the time of day; the ambient temperature; the degree of cloud cover; and the direction and strength of the wind, if there is any. Although I acknowledge aloud, when introducing the assignment, the temptation students will surely feel to get some of these data off the web—after all, many of them carry smart phones—I urge them to set aside this crutch as best they can over the semester; being able to gauge accurately and unassisted the temperature, wind velocity, and other conditions is part of the sharpened powers of perception that I mean for them to gain from the course.