Throughout this academic year, I am working with my friend and colleague Kaitlin Mondello as a Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) Fellow in the Sustainability and Environmental Justice minor at John Jay College. Our fundamental task is to use what we know about writing and writing pedagogy to help students speak, with honesty and clarity, about their educational journeys to understand the world we live in and how it is possible for many beings, perhaps including human ones, to continue to live in it.
We have undertaken a project helping students prepare their writing for publication on the Sustainability and Environmental Justice minor’s blog, and Kaitlin has written an excellent overview of this project and its pedagogical goals, process, and impacts. In this post, I want to think a bit more about the intersection of student blogging, writing pedagogy, and environmental storytelling in the pursuit of justice.
The environment is difficult to write about. How is it possible to grasp or tell a story that literally encompasses the entire world? When, as is now the case with environmental degradation and global warming, this also becomes a story that threatens the entire world, or at least everything we know and have experienced of human life in that world, telling stories that help people to think, feel, understand, and act based on this reality becomes both extremely urgent and extraordinarily difficult.
In this context of whole-world danger, there is no absolute conclusion possible about how to interpret and to act, and yet to conclude nothing is to accept destruction on very large and very personal scales. In the longing for global environmental justice, the structure of thought that includes interpretation and conclusions, and which, as an instructor of writing, I try to offer my students, is constantly broken (open) and made impossible.
In our blogging project, Kaitlin and I have emphasized the way that a blog post can open a conversation from an intimate classroom community to some outside of that community. In a classroom, teachers and students construct a vocabulary of concepts, shared experiences, and knowledge, around which the course experience is constellated. A short blog post that comes out of a classroom setting, then, has the potential to translate that powerful communal vocabulary and way of processing material to others outside that course. This is important to the outside readers, who can benefit from the complexity of the classroom project, and it also can be very significant to students. Too often, students experience classroom work as a sterile, sealed experience, and blogging that comes directly out of class work enacts the permeability of the classroom membrane. (This concept of fragmentation and impermeability is not unlike the relationship many people have to “the environment”- not as the world that contains them but as something from which they can remain separate, a sense of relationship that enables truly insane behaviors such as we see around oil and gas extraction.) In the blogging process, the usually anonymous, unknown community of internet users who may or may not engage with their work can create a sense of connection and relationality in the absence of absolute knowledge of who is reading or why.
As Kaitlin and I have worked with students to offer editing suggestions and help them conceive of themselves as authors with an audience, we have witnessed moments of student empowerment as they understand that their work is reaching others outside of their classroom community and learn to engage with their work as publishable (i.e., shareable, worthy of being disseminated) pieces of writing. The editing process gives them authority in a literal sense and creates a collaboration between student writers and WAC Fellow editors.
We have also witnessed--and borne witness to--the places where conclusions fail to happen, where structure falls apart, where an immense subject is forced into a comically tiny rhetorical box. At the level of environment, though, every writer and thinker experiences these failures constantly, so they cannot be neatly packaged as products of student inexpertise or inexperience. Instead, both teachers and students are pushed by the immensity of the topic and the restrictions of the format to understand that this structuring and loss of structure is a constant dance, a basic condition of what writing is, and perhaps, therefore, not a failure at all.
If human beings are going to respond with any kind of life-giving effectiveness to the proliferating crises of climate change and environmental degradation, we must tell stories of inconceivable largeness in a time and space of our own infinitesimal influences, and expand relationship beyond what many of us now conceive of as possible. Teaching students how to write about the environment in blog posts, then, is not just about making them better writers. It is also a part of a much bigger task, of doing what is impossible without arrogance or certainty, in communities we cannot necessarily see, feel, or know.