Course Description

What does it mean for the earth to be irreversibly changed by human activities? How are humans vulnerable to out-of-control ecosystems? Ecological movements have historically relied on the rhetoric of a vulnerable earth and, to a lesser but increasing extent, of vulnerable human societies, in making their claims. Imagining an earth that can be irreversibly damaged has involved a battle between competing conceptions of an earth too large and stable to be permanently affected by human activities. While environmentalist writers often depict humans as exercising violence on “nature,” anti-environmentalists rely on images of humans helpless before the onslaughts of nature itself, either too insignificant or simply too human to affect the course of ecological forces. This course invites students to grapple with the power and precariousness of ecological and social systems, of earth and nature, in order to explore how imagination is embedded in environmental rhetoric and discourse (how we write and speak about the environment as individuals and societies). As an introduction to college writing, this course focuses on the academic practice of participating in meaningful conversations. It addresses ways to read, listen, and respond to various points of view with our own observations and insights in clear, fair, well-developed, and organized written and spoken arguments. In particular, students will work to develop proficiency at both analyzing and using language to reflect and engage the struggle over ecological health and visions of planetary violence and vulnerability.

Rationale for Assignment Sequence

The first assignment in the course asks students to use details to create coherent descriptions of a bounded space they know as an environmental system. In addition to providing an opportunity for students to reflect on rhetorical choices writers makes when they describe environments, the assignment also encourages students to experiment with tone and style in order to convince unfamiliar audiences of the accuracy of the descriptions. In the second essay, students extend their skills of descriptive writing to compare depictions of environmental and human vulnerability in fictional texts. Focusing on vulnerabilities as a field of comparison prepares students for the kind of thinking and analysis they will do in the culminating research essay. In the third assignment, an annotated bibliography, students practice identifying and accessing a range of library resources, including academic journals, books, general interest periodicals, and governmental and non-governmental organization websites. The assignment has two parts, a preliminary list of 20 sources and a formal bibliography with critical evaluations of 5 sources and a short introductory essay that frames the scholarly debate surrounding a specific research question. In the fourth assignment, students engage a current debate over ecological vulnerability, synthesizing information gathered through various sources and applying their emerging understandings of environmental rhetoric in a real-world context.

The materials and description for this course were revised in 2012.

Course Documents

Pre-Draft Assignments, Activities:

Previous versions of the syllabus (2009):


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