Environmental Studies 101

Last week I changed jobs. For twenty years I’ve taught in the English department at Wofford College. Now I’m director of Wofford’s Glendale Shoals Environmental Studies Center and half-time teacher in the college’s new environmental studies program.

For the moment, the center I’ll direct is still a derelict old mill office building fifteen minutes from campus, and the academic program I’ll teach in exists only on paper. The core courses the faculty will teach and students will take didn’t exist until they were passed by the faculty a month ago. Our first major will not graduate until 2010 or 2011.

I found my spot in the English department because I loved words. I came to Wofford in 1988 as a writer underprepared to be a college professor (with no graduate degrees) but intensely involved in publishing and the literary life.
The first five years at Wofford I taught on provisional contracts, September to May, with a happy uncertainty as to whether I’d return the next fall. Back then I was convinced that my future was in writing, not college teaching. Though I had a job at one of the best national liberal arts college, my ambition was to be somewhere else writing full-time.

Then I secured a tenure track position at Wofford by finishing a terminal degree, a Bennington College MFA in creative writing in 1995. I settled into ten years of teaching creative writing and literature. My future, I came to find out, was in both teaching and writing. My love of words was best nurtured by the support of a real community and committed colleagues. Spartanburg and Wofford were both perfect for that.

My writing changed in those years. I began primarily as a poet and now write both poetry and personal essays. Personal essays gave me a perfect canvas to explore the complex responsibilities of nature, place, and community. In THE MAINE WOODS, Henry David Thoreau had demanded “Contact! Contact!” I took him at his word and my writing matured, grounded in this place.

My teaching changed as well. I discovered that I often taught best in partnership with my colleagues, an experiment in learning that Wofford encouraged. During my twenty years I’ve had extended team-teaching relationships with an English, theater, and biology colleague. These collaborations revolved around themes and issues such as adaptation of literary forms, water, and the changing nature of the South.

In two of these three collaborations our academic work often took us off-campus and out of the classroom. I discovered that this sort of “field work” was important to me.

Environmental studies is a perfect interdisciplinary major to bring all this together. It offers perspectives from literature, religion, philosophy, economics, sociology, and sciences like ecology, toxicology, and geology. It’s all about finding connections, and I hope that we can impart that skill to students with our new major.

I thought about all this as Wofford graduated its 154th class on Sunday. Students marched across the stage and received degrees in English, history, biology, chemistry, and a dozen other important traditional majors.

I watched as the first Wofford Chinese major crossed the stage equipped with a skill set the college has never offered before. I anticipated the excitement I will feel when the first environmental studies major takes the stage and carries what we have taught them out into the world.

Who will make the connections in the twenty-first century? Who will solve the energy crisis? Who will understand the importance of biodiversity and community and shift their meaning to the centers of our lives? I would argue the chances are pretty high it will be a liberal arts student, maybe one with a degree in environmental studies.

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