Uniting Art and Environment
UI ecocriticism expert brings environmental studies to life for students and worldwide
Along a river near UI’s Taylor Wilderness Research Station, a group of students sat on the ground and leaned against beaver-felled cottonwood logs, discussing an essay about environmental activism by Utah writer Terry Tempest Williams. When blackflies began to bite, they hardly noticed.
“I’d rather have flies swarm me than sit in a boxed-in, impersonal, ‘normal’ classroom,” says student Chrissy Webb, remembering that day at Taylor. “Things can — and have — gotten tricky out here, but you just have to look around at this brilliant country that we are fortunate enough to call home and classroom, and everything falls into perspective.“
Webb, who studies environmental science at the University of Montana, was among the group of students from UI and neighboring universities who spent fall semester 2015 at Taylor through the UI College of Natural Resource’s Semester in the Wild program, an 11-week multidisciplinary program at Taylor and UI’s McCall Field Campus. Her professor that day was Scott Slovic, a scholar of environmental humanities and chair of the UI Department of English within the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences.
During the two weeks he spends at Taylor each fall, Slovic leads his students in hands-on classes across the landscape surrounding the ranch. Each of their class sessions takes place at a different location: beside pictographs along the river, in a meadow beneath towering Ponderosa pines, on a mountain ridge at dusk as wolves howl nearby.
As they spend time in the wilderness, the students observe it, describe it and learn to think about it in new ways.
“My hope as a teacher would be to make the subject matter real, to bring it alive and not suggest that this is merely an academic subject,” he says. “Environmental studies is about our lives in the world.”
An Introduction to Ecocritcism
Slovic is one of four English faculty members who specialize in ecocriticism. As he defines it, this is “a field of literary and cultural studies that tries to understand how we think and communicate about the various relationships with physical environments and other species.”
Ecocriticism isn’t purely theoretical, Slovic says, but rather addresses practical ideas that are relevant to any discussions about sustainability and the environment. Technical research alone can’t answer the questions at the heart of these debates: Who are we as humans? What kind of lives do we want for ourselves? What kind of world do we want to leave for future generations?
“To me, human cultural expression and the scholarship that explains it aren’t decorative,” he says. “I believe understanding the way we tell our stories and respond to other people’s stories will allow us to make better decisions as a species for ourselves and for the planet.”
At Taylor, Slovic partners with professors in disciplines such as rangeland ecology and outdoor leadership to introduce students to complex, multidisciplinary ways of approaching and writing about the natural world.
A Leader in the Field
Slovic brings with him a vast and ever-deepening knowledge of his field. He was among the early scholars who helped ecocriticism emerge in the 1980s and ’90s. His recent books and articles are pushing the discipline in new directions, including energy studies and the psychological dimensions of information management.
“In a very rapid span of a few decades, ecocriticism has become a significant part of literary studies in the United States and throughout the world,” he says.
Slovic was the founding president of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment, or ASLE — which held its most recent international conference at UI — and is the longtime editor of the association’s journal. He travels the world helping form ASLE chapters and speaking about the role of ecocriticism in addressing the world’s environmental problems, spurring people to awareness and action and encouraging local approaches to this work.
Webb attests that the combination of Taylor and the pieces she read there drove her desire to write meaningfully about the landscape.
“Writing about nature is so much more raw and real when you’re living in it,” she says. “There’s a creek out here called Pioneer, and this is where our water comes from at the research station. So you could grab a glass from our cupboard, turn on the faucet and drink Pioneer’s pure water. Or you could walk 100 feet to the creek itself, stick your face in the flow and slurp it up, unmediated.
“Environmental writing in a classroom is drinking from a glass; Semester in the Wild’s environmental writing is slurping straight from the creek.”
- Article by Tara Roberts, University Communications and Marketing and the Office of Research and Economic Development