Note on Classroom Use

Like the other volumes in the series, Keywords for Environmental Studies is designed for use in a broad range of teaching environments, both disciplinary and interdisciplinary. It can also be adapted for use at a variety of levels, from introductory undergraduate courses to graduate seminars. While every essay in the volume has been prepared by a field expert, they are all also written in clear prose crafted to be understood by non-experts.

This is, after all, part of the design of the volume: to create opportunities not only for disciplinary and interdisciplinary conversations, but also for trans- or cross-disciplinary ones, in which we speak to each other across the often artificial divides that separate bodies of knowledge and expertise. (Or, as the essay on “Translation” in the volume suggests, literal divides of language and meaning.) If we learned anything while preparing this volume, it’s not only that every discipline has a stake in the central environmental questions of our time, but also that cross-disciplinary conversations are essential to environmental studies today. We hope that the volume’s adaptability to a variety of pedagogical uses will help make such conversations possible, more frequent, and more enjoyable.

We have heard from many colleagues about the ways they anticipate using the volume in their classrooms, and we have developed a number of suggestions of our own. We’re also eager for feedback on any of the classroom strategies outlined below, and indeed we welcome new suggestions for pedagogical approaches that you find successful. Here are some of the uses and assignments you might consider.

At the course level:

  1. If you are teaching an introductory interdisciplinary class on environmental studies or the environmental humanities, you might consider using the volume as a primary text by assigning individual entries (or clusters of entries) as readings throughout the term. Students might connect to specific course topics or themes and, potentially, discover others on their own. Many of our colleagues tell us this is how they anticipate using the volume.
  1. Alternatively, you could organize an introductory course around individual keywords themselves. Here you might simply assign the relevant keyword essay as the introductory reading for each unit, perhaps even using only excerpts from that chapter rather than the complete text.
  1. Courses that have a more strictly disciplinary focus (environmental science, environmental social science, or environmental humanities courses) might instead assign “disciplinary clusters” of terms, identifying those entries that pertain most directly to either scientific, social scientific, or humanistic modes of environmental inquiry. Even in such courses, it might also be valuable to assign a selection of keywords that necessarily cross these boundaries, such as “nature,” “culture,” “globalization,” “anthropocene,” or “climate change,” and ask students how they understand these terms within their particular discipline (or the discipline of the course). Naturally it is our belief that each of the keywords has value for students regardless of their disciplinary anchor.
  1. The book could also work well as a primary text in a graduate seminar on environmental studies (or an environmental sub-discipline) in the ways outlined above. Graduate students can also be invited to read the volume cover to cover, as they might another text, for a single meeting, assessing the volume’s “take” on the field (what is it?) or sub-discipline, as well as the pros and cons of approaching the field through the lens of the “keyword” essay.

At the activity or assignment level:

  1. On the first day of class, pass around the table of contents and explain the “keyword” concept within its intellectual genealogy, perhaps traced back to Raymond Williams’ volume, Keywords (1976). (For a helpful definition and genealogy, see Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler’s essay, “Keywords: An Introduction.”) Ask students which keywords they already know (or think they know), and which words are new to them. Invite them to propose terms they might have expected to see but are not in the current volume. Keep track of these terms and consider making them available later in the course for the “write your own keyword essay” assignment described below.
  1. If you are using the entire volume, ask students to reorder the entries according to a particular scale or hierarchy (in the volume they are simply presented alphabetically). For example, ask students to list the terms in descending order from “most familiar to least familiar,” or from “most general” to “most specific,” or from “most controversial” to “least controversial.” How much agreement is there among the different lists?
  1. Ask students to divide the book into keyword clusters, proposing a rationale for their groupings (tell them every cluster must have at least three terms, and every term must appear in at least one cluster). Let students compare—or even debate—their lists and clusters. What do these reorderings of the volume say about the fields of environmental studies and environmental humanities today? These can be individual or collaborative group exercises.
  1. Invite students to create a table of contents for a new book focused on a single keyword from the present volume. For example, what other keywords should appear in a volume devoted entirely to climate change? Or entirely to environmental justice? Or entirely to biodiversity? (One of us recently tried this activity with a group of scholars interested primarily in climate change and the results were fascinating.)
  1. Invite students to draft a keyword essay for a term not included in the volume. (For excellent instructions to students on how to write their own keyword essay, see the Note on Classroom Use prepared by the editors of Keywords for Children’s Literature.) This assignment can also be offered as a collaborative group project. Many of our contributors found it helpful to collaborate with a partner, and there are several dual-author entries in the Keywords for Environmental Studies.
  1. Invite students to rewrite a keyword essay from the point of view of a scholar from a different discipline perhaps using that term differently. How might that keyword’s genealogy and significance be reimagined and reconsidered from another scholarly standpoint?
  1. Ask students to “debate” a keyword by writing response essays to the issues raised by the original essay. If you do this on a course blog, you can archive these responses and then invite other students to weigh in on the positions taken by individual students.
  1. Many of the keywords in the volume were originally part of much larger clusters of related words, from which the editors chose the final keyword list found in the table of contents. Invite students to “re-engineer” the table of contents by imagining the cluster of possible keywords from which a particular final keyword was chosen. How would the essay (and the book) be different if the editors had chosen a different keyword to represent that particular cluster of concerns?
  1. Invite students to propose clusters of terms or ideas that they feel are missing from the volume based on a traditional disciplinary approach (such as Ecology) or an emerging disciplinary approach (such as Biosemiotics). Then ask them to decide—like an editor—which term in the cluster should become the “keyword” for that group. This assignment, like the one above, encourages students to think like editors rather than contributors and to think about the ways fields of disciplinary knowledge are created.
  1. Invite students to develop a mini-syllabus of keywords around a broader organizing concept that is not itself already a keyword in the volume: e.g., “People,” “Place,” “Technology.” What five keywords in the current volume would you assign in order to explore this concept? For example, under “People” a student might propose a mini-syllabus consisting of the terms “democracy,” “education,” “environmental justice,” “health,” and “pollution”; but other students might propose different syllabi. Have students discuss and defend their choices.
  1. An expanded version of the mini-syllabus exercise: have another student replace one of the keywords in a proposed syllabus with another keyword from the volume (or of his or her own choosing). How does the inclusion of this new keyword change the focus of the syllabus? What does it make newly visible?
  1. You can further expand either of these last two assignments by having students “teach” their mini-syllabus to the rest of the class. Have the class read the five essays as a group, and then have the student (or students) who developed the mini-syllabus lead the class discussion on their organizing concept.
  1. Invite students to think about how a keywords project might also become a tool and resource for engaging their peers outside of the classroom in conversations and actions concerning environmental issues. Specifically, encourage students to explore how a student-based keywords project might be transformed into a public education and action campaign and to develop a plan for realizing that aim.