Rethinking Sustainability Through the Humanities: Multi-Sensory Experience and Environmental Encounter Beyond the Classroom

Jennifer Atkinson, University of Washington, Bothell.
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This assignment pairs studies in literature and environmental humanities with outdoor activity ("multi-sensory nature experience"). The outdoor practicum is specifically framed to help students recognize Cartesian legacies that often trivialize embodied experience and isolate our intelligence from both the intimacy and strangeness of everyday contact with the nonhuman world. Students choose an individual "field excursion" or commit to a set of outdoor experiences for the quarter: gardening, hiking, sleeping outdoors, service learning with a restoration project, etc. During the term, they reflect on the sensory experiences involved in that outdoor activity to identify and critique rationalist traditions that regard the living world encountered by our animal senses as a "secondary" or derivative reality better understood through scientific models and quantitative representation.

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Learning Goals

Through this activity, students will:

- Understand how outdoor experience can promote an "embodied education" in place of the "abstract approach" still dominant in Western education, which treats student as disembodied minds with little connection to place, personal passions and animal bodies;

- Develop skills in writing and reflective practice;

- Develop modes of interdisciplinary thinking, particularly by synthesizing Humanities and Literary Studies with outdoor/field excursions ("embodied experience"). This interdisciplinary approach helps students critically interrogate the exclusive emphasis on textual/theoretical analysis common in humanities education, which can create a sense of disconnect from our bodies and their embeddedness in a more-than-human world.

Context for Use

This activity is suited for undergraduates with a basic background in the humanities OR environmental studies. Because students typically complete the activity independently, it is appropriate for most any class size. Length of the project may vary from 2 weeks to a full course term, depending on the time students have available for outdoor experience (outside standard class meetings).

Description and Teaching Materials

This assignment pairs immersive, outdoor experience and reflection with humanistic modes of inquiry (environmental literature, philosophy and the arts). The interdisciplinary approach is meant to facilitate deeper and more "inclusive" thinking about sustainability and human relations to our more-than-human world. As students work through their more traditional text-based assignments over the quarter, they are invited to devise some sort of place-based field-excursion that appeals to them (from sleeping outside and foraging food in Pacific Northwest forests to skinny-dipping in lakes, napping in the grass, container gardening in parking lots, hiking the Cascades or simply leaving behind electronic gadgets when strolling to class over the quarter). Such activities can deepen acquaintance with nonhuman neighbors, help develop a sense of place-based civic engagement and enrich student understanding of course materials. Moreover, field excursions counterbalance the sheer incongruity of teaching nature writing and environmental issues to desk-bound students trapped in windowless, climate-controlled classrooms. [Further rationale for this interdisciplinary/experience-based pairing is provided below in the "Teaching Notes and Tips" section, which should be made explicit to students to frame the purpose of the assignment.]

Students record thoughts and observations on the relation between their experiences in the field and material covered in class. As students venture beyond the classroom, we discuss the merits and shortcomings of these activities, along with perceptions of their relevance – or irrelevance – to course readings and understanding of environmental ethics, history and cultural representation. At the quarter's end, students write a final paper on any aspect they find personally significant; the one common requirement is to trace connections between one's outdoor experience, the environmental and social contexts in which those activities take place, and the various literary and aesthetic traditions informing them.

*Full assignment instructions for "Rethinking Sustainability Through the Humanities: Multi-Sensory Experience & Environmental Encounter Beyond the Classroom." Course syllabus is appended to instructions. Guidelines for Multi-Sensory Experience Beyond the Classroom (Microsoft Word 303kB Apr1 17)

Teaching Notes and Tips

The Environmental Humanities class in which I use this assignment examines relations between human and non-human worlds as represented in the literature, philosophy, and the arts (see appended syllabus). In teaching this class, I feel it important to highlight the humanities as a natural ally to environmental education, since a meaningful social commitment to sustainability will ultimately require not only transformations in our economy and public policy, but also in our core beliefs, values, and cultural representations (the domain of the humanities). However, since the category of "humanity" has historically been constructed in narrowly exclusive terms, the humanities must also be re-framed as something more inclusive than its name implies – recognizing the category of "humanity" as coextensive with larger, non-human communities and processes. Such a reorientation also requires us to think critically about traditional learning experiences in humanities classrooms, which can reinforce a sense of alienation from nature by emphasizing textual and theoretical analysis at the expense of direct, embodied contact with our more-than-human world.

It is vital to explain to students this rationale for combining the humanities, environmental studies and immersive/embodied field experience in such a manner. Otherwise, the pairings can seem arbitrary and disorienting. In fact, in my own early trials integrating these methods, I often encountered patterns of student resistance and confusion. Some students voiced uncertainty about the academic merit of "recreational excursions" like hiking or spending a contemplative afternoon sitting outdoors, wondering how such activities could have real political, intellectual, or philosophical application to our environmental crisis. Some students in the natural sciences were puzzled by the idea of a college-level assignment asking them to foreground subjective, sensuous experience; meanwhile, their peers in the humanities often wrestled with suggestions that our animal bodies might be primary instruments for knowing. When measured against more familiar forms of inquiry that address environmental issues through "rational" analysis or statistical study, this kind of experiential assignment did not seem to offer much relevant insight regarding contemporary environmental concerns.

Of course, many of the basic assumptions expressed by these student misgivings are themselves the product of binary or Cartesian epistemologies still prevalent in Western education, which favor mechanistic representations of nature and reject subjective experience as legitimate grounds for understanding reality. Within higher education, the objective actor is often regarded as the most reliable translator of truths, remaining "uninvolved" with the world we seek to understand, and even operating outside the influence of his or her own feelings, motivations or attachments.

Highlighting this philosophical and historical context can offer students an illuminating angle of vision for recognizing the powerful social reflexes often lurking beneath their own confusion or skepticism about the academic merit of sensory-based, outdoor nature experience. In this way, their field excursions serve as a practical challenge to dominant learning models and modes of thought that devalue ordinary, embodied experience; reciprocally, they furnish opportunities to track ways that place-based environmental encounter and reflection can deepen, disrupt and reshape understandings of literary and cultural texts that are themselves both artifacts and agents of different histories and worldviews.

* More teaching notes included on pp 1-2 of the Guidelines document attached above.


Students are graded on how well they address the 3 criteria below:

1. Describe your OUTDOOR experience & provide a well-researched background on its environmental aspects.

The description of your experience should be relatively brief, since the goal of this project is critical analysis, connection, and reflection rather than a mere summary of events (in other words, do not submit a straightforward diary entry of "what happened" on your hiking, tree-climbing or fishing excursion). Thoroughly research and discuss any environmental aspects relevant to your activity. For example, if your activity involves a hike in the Cascades, you might research the natural history of the area, the impact of tourism and trail-building in that region, changes in historical attitudes towards wildlife, other notable writings/films on the Cascades, environmental controversies, etc. How does this understanding affect your experience here?

If your project is image-based (eg. a painting) or some other medium that does not directly "speak for itself," please explain how the piece communicates your experience to your audience. For example, how does your painting connect your audience with your tree-planting experience? How does your film reveal the enhanced environmental awareness you gained through your mushroom-picking or bird-watching expedition? (Note: if you write a traditional paper, this will already be built into your work, so you don't need to write an additional essay describing the function of your essay).

2. Connect your OUTDOOR activity to the course material.

Your essay should position your experience within the context of the literary and environmental history we've studied in this class. In other words, your must demonstrate a thorough awareness of the tradition of environmental thought and literature that often shapes our views of nature in advance of many seemingly "direct" experiences we have with nonhuman nature. Think about the intersections between your activity and our course material, and analyze their significance and meaning.

Some possible questions to consider may include the following:

· Which readings enhanced or added meaning to your experience? How?

· Did the readings & films shape your expectations or set you up for disappointment?

· Did any of the materials lead you to have a more analytical, sentimental, skeptical, or historically-informed perspective?

· Did anything from the quarter stretch your thinking or challenge your assumptions as you were completing this activity?

· Which writer from the quarter might you have wanted as a companion during your activity? What aspects of her/his work are relevant to yours?

In all cases, be specific,and include/analyze quotes from our readings where appropriate.

In addition to discussing how the materials influenced your experience, you might also note any ways that the experience has caused you to re-frame the course materials (so turn the direction of your analysis in the opposite direction):

· Did any aspect of your experience help you better understand or appreciate something you previously read?

· Did you encounter or perceive anything that contradicted a point stated by one of our environmental writers?

3. Explain how your project fits into the larger history of environmental thinking AND discuss its underlying purpose

As you complete the practical aspect, think of yourself within the context of other authors/filmmakers we've studied this quarter: like them, you are taking a personal experience and set of beliefs and making them public. Consider the impact that writers from the quarter have had on you as well as previous generations, and then imagine the kind of impact that your project might have on others.

In addition, discuss the purpose or significance your project. Please put some serious thought into this. A FEW examples might include the goal of inspiring sustainability; calling attention to a neglected problem; educating your audience; sharing something beautiful or pleasurable; challenging conventional assumptions or beliefs; elaborating on or challenging something you've read in the course. Explain WHY your goal is significant or meaningful.

References and Resources

This site details the larger, quarter-long set of assignments and activities in which this course activity is embedded. It also includes samples of student work:

This article details the philosophy behind this learning activity, and includes excerpts from student work:
Atkinson, Jennifer. (2015) "Multi-Sensory Experience and Environmental Encounter: Rethinking the Sustainability of Humanities Education." Interdisciplinary Environmental Review, Vol. 16, Nos. 2/3/4, pp. 253–266.