Civic Stewardship and Interdependency: Rethinking Our Local Patterns of Consumption and Development

Tara DerYeghiayan Roth, Seattle University


This "Exploratory Essay" writing assignment asks students to acknowledge themselves as stakeholders in their communities, to take a closer look at the urban or suburban town they call home, and to re-examine notions of entitlement.

Exploratory writing entails a major essay guided by a provocative question (rather than a thesis) that is significant, problematic, and difficult to answer in order to challenge students' assumptions. Structurally, this assignment combines open and closed form features of writing.

Learning Goals

Goals for this assignment include: fostering an awareness of place and our relationship to place; and, recognizing the urgency for sustainable development, individual responsibility and collective action. Rhetorical goals include: synthesis, close-analysis of a film; exercising good dialectic thinking; and, practicing writing as a process of inquiry and discovery.

Writing/Rhetorical Goals

  • To practice writing as a process of discovery
  • To move from open-form, personal reflection to discovery and rhetorical analysis
  • To write persuasively for a particular (local) audience
  • To consider appeals to logos, ethos, and pathos in written and film sources
  • To weigh alternative points of view
  • To practice inquiry and posing good questions that are significant, problematic, and timely
  • To practice good dialectic thinking within the genre of exploratory writing
  • To smoothly incorporate material from research sources growing out of the writer's reflection and analysis of each source
  • To evaluate sources for authority, accuracy, relevance, and objectivity

Sustainability Goals

  • To foster an awareness of place and our relationship to place
  • To develop new perspectives about familiar places/living spaces and to note any shifts in thinking over the course of the quarter
  • To recognize the urgency for sustainable development, individual responsibility and collective action
  • To reflect upon civic roles and civic stewardship within our communities
  • To apply the larger "out there" issues projected in the film The End of Suburbia to us "right here" in our own communities

Context for Use

The activity "Civic Stewardship" was designed for an English thematic seminar Global Exchanges, but it could translate to any course with writing as an emphasis. My particular course focuses on topics of global to local connections (see June Johnson's textbook under References and Resources) and the related writing assignment for this activity serves as one of four major writing assignments covered over a ten-week quarter.

Students take part in this activity after studying several thematic units covering current issues related to consumerism, the use of sweatshops; questions of free trade; fair trade; and direct trade; and, have spent a significant amount of time applying concepts of sustainability to each unit. Students approach the Exploratory Essay with a better understanding of the local-to-global impact of the choices they make on a daily basis. While identical thematic units need not be covered prior to this activity, students should approach this activity with a firm understanding of the definition of sustainability.


Ideally, students begin this activity halfway through the course after studying rhetorical concepts and completing two major writing assignments: an "editorial" piece as well as a "summary/strong response". Other genres of argument would work as well, but students should begin this activity with confidence they can rhetorically analyze arguments and evaluate sources.

Description and Teaching Materials

The Learning Activities

A) Writing: Prior to introducing the major writing assignment, the Exploratory Essay, students complete various open-form, reflective writing activities based on prompts given in class on topics of sustainability.

B) Students have also completed various readings from Global Issues, Local Arguments (June Johnson, 2007) as well as readings on rhetoric from The Allyn and Bacon Guide to Writing. For thematic readings, the Global Issues text includes essays by many experts such as Maude Barlow, Vandana Shiva, Nick Gillespie, Johan Norberg, Anita Roddick, and Barbara Ehrenreich, all of whom prompt excellent class debate on issues of sustainability and civic responsibility. In addition to the essays in this text, a vast array of articles written by each of these authors can be found online as supplemental readings. Global Issues and The Allyn and Bacon Guide to Writing need not be the primary texts, but it would be effective to incorporate a writing guide that prepares students for rhetorical analyses and exploratory writing as a well as a thematic text(s) that introduces students to concepts of stewardship and sustainability prior to showing the film, "The End of Suburbia."

C) Additional activities: Some additional and fun ways to consider the issue of sustainability and civic stewardship include the "Do You Know Your Stuff" quiz from Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things to shed light on the hidden amount of waste and consumption we participate in on a daily basis. Students also calculate their economic footprints, available on various web sources such as In addition, students also rhetorically and thematically analyze the short online video The Story of Stuff which can be found at

D) In addition to the activities mentioned above, students should free-write about their home communities and share their writing with their peers. This question can remain very open ("describe your hometown"), or the scope could be narrowed, asking students to consider the type of energy they use to heat their homes, the major mode of transportation used in their area, the quality of public education in their community, etc. The goal at this point is to get them to describe their community and to consider its dynamics, prior to the close-analysis which is to follow. The goal at this point in the process is for students to simply describe their lifestyles within their communities and to consider what is deemed acceptable or normal to them and their community members. After watching The End of Suburbia, they will be prompted to return to their original descriptions and to consider how long their community can continue to function in this manner. For example, I asked students to comment on their most common mode of transportation, and the majority of them said they had no options other than traveling by car, many of them living several miles or more from the nearest grocery store. After watching the film, they were forced to reexamine what their lives would look like without the gasoline to fill up their tanks each day.

E) Watch the film "The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream" (Director Gregory Greene, 2004) and ask students to submit an open-form response that addresses both their personal reaction to the film and a brief rhetorical analysis of the documentary as a whole. The film opens with the following quote I ask students to consider afterwards:

"As the population of suburban sprawl has exploded so too has the suburban way of life been embedded in the American consciousness. Suburbia and all it promises has become the American dream. But as we enter the 21st century, serious questions are emerging about the sustainability of this way of life. Does the suburban dream have a future?"

Students may or may not find the film rhetorically effective; however, it clearly poses thought provoking questions without easy answers that should prompt good discussion, namely, how are we to continue living "normally" after peak oil? Is my own community functioning sustainably?

F) Introduce the major writing assignment, the Exploratory Essay: Civic Stewardship and Interdependency: Rethinking Our Local Patterns of Consumption and Development. Please refer to the Exploratory Essay assignment sheet, which includes a brainstorming handout afterwards.

The End of Suburbia Discussion Questions (Microsoft Word 26kB Nov2 11)
Research Proposal Argument Assignment Sheet (Microsoft Word 30kB Nov2 11)
The Exploratory Essay (Microsoft Word 37kB Nov2 11)
Brainstorming: Getting Started on the Exploratory Essay (Microsoft Word 29kB Nov2 11)
Rubric Exploring Essay (Microsoft Word 48kB Nov2 11)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Additional Notes about the Exploratory Essay

  1. This assignment sheet is given in class after students have completed various activities and readings, including: "Writing an Exploratory Essay" in the Allyn & Bacon Guide to Writing.
  2. This assignment sheet also conveys information about the next major writing assignment I cover in this course, the "Proposal Argument". If you choose to teach the Exploratory Essay alone, omit the information on the assignment sheet regarding the Proposal Argument, but for those who would like to teach the Proposal Argument as Part II (see my notes below), I thought it might be useful to retain this information.
  3. I decided to allow students to use the film The End of Suburbia as a resource, but did not require it since many of them chose to write about topics outside of oil dependency (such as issues relating to social equity like fairness in education). While the film may not be directly referenced in students' essays, I found that it effectively motivated them towards new ways of thinking about their habits of consumption and prompted them to ask good questions about whether or not their own communities were acting consciously with future generations in mind.

Teacher Notes

  • In my Global Exchanges course, the Exploratory Essay, is part I of II. The second major writing activity and final activity of the quarter is a Proposal Argument that asks students to identify the main problem in their Exploratory Essay and to offer a plausible proposal to this problem, addressing a real audience in their community. Please see Researched Proposal Argument Assignment Sheet.
  • I have taught the Exploratory Essay many times in the past and should comment that approaching it in the manner described here was very successful and rewarding. Students came up with stronger focusing questions because they were writing about something very personal to them, their hometowns, yet at the same time, they were writing about something very new and this challenged them. I found that my international students enjoyed this essay very much because it allowed them to reflect on their homes that they miss. I received an excellent paper from a student from Beijing who wrote about the environmental impact of the Olympic Games on his city. I had a student from Singapore who wrote about the social pressures among the youth and investigated the high suicide rate in her community (social equity). One student from the Las Vegas area posed the question, How am I to eat locally in the middle of the desert? Through her investigations she uncovered the process of vertical farming and evaluated whether or not this was a sustainable method of food production. These are just a few examples of the many strong essay topics the assignment yielded. The ongoing challenge of this assignment is that for many students this genre of writing is entirely new and for some, intimidating. Asking them to begin with a focusing question rather than a thesis and to allow their questions to remain unanswered can be incredibly challenging, but by the end they find the process rewarding.


Informal Assessment: During the Exploratory Essay writing process I conference with students to offer feedback and to discuss their research process. Students also do peer reviews in class prior to handing in their final draft for teacher review.

Formal Assessment:The final essay is assessed with a grading rubric. Please see the attachment: "Rubric Exploratory Essay".

References and Resources


Ramage, John D., John Bean, and June Johnson. The Allyn & Bacon Guide to Writing. Concise, 4th Edition. New York: Longman, 2006.

Johnson, June. Global Issues, Local Arguments. New York: Longman, 2007.

Ryan, John C. and Alan Thein Durning. Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things. Seattle: Northwest Environment Watch, 1997.


Costanza, Robert. "The Real Economy" The Real Economy in Review.
Armoudian, Maria and Ankine Aghassian. "Vandana Shiva: Why We Face Both Food and Water Crises." AlterNet. 15 May 2008.


"The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream", Dir. Gregory Greene. The Electric Wallpaper, 2004.