Environmental Writing

Professor: Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands
Institution: York University
Course Number: ENVS 1800

 Faculty of Environmental Studies

York University

Undergraduate Course Syllabus

(specific names and dates have been deleted)

Course: ENVS 1800.06 Environmental Writing/Writing the Environment

Calendar Description:

This course introduces students to a range of modes of writing in environmental studies. In the process of reading, discussing and practising different kinds of environmental writing, students will develop a variety of writing skills in addition to an appreciation of writing as an important form of environmental action. The course also considers writing in relation to oral traditions and newer technologies.


This course is oriented primarily to students in the first and second years of study. It is highly recommended for all first year BES students, and is an option for fulfilling the BES general education humanities requirement. Students in second or third year transferring from other faculties to the BES program and other students with advanced standing may take this course by special permission of the Course Directors.


Purpose and Objectives of the Course:

This course begins from the premise that writing is a form of environmental action. More precisely, perhaps, environmental action involves cultivating different writing skills appropriate to particular aims, desires, contexts and issues. Writing a persuasive letter, imagining an environmental utopia, constructing an unambiguous policy brief, polishing a research essay, composing poetry that brings people to tears or a speech that rouses them to protest: these are all forms of writing that intervene in the world in particular ways and that demand skill, practice, creativity and care.

Stemming from that premise, this course is designed to involve students in a range of writing practices in environmental studies, to cultivate a strong sense of the importance of writing as a form of environmental action, and to assist students to develop their own writing voices. In general, the course emphasizes three related activities: (1) reading and analyzing well-crafted works of writing across a range of literary genres and substantive fields; (2) practicing writing by experimenting with different styles, techniques, genres, voices, audiences, etc; and (3) reflecting on the writing process in relation to other aspects of environmental action.

Although technical proficiency (spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc.) is an important aspect of environmental writing and will be a necessary component in the successful completion of assignments, the course is not primarily oriented to the mechanics of writing. Students are expected to make regular use of the required writing guide and a good dictionary, to consult the FES writing tutor, and to edit thoroughly their own work. ENVS 1800 will begin with the assumption of basic proficiency and will focus on developing effective writing strategies, confidence and, most importantly, enjoyment across different forms of personal, expository, professional and creative writing.


Organization and Management of the Course:

The point of this course is to allow students to think about writing, to read good writing and, most importantly, to write – all within an environmental framework. The course will thus include a cross-section of different kinds of environmental writing practice. Students will be expected to try on these different styles and voices in order to learn by doing as well as by reading and talking about them.

The course is divided into four sections. The first section will focus on personal relationships between writing and environments in everyday life. Focused particularly on the life and work of Rachel Carson, we will read examples of “nature writing” that demonstrate the arts of observation and reflection, and will consider how context and audience shape the appearance of nature in writing. In this section, students will submit an edited selection of descriptive pieces that demonstrate their own writing/environment relations.

The second section will take the environment from personal to political with a multifaceted look at the ways in which writing is a public, politicalpractice.  Specifically, we will examine how environmental writers make effective arguments with different kinds of evidence and for different purposes. We will look specifically at rhetorics of political speech and environmental journalism, and will examine both mainstream and alternative media as sites of environmental writing action. We will also consider research essays as an important interface between academia and activism. In this section, students will be asked to write a letter to the editor, a political speech, and a critique of a newspaper article. Students will also submit an essay outline and research essay demonstrating critical skills from the first half of the course.

The third section will look specifically at the ways in which environmental action includes an active tradition of creative writing (and vice versa). Beginning with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), a work that many consider to be strongly related to contemporary environmental issues, students will examine a cross-section of literary texts related to environmental themes – including environmental justice and cross-species writing – and will also consider environmental literature and ecological literary criticism as important forms of environmental thought. In this section, students will hand in a short story, a sample of “place writing,” and a structured poem. Students will also submit an essay outline and literary essay demonstrating critical skills from the second half of the course.

The final section will look at the ways in which writing is a particular form of communication technology. We will compare print with other communication technologies such as oral traditions and the internet. Students will read/hear/see a collection of creation stories in order to consider the ways writing “works” in particular ways in different contexts. In this section, students will hand in (in whatever medium) a creation story and perform a piece of their writing to the class.

The course format will consist of a weekly lecture of up to two hours that all students attend together, and a weekly two-hour tutorial in smaller groups. In general, the lectures will explore the construction and content of the week’s assigned readings and will locate the week’s key themes in literary and environmental context. Guest speakers and small-group discussions will be included as appropriate. Lecture attendance is mandatory; students are expected to read thoroughly and reflect carefully on the week’s readings before the lecture in which they are addressed. Students should note that the participation grade assessed at the end of the course requires demonstration of informed participation in both lectures and tutorials.

The tutorials will be workshops in which students work individually and in groups on their own writing. In general, tutorials will ask students to engage in discussions stemming from the week’s themes and readings, and to speak about and from their own writing experiences and works. Tutorials will also include unannounced quizzes on the course readings; satisfactory performance on quizzes is a key component of the participation grade.Tutorial attendance is mandatory; students will be writing continually in this course and must come to tutorials prepared to hand in, work on and share their writing projects. Students should note that participation in tutorial workshops and timely submission of writing assignments is essential to the cumulative portfolio assessed at the end of the year.

While the Course Directors and Tutorial Leaders are responsible for the delivery and management of this course, the individual student ultimately defines the quality of the learning experience. The Course Directors and Tutorial Leaders will work together as a teaching team to shape the direction of course activities; ongoing student feedback on our performance is welcomed and encouraged.


Required Readings:

1. The following required texts are available at the York UniversityBookstore.

Brand, Dionne (1997). Land to Light On (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1997).

Buckley, Joanne (2001). Fit To Print: The Canadian Student’s Guide to Essay Writing, 5th edition (Toronto: Harcourt, Brace & Co.).

Carson, Rachel (1999). Silent Spring (New York: Houghton Mifflin).

ENVS 1800.06 Course Kit (“Reader” in outline below).

Gowdy, Barbara (1998). The White Bone (Toronto: HarperCollins).

Hopkinson, Nalo (1998). Brown Girl in the Ring (New York: Warner Books).

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels, TheCommunist Manifesto (Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 1998).

McKay, Don (2001). Vis à Vis: Field Notes on Poetry and Wilderness(Toronto: Gaspereau Press).

Shelley, Mary (1818/1994). Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus ed. D.L. MacDonald and Kathleen Scherf (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press).

Students should also have a good dictionary available for use for readings and assignments.

2. Additional handouts will be distributed in lecture the week before they are required. Students will be also required to purchase one issue of The Activist, which will be made available in class.

3. Students will be expected to read a newspaper on a regular basis, paying particular attention to environmental issues. Current events will be a significant topic of lecture and tutorial discussion, and will be included in course assignments.

4. Students will be required to find, read critically and bring to class varied writing examples as appropriate throughout the course.



Evaluation in this course will be based on four components:

n       lecture and tutorial participation (including reading quizzes)

n       eight structured short assignments representing different genres of writing

n       two essays, one per term, including structured outlines for each

n       a portfolio of polished and resubmitted writings from the course

Specific assignment requirements will be distributed in lecture at least two weeks before the assignment is due. The essay assignment will be distributed at the beginning of the relevant term. All assignments (unless otherwise specified below) are due at the beginning of your tutorial following the date listed below. Late assignments will not be accepted without a documented medical or other serious reason. No exceptions.


Assignment #                Topic                          % Total grade

1                              Nature writing                              5

2                            Letter to the editor                         5

3                              Political speech                           5

4                               Article critique                             5

Research essay*                                                        15

* The research essay assignment includes a structured outline . The essay will be penalized if an acceptable outline is not submitted on time. For a discussion of the difference between research and literary essays, see Fit to Print chapter 12.


Assignment #                Topic                        % Total grade

5                               Short story                         5

6                               Place writing                      5

7                                Poetry                               5

Literary Essay*                                                  15

8                               Creation story                    5

* The literary essay assignment includes a structured outline (due as soon as possible in the term). The essay will be penalized if an acceptable outline is not submitted on time. For a discussion of the difference between literary and research essays, see Fit to Print chapter 12.

Portfolio§                                                                                  20

Participation§§                                                                         10


TOTAL                                                                                       100%


§ The portfolio must include one of the two essays plus any other four pieces of writing from the course assignments (not the essay outlines), revisedaccording to your tutorial leader’s comments. You must introduce the portfolio with a letter to your tutorial leader (500 words maximum) that reflects on the development of your writing throughout the course.

§§ The participation grade is based on attendance in lecture and tutorial; demonstration of clear and informed perspectives on the readings (indicated by satisfactory performance on in-tutorial reading quizzes); effective sharing of your own writing and ideas; and sensitive and critical listening to/commentary on others’ ideas and works.

Course Schedule:

Note: Unless otherwise specified, tutorial sessions follow lectures. Students are expected to prepare readings before the lecture in which they are discussed (except the first day of class).

Term I (Fall)

I. Writing and Life: You and Rachel Carson

September X: Course introduction and expectations

Reading: Zinsser, “Simplicity” (Handout)

Orwell, “Politics and the English Language” (Handout)

september X: Writing the environment: Rachel Carson and the tradition of nature writing

Reading: Leopold, “September/October” (Reader)

Carson, “Patterns of Shore Life” (Reader)

Note: Last day to enrol without permission of course directo

September X: Writing and everyday life I: the art of description

Reading: Moody, “A Journey to the Woods” (Reader)

Traill, “Journey Through the Woods” (Reader)

October X: Writing and everyday life II: art for an audience

Reading: Carson, from Always, Rachel (Reader)

Brooks, “The Genesis of Silent Spring” (Reader)

Carson, Silent Spring


Note: Assignment 1 due in lecture: nature writing.

II. Writing and Politics: From Personal to Political

October X: Private troubles, public issues

Reading: Carson, Silent Spring

October X: Environmental politics I: universalizing argument and debate

Reading: Fit to Print, pp. 6 – 38.

Shiva, “Can Life Be Made?” (Reader)

Kloppenberg and Burrows, “Biotechnology to the    Rescue?” (Reader)

(Additional readings will be handed out in class)





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