A first-year seminar class offered this semester is giving students the chance to explore environmental issues from a humanities perspective. The class, Sustainability in American Culture, focuses on eco-literacy; that is, an awareness of how cultural influences can affect our relationship with the environment.

“In a humanities course, it’s possible to think about thing like culture, discourse and language and how those things shape our thinking and how our thinking shapes our interaction with the environment and the natural world,” said Rita Turner, ’11 Ph.D., language, literacy and culture, who is teaching the class. Turner’s dissertation is based on developing curriculum to cultivate environmental awareness in high school and college students, so when she heard that the university was testing the idea of having graduate students teach first-year seminars she jumped at the chance to use her materials.

The class allows students to approach environmental issues from multiple perspectives, rather than just learning the science of the environment. For example, students read about how everyday items are produced, wrote creative pieces from the perspective of nonhuman beings in the environment and created digital stories about places.

“We look critically about what’s said in the media, how our attitudes are shaped, what metaphors we use to talk about the natural world and what rights we have,” said Turner. By discussing popular discourse on the environment, Turner hopes to empower her students—many of whom are science majors who plan to work on environmental issues —to understand and critique the range of factors that contribute to our attitudes about the environment.

“I like the fact that we can step into the gray areas instead of being in the black-and-white place that we normally are when it comes to classes and answers,” said Heather Harshbarger ’14, chemical engineering.

 “I was surprised at how much information the class covered,” said Jennie Williams ’14, social work. “Not only did the curriculum focus on conservation, but it also explored consumerism, corporate power, political influence and even art and creative reflection in nature.”

Williams, an avid recycler and vegetarian, said that she was aware of environmental issues before taking the class but that it has expanded her view of these issues. “I have definitely become more aware of consumerism in the American culture and it has motivated me to stay active in education and projects of environmental protection,” she said.

Turner said that teaching the class has helped her to hone the curriculum that she will present with her dissertation, and she looks forward to being able to share what she learned in a real classroom with her dissertation committee. Teaching the class has reinforced her belief that students should learn to think critically about the environment. “This sort of humanities piece of the puzzle is missing, and I feel like there’s a real need for that,” she said.