Composition and Sustainability: Teaching for a Threatened Generation

National Council of Teachers of English Press, 2001

Refiguring English Studies series, NCTE Press. 259 pp. 2001.. ISBN 10: 0-8141-0037-6; ISBN 13: 978-0-8141-0037-0.

This was my second book for an audience of faculty and graduate students concerned with the teaching of writing. 

The birth of my son in the 1990s coincided with a surge in research on ecological sustainability appearing in a range of fields; both events shaped my teaching in no small way. I was convinced that, as we entered the 21st century and conditions continued to worsen, concerns for ecological sustainability couldn’t help but circulate more and more in academia. I naively thought “sustainability” would prompt a new pedagogical ethic that would shape college core and gen ed curricula. (For a few years after publication, “ecocomposition” garnered a little bit of attention in the field of composition studies, but this was short lived and never really amounted to more than a fringe specialization.) Looking back more than 25 years after its publication, the current climate crisis now makes my earlier focus on sustainability seem quaint in comparison. The bulk of core college curricula in the U.S. still remains largely detached from the cataclysmic changes underway. (Young people, however, are now doing far more to call attention to the climate crisis than many of our academic institutions: “A Teachable Moment: Educators Must Join Students in Demanding Climate Justice,” Jonathan Isham & Lee Smithey.)


In this book I argue that, in light of worsening environmental crises and accelerating social injustices, we need to use sustainability as a way to structure courses and curricula, and that composition studies, with its inherent cross-disciplinarity and unique function in students’ academic lives, can play a key role in giving sustainability a central place in students’ thinking and in the curriculum as a whole.

Here I articulated a pedagogy that gives students opportunities to think and write in three zones of inquiry: place, work, and future. This approach allowed for the creation of a variegated course in which students wrote neighborhood portraits, critiqued their work experiences, reflected on their majors, investigated alternative theories of education, composed oral histories, constructed narratives about their futures, and designed their own assignments—all from the implicit perspective of sustainability. In the book I juxtaposed their insights with observations from scholars writing about architecture, ecological economics, future studies, planning, sociology, sustainable business, and urban studies.

The appendixes include a handful of environmental statistics, as well as a detailed description of a composition course I once taught.