Reconceiving Sustainability

“When we try to pick out anything by itself,” said John Muir, “we find it hitched to everything else in the universe”

Coming into Contact: Explorations in Ecocritical Theory and Practice

…opening, always, to infinite possibility is the foundation of stable practice

Shunryo Suzuki, in Mary Rose O’Reilley, The Garden at Night: Burnout and Breakdown in the Teaching Life

This project has its origins in a very real question, which we have been feeling in our guts for the past few years: whether, at this stage in our lives, our own teaching practices are sustainable ones.This project has its origins in a very real question, which we have been feeling in our guts for the past few years: whether, at this stage in our lives, our own teaching practices are sustainable ones. In early summer 2011–as we each enter our fourth decade of teaching, and seventh decade of living–we begin co-designing a new freshman writing seminar on the complex relationship between social class, being “in class,” and being “outclassed.”1 We make a commitment to one another to restrain ourselves, to find space for rest and renewal, to help each other manage what we see as the coming overload. But it is clear, long before the fall semester begins, that we are terrible at setting limits as individuals, and even worse at doing so for one another. In fact, working together seems to make things much worse.

We have chosen for our course a rich, complex topic, with tendrils that reach both deep, into the life of the campus community, and wide, ‘round about the world. We bring to our collaborative work on this subject decades of social justice activism, as well as our own fertile academic minds, filled with years of pedagogical experiments that have worked—not to mention lots of new ideas we want to try out for the first time. Talking together of course only stirs that pool, generating more thoughts and possible actions for the class. We also have the help of, and make the commitment to mentor, two seniors at the college who are working as our student partners in a collaborative, reciprocal process sponsored by the college’s Teaching and Learning Initiative2 Their thoughts further complexify our own. Then we are each assigned fourteen first-semester students, which means adding twenty-eight additional hearts and minds to the mix. We agree, as well, to work in partnership with a high school classroom in the city, thereby extending even further the range of the territory, physical and metaphysical, through which we are to travel.

The unpredictable feeds fear. Of course.

And multiplying the parts multiplies the unpredictability.

I love to teach with someone else. It augments the process of diffusion, the spreading out not just of authority and power but of focus that makes the classroom a more equitable and more permeable space”

–Jane Tompkins, A Life in School

More equitable. More permeable. Also more uncontrollable.

In teaching that class, and reflecting afterwards on what happened in it, we uncover a paradox.

We begin by acknowledging the limits–of time, of human energy, of space, money and new ideas: the very real material-and-mental constraints which often make it seem that we are working within a system that is running down. Our initial plan, in sketching out a design for “sustainable teaching,” is to “take” more time, and “create” more space: we will search for naps, practice meditation, swim, do yoga, remind one another to slow down, breathe deeply….

In the process of teaching our course, however, presenting several conference workshops about it, writing several essays, then designing and creating this website and book, we find a complement to our (understandable!) desire to set limits, in the counterintuitive realization that the world in which we operate as teachers and as human beings is an infinitely capacious one. We have the experience of relying on that which we do not know, on the unending supply of the surprising,3 which lies hidden in the complexities of our students’ unconscious, and in our own. Limitlessness, we come to understand, is a richer way to think about sustainable pedagogy than is seeking new and better boundaries.

Jody: In the early 1990s I spend a year as a researcher in the classroom of my colleague and friend, Marsha Pincus, an excellent teacher in an urban school.  One form our work together takes, partly because our days in the same space are so full of other demands, is an exchange of letters. In one of these, I describe a dream:

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“I am in a strange land, perhaps foreign, and you are there as a kind of presence, maybe a guide, someone who lives there.  Two incidents/images stand out ….

We are standing together in a large institution not unlike [the high school where you teach].  You are white, all the teenagers there are black, but then too you have a black daughter. Many of the kids have been rounded up and penned in a huge enclosure, and you ask me to go check on your daughter, who is there. I want to do as you ask, and I go to the top floor. A white woman, a substitute, agrees without emotion to open the entryway to me, but it is too small, I can’t go through, I can only look down on a huge auditorium filled with black teens. There are thousands of them…calmly milling around, and in a while a bell rings and they are no longer detained. I haven’t been able to find your daughter.

When I go outside I am again somehow guided by you, although you are not there. I come to a wide river crossed at the top by another river, so that the two form a large “T.”  The water is crystal clear, and in the distance there are waterfalls. Closer, people with their shirts off are wading. Through this remarkably clear water I see on the bottom a rich tile mosaic of many shades of blue, green, aqua. The sun is bright and this mosaic is dazzling. I realize that I am allowed or invited to enter the water, to wade, and to study (and here this word has an almost spiritual significance) the mosaic.4


I’m drawn into this mosaic of human beings immersed bodily in an ineffable geometry of color and form: bodies, design, and environment mingle and meld, evoking something of the rich possibilities and vulnerabilities of learning and teaching.

Anne and Jody: When Environmental Studies first begins to emerge as a field of study, it positions itself primarily as a critique of the cornucopia of conventional thinking, in which scarcity is thought of as an economic phenomenon, remediable by entrepreneurs. Environmental scholars and activists replace linear thinking about “disposal” with circular conceptions of recycling resource use; “exploration” and “expansion” are superseded by goals thought to be both more “stable” and “sustainable.”5 We are all encouraged, thereby, to recognize the limits of our various practices.

With the more recent emergence of postequilibrium ecology, which highlights the flux of ecosystems–never in balance, always in recalibration–the ecological vision has become a much more unstable one. It is in that world that we position ourselves, as advocates of a paradox that joins the “cornucopia of diversity” that is the natural world6 to an awareness of the unboundedness of everything that binds us together. We are all interconnected, and those interconnections are inexhaustible.

We think that we can actually learn to rely on the capaciousness and strangeness of the universe—which emphatically includes the unpredictability of our own and our students’ minds. We evoke such strangeness in the dreams that emerge in this chapter. As ecocritic Patrick Murphy observes,

We are continuing to live in a world filled with many strange and unforeseeable things, and an increasing number of them are of our own creation….they contain the nature from which we and they arose. While we cannot exactly trust the wild variability…to provide predetermined answers for every unanticipated occasion.…we can trust that…spontaneity and unpredictability…will open numerous avenues down which to walk into the future. 7

This paradox–that we teach, learn and live in an interrelated world, one that is both limited and unbounded–has emerged for us, over the course of thinking through this project, as our central pedagogical hinge.This paradox–that we teach, learn and live in an interrelated world, one that is both limited and unbounded–has emerged for us, over the course of thinking through this project, as our central pedagogical hinge. We follow here the thinking of a range of ecological critics, as well as that of educational theorist Elizabeth Ellsworth, whose response to the unpredictable “uptake” of the teaching position is not to try and control students’ responses, but rather to celebrate, activate and explore the multiple subject positions that are called into play in pedagogical exchange. We join Ellsworth in her understanding of the unconscious as offering a conditional space in the classroom that can become palpable in its diversity, unruliness, and fertility; where the “unspeakable” can enter in the guise of hunger, desire, fear, “ignore-ance.”8

The unconscious, in our own understanding, encompasses a diversionary “playground,”9 including exhibits of the unimaginable and the bizarre. For us, this is a broad, almost metaphorical term, which we use to reference all that lies beneath, beyond, and peripheral to our cognizant awareness; all that we as human beings are and bring; all that we hope, fear, know and desire, as individuals who are always also part of personal and cultural presents and histories. We re-orient ourselves from the field of performance, where Ellsworth locates herself, to that of the ecological imagination, the linked-to-it-ness of everything, which stretches deep into the varieties of the human unconscious.

Anne: Friends Association of Higher Education, a group of Quaker college educators, has long served as a deep source of nurture for me; I have a number of good friends whose company I eagerly seek out at the yearly conferences hosted by the organization. As I began planning to teach my first Environmental Studies course, I am heartened to learn that the topic of the 2012 conference is “Building Sustainable Academic Communities,” and I invite Jody, my good friend and colleague in the Bryn Mawr College Education Program, to lead a session with me about “Crafting Sustainable Teaching Practices.”

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Early in the morning before we are scheduled to fly to Ohio for the conference, I have a powerful dream, one that figures much of both the hope and fear that ecological activism evokes for me. I find myself in a camp-like setting with many friends, coming to the end of a joyful shared time. We all link arms, and are gaily marching together, when a loud voice announces that the end of the world is coming. We look up to see huge, rolling ocean waves approaching us.

The sight is awesome, and exhilarating. I begin to sing, “Roll on, thou great blue ocean, roll!” as the group moves forward, leaping together into the water. Looking up, we see that the waves are now topped by huge ocean liners, and I begin to worry that they will slam into us; I brace myself for the assault.  As I dive underwater, I realize that I cannot breathe, that this dying will not be glorious, but a gasping struggle for breath….I wake, relieved (as one always is in such situations) that the dream isn’t “real,” that I do not have to struggle, that I am not dying. And yet (as is often also the case) the after-effects of the dream linger through the day, casting an emotional shadow that makes me uneasy about boarding the plane.


Years later, this dream, and the contrary emotions it evokes, are still very present to me: compounding an astounding sense of the power of the world in which I live, with an overwhelming fear that I and my companions cannot re-direct these dynamics, will be destroyed by them. Attending to the environment exhilarates and terrifies me in equal measure; I fear that it may also terrify my students.

Anne and Jody: The next morning, we co-lead the session we have planned, about the importance of attending to the unconscious in the classroom.10 A keynote in our discussion is Elizabeth Ellsworth’s claim that the best teaching practices are not just “unrepeatable,” but “impossible”–because both we and our students bring to our classroom encounters all our unconscious intentions, hopes, desires, fears. The classroom is full of these “Other” presences, which cannot easily–not ever, really, in Ellsworth’s formulation–be knit into productive dialogue.11

That same afternoon, we hear Stephen Potthoff, who teaches Religious Studies at Wilmington College, describe the work he does as the “dream keeper” for a group of tropical ecology students in Costa Rica. Stephen invites his fellow travelers to investigate how their dreams might mediate their encounters with the beauty, complexity, and mystery of exotic tropical ecosystems. What shape do the students’ journey assume, on the inner stage of their dreams? What effect does the outer world have on their inner life?

Inspired by Stephen’s claim that dream experience mediates a process for confronting and working through the natural fears of going to a new environment, we begin to explore together the possibility of reconceptualizing our shared work in terms of dreams and other clues to the usually unacknowledged presence of the unconscious in the classroom.

Thinking ecologically, we acknowledge that everything we do is hitched to everything else; there is no escaping the larger world in which we operate. Timothy Morton makes this graphic: “something leaks from the dump back into the town, because boundaries are never rigid and thin. Inside the thinking process, inside the meaning process, are the traces of exteriority that these processes struggle to exclude….‘There is no outside’…there is no ‘away.’”12

That there is no “outside,” no “away”–that the “outside” is always “inside,” and vice-versa–also means that we never lack the resources we need to keep the engine going. The image that Merton uses is that of the garbage dump; another that we find useful is that of Maxwell’s Demon,13 canonical, if challenged, in emergence studies as the model for a perpetual motion machine. Opening the door, allowing slower molecules to cross into the second chamber, the demon enables the heat of the system to equilibrate. So too do we, as teachers, guide and nudge, listen and alter the shape of the conversational ebb and flow.

Although the system Maxwell imagines is a closed one, what most interests us is the structure of the open classroom, always re-generated, periodically and temporarily pushed over into a chaotic state by the unruly unconscious of those interacting within it. Sustainability, as we now understand the term, involves repeated acts of energy exchange that are non-depleting, life-giving, capable even of reversing entropy by drawing on, and thereby paradoxically renewing, the resources from which they arise.

As David Orr has observed, all education is already environmental….The point of ecocritical pedagogy is to make its existing environmentality explicit and, above all, sustainable.

–Teaching Ecocriticism and Green Cultural Studies

We see Orr and here raise him one, with the claim that “making environmentality explicit” involves not only making the content of our courses more ecological, but also making our pedagogical practices expressive of ecological thinking.“making environmentality explicit” involves not only making the content of our courses more ecological, but also making our pedagogical practices expressive of ecological thinking. This can happen at the level of language: imagine here the “surplus of cognitive linkage” revealed when a literary critic analyzes the sort of wordplay that “exposes buried links and structures.”14 It can happen at the social science research: consider Bruno Latour’s explanation that every thing is “also an assembly,” every “indisputable fact…the result of a meticulous discussion at the very heart of the collective,” dragging “behind it a long train of unexpected consequences that come to haunt the collective by obliging it to reshape itself.”15 And it most assuredly happens in the world of quantum physics, as Karen Barad makes clear: “To be entangled is…to lack an independent, self-contained existence. Existence is not an individual affair…individuals emerge through and as part of their entangled intra-relating.”16 As we hope to demonstrate here, deep ecology is also at work in every classroom exchange. The conceptual intersection among all these nodes is an acknowledgement of the interrelatedness of the whole system, from which no part is extractable, and which thereby perpetually renews itself.

And so we step into the realm of the complex, playful, wild, irreducible nature of our natures, both interior and exterior; call on literatures that explore the role of the unconscious in teaching and learning, as well as on the emerging field of eco-criticism; and look to our own classroom experiences as spaces for opening up the implications of ecological thinking for the project of teaching and learning. We evoke a resilient ecosystem, where the playful and the fearful together fertilize unexpected, ungainly, and eloquent responses.

  1. In Class/OutClassed: On the Uses of a Liberal Education,” Emily Balch Seminar, Bryn Mawr College (Fall 2011), accessed July 17, 2015.
  2. Alison Cook-Sather, Catherine Bovill and Peter Felten. Engaging Students as Partners in Learning and Teaching: A Guide for Faculty (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014), 6-7.
  3. Anne Dalke and Alice Lesnick, “Teaching Intersection, Not Assessment: Celebrating the Surprise of Gift Giving and Gift Getting in the Cultural Common,” Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy 8 (2011): 75-96.
  4. Jody Cohen, “Restructuring Instruction in an Urban High School: An Inquiry into Texts, Identities, and Power,” Unpublished dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1993.
  5. Greg Garrard, ed., Teaching Ecocriticism and Green Cultural Studies (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012); Eugene Odum and Gary Barrett, Fundamentals of Ecology, 5th Edition (Belmont, California: Brooks and Cole, 2004).
  6. Joan Roughgarden, Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).
  7. Patrick Murphy, Ecocritical Explorations in Literary and Cultural Studies: Fences, Boundaries and Fields (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2009), 117.
  8. Ellsworth, Teaching Positions, 95, 38.
  9. Anne Dalke and Paul Grobstein, “Story-telling In (At Least) Three Dimensions: An Exploration of Teaching Reading, Writing, and Beyond,” Journal of Teaching Writing 23, 1 (2007): 91-114.
  10. Anne Dalke and Jody Cohen, “Crafting Sustainable Teaching Practices,” workshop presented at the annual conference of Friends Association of Higher Education, Wilmington, Ohio, June 22, 2012, accessed July 17, 2015.
  11. Ellsworth,Teaching Positions, p. 17, 18, 64.
  12. Timothy Morton, “Practising Deconstruction in the Age of Ecological Emergency,” in Teaching Ecocriticism and Green Cultural Studies, ed. Greg Garrard (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 159.
  13. James Clerk Maxwell, Theory of Heat (1871, rpt. New York: Dover, 2001).
  14. Mary Thomas Crane, Shakespeare’s Brain: Reading with Cognitive Theory (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2000), 33.
  15. Bruno Latour, Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), 193.
  16. Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2007), ix.