To Set the Darkness Echoing: A Reflective Self-Assessment


Written for Dr. David Stacey's English 600 Class at Humboldt State University

The Bioregional Classroom

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To Set the Darkness Echoing: A Reflective Self-Assessment

 Before I begin reflecting on specific events from this semester’s coursework in English 600, I’d like to reflect in a more general way on the act and art of writing. When I sit down to write a reflective essay, I feel that I face a host of concerns unique to this type of writing. Of course, some of the concerns I face in writing a reflective piece also come up in other types of writing that I am more experienced and comfortable with, poetry for instance. In fact, the similarities between the reflective self-assessment and the poem put me in mind of a piece by Seamus Heaney, that will serve, I think, to elucidate not only some of my thoughts on creative writing, but also the act of writing in general. In the poem “Personal Helicon,” Heaney draws a comparison between staring into the dark depths of a well as a child as an act of self reflection, to the act of writing poetry as a parallel act in his adult life that is in some sense a more mature version of his childhood gazing. The last two stanzas of the poem are particularly relevant to this discussion, and they go like this:

Others had echoes, gave back your own call
                With a clean new music in it. And one
                Was scaresome, for there, out of ferns and tall
                Foxgloves, a rat slapped across my reflection.


                Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,
                To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring
                Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme
                To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.


 For me, part of the purpose of all writing, be it poetry, fiction, discursive prose, or even the reflective essay,  is similar to the purpose  Heaney describes in“Personal Helicon.” At the risk of stretching the comparison too far,  my reluctance in writing reflective essays is that for me, in the past, this form of writing has been somewhat like the “scaresome” well that Heaney describes in his poem – while poetry has always sent the sound of my own voice back to me with a “clean new music in it.” I feel that whenever I write a reflective piece there is always something ungraceful, even “scaresome” about my writing. And always, in rereading a reflective piece I have written in the past, I cannot help but feel that a “rat” has “slapped across my reflection.” Nevertheless, writing, whatever else it may be – frustrating, aggravating, nerve-wracking – is always, in the end, an enjoyable task for me, and ultimately, I write, “To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.”

 Heaney’s poem also serves as a good starting point for this discussion because it depicts writing as a task that one comes to on one’s own, and on one’s own terms. This relates to my experience in English 600 in that the open-ended nature of this course, which at first struck me as a little “scaresome,” allowed me – nay, forced me–to come to the course content and to complete the required work on my own terms. The relatively free-form nature of this course is responsible for the most valuable thing I took away from my first semester of graduate school: the chance to solidify my personal approach toward writing, teaching, and scholarship through articulating this approach to my peers and to the instructor.

 For the sake of honesty, I want to back up a little before I begin discussing some of the work I did this semester to talk about my first impressions of English 600. I didn’t immediately embrace, or even really understand the benefits of Dr. Stacey’s open-ended approach. In fact, at the beginning of the semester, I was fairly apprehensive, a little skeptical, and occasionally given to fits of rage about my experience in English 600. It seemed to me at first that I was paying an awful lot of money to be condescended to by a professor I barely knew, and that, while I appreciated his honesty and cynicism about the fate of composition instructors in the University, that my time might be better spent in a more rigorous, or at least a more structured class. Through the course of the semester, however, I was forced to reevaluate my assessment of English 600. What I had initially mistaken for condescension emerged as a benign blend of humor and honesty; what I had initially mistaken for cynicism emerged as a blatantly honest presentation of some pretty grim realities; and what I had mistaken for a lack of rigor emerged as an unprecedented level of intellectual freedom. All in all, Dr. Stacey’s approach to teaching served as a gentle and much needed reminder to have a sense of humor in our professional lives, to not take things too seriously. At any rate, the point is that I got used to things and ultimately enjoyed and benefited from English 600. In fact, the course allowed me to think about my goals and my critical biases in ways that were intellectually challenging and engaging.

The readings in Pope’s English Studies Book were a welcome refresher on significant literary theories, and I was extremely pleased to see that he included a chapter on eclectic and ecocritical approaches. His discussion of various critical approaches got me thinking about the relationship between ecocriticism and other methods. In a brief post on gender studies and feminism, I voice the similarities I see between ecocriticism and gender studies,

 Just as gender studies unravels the boy/ girl dichotomy, ecocriticism unravels the human/ nature dichotomy, choosing to regard human beings as part of the natural world, rather than separate from it. This inclusive approach seems in line with the goals of intersectional feminism (especially considering the way suppression of the feminine mirrors suppression of the natural world in the academy).

 The similarity I discuss here got me thinking about the scope of eco-criticism compared to other critical approaches, and I returned to an essay called “Widening the Lens” that I wrote as an undergraduate at Humboldt State University for a final project in a senior seminar class. In this piece I assert that ecocriticism includes the widest array of extra-textual factors of any literary theory, and that as such, it is superior to any other literary theory. I may overstate the case a little in this piece, but it’s valuable in that it deals with the idea of one’s “subject position” in an eco-centric worldview. Granted human beings are different from one another, and factors such as race, gender, and socio-economic class affect our lives on a daily basis. Still, human beings share much in common with one another, and all of us share a common “subject position” in that we are all Homo sapiens on the planet earth.

 

Much of the work I did in English 600 this semester dealt with defining, exploring, and defending an eco-centric approach toward writing, teaching, literature, and English studies in general. I found the Moodle discussion of ecocriticism to be an invaluable opportunity to examine and clarify my ecological approach to teaching, learning, and interpretation. It is important to consider the problems inherent in any theoretical framework, and even more important to examine the assumptions underlying one’s own worldview. In the Moodle post that I have called “Debunking Some Miconceptions…” I found myself expressing with greater clarity than ever before a defense of the validity of an ecocritical approach.  The opening sentence of this piece sums up my answer to some common concerns about the possible pitfalls of ecocriticism and ecocomposition, “Instead of furthering an oppressive and deeply flawed system of eurocentric, patriarchal, anthropocentrism, proponents of Deep Ecology, Bioregionalism, and the better informed ecocritics seek an ecology that is relevant and practical to all.”

 The assignment in which we discussed the benefits and potential problems of ecocriticism was, without a doubt, the high point of the class for me. It allowed me to flesh out some of my own ideas, and to broaden my perspective by discussing ecocriticism with my group members. In the piece “Aesthetics, Socio-Economics, and Ecology,” I summarize this group discussion of ecocriticism. Ecology means different things to different people, and as I mention in this piece, definitions were central to our discussion. By borrowing concepts from Deep Ecology and Bioregionalism, ecology becomes a way of perceiving and being in the world that transcends boundaries of race, gender, and class. The transcendental quality of a “deep” approach to ecology comes partly from what I call “an awesome humility that comes when one realizes one's smallness in relation to all that is.”

 The point I’m making here is that, while I appreciate the “problemitization” of ecocriticism that came up in our discussion, it ultimately served only to reinforce my belief in the value and validity of an ecocentric approach. For one thing, all of the concerns raised about ecocriticism in this discussion were human concerns. Racism, sexism, and socio-economic biases are realities of the human experience, and I do not propose an ecocriticial approach that ignores these significant problems. I do, however, assert that human suffering, caused by oppression and exploitation, is inexorably bound to the abuse and exploitation of the natural world. I would argue, in fact, that human suffering at the hands of other humans is merely an extension of the violent exploitative relationship most humans have to the natural world. It is time that human beings abandon a Cartesian mechanistic world view in favor of an organic, bioregional, deep ecological one that considers the natural world not as dead matter, separate from human beings, but rather as the complex of living systems that comprise it, and to which human beings are inextricably linked. As teachers, we owe it to ourselves and to our students to do everything in our power to help implement this much needed paradigm shift.

 Composition and Ecology may seem like strange bedfellows, but I am by no means the first to make the case for the inclusion of ecology in the writing classroom. Encouraging students to think and write about the natural world, and their relationship to it, has born a revolutionary pedagogical approach called ecocomposition. Many books have already been written on the subject of ecocompostition, and the field is burgeoning. English 600 encouraged me to ponder the connection between ecology and the teaching of writing, and as a result, I have formulated an idea for my unbound project for the MATW at Humboldt State University. I see the benefits of ecology in the writing class, and my project, “seeks to examine the role of place in composition studies, with particular attention to the ways in which awareness of one’s physical location and relationship to one’s environment are instrumental in the development of critical thinking and learning to write.”  One benefit of ecocomposition, or place-based pedagogy, is that it naturally encourages – in fact, practically requires – interdisciplinarity and writing across the curriculum. Another benefit is that ecocomposition allows for the inclusion of forms of writing that are not traditionally associated with introductory writing courses – poetry, creative nonfiction, etc.

 Ecocriticism and ecocomposition share commonalities, as do the broader fields of literature and composition. I have included on this site some of my own critical literary texts, creative pieces (by myself and others), and a reflective piece I wrote for an undergraduate final project to demonstrate the variety of writing that an eco-centric approach can yield. As I hope these pieces demonstrate, the possibilities of blending ecology and writing are intriguing and endless and of unquestionable value.