Thoreau and American Nature Writing
First-Year Seminar, Dickinson College
Why have I titled our seminar Thoreau and American Nature Writing? Because Henry David Thoreau produced the ur-text, the foundational document, of American nature writing, and because the tradition that followed him has proven so important to the wider tradition of American literature. Nature writing of this kind may, in fact, be the only unique genre that America has contributed to world literature. Our learning goals for this course will be to understand the “nature” of nature-writing while also paying close attention to the works of some of the finest practitioners of the genre. We will also work to define “nature” and to understand the complex connection between humans and the nonhuman world they inhabit. What does all of this have to do with a First-Year Seminar at Dickinson?
Our readings will lead to discussions and essays that engage a progressive set of questions:
When did “nature writing” become a specific genre?
Is “nature” itself a category distinct from human activity?
Do individuals have a responsibility toward the natural world?
Are humans a part of nature, or do we exist outside of nature–distinct from nature–in some way?
These initial questions will lead to more complex considerations. To what extent are we defined by natural characteristics (gender, race, biology), and to what extent do our “natural” characteristics come into conflict with social forces (politics, class, education)? When a nature-lover says that she “loves” nature, what about cancer and AIDS? Is nature a “good” thing? Are tumors and viruses “natural”? Is nature “bad”? Is it neutral? What might that mean?
How will we proceed? Our readings will be drawn from the following texts:
Sand County Almanac (Aldo Leopold)
Beyond Romantic Ecocriticism (Ashton Nichols)
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Annie Dillard)
The Snow Leopard (Peter Matthiessen)
The End of Nature (Bill McKibben)
We will also look at poems and prose extracts by William Blake, William Wordsworth, Robert Frost, and Seamus Heaney. The dates of composition of these texts range from the 1790s to our own decade. Although much has changed over the years covered by this time span, the central focus of our seminar’s inquiry–the connection of humans to the natural world–has not changed. Why write about nature at all? What obligation, if any, does each of us have to nature? Are such questions even useful as ways of interpreting our experience? By examining the complexities of these ideas, we will explore various ways of defining ourselves and our relation to the world outside us.
(in these precise editions, all are available in the Dickinson bookstore):
Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Harper Collins) 9780060953027
Hacker, Diana. Pocket Style Manual (Bedford) 978-0312664800
Leopold, Aldo. Sand County Almanac (Ballantine) 9780345345053
Matthiessen, Peter. The Snow Leopard (Viking Penguin) 9780143105510
McKibben, Bill. The End of Nature (Random House) 9780812976083
Nichols, Ashton. Beyond Romantic Ecocriticism: Toward Urbanatural Roosting (Palgrave Macmillan) 9781137033944
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden, Civil Disobedience, and Other Writings (Norton Critical) 978039393090
Diana Hacker Online Supplement
Selected additional readings and handouts
Required Websites and HyperTexts:
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Required Reading : Each student will be responsible for having read each assignment for the class period indicated by each date. To “read” means more than merely to let your eyes move across the page. As British university students say, you should not read for class, you should prepare for class; that means that you have read long enough and carefully enough to be ready to answer questions (orally or in writing) about your reading upon arrival in class, to participate in (or help to lead) a discussion, and the reveal your understanding of the day’s assignment as well as any questions you may still have about the work for each day.
22 TH 9:00 a.m.–Introduction to Thoreau and American Nature Writing (define “nature”)
23 F 9:00-10;15 a.m. Academic Advising
24 Saturday 1 p.m. [DIAGNOSTIC ESSAY DUE: see end of syllabus]
26 M 11:30 a.m. Walden, (“Economy,” p.1-27)
30 F 11:30 a.m. Walden, (“Economy,” p. 27-54)
2 M Library Class: introduction to annotated bibliography assignment with Kayla Birt
6 F Walden, (“Where I Lived,” “Reading,” “Sounds,” “Solitude,” “Visitors”)
9 M Walden, ( “Bean-Field,” “Village,” “Ponds,” “Baker Farm,” Higher Laws”)
13 F Walden, (“Brute Neighbors,” “House-Warming,”)
16 M Walden, (“Former Inhabitants,” “Winter Animals,” “Pond in Winter,” “Spring,” “Conclusion,”)
20 F [ESSAY #1 DUE: THOREAU ON NATURE]
23 M Almanac, pp. xiii-98
27 F Almanac, pp. 101-202
30 M Almanac, pp. 202-296
4 F Poetry day: Bring a poem and readings
7 M Pilgrim, Chapters 1-5
11 F Pilgrim, Chapters 6-1
14 M Pilgrim, Chapters 11-15, “Afterword,” “About Annie Dillard”
18 F Research and Writing Day: No Class
21 M MIDTERM PAUSE: No Class
25 F [ESSAY #2 A SELF IN THE NATURAL WORLD]
28 M Urbanatural Roosting “Contents”-77
31 TH 12-1:15 p.m. Sue Coe (Arts Award Winner) Q & A, ATS, REQUIRED
1 F Urbanatural Roosting 77-152
4 M Urbanatural Roosting 152-230
8 F Snow Leopard, pp. xv-104
11 M Snow Leopard, pp. 105-209
15 F Snow Leopard, pp. 210-325
18 M [ESSAY #3 MCKIBBEN VS. DILLARD]
22 F End of Nature Part I
25 M End of Nature Part II [ESSAY #4 REVISION DUE: ANY ESSAY] Final class: Last day to submit Annotated Bibliography
Required Writing : All students will bring at least one sheet of written notes to each class (for which there is a reading assignment) for discussion. These may be reading notes, journal entries based on your reading, a series of questions, or a combination of notes, comments, and questions. I may collect these notes at the start of class, at the end of class, or not at all. I will collect batches of these notes at various points during the semester. Make sure that you save all of them.
In addition, each student will be responsible for three (3) essays, one (1) graded revision, and an annotated bibliography, all due on the designated dates (above). Each essay will have an assignment sheet that will be distributed no less than one week before the essay is due. These assignment sheets will explain the learning goals, and formal requirements, for each essay. Each essay must be typed, double-spaced, and clipped or stapled. Each essay must have a title page including a title, your name, and the date. In some cases you will be asked to bring notes, outlines, or a rough draft to class before the final due date.
Since we will use finished essays for in-class exercises on due dates, NO LATE PAPERS WILL BE ACCEPTED.
Our seminar will also be making use of the Dickinson Writing Center at least once during the term; more on that later.
Diagnostic: The diagnostic essay will ask you to respond to a passage by Wordsworth on the relationship between human beings and nature. You will have two (2) days to complete this essay. You will be given credit for completing the assignment, but the essay will not be formally graded.
(See paper text assignment sheets–distributed in class–for all assignments.)
Essay #1: Thoreau and Nature–Describe the natural world as it is defined by Thoreau. Is this an effective definition of nature, or does Thoreau’s definition have its limitations?
Essay #2: A Self in the Natural World–describe a single experience in which you came to understand some aspect of your relationship to the nonhuman world.
Essay #3: McKibben vs. Dillard. Compare and contrast McKIbben’s End of Nature and Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek . How are the two books different in their tone and in the way they convey their messages? What do the two works have in common in addition to a concern with nature?
Essay #4: Revision. You will be able to revise any one of these three essays for a new and additional grade. It will not cancel your first grade.
Annotated Bibliography : Your final written assignment for this course will be an annotated bibliography of one of the authors or works we are studying. You will be asked to choose an author or a work during September, and you will then have the entire semester to complete an annotated bibliography of at least ten (10) items. See Anna Orlov’s sample bibliography: Orlov Annotated Bibliography.
The form, as well as techniques for the preparation of this bibliography, will be discussed in detail during our library session and several class periods. The purpose of this assignment is for you to learn the basic elements of college-level academic research. This research assignment will be due at the conclusion of the course.
Course Grading :
Class notes. Discussion. Participation. Essay 1. Essay 2. Essay 3. Revision. Bibliography
All course requirements must be completed in order for you to pass the course.
If all of this information makes our seminar sound difficult, demanding, and downright Draconian, now is the time to put your fears to rest. Part of the purpose of the First-Year Seminar Program is to let our group get to know one another in a variety of formats. I will, of course, be available for advising and office hours as the semester proceeds. But we will also be meeting more informally for at least a meal or two, a film or two, and I hope for possible and attend at least one orientation on the network e-mail system, so that we may also communicate electronically–what would Thoreau think! Don’t hesitate to ask me about details of the course, our readings, your writing, your grade, or any other aspect of your life at Dickinson. Remember, “seminar” comes from a word that means “seed plot.” With any luck, this experience will be an important seed plot for the garden of your years at Dickinson.
The Dickinson plagiarism policy will be strictly enforced. This class adheres to the college’s Community Standards, which clearly state: “Students are expected to do their own work. Work submitted in fulfillment of academic assignments and provided on examinations is expected to be original by the student submitting it.” Please review the Community Standards document for more information.
Academic Integrity Tutorial
Required of all First-Year Students
DEADLINE: Monday, September 16, 2013 at 8AM.
All incoming Dickinson students are required to complete the Academic Integrity tutorial posted on Moodle. Students who do not complete this instruction will not be able to request spring classes during the registration period in October.
- Logon to Moodle through Gateway.
- Select the course entitled “Academic Integrity Tutorial – 2013.”
- Once in the course, click on the link to the tutorial “Join the Conversation: Work Honestly and Use Information Responsibly.”
- Follow the instructions carefully. All questions must be completed to get credit for the tutorial.
Statement on Disability Services:
In compliance with the Dickinson College policy and equal access laws, I am available to discuss requests made by students with disabilities for academic accommodations. Such requests must be verified in advance by the Coordinator of Disability Services who will provide a signed copy of an accommodation letter, which must be presented to me prior to any accommodations being offered. Requests for academic accommodations should be made during the first three weeks of the semester (except for unusual circumstances) so that timely and appropriate arrangements can be made.
Students requesting accommodations are required to register with Disability Services, located in Academic Advising, first floor of Biddle House. Please contact Marni Jones, Coordinator of Disability Services (at ext. 1080 or email@example.com ) to verify their eligibility for reasonable and appropriate accommodations.
Professor Ashton Nichols
Class meetings: M and F 11:30 a.m., Classroom: East College 312
Office Hours: M F 10:00-11:30, 12-1:30 T, and by appointment
Thoreau and American Nature Writing
—-Here is a famous sonnet by William Wordsworth:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.–Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn* *[raised in an ancient religion]
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea* *[meadow]
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus* rising from the sea; *[sea-god who could change shape] Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn Or Or hear old Triton* blow his wreathed horn. *[sea-god with a shell-trumpet]
—What do you think Wordsworth means in this sonnet?
Write a 500-600 word essay (no more than two double-spaced typed pages) in which you explain these lines in your own words. Do not read what others have written about this poem. Do not do any research. Simply read the lines carefully (several times), and then explain them in your own words. You may, of course, use a dictionary.
This essay is due at the start of our class on Saturday, August 24 at 1:00 p.m. The essay should be typed and double spaced. No late papers will be accepted. The essays will be used in class on this day. I will comment on these essays and return them to you, but they will not receive a letter grade. They will, however, be evaluated as part of your first class participation.