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Virtual Voyage: New World

September 11, 2017

Sultana projects has a virtual voyage available on the web, commemorating the 2007 voyage that recreated the 1608 voyage that John Smith took around the Chesapeake 400 years ago. The site John Smith 400 provides maps, excerpts from journals kept in 1608, and photos from the 2007 recreation of the voyage.

I wonder about this idea of virtual voyage: to what extent it can apply to any encounter we might have with the natural world. Say–the kind of encounter you will have when you go to Jamestown. Or the kind you have already had in your initial travels and experiences in the field. Those are real voyages, but also virtual to the extent that you are not seeing everything at once. Does “virtuality” limit the importance or significance of the experience? Does virtual suggest something less than natural?

The film The New World  is another virtual experience of Smith and the first encounter of the Chesapeake by English speaking voyagers. But isn’t the journal Smith and others kept during the experience another virtual experience: words they use to record encounters; sketches of what they see and what they hear coming from the people they encounter; the maps that are drawn. Or even further–though it might be perverse to think of virtuality this way: the virtual experience of the new world of the Chesapeake and its environment that Smith has in the food he eats from the water. Isn’t that first oyster eaten a virtual encounter, of sorts, with the whole history that leads up to it–and stranger still (like a film might do, flashing back and forward), the virtuality of the many more times such things will be done in years to come.

Might virtuality be, in fact, not just a limitation–what we are left with–that is inevitable but a necessary way to understand our experience? Might a film of the Chesapeake, such as The New World, be a way not just to represent the Chesapeake in its history and human culture but in fact a good way to understand it?  Good, because virtual. I may be getting into some ethical issues here as much as aesthetic. But I wonder what you think of the virtuality of your experience as you head around the Chesapeake, exploring it like a new world, like John Smith 400 years ago. I am thinking of what Berry reminds us at the end of “Solving for Pattern,” that the organic is still an artifact, something natural mixed with human culture and perception and use. Like a map. Or an ear of corn.

The DVD of the film includes a documentary of the making of The New World. It describes quite an extensive process that the filmmakers undertook to recreate the world of Smith and Pocahantas. Not just the attention to detail–which we might expect from a film, getting things historically accurate. I was more struck by what I am thinking (now) of as virtuality. The various actors portraying the groups of colonists and natives all trained in advance, as a group, in a sort of camp, in order to become closer to what they were portraying. Something like doing an intensive study for a semester. This got me thinking. Would a good research model for studying the Chesapeake–even this Chesapeake semester–be making a movie of it? In other words, a movie in which the product is significant, but just as important would be the process of making it. So, maybe one or more of you will consider that as you continue: turning your learning into seeing the Chesapeake on film.

The photojournalism/photo-essays that you will be doing on each journey is a place to put some of these thoughts to the test.


Rhetorical Perspective, part 2: Op-Ed, Blog, Stalking

September 7, 2017

The key element of any argument, as I have defined it, has three parts: given (conventional view); problem (question, concern, confusion); response (answer to question, clarification, solution to problem). These three parts form the argument, also called a thesis or a claim. You then develop and support that argument or claim with reasons and evidence.

Your blog is a place that you begin to practice this argumentation. The Stalking is where you expand it with more grounding (for the reasons and evidence) in the materials you are studying in the Chesapeake courses.

You can think of your blog much like an Op-Ed, a compressed argument. For example, this one on the health of the Chesapeake Bay. An op-ed writer, Bret Stephens, recently identified various rhetorical and stylistic elements that make for a good op-ed.[“Tips for Aspiring Op-Ed Writers,” Bret Stephens, The New York Times] Though focused on the mechanics of a good, 700-word op-ed essay, Stephens provides brief but persuasive (in good, op-ed fashion) tips that identify rhetorical and stylistic elements for any argument. Stephens mentions one element that particularly stands out: the fact that an effective argument in an op-ed provides “standing with surprise.” That is, the ethos or authority of the writer matters, but the argument must provide new or unexpected ways of thinking about what the writer knows. This builds into the argument a counterargument and its response (another point he makes); this also gets the reader’s attention–Stephens’s first rule.

A wise editor once observed that the easiest decision a reader can make is to stop reading. This means that every sentence has to count in grabbing the reader’s attention, starting with the first. Get to the point: Why does your topic matter? Why should it matter today? And why should the reader care what you, of all people, have to say about it?

The “surprise” Stephens emphasizes can be compared to the irony and complication that we have begun to explore in readings by Tom Horton and Wendell Berry. Such surprise does more than get attention; it supports the rhetorical project, which is to rethink or revise or reclaim or renew one’s understanding or perspective on the topic. In this way, Horton argues, we can approach “fuller context.” An argument’s response to a problem might even be simpler (surprise doesn’t mean entirely original)–providing new ways for thinking about old questions and problems. Consider these questions as the basis for a good argument (provided by Harvard University Press):

Questions to consider as you prepare a book proposal:
  • What problems are you setting out to solve?
  • What confusions do you wish to clarify?
  • What previously unknown or unfortunately neglected story are you planning to tell?
  • How is this book different from all other books?
  • Why does that matter? To whom?

To consider some examples of emerging argument from the first week of blogging. Emily’s post does a good job setting up and exploring variations on a problem–the tensions between what she knows and a new place that she doesn’t know. The post is the beginnings of an effort (with some help from Wendell Berry), to rethink the Chesapeake as a place, in large part by living in it this semester. Kai’s focus on homesickness presents a good example, I think, of standing with surprise. The surprise is the turn at the end that emphasizes the response of the argument, the claim: becoming homesick for a place that was previously resisted.

2017 Chesapeake Blogs

August 31, 2017













Rhetorical Perspective: further thoughts and past models

August 29, 2017

Some further thoughts on how we will explore and develop the rhetorical perspective in our Chesapeake Humanities course while reading and writing.  In addition to your response to the readings, you will be practicing this rhetorical perspective with your writing: the journal, blog, stalkings, and culminating with the Final Project.

Most if not all of the essays we have written for schools have some sort of thesis statement. We are familiar with this. However, not all essays beyond this school-based form will have a recognizable thesis. Yet, as I will argue, all essays can and should be thought more broadly as pursuing an argument, making a claim–even if, and perhaps especially if, that argument is hypothetical and experimental.

Rather than think of an argument more narrowly as “thesis-based,” it will help to recognize an argument more broadly as the following: [1]taking up a conventional or general, given view of a topic; [2]raising a question or posing a particular problem with that conventional view; [3]proposing to answer that question or respond to that problem.

The DNA of an argument is thus: Give/Problem/Response. The response to the problem (or answer to the question) can also be called the “Claim.” A claim is developed with reasons and then supported with evidence: Claim/Reasons/Evidence. This is the code that the larger essay then replicates in its paragraphs. Each paragraph follows the Claim (topic sentence), Reason (one main reason for each paragraph), Evidence (supporting that main reason) structure.

Consider the work of previous students in the Chesapeake Semester. You can take a look through the writing that students have posted to their blogs in previous semesters by clicking the Student Blogs category.

In doing so, you can listen in on previous conversations on various elements of the Semester that you are encountering, see what is constant and what has changed. And, you can also focus in on models of rhetorical perspective that work for the blogs and for the Stalkings. In fact, an important element of rhetorical knowledge from the very beginning was to learn from and use models that are already existing.

For two recent examples, I would point you here: this initial blog post Emily Cross-Barnet, and this final Stalking by Emily Castle. There are plenty of others worth looking at, but these give a good sense of one of the most fundamental aspects of a rhetorical perspective that we will continue to explore and develop this semester in your work: the need to think by way of rethinking; in other words, to explore and to address changes in perspectives, alternative views and perceptions, different and deeper understanding–even when those changes involve your own views and positions.

“I used to think about the Chesapeake in this way….

Now I know it is more complicated than that, since I understand that…”

That’s a basic rhetorical perspective that everyone is working towards developing in all the work that we do this semester. You can also go back to Berry’s “Solving for Pattern” and map this rhetorical structure onto his essay. Indeed, one could argue that Berry is, with his conception of a more complicated way of thinking and doing problem-solving, is making a case for understanding ecology from a rhetorical, and not just scientific, perspective. Good rhetoric pays attention to patterns, and tries to be aware of things that it can’t see or doesn’t know.

For further guidance on the rhetorical perspective, you should also use the rubric I will use to assess your Stalkings and Final Project. This should guide your composing and revising.




Environmental Writing and Reading

August 26, 2017

One of the leading names in the critical study of environmental literature, or more broadly the environmental humanities, is Lawrence Buell. Buell’s first book on the subject was the pathbreaking The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture (1995). This book, in effect, introduces the critical study of nature writing: critical in the sense of turning toward a more ‘ecocentric’ way of thinking about literature and the literary imagination in ways that had not been done before. One of the challenges in this book for literary critics–even for those who might consider themselves fans of nature writing and of a familiar author like Thoreau: can we imagine a way of reading and writing that does not have man at the center, is not ‘anthropocentric’?  Interestingly, in a more recent work, Writing For an Endangered World (2001), Buell seems to move away from the more radical view of eco back toward the environmental; not the quaintness of early studies and appreciation of nature writing, but an environment in which man (and in the case of this particular book, man’s impact on his environment and the physical environment’s impact in his world) seems to be back at the center.

Buell suggests four characteristics that comprise an environmentally oriented work. We will be thinking/discussing these throughout the term:

1. The nonhuman environment is present not merely as a framing device but as a presence that begins to suggest that human history is implicated in natural history. […]

2. The human interest is not understood to be the only legitimate interest. […]

3. Human accountability to the environment is part of the text’s ethical orientation. […]

4. Some sense of the environment as a process rather than as a constant or a given is at least implicit in the text.

I think we hear in this “checklist” implications of a more systems-oriented perspective: that is, in Wendell Berry’s terms, we think about solving a text (which is in essence what critical readers do–problematize and propose a solution) not for problem but for pattern. So the movement from nature to enviro to eco might also be thought of as a movement toward pattern–and other elements of ecological/dynamic systems thinking, including nonlinearity, complexity, chaos. Indeed, as a useful thought experiment,  we could take Wendell Berry’s listing of 14 characteristics of a “good” or “organic” solution in “Solving for Pattern” and for farm substitute text–and ask: what makes for an organic reading or interpretation? This is something environmental writers have long been interested in–as we see starting with Thoreau: how to have a text that is itself natural, that represents nature in it as naturally, organically as possible; how to transplant words to his page, as he puts it in “Walking.” Thus, for example:

  1. A good [reading, interpretation] accepts given limits, using so far as possible what is at hand.
  2. A good reading accepts also the limitation of discipline.
  3. A good reading improves the balances, symmetries, or harmonies within a pattern–it is a qualitative solution–rather than enlarging or complicating some part of a pattern at the expense or in neglect of the rest.
  4. A good reading solves more than one problem, and it does not make new problems. I am talking about health as opposed to almost any cure, coherence of pattern as opposed to almost any solution produced piecemeal or in isolation…

Is it strange to substitute solution with reading, farm with text (or variants: imagination, writing, poetry, narrative)? At the same time that he is talking clearly about organic farming, can we really suggest a connection or relation to reading, a link between agricultural and cultural production? Yes–because Berry does precisely this in the same essay. He argues that the view of pattern is a view toward the health of a living system of relations: “the structures of organ, organism, and ecosystem…belong to a series of analogical integrities.” The final point in the essay gives us to understand that “analogy” is both a scientific and a poetic concept–it is how nature works, but also (since we can’t separate this completely) how humans see and interact with nature. Thus any solution we might call “organic” is not natural itself. “We are talking about organic artifacts, organic only by imitation or analogy.”  As Ralph Waldo Emerson would put it, and emphasize in his thinking about nature, man is an analogist, following the analogical patterns of nature.

Like Emerson, Berry and Burroughs share a natural-humanistic vision of analogy, nature as a system of relation that includes the human mind, but in which that mind is not at the center. As Berry reminds us, both (the science and the poetry) are organic artifacts, parts of larger patterns in which we live as humans in nature. Science and poetry offer poor solutions and unnatural readings, when pattern is forgotten.

So, one of our challenges in exploring the environmental humanities this semester–that is, aesthetic, ethical, and rhetorical perspectives that are part of how we might understand something as complex as the Chesapeake–will be to consider how to read and think and visualize and write for pattern. How to read, write, see, and think in a humanities class, or the Chesapeake Semester, or more broadly in a college, like Berry’s poet-farmer. How to be or become (or Berry and Emerson might suggest, return to being) more organic in our readings. Those are some general goals and larger stakes for our exploration this semester into related perspectives of environmental art, ethics, and writing.

Imagining the Chesapeake

August 15, 2017

What role might  the humanities play–the  visual arts, music, philosophy, writing; activities and disciplines often associated with the imagination or the “non-sciences”–, indeed,what role should the humanities play in a better understanding of the Chesapeake Bay? This is a primary question that we are interested in exploring in the humanities section of the Chesapeake Semester, from a variety of angles. We will be exploring these angles in three primary perspectives that guide the course goals: aesthetic perspective, ethical perspective, rhetorical perspective.

Here is a statement by the famous ecologist (and writer) Aldo Leopold that poses the challenge for thinking, and really, rethinking, the environment (or nature) as a matter not of science but of the relation between aesthetic, ethical, and rhetorical perspectives.

In the meantime, you can get started with some journal and blog writing that you will be doing with me. You can set up your own blog by going to WordPress. Once you have your blog set up, email me your url. I will post on the Student Blogs page so that we can all get to each other’s blogs.

Something I am thinking about–in terms of this question of the humanities and the imagination in relation to the Chesapeake. In an excerpt from Henry David Thoreau‘s journal, Thoreau (one of Annie Dillard‘s primary models for the environmental pilgrim) writes:

I standing twenty miles off see a crimson cloud in the horizon. You tell me it is a mass of vapor which absorbs all other rays and reflects the red–but that is nothing to the purpose–for this red vision excites me, stirs my blood–makes my thoughts flow–and I have new and indescribable fancies and you have not touched the secret of that influence. If there is not something mystical in your explanation–something unexplainable–some element of mystery, it is quite insufficient. It there is nothing in it which speaks to my imagination–what boots it. What sort of science is that which enriches the understanding but robs the imagination.

Thoreau is an ecologist before there is even the term; his journal is filled with scientific observation of his surroundings (mostly near his home in Concord, Mass.). So this isn’t simply a knock on science by a poet. In his view, scientific explanation and understanding requires some sort of imagination.

This relates to ideas and language that Tom Horton introduces in the preface to Bay Country. There, he writes of wonder, of a need for cosmology and religion, as well as science, in order to understand nature in what he calls “full context”: “Wonder lies in the Bay and its watershed in full measure” (xiv). As a synonym for Horton’s “cosmologies,” I would use “humanities.” I am interested to see if and how that kind of perspective will play out as you experience the Chesapeake. Do you agree? Does your understanding of the Chesapeake require some element of mystery and wonder, matters that move away from what we call science to what we think of as art, spirit, beauty, imagination? Is it feasible to have an element of the ‘unexplainable’ in your explanation of the Chesapeake–to friends, policy makers, future readers?

Any questions about the blog or the Writing section of the course before we meet for class, just e-mail.

What Else? Final Project Revision

December 5, 2016

Strategies for Revising


In Chapter Five of Rewriting: How to Do Things With Texts, Joseph Harris suggests several ways to think about revising based on the concepts he develops in earlier chapters: Coming to terms, Forwarding, Countering, and Taking an Approach. You will use these 4 questions in your peer response to drafts. You can also use these questions to guide you revision.


Coming to Terms with a Draft: What’s Your Project?

Create an abstract of your draft: An abstract is a brief summary that sometimes appears at the beginning of an academic article. Once you’ve finished an initial draft, try summing up the entire piece in just a few sentences, making sure to include all the most essential points. Doing this will help you identify key words that might help you focus your draft, and it will help you clarify the real purpose of your paper. Recall that the basis of an argument and any rhetorical perspective is: a given or conventional understanding; a problem/question/controversy that in some way challenges the given; your response to the problem/question that helps us rethink or better understand the issue–in “fuller context” as Horton puts it.


Another option: Create a sentence outline of your draft: In the margins of your draft, try to sum up each individual paragraph in one sentence (or two at most). The result will be a kind of outline that shows how you move from one point to another in your paper. Reading back through the summary sentences by themselves will give you a quick version of the draft you’ve written, and it should also point out moments where ideas aren’t connected or logical moves need to be strengthened.


Revising as Forwarding: What Works?

Highlight the strengths of your draft: Look for the moments that you consider to be the strongest in your paper and consider ways that you might bring those moments forward and give them greater emphasis. Also, think about how you might replicate those strong moments in other weaker spots in your draft.


Revising as Countering: What Else Might Be Said?

Identify questions that a reader might have: As you look back through your draft, think about moments where a reader might question you. This strategy might simply make you aware of spots where you need to go into further detail, or it might open up a whole new line of thought for you. As Harris describes it, this process is more than just playing “devil’s advocate.” Instead, it’s an opportunity to look for alternate lines of thinking your draft might open up.


Revising as Looking Ahead: What’s Next?

Look at your final paragraphs to see how you’ve expressed your main idea: When we’re drafting, it often takes several paragraphs (or pages …) for us to “warm up” and begin doing our best writing. Often, the clearest, most articulate statements of purpose occur at the end of a rough draft rather than at the beginning. Take advantage of that by looking at your final paragraphs to see if some of the language there can help you to shape and refocus the earlier parts of your draft.


Look ahead to see the implications of your draft: Once you’ve reached the end of an initial draft, you might think about what the implications of your ideas are. Your conclusion should suggest why your ideas matter and what they suggest for further study. Harris suggests the questions “What’s next?” and “So what?” That last question is particularly powerful. Why should your reader care about what you’ve said, and why does it matter? Those are tough questions, of course, but they’re an essential part of making an interesting point.