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Ecology and Rhetoric: Final Project Development

December 4, 2017

Beginning with Burroughs and Tom Horton and Wendell Berry and Aldo Leopold and others, we have been working our way around the idea that ecological thinking and rhetorical, ethical, and aesthetic perspectives are related. In other words, we have been reading not merely texts that represent the environment in terms of art, philosophy, and writing, but rather, texts that are interested in the mutual understanding of representation  and the environment. The ecological can’t be separated from the ways we read, see, think, write, and relate to others.

In your weekly blog response, you began to practice this relationship among rhetoric, ethics, aesthetics and the various elements of the Chesapeake’s ecology, both natural and social. An excellent blog response begins to pursue these relations, moving from something specific–perhaps one text or lecture from one class–to relationships and analogies beyond that text and class. One way to do that: apply the idea, or question the idea, in relation to one or more of the other courses. The Stalkings were the next step in the process, where you have pursued these relations more formally. But the concept is the same. You are pursuing what Tom Horton calls “full context.”

In your final project you will be extending this work toward “full context.” Here is a way to think further about developing your ideas for the final project.

There is a heuristic (in classical rhetoric: a model or structure to generate or organize thinking for an essay, argument, project, a device for invention) known as the particle/wave/field heuristic. I summarize it below by way of the rhetoric book Form and Surprise in Composition: Writing and Thinking Across the Curriculum by John Bean and John Ramage [they take the heuristic from the Young, Becker and Pike’s Rhetoric: Discovery and Change]. They suggest it as a method that helps develop an argument on a given topic by enabling the writer to switch perspective systematically. You can use this for any topic, though you will notice that it seems particularly apt for writing about topics related to environment and ecology.

First, take your topic X and view it as a static, unchanging entity (particle): note its distinguishing features, characteristics; consider how this entity differs from other similar things. For example: Thoreau on walking or the wild. Or Horton’s definitions of ‘what is natural, what is right.’ Think of this as specific ideas and statements made; specific quotations.

Second, view the same topic as a dynamic changing process (wave): note how it acts and changes through time, grows, develops, decays. How does Horton’s definitions change as he explores various parts of the Chesapeake ? Do we see the same vision in the end as at the beginning? What are some changes you observe? Think of this as places where you find echoes and contradictions and traces of the ideas or earlier statements. And of course, you need not rely just on Horton for this: consider your own vision/definition of some aspect of the Chesapeake–how has it changed during the semester?

Third, view the topic as a Field, as related to things around it and part of a system, network or ecological environment. What depends on X? What does X depend on? What would happen if X doesn’t exist? Who loves (hates) X? What communities (categories) does X belong to?  Who would love this idea? Who would hate it? What is X’s function in a larger system. Think about Berry’s view of solutions that focus on pattern. In a sense, this field view is the point of the entire Chesapeake Semester–and thus is a view that the final project should work towards.

As you can see from the questions asked from the “field” perspective, you are already moving toward some crucial ideas for how we have been thinking during the Chesapeake Semester: to bend a famous phrase from Aldo Leopold, thinking like the bay. My contention is that all good writing is ecological in this sense to the extent that a compelling and meaningful argument/essay/thesis (call it what you will) needs to move dynamically between focus on particulars and some sense and awareness of a larger field that informs the perspective, even when it can’t be always in view. A good argument is aware of what it is not focusing on–and needs to incorporate that into its perspective. That’s where counterargument comes in.

As Thoreau puts it: a truer discipline for a writer is to take two views of the same. Or as Berry suggests, a good argument (identifying a problem and attempting a solution) is ecologically minded when it solves for pattern.

I will have open office hours on Tuesday 12/12 from 12.30-2 in my office, 116 Goldstein. At that point you will have an initial draft. You are welcome to stop by before then to talk ideas: my regular office hours are MWF 12.30-1.30; I can meet at other times as well.

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