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Writing in the Major Spotlight: EARTHSYS 149/249: Wild Writing

EARTHSYS 149/249 students in class outdoors.

Images courtesy of Richard Nevle

Wild Writing

Wild Writing is the beloved brain child of School of Earth System’s deputy director Dr. Richard Nevle and its writing specialist, Program in Writing and Rhetoric lecturer Dr. Emily Polk. They work together not only as colleagues deeply committed to undergraduate education but also as professional writers in a writing group dedicated to communicating some of the biggest environmental challenges of our time. Their backgrounds and interests complement each other. Dr. Nevle brings a depth of knowledge regarding what students need in their majors and their careers as stewards of the environment. Dr. Polk, through her work as writing specialist, connects with undergraduate and graduate students in SEEE, drawing on her expertise as a journalist, editor, and social scientist studying earth systems. What they share is an abiding conviction that this course will serve their students well in their personal and professional lives.

The collaboration has generated a Writing in the Major class that asks students to address what counts as wilderness and why it matters. Throughout the quarter, students work to integrate personal narrative, wilderness experience, and environmental scholarship in a three thousand word essay. They consider how diverse American environmental thinkers of the past three centuries used writing to transform perceptions of wilderness, inspiring the founding of the National Park System, the passage of the Wilderness Act and the Clean Air and Water Acts, the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the birth of the environmental and climate justice movements. Students then contribute their own “wild” stories to the canon.  As Dr. Nevle says, “you don’t know what the story is when you start. And you also don’t know what the science will have to say about your story.” Dr. Polk adds, “You have to learn to be uncomfortable. The process will deliver you.” The course has become so popular that applications are necessary, and Nevle and Polk hope to offer students more courses like this one in response to wide student interest.

EARTHSYS 149/249 student presenter.


Reading to Write Environmental Science

Dr. Nevle’s passion for environmental science was kindled by the raw texts of mountains, woodlands, forests, deserts, prairies, creeks, seascapes, and vacant lots of his native Texas. As a graduate student, he first came to know of the environmental crisis through scholarly work—which struck a powerful chord of alarm and fear—but reading essays, poetry, and works of fiction gave him a richer language for grappling with the complexity of the crisis and articulating his response. For example, Nevle was inspired by the fact that in 1962 Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, reached President John F. Kennedy, Jr in a way that science didn’t. And Nevle has since been influenced by the work of novelist Sandra Cisneros, author of the House on Mango Street, which captures the emotional resonance of place and the possibility of urban wilderness. As Dr. Nevle and Dr. Polk developed this WIM course, they wanted students to be aware of the varied, moving ways writers across time and space have defined wilderness as well as their diversity. Through the assigned readings, the instructors aim to mirror back to students where and who they come from.

Each week, through 2-4 assigned essays (some excerpted), the class contemplates the nature of wilderness, the ways we talk about it, how we observe it, and what we bring to the wild as embodied, culturally positioned human beings. In her rhetorical frameworks, Dr. Polk encourages students to “move away from one-way transmission models of reading and writing” and “move toward a more dynamic, engaged, and always changing relationship between you and the text,” defining reading as full bodied, active, and sensual. Further, she sees reading as “a conscious relationship” between texts and readers’ “evolving history, life experiences, challenges, triumphs, victories, and dreams.” Each week students formulate a brief low-stakes response to the essays, no more than 100 words, composed in no more than 15 minutes. In this way, students ready themselves for class discussion on diverse writers such as William Cronin, Annie Dillard, Brentin Mock, Lauret Savoy, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Rebecca Solnit. Among other questions, Polk asks students to reflect on the following: What are you bringing to the text and how is this informing your own understanding of the story? What were the conditions that made this writing possible? What do you imagine the purpose to be? What is going to be gained or lost in this story? How have you changed after reading it?

The class discusses J. Drew Lanham’s “Forever Gone,” which makes explicit connections between the loss of the Carolina parakeet, one of the “gone birds,” and the history of his people’s enslavement. Lanham attributes the bird’s extinction to the degradation of the North American landscape, racist capitalism, and ignorance. He writes, “I see parallels between the Gone Birds and who I am as a Black American man. The mistreatment of nature, the disrespect for all those things believed unworthy of enough respect to not drive them into the pit of never-ness, has common plight among people who’ve been slighted by practice, privilege, and policy.” Pieces such as Lanham’s open up environmental science to a host of historical, ethical, and literary questions that students can then take up in their own writing.

Dr. Nevle and Dr. Polk are careful not to let their examples alone define what makes great environmental writing. They also ask students to bring in their favorite nature writing as well as a striking multimedia text to share with the class. It might be a song such as “A Beautiful Dawn” by indigenous artist Radmilla Cody or a video such as Appetite for Change. The group makes smores, and students pretend they’re sharing their sources of inspiration around a camp fire. The conversation focuses on the texts’ most prominent and persuasive rhetorical elements, including their logical structure. In this way, Dr. Polk and Dr. Nevle honor the many discourse communities to which students belong as well as the genres that most speak to them. Meanwhile, students consider how the wild is accessed through other modes—whether visual, aural, or gestural. Dr. Polk says they are “hacking scriptocentrism,” prompting students to consider a wide range of strategies as they represent and communicate the wild.

EARTHSYS 149/249 class applauding lecturer

Priming Stories

Assignments and class activities carefully scaffold students’ abilities to tell nuanced, compelling, and accurate environmental stories. For example, an early class activity, “Writing Your Peer’s Wilderness Story,” asks students to tell a peer the most memorable experience they have had in the wild. The peer must listen deeply and carefully for what sounds “hot”: “if the story were a fire, these are the sentences that would burn you.” The peer listening must also ask questions about what’s there, what’s missing, and what might be needed to create empathy for the protagonist of the story. Then students switch places and the listener recounts their wilderness memory. After class, students are asked to review their notes, and in no more than 45 minutes write a one-page, single-spaced story about their peer’s experience, distilling the wilderness story to its barest essence. The next day, volunteers then share their writing out loud with the whole class. Though a brief assignment, “peer story” builds community and encourages reflection on the elements of a successful story as well as the possibilities and challenges of wilderness writing as a genre.

To formally launch the main project of the course, students begin with a story pitch--a query letter--to a specific editor and publication where they can see their story being published. Dr. Polk shares her own successful query letter for a recent piece that was published in Creative Nonfiction.Together, they then brainstorm where their writing might find a home, considering publications such as The Sun, Orion, and Grist. The query letter assignment thus immediately asks students to think rhetorically about their audience, the kind of voice or tone they might adopt, and the bigger story they want to tell. They also have to tap into prior conversations about their topic. In one and a half pages the assignment gets them started, and the query letter goes through at least two drafts to help students hone their purpose. An inspiring workshop led by Stanford Storytelling Project’s Director Jonah Willihnganz further grounds students in the fundamentals of storytelling, addressing elements such as character development, plot, and setting. Finally, Dr. Polk brings her experience as a journalist to bear in her lesson on successful interviewing.

Glimmer Exercises

Throughout the quarter, Dr. Nevle leads what the fiction writer Pam Houston has called “glimmer exercises,” brief activities that can give writers new words for their work-in-progress. For example, the whole class goes to Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve to write about wilderness in the wilderness. They hike to a redwood fairy ring by a creek with the sounds of owls and raptors near. Dr. Nevle gives a rousing lecture on the natural history of Jasper Ridge so that students can begin to see the way the land holds stories beyond the written word. Then he asks them, “What will your story in this place be?” Dr. Polk leads the class in a guided writers’ meditation that ends with a reading of Wendell Berry’s “The Peace of Wild Things.” Students are then encouraged to share when they feel most free and to reflect on how this composing moment was different for them. Ali Hoffer, first a student in Wild Writing and now its Teaching Assistant, notes that many students have never been to the preserve and that the outdoor setting helps people open up in a way that they don’t in class. In a separate outing, the class travels to Palo Alto’s Frenchman’s Park to reflect on how we can find and create the wild in urban spaces.

Back on campus, students write about an important word in their story without using the word. They also take a photo or image of a relevant wild space and describe the scene in as much detail as they can, another fundamental of story. Lastly, in “A letter to the future,” students reflect on why their story is important to someone they have not yet met. As he plays music from the medieval era, Dr. Nevle asks students if and how their pieces can stay resonant to the future.

EARTHSYS 149/249 presenter speaking outdoors

Going Public

With the emphasis from the first week on building classroom community and sharing work in progress, students are not surprised when they are asked to go public with their final essays. Initially they bring in the first three pages for peer review, in this course a carefully orchestrated affair. Dr. Nevle delights in “mixology,” his ability to pair students who can inspire and care for each other. Groups often stay together across the quarter as he wants peer reviewers to become like family. Wild Writing student Judith Santano reports, “everyone in the class was dedicated to each other’s work and genuinely interested in seeing how the pieces progressed. Peer editing was always a pretty invigorating and exciting process. There was one time in particular that my partner and I were so moved and touched by each other’s stories, and grateful to have the opportunity to edit with each other, that we both ended up crying.”

Revision happens as students respond to peer and instructor feedback, as they expand partial drafts, and as they consider a range of sources, from interviews and other wilderness narratives to the latest research in peer-reviewed journals, feature essays, or documentaries. Throughout, assignments encourage students to consider, “what do I want this story to do?” Whether offering a source of connection, raising awareness, or advocating a policy change, writers need to adjust their voice and tone. Writers also “practice precision and originality in word choice” and revise to minimize their use of jargon. 

For one of the last meetings of the quarter, the class meets outside for a public reading at the Stanford O’Donohue Family Farm. Students invite their friends and family to listen to a key moment or two from the near-final essay. This gathering gives students an opportunity to share their work and take pride in what they have accomplished as writers and as community members who have supported each other to get to this moment. Finally, the instructors encourage students to pursue publication of their essays online or in print. They submit to a wide variety of publications, including Salty at Heart, Flyway, and Terrain. Indigo Johnson, a former student, published versions of her Wild Writing essay in Climbing and Outside.

Ali further reflects on the ways the class supports writers in going public and why that matters: “Wild Writing is your personal story with a little bit of research. Your experience and voice are at the forefront. It’s scary for most students because vulnerability is required, but also empowering. I had never written so rawly. But Wild Writing made me realize that my personal story will inspire others, that storytelling will move people more than facts.” This experience changed her view of environmental science. “Your own stories can humanize something that’s very abstract. People can’t grasp the impacts of climate change.”

EARTHSYS 149/249 instructors

Claiming Environmental Science Communication

Students report that Wild Writing both develops their writing skills and helps build their identities as environmental science communicators. For example, Emily Dial, who won the 2018 Hoefer Prize for her essay “Waves Won’t Die: On Blackness and Water,” believes Wild Writing confirmed her interest in a career in environmental communication. She further reports of the class, “The freedom to explore whatever aspects of wildness felt most compelling to us was really liberating. What came out of it was a final paper that felt like the cumulation of musings I had been sitting on for years about the intersection of Blackness and water. . . . Writing my final paper for Wild Writing confirmed for me that there are so many marginalized communities who have had the concept of ‘wildness’ used against them as a weapon. Storytelling is one way to reclaim our own natures and archive the environmental knowledge and lived experiences of ourselves and our ancestors.”

Ben Lerner, an engineering student, signed up for Wild Writing not to fulfill a WIM requirement, but because of Dr. Nevle’s glowing reputation. Though skeptical at first, Ben became totally sold on the power of storytelling to communicate science. After the class he became a member of the Earth Systems Writers Collective, which Dr. Polk facilitates to help students build a community of support around their writing projects; two summers later, he even applied for and won a minor grant to write over the summer. The course “opened the door to communicate about issues that you care about.”

The instructors have found great excitement and joy in learning how to teach creative nonfiction in the context of scientific disciplines. They have asked themselves repeatedly, how does science inform story? For Dr. Nevle, the point of intersection is at some challenge in nature. For Dr. Polk, the challenge is navigating the personal and universal. Both agree—and their students concur—that earth scientists must learn to speak and write in multiple registers in multiple genres to multiple audiences. As Dr. Polk puts it, “scientists don’t exist in silos.”

Judith Santano says, “I actually felt like a writer after this class. Developing my story in Wild Writing has been one of the most important developments I’ve had as an Earth Systems student. This class gave me the chance to remember/discover all of the joy I’ve felt relating to the environment over the course of my life and take ownership of that. At the end of this class I was metaphorically screaming that I belong here, and I deserve to be here, too. It sounds simple, but has been incredibly revolutionary in the way that I carry myself through Stanford, and environmental spaces as a whole. I hope to pursue graduate school for a PhD in ecology in a few years, and theoretically become a professor myself one day! I’m thankful that I know that science is not worth sacrificing education, communication, and justice, and I’m happy to know I won’t be another scientist that doesn’t know how to communicate with others.”

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