The American idea of nature

I am beginning my environmental literature/ethics/politics course by having my students read a chapter of Nadia Tazi’s Keywords: Nature, a book that juxtaposes ideas of nature from a number of different world cultures. Leo Marx wrote “The Idea of Nature in America,” the chapter I’ve asked them to read. This chapter is a nearly flawless example of an essay in the history of ideas, as one would expect from Leo Marx. However, it is also the case that the chapter is not so much about nature in American culture, as it is about Nature in Anglo-American culture. I don’t see this as a weakness: the specificity of the subculture is part of what makes the essay so strong.

Nonetheless, it is no longer sufficient (especially when teaching in Manhattan) to assume that American culture as a whole is coterminous with Anglo-American culture. I assume that it is more accurate to talk about American cultures of nature. So, I am asking my students to compare Marx’s account of American nature with their own history with nature in America. If anyone is curious to see what they said, you can check out their posts at the end of this week on our class blog:


3 thoughts on “The American idea of nature”

  1. This is the oral presentation assignment I have just given to my class:

    LARTS 370
    Oral Presentations
    September 12, 2007

    Next week will be devoted to group oral presentations of the material in N. Tazi’s Keywords: Nature. During tomorrow’s class meeting, you will be divided into groups. Each group will be responsible for one essay/one culture group. Then, during class next week, each group will teach the essay to the class for a period of 20-30 minutes.

    Your task:

    ∑ To explain the idea of “nature” in your essay/culture group.
    ∑ To make connections to the Marx essay on the American idea of nature.
    ∑ To determine how this new idea of nature might be helpful in understanding your own experience of the environment.
    ∑ To identify aspects of the essay that are unclear to you.
    ∑ To point the way to further discussion by articulating questions based on the reading.
    ∑ To explain or question anything else you deem important.

    You may organize your presentation however you see fit, as long as everyone takes a turn speaking.

    This assignment will not be graded, but it will be evaluated by your peers as you present. The evaluation sheets will be delivered to the group after the presentation is done. I will ask the audience to evaluate the clarity of your explanation/analysis of the reading and the effectiveness of your presentation technique.

    For the purposes of the presentation, you may arrange the room however you think best. You may position yourselves however you wish.

    Time will be devoted at the end of tomorrow’s class to the formation and organization of the presentation groups.

    If you know now that you will be absent any day next week, please inform me before the beginning of class tomorrow.

    This assignment will also be posted to the class blog. It will not be handed out in printed form.

  2. Let’s hope. My students are grumbling as they work through the book, though they did great work with Leo Marx last week. I guess multicultural intellectual history can be a bit off-putting! 😉

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