As she describes it, Bethany Wiggin “jumped at the chance” last summer to participate in the Integrating Sustainability Across the Curriculum program. She attended a workshop for faculty, and then was paired with a student research assistant to begin the process of developing her new course, Sustainability & Utopianism (ENGL 375.401). In this interview, Professor Wiggins describes the connection between an individual’s vision of an ideal world and one’s relationship to the world in reality that her Spring 2013 ISAC Course explored.
Q: How does a German literary and cultural historian relate to the environmental concerns of today?
A: In recent years, I've been writing and teaching about early globalism and the Renaissance and especially American colonial settlements, including Germantown in Quaker Pennsylvania. Even in the early 1700s, forward-thinking colonists were discussing issues around land use, education and, political and legal enfranchisement. Far from being “old” topics, they remain at the heart of our discussions today of sustainability.
Viewed from this perspective, environmental sustainability is of course not something new at all. Prudent resource management emerges instead as something that forward-thinking people have been concerned about for a very long time. In this class, we considered that we have still not adequately addressed problems diagnosed more than three hundred years ago, and what that means for our sense of urgency and resolve to work on them today.
Q: What was your approach to developing a course infused with themes of environmental sustainability?
A: Sustainability is a topic that at Penn has most often been considered part of the natural sciences curriculum. When I had the opportunity to participate in ISAC, I jumped at the chance to develop a humanities course about sustainability, and one with a specifically literary thrust. As a scholar of literature, I really wanted to talk with students about the stories we tell about climate change and sustainability. I worked with my intern, Tyler Hall (C’13), to collect and organize the course material as a way to talk about visions of a sustainable society.
Q: What were some of the texts you reviewed with the class?
A: We did read Thomas More's Utopia, of course, but we also read dystopic tales of catastrophe and crisis. We read a lot about the much-cited "crisis" in the humanities and talked and blogged together extensively about what the humanities can and should do to change people's behavior to curb climate change.
Q: What did you learn from the student perspective during this partnership?
A: My partnership with my intern, Tyler Hall, led to really amazing fruits. Over the summer Tyler created a databank of materials supporting some of the literary texts I planned to teach, some for the first time. Interestingly, Tyler ended up writing his senior thesis under my direction, and his work was really exciting, and I think very clearly influenced by the reading he did on sustainability for the internship.
Q: Who were the students in your class, and what did you learn with them?
A: The students attracted to Sustainability & Utopianism came from a variety of disciplines: philosophy, environmental sustainability, political science, public health, and English. As we talked about the forms our stories about human impact on the environment might take, they suggested trying new techniques and new media, including social media, to tell the stories in a more engaging and relevant manner.
Q: What would you say to any faculty at Penn considering integrating topics of sustainability into their coursework?
A: In short, it's worth it!