Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Teaching at the End of the World

Below is the short paper I gave at the BABEL Working Group conference at UC Santa Barbara earlier this month. I presented alongside four of my wonderful colleagues from Loyola, and we were all talking in various ways, coming from different angles, about what it might mean to be "teaching at the end of the world." And relatedly, here's an ad that Loyola has running on the St. Charles streetcar line now—it's me, teaching one of my Literature & Environment seminars:

Whenever the weather is even minimally conducive, I take my classes outside and we sit in a circle to discuss the day's reading. I keep lobbying our university administration for clever seating emplacements around our campus that could be utilized on such occasions, but to no avail (at least not yet). So we bivouac on a piece of sun baked sod, half-shaded by a live oak for those who overheat easily, and we pull out our copies of Robinson Crusoe or Frankenstein, Tender Buttons or White Noise, and a student invariably will ask, Why is the ground always wet? Well, because we're under water, basically. That’s why when an oil tanker churns by, headed upriver, you find yourself looking up to see it: the Mississippi River is actually above us. It’s also in part why the fire ants are vigorously, ceaselessly building up their dirt mounds: to achieve a modicum of dry land on this eroding edge of the continent. But no, you won't find much under 'ecology' if you search for the fire ant on your smart phone. It hits too close to home. Yes, the delta is vanishing at a rate of a football field each hour. No, I don't know how long that gives us here. Let's open to page 36, and think about how the novel is founded on the non-simple space of the beach...

The New Orleans airport is the second lowest airport in the world, at about four feet above sea level. (Only Amsterdam’s Schipol airport is lower, at eleven feet below sea level.) New Orleans is about to embark on the construction of a brand new, state of the art, world-class airport terminal: an aerotropolis. How am I supposed to incorporate this building project, this mirage of progress, into my teaching and research? Will this space stand simply as a shimmering and seamless transition zone for new students arriving each fall semester? Will the new airport be unquestionable, an utterly straightforward social text? Will our baggage arrive bathed in a sublime aura, at last? Will the air be safe from contaminants, diseases, and other pollutants? Or will the new control tower stand like Ozymandias, an object lesson for a poetics of the brazen?

Sometimes it seems like the most important thing I can do these days in my classes is to preserve a space for slow reading: 75 minutes, two times a week, where we can sit or crouch—be beached—on sinking ground, and read words on pages, to think about these words together, how narrative congeals (or not). If only then to find ourselves in the world, the actual world with all its consequences. To rephrase a line from the preface of Nietzsche's Daybreak, at present it is not only my habit, but even my taste—a perverted taste, maybe—to teach nothing but what will drive to despair every one who is “in a hurry.” Slowness—it seems to me that this is one of the truly inestimable skills, maybe even a form of art, that we can model to our students, and even teach them how to do it: how to decelerate before meaning. Yet how do I balance this desire with or measure it against the simultaneous urgency of ecological awareness?

I worry that I am regressing. A major highpoint of my five and a half years so far teaching at Loyola University New Orleans happened last November, when I joined my biology colleague David White, who takes about thirty students out with him each fall on an evening canoe trip in the bayous surrounding New Orleans. The students get a crash course in “landscape ecology,” or the multiple scales and mosaics of relationships and processes taking place across given ecosystems. The trip included several floating stops to discuss the invasive and prolific Triadica sebifera (or Chinese tallow, or popcorn tree), the water hyacinths spinning by, the channels dredged by humans a century ago—in short, the objects and animacies of this fragile if fecund riparian system. By the end of this evening on the water, the students seemed enchanted—if also perhaps a little exhausted. I had watched them slow down, pay attention, listen. David took extra care to draw attention to the quietude, the sounds of the bayou away from the highway we'd arrived on.

But I digress. I was talking about regression. Ever since that night on the bayou, or maybe it started before, I’ve found myself wanting to get back to teaching nature writing, that na├»ve genre, that earnest kind of literature that strives contradictorily for “contact, contact!” in Thoreau’s words. What is happening to me? I’ve read my eco-criticism carefully, I know my theory, I wrestle with the Derridean aporia of “nature as self-proximity”—why do I want to linger with my students in literary representations of nature, simulacral ecologies as they are? What are these paradoxical pleasures, being in nature and learning to see it (as if ‘it’ even exists!) in literature?

As we paddled back to the vans, through pitch black night, an eerie spotlight darted erratically up ahead, piercing the skein of cypress trees and Spanish moss. A low rumble and sputter echoed across the water. It was hard to make out what it was that was approaching us, but gradually it appeared: Cajuns, a bunch of them, a gaggle of friends or maybe a family, piled into an unbelievably clamorous boat—if you could call it that—a mishmash craft weighed down with…things, chugging through the black night aiming a military grade spotlight, looking for alligators (or so David thought). It was a strange moment, us gliding by in our canoes and them in camouflage jackets rumbling past, blasting us with pivot-mounted incandescence. No words were exchanged, not out of tension or spite but merely due to the noise of their gurgling motor.

Maybe I believe, channeling Nietzsche once more, that reading nature writing itself, perhaps, will not “get things done” so hurriedly: but it will teach how to read well: that is, slowly, profoundly, attentively, prudently, with inner thoughts, with mental doors ajar, with delicate fingers and eyes… This is my regression, and I’m afraid it’s not going away anytime soon.