Dobrin & Weisser “Breaking Ground in Ecocomposition”

Dobrin, Sidney I. and Christian R. Weisser. “Breaking Ground in Ecocomposition: Exploring Relationships between Discourse and Environment” College English 64.5 (May 2005): 566-589. (24 pages)

Dobrin and Weisser propose a unified and articulated subfield of ecocomposition (within composition studies) that pulls from three other theoretical perspectives: ecological models of composition, ecocriticism, and environmental rhetoric. Positioned squarely within the post-process movement in composition studies, Dobrin and Weisser see the coalescence within composition studies around place and environment; they specifically point to identity as being “manifested through discourse—is shaped by more than social conventions and is also influenced by our relationship[s with particular locations and environments” (567). With the assertion of a subfield called ecocomposition, these authors “hope to promote recognition of the importance of the intersection between discourse, place, and environment through theoretical examinations and pedagogical approaches and to explain how and why composition’s roots do indeed tap into ecological sciences in their current incarnation” (567).

Succinctly, D/W define ecocomposition as “the study of the relationships between environments (and by that we mean natural constructed, and even imaged places) and discourse (speaking, writing, and thinking)” (572). This understanding of ecocomposition is grounded in the premise that “all reality, including nature, is discursively constructed. The environment is an idea that is created through discourse. We argue not that mountains, rivers, oceans, and the like do not actually exist, but that our only access to such things is through discourse, and that is through language that we give things or places particular meanings” (573). They describe the interaction of two spaces: the biosphere (relating to earth and its atmosphere, shaping our physical existence) and the semisophere (relating to the discourse that shapes our existence and allows us to make sense of it) (574).


Ecocomposition and Ecology of writing

The ecology of writing, as described by Cooper, becomes very important for ecocomposition. As they write, the ecological model of writing considers the “interactions between writers and the social forces that acted upon them and upon which they had effect” (568). Writers, in this model, are dependent upon their surroundings in a dialogic and reciprocal relationship: writers are both defined by their surroundings and also, through discourse, use discourse to define their surroundings. However, where Cooper emphasizes human communicative systems to the exclusion of nonhuman physical locations, ecocomposition considers the actual physical locations as part of this system of writing. Much like idology and culture, environments likewise shape the application of our thinking; however, environments—with their material, social and ideological qualities—impact how writers discourse (in the same way that writers can do the same to the environment). In this sense, discourse communities are ecologically linked and necessarily interact within “a single discourse-sphere where we recognize that no discourse community exists free of other discourse communities” (576).


Ecocomposition and Ecocriticism

Ecocriticism, “the study of the relationship between literature and physical environments” (569), is concerned with the textual interpretation of literary texts that emphasize an earth-centered approach. In doing so, the authors point to two critical components that ecocriticism offers ecocomposition: (1) the inclusion of place as a new critical category; and (2) the premise that “human culture is connected to the physical world, affecting it and affected by it” (Glotfelty and Fromm, cited DW 569). However, DW specifically distinguishes between ecocomposition and ecocriticism along the lines of interpretation and production: “if ecocriticism looks toward textual interpretation, ecocomposition is interested in examining the activity and locations of textual production as well as all of the other environments that affect and are affected by the production of discourse” (579). Dobrin and Weiser are more concerned with public action and the production of discourse and see ecocriticism as opposition to that.


Ecocomposition and Environmental Rhetoric

Rhetorically, there is no objective environment; rather, “we can define the environment and how it is affected by our actions only through the language we have to developed to talk about these issues” (3 Herndl and Brow, cited in 570 DW). If rhetoric is the study of how people use language to construct knowledge, construct our world, and how these construction define how we act within the world, then ecocomposition is concerned with the ways language is used to construct our environment, landscapes, places, and how we interact with them.


Ecocomposition as pedagogy: Ecological Literary Approach

This approach positions students’ critical awareness of “place” as the central goal of the course; in this sense, place can include places, environments, cities, or locations that people construct in virtual spaces or cityscapes. Students are asked, similar to Freire’s dialogic methodology, to “participate in conversation with both their environments and other members of their community or biosphere” (582). This approach is a “write-to-learn” approach to the teaching of writing.


Ecocomposition as pedagogy: Discursive Ecology Approach

This approach “situates within the notion that words, language, and writing are themselves parts of ecosystems and that when writers write they affect and are affected by environment” (584). In very post-process, post-modern fashion, this approach pushes against the notion of writing as an individual activity. Rather, students see themselves in social, environmental fields. D/W point to the hypertext, “webbed writing”, as a good example of the kinds of writing students are asked to do in such an approach. Students are asked to make connections between themselves, their peers, their environment, and the discourses surrounding them—in this way, students construct “an ecosystem of texts and ideas” (586).


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