“The Tropics are Topical”: History of Science, Literary Dialogue, and Reading the Ecological in a Rhetoric Classroom

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At my university, freshmen undergraduate students must clear a first-year writing class which provides them exposure to rhetorical composition and tools to read critically, with the purpose of equipping them with writing skills in preparation for their college careers. As a graduate student, I offered two such writing courses centered on themes relevant to the environmental humanities: once, in the fall of 2022 and then again in spring 2023. The ensuing essay reflects critically upon both courses—meditating on our successes while concomitantly learning from moments of disappointment—all the while, remaining candid yet excited about what we achieved in two different semester-long classes.

Readings and Assignments

My first course, taught in the fall of 2022, was titled “The Tropics are Topical: Botany, Empire, Colonialism,” while the second one, which I offered in the spring of 2023, was called, “Plant People: Bodies and Botany in the Colonial Imagination.” Resting on a bedrock of identical assignments and learning outcomes, the set of readings, reading strategies, and discussions were somewhat different for each course. Both courses shared the common penultimate assignment comprising a final student-curated portfolio, including a self-reflection letter, targeting the learning objectives set out for the class.

In sum, we read a selection of primary texts which portray Nature with heavy agency (ranging from science-fiction by Ursula K. Le Guin to ecohorror by H.G. Wells); history of science readings (such as chapters from Londa Schiebinger’s Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World); a selection of chapters on treating scientific field notes as recordkeeping, academic essays on myriad subjects such as the colonial roots of botanical gardens, and blog posts on topics such as plantation slavery on Hawaiian pineapple farms. The lone novel we read both semesters was the whimsically-illustrated, My Garden (book) by Jamaica Kincaid.

Fieldwork Journals

Submitting a series of fieldwork journal entries comprised one of their low-stakes exercises, in both semesters. The intended outcome was training my students to observe the natural environment surrounding us, by being alert to their tangible experiences of encountering natural phenomena (plants, in this instance) and write down these observations as a coherent body of text. This assignment yielded a set of lively results.

The exercise required a modicum of research skills too; in the process of exploring extant sources of information, they were to practice collecting, interpreting, and curating textual sources, towards organizing their gathered fieldwork data, into a longer creative non-fiction essay detailing the personal narrative behind their choices.

My students were excited to pick their own botanical beings to write on. One of them wrote about the flowers of the Crocus sativus—describing how she had brought it her Spanish class for show-and-tell, alongside connecting it to routes of colonial cuisine by dint of it producing the precious spice, saffron. Another wrote about soursop through the lens of Spanish colonialism in Guam, mentioning that he was prompted into his decision by having found the botanical species mentioned in one of our readings. My other students, variously, wrote on the black oak, an American cranberry tree on our campus, orchids, a species of strawberries, and even cacti, among a plethora of botanical species that they’ve encountered in daily life, or have felt attached to, in some way, in the past.

A Multicultural Classroom

Both my fall and spring semester cohorts were suitably diverse, with North American students (belonging to a melee of ethnicities) punctuated by South- and East-Asian, Latinx students, and those who grew up in European countries. Each person brought their own contribution to discussions on environmental history.

My international students, especially, energized the class discussions with academic observations, anecdotes, and sometimes, repartees to their American peers which were refracted through their individual contexts. For instance, when we read about the anthropomorphization of orchids in the colonial imagination, in Jim Endersby’s Orchids: A Cultural History, one of my Chinese students pointed out that in her community, the manner of exoticization imposed upon the flower by the imperial British gaze would be considered curious since the flower was celebrated as an aesthetically-pleasing presence in some Chinese festivals.

In a class where the two points of foci were, first, college writing, and second, the environment, the element of multiculturalism provided an enriching, upbeat yet rigorous learning atmosphere.

In a class where the two points of foci were, first, college writing, and second, the environment, the element of multiculturalism provided an enriching, upbeat yet rigorous learning atmosphere. The air did feel ominous when my students looked downcast at our occasional mentions of climate change, but the connection between extractive processes of imperialism, through environmental despoliation, to the ongoing processes of climate change was exactly what I aimed to make during lectures and discussions after all.

Ekphrastic Essay Assignment

A second assignment that my students enjoyed a great deal—if their vibrant submissions, coupled with mentions of it in their portfolio letters were any indication— involved an exercise in choosing a visual carrying stark ecological elements and composing an ekphrasis based on it, in the form of a prose essay. This assignment made up a sizeable portion of their final grade.

First, they were asked to choose the image from a list of databases provided (museum virtual galleries and open-access archives), or from a similar venue elsewhere. Next, they were expected to research the specific details presented in their visual (species, points of origin, and histories of movement of plants, in this case) and find ways to blend research and emotional response successfully into a unified piece of comprehensible text.

Henri Rousseau. Woman Walking in an Exotic Forest (Femme se promenant dans une forêt exotique), 1905. The painting shows a white woman, probably upper-class based on clothing, in a white dress and hat amongst tropical vegetation, which is very tall and dwarfs her figure.
Henri Rousseau. Woman Walking in an Exotic Forest (Femme se promenant dans une forêt exotique), 1905.

One student chose a vernacular painting titled, Picking the Coffee Berries by the Salvadorian artist, Edmundo Otoniel Mejia; she drew parallels between her own family’s history of having endured the effects of colonialism in South America while also—in an ironic way—reckoning with the sourcing of coffee beans at one of our campus coffee shops. Connecting the histories of movement of plants and peoples with present-day details, something many of my students undertook in their writings, made the academic project of such an assignment imminently successful. Jules-Ferdinand Jacquemart’s etching, Tropical Plants (1863); Henri Rousseau’s painting, Woman Walking in an Exotic Forest (1905); Frida Kahlo’s artwork, Portrait of Luther Burbank (1931), and curiously enough, a 2022 advertisement of mango juice from Pinterest made up the temporally- and modally-diverse ecosystem of ekphrastic images my students wrote on. Observing how the ecological has been imagined across time and histories, parsing the semiotics of such constructions, and then researching into these representations stimulated them both intellectually and creatively.

Between Academic and Creative Writing

The two assignments were designed to reside in the twilight zone between academic—meaning research-oriented—and creative—meaning expressly original—aspects of composition. To improve their grades, my students had the option to submit reworked assignments in accordance with my feedback on previously submitted versions. I deliberately chose such pedagogical strategies so that my students wouldn’t develop an easy antipathy towards academic writing (yes, it does require imagination, and in no small dose!) and so that they could let themselves off the hook for not producing perfect first drafts.

Going Outdoors as Pedagogy

At the conclusion of both semesters, each of my classes were taken for a nature walk to Lullwater Preserve—a patch of accessible forest on campus—where a senior-year undergraduate led the freshman students through a journey of identifying botanical species (and occasionally, fungi) present in situ. Although I didn’t structure any assignments around the two days, I suspect my students enjoyed the experiential aspect of the outings much more than remaining cooped up inside a closed classroom to discuss the environment in readings for the class. Perhaps the latter quietly put the word “counterintuitive” in their vocabularies, however stealthily.

As mentioned, the point of the journaling assignment was to get the message across to my students, that, just as we read lexical texts in the classroom, we must train ourselves to read the natural environment as texts, and eventually, our own selves (as people, writers)—the inference being that it is important to read and look closely wherever we go. Although one cannot be sure that all of my students imbibed this lesson perfectly at the end of both iterations of my class, I have anecdotal evidence of a luminous teaching moment, with at least one of them, during the fall 2022 session.

The point of the journaling assignment was to get the message across to my students, that, just as we read lexical texts in the classroom, we must train ourselves to read the natural environment as texts, and eventually, our own selves (as people, writers)—the inference being that it is important to read and look closely wherever we go.

That morning, in the pleasant chill descending in the air, which usually accompanies the transition from fall to early winter, we had read a chapter of Jamaica Kincaid out in the sun, on the library terrace. My students had looked slightly less sleepy outdoors (our class time was 8:30 a.m.!) than inside the classroom, and—being satisfied with simply that, willing to call this experiential learning—I was ready to count it as a success in my teaching notebook. There was even a moment of comic relief during the class when I’d noticed them suspiciously perk up while I read about Kincaid’s seed-collecting adventures aloud in an attempt to teach them a loose definition of close reading. Being unable to fathom a reason, I’d asked why. After some coaxing, a few half-guilty/mischievous looks exchanged, one of my students pointed out that there was a leaf in my hair, while the rest of the class solemnly suppressed giggles.

Later that same afternoon—I run into a student elsewhere on campus—she’s rushing off to another class and I, annotated bibliography in hand, am ambling towards my advisor’s office. “No leaf in your hair!” she cheekily remarks, and somehow in that moment, I can tell that I may have succeeded in more counts than simply alertness that morning. They are indeed training themselves to (read, look) see with (critical) intent. Possibly even understand their teacher, and themselves, as texts in evolution, as flawed first-draft writing, often entangled with the botanical in faltering, capricious ways.

Feature Image: North, Marianne. Curious Plants from the Forest of Matang, Sarawak, Borneo. 1876, collections of the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew.

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Apala Bhowmick

Apala Bhowmick is a PhD student in the Department of English at Emory University. She works on ecocriticism in postcolonial literature, history of science, and theories of racialization in various global contexts.

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