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How I Taught Sustainability

In Arts & Letters, Communication, Emerson, Fiction, Humanities, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Pedagogy, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Teaching, Writing on January 9, 2012 at 1:12 am

Allen Mendenhall

Last spring I learned that I had been assigned to teach a freshman writing course on sustainability.  I don’t know much about sustainability, at least not in the currently popular sense of that term, and for many other reasons I was not thrilled about having to teach this course.  So I decided to put a spin on the subject.  What follows is an abridged version of my syllabus.  I owe more than a little gratitude to John Hasnas for the sections called “The Classroom Experience,” “Present and Prepared Policy,” and “Ground Rules for Discussion.”  He created these policies, and, with a few exceptions, the language from these policies is taken from a syllabus he provided during a workshop at a July 2011 Institute for Humane Studies conference on teaching and pedagogy.

Sustainability and American Communities

What is sustainability?  You have registered for this course about sustainability, so presumably you have some notion of what sustainability means.  The Oxford English Dictionary treats “sustainability” as a derivative of “sustainable,” which is defined as

  1. Capable of being borne or endured; supportable, bearable.
  2. Capable of being upheld or defended; maintainable.
  3. Capable of being maintained at a certain rate or level.

Recently, though, sustainability has become associated with ecology and the environment.  The OED dates this development as beginning in 1980 and trending during the 1990s.  The OED also defines “sustainability” in the ecological context as follows: “Of, relating to, or designating forms of human economic activity and culture that do not lead to environmental degradation, esp. avoiding the long-term depletion of natural resources.”  With this definition in mind, we will examine landmark American authors and texts and discuss their relationship to sustainability.  You will read William Bartram, Thomas Jefferson, Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Whitman, Mark Twain, and others.  Our readings will address nature, community, place, stewardship, husbandry, and other concepts related to sustainability.  By the end of the course, you will have refined your understanding of sustainability through the study of literary texts. 

Course Objectives

I have designed this course to help you improve your reading, writing, and thinking skills.  In this course, you will learn to write prose for general, academic, and professional audiences.  ENGL 1120 is a writing course, not a lecture course.  Plan to work on your writing every night.  You will have writing assignments every week. 

The basic objectives for this course are as follows:

  • to understand writing as a process that involves prewriting, drafting, review, revision, and editing
  • to learn to identify and define a rhetorical situation
  • to develop and organize essays effectively in terms of both content and format
  • to develop, refine, and support claims
  • to become proficient in the conventions of standard written English appropriate for an academic audience or educated readers
  • to identify and assess the rhetorical effectiveness and appropriateness of various kinds of texts and to make critical judgments about these texts
  • to become proficient in writing with some stylistic fluency and to begin to attain a mature understanding of prose style

Attendance.  I expect you to attend every class; however, I realize that certain circumstances may cause you to miss a class.  During the semester, you are permitted three unexcused absences (see Student Guidelines for a description of excused absences).  For each additional unexcused absence, I will lower your final grade one full letter grade.  Note that this policy is entirely separate from the “Present and Prepared” policy below.

Excessive tardiness (i.e., arriving five or more minutes late to class) will affect your attendance records.  If you are late three times, I will count you as absent from one class.  In such a circumstance, your absence will be unexcused.  Unexcused absences may affect your participation grade.  If you miss a class, you are responsible for completing any work or assignments that you missed.   


 Current Events Presentation       2.5%

Peer Review                                        2.5%

Weekly Quizzes                                  5%

Essay One                                            10%

Essay Two                                            20%

Essay Three                                         25%

Essay Four                                          25%

Final Exam                                          10%

The following distribution applies to each assignment and your overall grade:

A +     = 99 – 100         B+     = 88 – 89            C+     = 77 – 79            D +     = 68 – 69       

A        = 95 – 98           B       = 84 – 87            C       = 74 – 76            D        = 65 – 67

A –      = 90 – 94         B –      = 80 – 83 C –     = 70 – 73          D –      = 60 – 64

F          = 59 and below

Discussing Grades.  If you have any questions or concerns about your grades, please see me during my office hours or make an appointment to see me.  Bring the paper with my comments (and any other relevant materials) to the meeting.  Be aware that my policy is to wait 24 hours before discussing a paper grade. 

Because of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), your grades and progress in the course must remain confidential.  I cannot release information about your attendance, progress, or grades without your written permission.

Late Assignments:  I will reduce your grade on any given assignment by one full letter for every day the assignment is late.  So, I will reduce your grade from an A to a B if the assignment is one day late, or from a B to a C if the assignment is two days late, etc.  If a student turns in two late assignments, I will reduce his or her final grade by half a letter point.  So, I will reduce an A+ to an A, or a B+ to a B, etc.

Weekly quizzes.  On the last class day of each week (Thursdays), we will begin class with a short quiz based on your readings for that week.  At the end of the semester, I’ll drop your lowest quiz grade and average your quiz scores to compute your overall “Weekly Quiz” grade for the course.

Current Events Presentation.  Each student will give a five minute presentation on a current event related to sustainability.  After we have completed two weeks of class, you will be able to sign up for a date to give your presentation.  I will distribute signup sheets during class.  Because the goal of this course is to define “sustainability,” your presentation should consider how your current event illuminates our understanding of sustainability.  

Special Accommodations.  Students needing special accommodations should contact the Office of the Program for Students with Disabilities located in 1244 Haley Center.   

Papers.  You will submit your papers in hard copy.  I reserve the right to request an electronic copy to run through  

The Writing Center.  Please note that the Writing Center ( is available to you.

Conferences.  For your first two papers, you are required to meet with me before turning in your assignment.  I will distribute signup sheets during class.  If you earn a B+ or higher on your first two papers, you are not required to meet with me before turning in your third assignment (though you may do so).  If you qualify as one of the individuals mentioned in the previous sentence, you are not required to meet with me before turning in your fourth assignment unless you earned a B or lower on your third assignment, in which case you are required to meet with me.

Peer Review.  For each paper, you will conduct a peer review session in which you proofread at least two of your classmates’ papers.  Your paper must be reviewed by at least two classmates.  You will receive a handout with instructions about the reviews, and you must complete the handout to earn credit for the peer review session.

Midterm.  The midterm date is October 6.  One week before midterm, I will provide you with an evaluation of your course performance up to that date. This evaluation is not a grade per se, but a “ballpark estimate” of your grade at midterm.  Midterm is the last day students are allowed to withdraw from the course with no grade penalty.  The evaluation should help you decide whether to withdraw from the course.  Note, too, that September 7 is the last day to withdraw from a course with no grade assignment.

Class Facebook Page.  After the first class, I will set up a Facebook page for our course.  You may use this page to hold class-related discussions with each other.  This Facebook page is a great forum for voicing questions you have for your classmates and not for me.  I will respond to private Facebook messages just as I will respond to emails, so feel to ask me questions via Facebook.

Paper with the highest grade.  After I have graded a major paper assignment, I will post the paper with the highest grade.  I will remove all personally identifying information from this paper, so you won’t know which student is the author. 

Midterm teaching evaluations.  At midterm, I will distribute teaching evaluations that will allow you to comment on my teaching up to this point.  In these evaluations, you may suggest ways that I can improve the course.  Teaching isn’t an exact science.  Not every aspect of my lesson plan will be equally effective.  The course will therefore benefit from your input.  Please don’t feel that you have to wait until student evaluations at the end of the semester to inform me of what is working and what isn’t.  If you have suggestions for how the course can run more smoothly, bring them to my attention while I still have time to make adjustments. 

Laptop policy.  You may of course bring laptops to class, but you may use them only if I have designated that class period as a “laptop day.”  The Internet can provide great in-class tools and forums for learning, but it can also distract you from classroom discussions.  I will do my best to incorporate technology that will aid and not interfere with your learning.

Cell phone policy.  Unless you are expecting an important call or text message—e.g., to tell you that your wife is going into labor or that your father is going into surgery, and so on—then you may not use your cell phone during class.  If for some reason you need to leave your phone on during class, please let me know before class begins.

The classroom experience and the “Present and Prepared” Policy.  I will teach this class using the Socratic Method; therefore, I will not lecture.  Instead, I’ll ask you questions about the assigned readings as a means of exploring your thoughts and stimulating class discussion.  You will be expected to have read and thought about the readings before class begins.  I will randomly call upon members of the class to discuss the readings and respond to my questions about the readings.  At various points, I will open up the discussion for comments offered on a voluntary basis.  If you are called upon to discuss a reading or answer a question, you should not respond with “I don’t know.”  If you don’t know, explain why you don’t know.  Maybe the author’s prose was too dense, or his reasoning too specious.  If so, say that.  By explaining why you don’t know, you will more often than not answer the question—and your answer may sound better than the answer of someone who is cocksure about his conclusions.

In responding to questions, your job is not to get the “right” answer.  It is to develop your analytical skills.  That happens through trial and error.  You learn by making mistakes.  Therefore, don’t be afraid or ashamed of making mistakes.  I expect you to make errors, just as I will make errors, so don’t fret if you think you’ve given a “bad” answer.

The “Present and Prepared” policy is extremely important.  This policy will make this class different from all your other classes.  This policy also will allow me to adjust your grade for the course based on your performance in class.

When you enter the classroom at the beginning of class, you’ll see a signup sheet on the front desk.  If you are prepared to participate in the class discussion—i.e., if you have read and thought about the assignment for that day—you may come up and place a checkmark next to your name.  If you do so, you’re subject to being called upon that day.  If you don’t, you won’t be called on.  You may not check off your name after class has been in session for five minutes.  If you check off your name for all but four of the class meetings, you will receive a one increment increase in your grade for the course.  (So, your C+ would become a B-, or your B+ would become an A-, etc.)  If you don’t check off your name for at least half of the class meetings, you will receive a one increment decrease in your grade for the course.  (So, your B- would become a C+, or your A- would become a B+.)  In addition, if you check off your name and I call on you and find that you’re not prepared, your overall course grade will drop three points.  (So, your 100 would become a 97, or your 92 would become an 89.)  I reserve the right to unilaterally raise a student’s grade by one increment (regardless of whether the student has already received the “Present and Prepared” bonus) if, in my judgment, that student has consistently made extraordinarily valuable contributions to class discussion.  I will make such an increase only for truly exceptional performances.

Please note that I’m unlikely to make it through the semester without inadvertently calling on a student who has not checked off his or her name.  Should this happen to you, please point out my error, and I will immediately move on.  However, should you wish to respond, please do so, and I will place a check mark next to your name and count the class toward your total for the bonus. 

This is also extremely important:  The “Present and Prepared” bonus and penalty are assigned strictly on the basis of the signup sheets.  If for any reason you do not place a checkmark next to your name on all but four class periods, you do not receive the bonus.  If you do not place a checkmark next to your name for at least half of the class periods, you receive the penalty.  I will not entertain excuses or exceptions to this policy.  The bonus is not awarded for attendance and not awarded for preparation.  It is not designed to reward your efforts or good character.  It’s awarded for providing a service to your classmates: the service of being willing and able to advance thoughts and discussion.  This service is only possible if you are both present and prepared.  That is why I impose a penalty for failing to provide this service—for, in effect, “freeriding” on others’ contributions.  If you’re not present and prepared for half of the classes, you have not provided this service. 

Earning the bonus also requires that you exercise the degree of individual responsibility required to remember to place a checkmark next to your name in a timely manner on the required number of occasions.  Therefore, statements such as “I was present and prepared, but forgot to sign in,” or “I didn’t want to interrupt class,” or anything similar will not allow you to receive credit toward the bonus if you have not signed in within five minutes of the beginning of class.

Nature of class discussion.  I will usually begin our discussions by asking one or two of you to discuss one or more of the assigned readings.  As our conversation proceeds, I often will give other members of the class the opportunity to comment on the specific points being raised.  Eventually, I will either move on to other readings by calling on another student, or open up the discussion for comment to explore the broader ramifications of these points.  If the latter, I will eventually end this discussion by again calling on a specific student. 

I recommend that you have compassion for your fellow students by not raising your hands as soon as the person who has been called on hesitates in giving his or her response.  I will always give the student who has been called on some time to think and to refer to his or her notes before formulating a response.  Raising your hands during this period merely adds to the pressure that individual may experience.  If a student is having difficulty, I will at some point ask whether he or she would like some additional help from classmates.  That would be an appropriate time to volunteer.

I intend to interpret a lack of questions as an indication that you understand the point under consideration and that it is time to move on.  If this isn’t the case, it is your responsibility to indicate otherwise by asking questions.  On the other hand, there will be times when I move on even though several of you have significant unanswered questions.  If you’re wondering why I do that, keep in mind that your primary task is not to amass information, but to develop your problem-solving abilities.  I will often move on without fully resolving a point when I believe the point to be one you should resolve yourselves.

When I direct a question to the class in general rather than to a specific individual, you will notice that I often pause before calling on a volunteer.  This is to give you time to think before formulating a response.  There will also be times when I don’t call on the first person to raise his or her hand.  Although it may appear as though I’m ignoring you, don’t take my decision personally.  The decision merely reflects my efforts to ensure that those who respond less quickly—or who prefer to mull over a problem before trying to resolve it—have an opportunity to participate in the discussion.  In addition, I will usually give those who haven’t spoken preference over those who have already participated.  However, you are free to volunteer as often as you wish, and I will usually be able to get back to you.  Please note that a small number of students can dominate class discussion if these students are the only ones who volunteer.  The only remedy for this problem is for those who are dissatisfied to volunteer more frequently.  I will ensure that the discussion is properly balanced if adequate volunteers are available.

Ground rules for discussion.  In a class of this size, there will likely be diverse moral, political, and ideological opinions.  There aare no restrictions on the content of the opinions that may be expressed during class discussion.  You may advocate any point of view that you honestly believe to be correct as long as you are willing to offer principled reasons in support of it.  The only restrictions on discussion concern the manner in which you express these opinions.  These restrictions are as follows:

1)   As indicated above, if you advocate a position, you have an obligation to provide reasoned support for it.

2)   You may not make ad hominem arguments.  An ad hominem argument is one in which you attack the character or motives of an advocate rather than address the merits of the reasons offered in support of the advocate’s position.

3)   You must treat all members of the class with ordinary politeness.  This means that you may not interrupt or otherwise heckle a speaker and that you must refrain from purely emotive expressions of approval or disapproval of others’ statements.

4)   You may respond to those with whom you disagree only by pointing out the flaws in their arguments.  You may not attempt to silence them in any other way.

In general, we all have the obligation to interpret our peers’ comments in the best possible light.  We must therefore try not to take offense when none was intended, and we must seek an inoffensive interpretation of comments that are offensive.  We should also keep in mind that disagreement with one’s position does not imply disrespect.  On the contrary, verbal disputation should be taken as a sign of respect, since the effort to change another’s mind implies that the other person’s opinion matters. 

Syllabus revisions.  I reserve the right to revise the syllabus, including your assignments, as necessary throughout the course of the semester.

Good luck!  This class will be difficult but fair.  Remember, the goal of this class is to learn.  You probably will read and write more than you ever have before.  Your workload is not punishment but preparation for the world outside the so-called “college bubble.”  By working hard in this class, you will equip yourself with the knowledge and skills to excel in whatever line of work you do. 

Calendar of Assignments

Class One:  Thursday, August 18

Introduction to course, classmates, and syllabus.  “Getting to know you.”

Grammar quiz (not graded)

Class Two:  Tuesday, August 23

Gordon Wood, “Introduction” in The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History (New York: The Penguin Press, 2008) (handout)

Review of grammar quiz

Excerpt from textbook (TBA)

Class Three:  Thursday, August 25

Excerpt from David Shi, The Simple Life (Athens:  University of Georgia Press, 2001) (handout)

Excerpt from William Bartram’s The Travels of William Bartram (handout)

Excerpt from textbook (TBA)

Class Four:  Tuesday, August 30

Excerpt from Shi’s The Simple Life (handout)

Excerpt from Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (handout)

Excerpt from textbook (TBA)

Class Five:  Thursday, September 1

Excerpt from Shi’s The Simple Life (handout)

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Nature” (handout)

Class Six:  Tuesday, September 6

Excerpt from Shi’s The Simple Life (handout)

Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” (handout)

Class Seven:  Thursday, September 8


Class Eight:  Tuesday, September 13

Excerpts from Shi’s The Simple Life (handout)

Excerpts from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (handout)


Class Nine:  Thursday, September 15

Peer review workshop

Excerpt from Matthiessen, F. O.  American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (Oxford University Press, 1941) (handout)

Excerpts from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” (handout)

Poems by Emily Dickinson (TBA) (handout)

Excerpt from textbook (TBA)

Class Ten:  Tuesday, September 20

Excerpts from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of Seven Gables (handout)

          First Paper Due by 5:00 p.m.

Class Eleven:  Thursday, September 22

Poems by Edgar Allan Poe (TBA)

Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” (handout)

Class Twelve:  Tuesday, September 27

Excerpts from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (handout)

Excerpts from textbook (TBA)

Class Thirteen:  Thursday, September 29

Excerpts from Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (handout)

Excerpts from textbook (TBA)

Class Fourteen:  Tuesday, October 4


Class Fifteen:  Thursday, October 6

Excerpts from Herman Melville’s Billy Budd (handout)


Class Sixteen:  Tuesday, October 11

Peer review workshop

Excerpts from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (handout)

Excerpts from Shi’s The Simple Life (handout)

Class Seventeen:  Thursday, October 13

          Second Paper Due by 5:00 p.m.

Class Eighteen:  Tuesday, October 18

Excerpt from George Santayana’s “The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy” (handout)

Class Nineteen:  Thursday, October 20

Excerpt from George Santayana’s “The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy” (handout)

Class Twenty:  Tuesday, October 25

Excerpt from George Santayana’s Character and Opinion in the United States (handout) 

Class Twenty-One:  Thursday, October 27

Excerpt from George Santayana’s Character and Opinion in the United States (handout)

Class Twenty-Two:  Tuesday, November 1


Class Twenty-Three:  Thursday, November 3

Excerpt from W. E. B. Dubois’s The Souls of Black Folk (handout)


Class Twenty-Four:  Tuesday, November 8

Peer review workshop

Excerpt from Jack London’s White Fang (handout)

Class Twenty-Five:  Thursday, November 10

E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake” (handout)

          Third Paper Due by 5:00 p.m.

Class Twenty-Six:  Tuesday, November 15

Poems by Robert Frost (TBA) (handout)

Class Twenty-Seven:  Thursday, November 17

Excerpts from Janise Ray’s Ecology of a Cracker Childhood (handbook)

Excerpt from textbook (TBA)



Class Twenty-Eight:  Tuesday, November 29

Peer review workshop

Excerpts from Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It (handout)

Excerpt from textbook (TBA)

Class Twenty-Nine:  Thursday, December 1 (Final Class)

          Final Paper Due by 5:00 p.m.


As a member of the student body of Auburn University, I consider myself bound to develop and abide by high standards of honesty and behavior.  I pledge to uphold the values and reputation of this institution by refraining from academic misconduct, and I acknowledge that I am responsible for the academic integrity of my work.  My signature represents my voluntarycommitment to promoting and maintaining honor and integrity in this course and on this campus.  I will receive nothing in return for signing this statement.  Nor will my decision to sign (or not to sign) affect my grade in this course.

Signed ______________________________________________________

  1. I am a retired english teacher in the far-off city of Calgary, Alberta, Canada! I would dream to be able to take this course! Most of the resources for the course are sitting on my bookshelves, but would so cherish the handouts and assignments. lol I could be self-taught. I know! I know! The lectures DO make the course. At least, I’ve always felt that student attendance is imperative. My son explains that in his University program, he can collect readings/assignments on line and that attendance does not factor into his overall achievement. I think that’s wrong. I enjoy your posts and appreciate you sharing this…content that interests me from several angles.

  2. Hello there! I just want to give you a huge thumbs up for your excellent info you have here on this post. I will be coming back to your site for more soon.

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