Bringing the Environment into Classrooms other than Biology Is Vital for Our Future

Photo above: Dr.Justin Mando instills his passion for the outdoors into his Environmental Advocacy Writing class at Millersville University – part of RiverStewards’ “Susquehanna Storytelling” initiative.

While environmental issues – whether they are as regional as the health and stability of local waterways or as large as the global climate – affect all life, their study and discussion remain confined primarily within the realm of scientific inquiry. As a result, these discussions are seemingly disconnected from the public’s daily concerns.

Even on college campuses, environmental issues remain locked in science classrooms. Yet, increasingly, discussions of environmental issues and environmental advocacy are making their way into other college departments – including the humanities.

Dr. Justin Mando, a professor at Millersville University of Pennsylvania with a Ph.D. in rhetoric from Carnegie Mellon University, teaches the newly offered Environmental Advocacy Writing course within Millersville’s English department. A large portion of this class entails students learning about and advocating for environmental issues related to the Susquehanna River.

Mando’s interest in environmental writing and advocacy began while studying rhetoric of place while in grad school.

“I was interested in how people use places in arguments, especially in deliberative arguments in local politics.”

This interest led him to the fracing debate and how people engage with it on a local level.

“As I learned about it, I discovered a lot more about how people advocate for environmental issues.”

This sparked an interest in environmental rhetoric, writing, and advocacy. After moving to the Lancaster County area, Mando, an avid fly fisherman, saw the Susquehanna River as a focal point for a class on environmental advocacy.

“When I moved here, and I started to get onto the Susquehanna River a lot… I felt, wow, there’s something really important going on here,” Mando said. “The initial idea was to focus on the Susquehanna in some way and get students informed and engaged with river issues.”

It was, in part, with the support of non-profit organizations like RiverStewards that Mando was able to realize his concept for an Environmental Writing Advocacy class.

“RiverStewards has been a really engaged organization that has been as supportive as can be to me.” Mando said.

RiverStewards helped Mando develop connections with other organizations and individuals working on river issues, leading to a class visit from Kristen Wolf, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Chesapeake Bay Coordinator.

But humanities departments and their students can give back to non-profits, too. After meeting with some local non-profit organizations, Mando found that even more than scientists do, organizations need people with the skills to engage the public and raise awareness about issues facing the Susquehanna River and the progress these organizations have made.

“There’s a future for students who are able to write about [environmental] issues,” Mando says.

Non-profits that work on environmental issues attract plenty of people with technical backgrounds but have a need for individuals who can communicate these issues to a variety of audiences – a task the skilled writers and communicators of Millersville’s English department can tackle, Mando believes.

At the heart of Mando’s class is RiverStewards’ Susquehanna Stories initiative – a multi-part, cumulative project that challenges students to explore (including a class kayak trip on the river) and critically engage with the Susquehanna River. The project allows students to tell stories of the river, highlighting key issues it faces. These stories may take the shape of articles, poems, and even mini-documentaries – all communicating the struggles of maintaining a healthy, vibrant river ecology.

While this project currently involves only Millersville students, Mando hopes it will grow into something much larger by getting additional colleges and their students involved. This will lead to significant and positive impacts for the Susquehanna River while highlighting the need for a broader, multidisciplinary approach to environmental science that connects the humanities with other fields.

“I would like the Susquehanna Stories project to spread to other universities, so that what we’re doing here connects to what students are doing all up and down the river,” Mando says.

He believes in the tremendous value of students throughout Pennsylvania going out and exploring local environmental issues. He would also like to see a multi-disciplinary approach to environmental issues advocacy, combining components of Environmental Advocacy Writing with other classes like biology, geography, or even history classes.

Aside from its focus on the Susquehanna, Mando’s class encourages students to engage with the many ways environmentalists, both past and present, communicate their message to a variety of audiences. Students read and discuss works by William Cronon, John Muir, and Rachel Carson, among others.

Strong writers and skilled communicators within the humanities are ideal candidates for advocating for both local and global environmental issues. Creating clear, accessible, and compelling environmental communication is becoming increasingly more vital as we stand upon a critical crossroads in our relationship with nature.

“A technocratic society is not the best society – where we say, ‘the scientists take care of those problems; we’re over here doing different things,’” Mando says. “These issues we’re facing are not just scientific problems – they’re problems that need addressed from multiple angles. People in the humanities have a lot to offer in addressing these types of issues.”

Dr. Mando encourages students and professors interested in expanding environmental advocacy into the humanities, building multi-disciplinary support for environmental advocacy, and/or supporting the Susquehanna Stories Project to contact him at Justin.Mando@Millersville.edu.

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About Kyle Steffish

Kyle Steffish currently attends Millersville University and is majoring in Writing Studies with a minor in Business Management. When he isn't busy with school work, Kyle likes to travel, hike, explore the outdoors, and collect retro video games.

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