A Blog about Literature, Culture and the Environment

Teaching Environmental Literature Online


Where in the world?! Environmental literature from around the globe, literally and figuratively

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced teachers and students to reimagine environmental literature classrooms. Spaces where we once discussed environmental literatures at the same time and place have been replaced with online “classrooms” that are scattered across time zones and a wide range of learning conditions, where family or financial responsibilities often compete with curricular deadlines for attention.

In the face of these abruptly altered circumstances and with students spanning the USA, from Hawaii to Massachusetts, I integrated a series of ArcGIS Online mapping assignments into my introduction to environmental literature course. This course fulfills a humanities requirement for students majoring in a range of fields, from business, journalism, and environmental studies to human physiology and pre-med. In this blog post, I show how digital tools offer unique opportunities to integrate a dispersed classroom community and consider new ways of teaching environmental literature.

Why use ArcGIS Online if your university has it…and some free online alternatives if they don’t

As humanities scholars and teachers, we have a lot of digital tools available to us through our institutions. But we often overlook tools that are primarily used in the sciences. ArcGIS Online is generally used for empirical research in fields ranging from sociology to physical geography and biology, where researchers collect and map data sets. The data points this kind of research collates seems an unlikely fit for the interpretive work we do in the humanities. Yet a couple of trainings at my own institution, the University of Oregon, and a workshop led by David Taylor and Maria Brown at the 2019 ASLE biennial ecocriticism conference showed me how mapping tools can be a valuable resource for literature classes.

There are a lot of free online mapping tools, like QGIS, StoryMapJS, ArcGIS Online public accounts, and Google’s My Maps application. Important projects, like the UN Youth Climate Report, are happening through free online tools.

So why did I go to the trouble of working with the University of Oregon IT department to use the university’s official ArcGIS Online account? There are three main reasons.

First, using your university’s online resources usually means that students are guaranteed the same level of privacy they can expect in the classroom. This allows teachers and students to work together to create brave spaces of inquiry where everyone can take risks, test out new ideas, and exchange viewpoints.

Second, while students can use free online tools at any time, they do not always have the opportunity to work with tools like Esri’s ArcGIS. A wide range of organizations around the world use Esri software, so taking advantage of existing university accounts to access these tools can give students valuable experience for their future career pursuits.

Finally, ArcGIS has the Survey123 application, which allows teachers to create forms that automatically populate a map with information. Basically, you can create a form (not unlike a Google form) that students can open on their phones or in their browsers. The surveys in my course comprised analysis questions that students submitted to generate an interactive map, similar to the one below (see fig. 1). Click here to see the interactive map and view the texts we read during the course!

Figure 1: Interactive map for locating ourselves in relationship to the texts we read.
Portions of this document include intellectual property of Esri and its licensors and are used under license.
Copyright © 2020. Esri and its licensors, all rights reserved.

Mapping texts from around the world and across different media

Although the mapping assignments were initially part of an in-person version of this course, they geographically grounded our virtual classroom. The mapping tool created an online location for our conversations about cultural representations of nature and the environment across an array of socio-historical contexts from around the world. Besides introducing ourselves via a welcome survey (on which students could provide the location from which they were taking the class), students created each point on the map you see below by completing analyses about texts and contexts with which we engaged over the course of the term (see fig. 2). As the points on the map demonstrate, this introduction to environmental literature course surveyed a wide range of texts from around the world…and across several genres and media.

Figure 2. Collaborative class map created over the course of the term. Each point represents student analyses of texts we read from around the world.
Portions of this document include intellectual property of Esri and its licensors and are used under license.
Copyright © 2020. Esri and its licensors, all rights reserved.

We began with U.S. nature writing with which most students were already generally familiar, reading creative non-fiction excerpts from renowned authors like Henry David Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, and Rachel Carson. Then we moved on to important environmental justice works, like Helena María Viramontes’s novel Under the Feet of Jesus before looking at some postcolonial ecocritical perspectives through reading Wangari Maathai’s Unbowed: A Memoir and Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. We ended with multimedia texts, watching two documentaries from the Irish film maker, Risteard Ó Domhnaill, who held a live question and answer period with students over Zoom. We finished the term by playing the video game, Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna), a collaborative project between Iñupiat Elders in northern Alaska and E-Line Media to tell traditional stories in an interactive medium.

The global scope of this course inevitably raised questions about crises like climate change and how we imagine our planetary relations. The mapping assignments encouraged students to reflect on the texts and contexts we studied through a representation of the planet. The representation of the world through a cartographic online tool allowed us to map connections among our own remote learning locations and the places, both real and imagined, with which we engaged through the texts and contexts we studied. It also drew out connections among the environmental issues that our analyses brought to bear. These connections became more apparent to students over the course of term as we populated the collective course map with the students’ articulate analyses, using both visual and textual language. The maps and analyses the students submitted revealed an array of stories, including our own, that built classroom community and cultivated conversation in radically altered but no less immediate environmental relations.

Challenges with using a digital mapping tool for an online course

Geographically locating ourselves in relation to the texts and contexts we studied in this course was initially something I’d planned to do in face-to-face class sessions. The COVID-19 pandemic altered my plan, however, making this online tool yet another form of online engagement for students. Like any new software application, ArcGIS can be challenging for students at first, putting an onus of technical writing and support on the instructor. The wide use of Esri software means that many how-to sites for the mapping tool exist, but I found I had to supplement these online resources for our specific assignments. The initial hiccups worked out, however, as I adapted assignment prompts and instruction pages based on student questions and feedback, providing valuable teaching and learning experiences for us all.

One downside to the Survey123 application is that text fields are limited to 1000 characters. This means students sometimes had to make challenging choices about what to include and exclude to create concise and clear analyses across multiple categories in the mapping assignments. This can be frustrating to some students, as we are habituated to perceive online forms to just be a fill in and send kind of interaction. But the benefits of specifying analyses to fit within short character limitations helps students to hone their ideas when they’re working individually and to prioritize ideas when working in groups.

Inspiring results in student work

From a series of mapping and writing assignments over the course of the term, students created an archive of materials upon which they could draw to create story maps. The story maps were originally planned as the final project for the course, but the national uprisings in the United States altered the course of finals week for our spring term, as many finals were made optional at the University of Oregon. Consequently, many students focused their energies elsewhere as the pandemic and protests created unprecedented learning pressures.

Yet all students came to be represented in the excellent story maps that were ultimately submitted. One story map, Nature’s Tongue: Social Context and the Environmental Relationship, traced the role language plays in our class’s perceptions and the field of environmental literature. This engagement with language reveals the entanglements of colonial and environmental histories while also attesting to the excellent work all the students in the class did over the course of this very turbulent term.

Another story, Understanding the Environment: An Exploration through Different Mediums, compared and contrasted film and print media to critically situate student perspectives within the materiality of historical and cultural production. By focusing on media, this story map demonstrates how form and content collaborate to make meaning.

Finally, Let Us Rebuild: A Reflection on Environmental Degradation and a Push for Renewal (no public link) presents an analysis of the intersections and interconnections within class conversations and the contexts we encountered in the texts we read. This story map heeds complex constellations of power that implicitly and explicitly inform narratives and environmental relations.[1]

Ultimately, the selection of story maps that were submitted revealed an online classroom environment in which students showed resilience, patience, and positive attitudes as they engaged with each other, new online tools, and a broad spectrum of texts, contexts, and media in the midst of unparalleled challenges to teaching and learning.

Conclusion: Teaching mapping tools in turbulent times

The mapping tools offered unique ways of engaging with each other at a unique time in history. This term taught us all some important skills and lessons about how to adapt our teaching and learning in shifting environments under almost any circumstances. Despite the challenges that come with learning an online tool for the first time, I appreciated the opportunities mapping tools offered both myself and the students to incorporate geographic contexts, images, text, and video into analyses of environmental literature in different genres, histories, and media. In contrast to the standard essay form that final papers generally take, the story maps allowed students to critically situate themselves, their ideas, and their collaboration with peers within visual and textual narratives.

Thinking about our local and planetary relations in cartographic representations established malleable scales and scopes within which we could recognize each other as authorities and amplify voices while we encountered new material and narrative worlds. This malleability of scale and scope opened up our online classroom environment so we could more easily and informally learn from and with each other in new ways. At a time when new perspectives are needed to challenge old habits of mind, the toughest term I’ve ever taught became one in which the students situated thoughtful analyses in textual, visual, and geographic terms through the mapping tools. Their creative and rigorous engagement with text, context, media, and genre presented an array of ideas that integrated each other’s perspectives in inspiring ways. Cumulatively, their work reveals great thoughts and thinkers for more hopeful and enduring futures in which I will find inspiration as a teacher for years to come.

[1] Thank you to Riley Chan, Maya Gurewitz, Byon Kea, and Sam Perlman for providing permission for me to share and discuss your excellent work!

Author: Katherine (Kate) Huber is a PhD candidate in the English Department at the University of Oregon (UO). Kate specializes in twentieth-century Irish and British literature and ecocriticism, with interests in transatlantic African and Caribbean anglophone and Dutch literature and postcolonial studies. Kate teaches environmentally themed composition and literature courses. She also co-facilitates the UO’s longstanding ecocritical reading group, Mesa Verde. Read more about Kate’s teaching, research, and public writing at

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