Michael D. Burke

Email: Michael D. Burke
English Department,

English 398A - Environmental Writing: Writing About Place

In the Introduction to one of the two texts we're using this semester, The Best American Science and Nature Writing, David Quammen says of the type of writing we'll be doing, "If it's not nature writing and it's not science journalism and it's not travel writing or social commentary, then what should one call this stuff? 'Landscape nonfiction' is a possibility. The Colby College Catalogue claims that the course is "Practice in the forms of nonfiction which seek to evoke and represent place, and experiences of it."

However we describe it, this course will "invent" the topic of Landscape nonfiction/Environmental Writing at Colby College, since it has never been attempted here before. During the semester our first task will be to define this mode (which might, among other possibilities, be accurately called "Writing About Place", and study some examples of it in order to get a sense of its character and range, and then spend the rest of the semester practicing this craft. The course is closely related to Creative Nonfiction, in that such modes as the personal essay, memoir, and personal narratives of various sorts are common, while the subject always remains Environment, or Nature, or Place, or Landscape, and one's experience of it.  We will also expand our scope to permit more science-based writing, as long as some of the same elements we find in creative work (imaginative engagement, use of traditional rhetorical tools) are present as well.

This is a creative writing course, which means that we will use the workshop approach, in which we all review each other's work, both before class and during class.  The purpose of all workshops is not only to directly suggest strengths and needs of any individual piece, but to have that discussion apply to others' work indirectly.  The course counts as the "fourth requirement" for the Creative Writing minor/concentration. 

I'm hoping we will be able to have some sort of experience "in the field" during the semester, but we'll have to leave that possibility open and unscheduled at this point. I'll let you know well in advance of the planned event.


     American Nature Writing, 2000, (ANW) editor John Murray, Oregon State University Press

     The Best American Science and Nature Writing, (BAS) editor David Quammen, Houghton-Mifflin

     We'll have specific assignments from the texts, but you should also plan on reading all of the pieces in each anthology during the course of the semester.


Writing exercises; reading and discussion of essays from the anthologies; and most important, four completed works (or more), which together make a minimum total of 20 pages, all of which must show signs of revision from the workshop version. I'm also asking you to write a short (2-4 pages) literary exegesis essay in response to one of the readings. Workshop contributions (being prepared to discuss and actually talking about your peer's work) are central to our activities. 80% of the final grade will be based on the final portfolio of writings; 10% on workshop contributions; 10% on exercises and the exegesis assignment. The portfolio will be due on Monday, May 14th. If you want written comments on it, youšll submit the portfolio with an SASE so I can return it to you.


     MW 12-1; 3:45-5+; and by arrangement.  My home phone for other questions is 207-645-4872 (please call before 9 p.m.)


     3 to 7 absences will affect your final grade. 8 absences means that you cannot get credit for the course. Medical and family excuses, if given promptly, will be accepted, but note well:any student who misses 8 classes, no matter what the reason, will not receive credit for the course.


The heart of the course is the students' own prose: each student will practice writing in several different modes, and then work on the creation of her/his own final pieces. The class will discuss these efforts in workshop form, using the workshop to improve the prose being considered that day, but also using the prose to serve as a forum for discussing Environmental nonfiction in general.


February 5: introduction

[readings during the period Feb. 7 to 21 may get shifted to accommodate thematic parallels]

February 7: reading: "Introduction" to BAS, David Quammen
Anne Fadiman, "Under Water" (BAS)
"Introduction" (ANW)

February 12: reading: Edward Hoagland, "That Sense of Falling" (BAS)
Wendy Johnson, "Heavy Grace" (BAS)
Geneen Marie Haugen, "The Illusionary Distance" (ANW)

February 14: reading: Ken Lamberton, "The Wisdom of Toads" (BAS)
Trudy Dittmar, "Moose" (ANW)
Pattiann Rogers, "Surprised by the Sacred" (ANW)

February 19: reading: Peter Matthiessen, "The Island at the End of the Earth" (BAS)
Kristen Michaelides, "Moving Water" (ANW)

February 21: reading: Hampton Sides, "This Is Not the Place" (BAS)
Carol Bassett, "White Water" (ANW)
1st piece due: Environmental description

February 26 through March 7: Workshop of lst piece
[other readings and exercises will be assigned as needed during the following weeks]

March 7: 2nd piece due: personal essay/memoir

March 12 through 21: workshop 2nd piece
[Reading by Burke in Social Sciences and Humanities Colloquium at Noon; details to follow]


April 2: reading: Natalie Angier, "Men, Women" (BAS)

April 4: reading: John Murray, "Witness" (ANW)
[3rd piece due on April 6th (Friday): adventure narrative/other]

April 9 through 18: workshop 3rd piece

April 18th: 4th piece due: your choice

April 23 through May 2: workshop 4th piece

May 7: consideration of exegesis assignment

May 9: Exegesis assignment; Last Class


N.B. This is my best estimate of schedule. Actual class sessions devoted to workshopping will vary, depending on final enrollments in the class.

Monday, May 14th: Portfolio due at my office by 4 p.m.