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Bringing Interdisciplinary Sources to the Table: Urban College Writers Meet Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac

As a writing instructor at DePaul University, I find Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac an excellent tool for interdisciplinary learning. Most of our students live and study in Chicago’s gritty/glittering urban setting. We have access to innovative conservation efforts within multiple disciplines. In the midst of Daniel Burnham’s 19th century concrete grid, we have urban farms, environmentally-oriented social media, and multiple green architectural and commercial efforts.

The Chicago city grid.

The Chicago city grid.

Some scholars would argue that interdisciplinary studies creates thinkers with broad awareness but shallow comprehension. I would argue that interdisciplinarity creates adaptable, innovative members of thinking communities.

I’ve taught the Almanac several times, and I’ve learned that finding primary resources in our urban setting demonstrates that everything is connected. As students learn about their urban biotic community, they open up to Leopold’s key ideas. I take shameless advantage of new sources that pop up—cultural exhibits, social media, organic food trucks, no-waste restaurants, and vertical gardens. Pairing urban resources with Leopold helps me keep up with students’ quickly shifting interests.

A rooftop herb garden supplies a local bakery.

A rooftop herb garden supplies a local bakery.

A typical freshman writing class will have a mix of majors including English, Computer Science, Digital Media, History, Biology, and Commerce. Engaging varied interests requires finding course material that inspires individual thinking within the context of academic discourse.

A Sand County Almanac offers the perfect confluence of all of the above: Leopold’s examples of observation, inference and action draw from multiple disciplines, and ultimately change the world. However, the book is not an easy sell to college freshmen writers. Even with the companion film Green Fire, some students are not ready for quiet deliberation. They are completely capable of reading Leopold, but his style, multi-layered consideration of ethical issues, and poetic diction do not immediately speak to all.

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While some students see the Almanac as life altering, I’ve had a few comments like “this was the worst novel I’ve ever read; Leopold spends a YEAR watching a plant grow!” At first crushed by that critique, I realized that many students might not yet know the difference between fiction and non-fiction, what an almanac records, or how scientific observation might contain philosophy, ethics, and art. This spurred me to find more current resources that reflect our students’ diverse critical thinking patterns.

Bottom line: students write better when they generate their own observations and responses. By the end of our course, students can better appreciate Leopold’s observations because they recognize themselves as active participants.

We start by listening to music and discussing the lyrics of two very different songs: “Here and Heaven” from Goat Rodeo Sessions and the dated but fun REM “Stand”. I ask a simple question: how do these pieces relate to each other? Most students haven’t listened to these works, but they really like speculating about the lyrics; are they timely? Corny? Are they about contemporary issues, or do they date to their grandparents’ times? Students initially think that the lyrics to “Here and Heaven” are about people deciding if they should get married; when I suggest the lyrics tell about a mid-life crisis or endangered earth (double bummer!), they laugh. But when we examine photos of the Leopold family at the Shack, they reconsider. They see the lyrics, and subsequently A Sand County Almanac, as an urgent call to action rather than an elegy.

Students discuss "Here and Heaven."

Students discuss “Here and Heaven.”

We extend our explorations throughout DePaul’s urban setting. Near campus, we find communal gardens run by Chicago’s City Farm. We visit restaurants that produce limited waste, like “Sandwich Me In” or “Floriole,” the neighborhood bakery whose rooftop-grown herbs flavor their wonderful pastries. These are not formal group field trips; students go out individually or in small groups and report back to the class.

JacobsFloriole Interior.2015

Floriole’s pastries and breads are flavored with herbs from their rooftop garden.

I add to Leopold’s ideas with a recent urban parallel. We read No Impact Man, Colin Beavan’s 2008 experiment to live with zero carbon footprint in New York with his wife and daughter. We watch the companion documentary, look at Beavan’s web and blog sites, and speculate. Could we live our lives as Beavan’s family did for a year? Students love arguing about the creature comforts the Beavans gave up and speculating about Colin and wife Michelle’s complicated relationship. We look at the Leopold family for some very interesting comparisons and contrasts.

To personalize discussions, students analyze their own consumption using current sources on the web and within social media. For instance, this site helps us measure individual carbon footprints. We also bring our lunches to class and measure the resulting trash, and we keep online logs of disposable goods we use throughout each day to measure our own environmental impacts.

DePaul students inhabit a Chicago landscape that includes mixed use in small spaces. The view out the author's window includes a small green yard, a combined classroom/dorm building, and a parking deck.

DePaul students inhabit a Chicago landscape that includes mixed use in small spaces. The view out the author’s office window includes a small green yard, a combined classroom/dorm building, and a parking deck.

At the end of the semester students devise individual research projects that must stem from the many interdisciplinary issues the literature, film, and multi-media sources suggest.

There’s so much to explore, but we try to choose wisely, and hope for the best. Sometimes our combinations work, sometimes they don’t, but students get the idea that primary ties to our own natural environment surround us. While we might not each plant 40,000 trees, how we live can make a difference. Throughout our explorations, we support our conclusions with first hand evidence: fresh bakery goods, great music, paper or plastic, a walk in an urban garden. When we return to A Sand County Almanac, our students are ready to bring their first hand observations to our interdisciplinary thinking community.