Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session

Course Description

Environmentalists have traditionally relied upon the power of their prose to transform the thoughts and behavior of their contemporaries. John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, evoked the wonders of California's Hetch Hetchy Valley in the hope that he could stop a dam with words. Another early environmentalist, Aldo Leopold, summoned up a world made barren by the loss of predators in the hope that he could stop the slaughter of wolves. More recently, Rachel Carson, a marine biologist with a penchant for writing, described a world without wildlife in Silent Spring and altered the way Americans understood their impact on the landscape. Leopold and Carson were professional scientists, and like the other writers we will encounter this semester, they realized that they would alter the perceptions of their contemporaries only if they were able to transmit their knowledge in engaging and accessible language.

We will do our best to follow in their footsteps. We will consider the strategies of popular science writers like Lewis Thomas, David Quammen, Primo Levi, and Ursula K. LeGuin. We will also sample works by less well known geologists, hydrologists, and biologists. Students will have a chance to try out several ways of characterizing and explaining natural environments. The first paper of the term will draw upon personal experience; the others will involve a modest amount of research. The papers will provide opportunities to examine the landscapes that each student knows best, and all will go through multiple phases as we explore different strategies for writing and revision. Weekly writing exercises will help students develop and explore material for the longer papers.


Any number of topics can provide a point of departure for an introductory course in expository writing. I have chosen this topic in part because I want to demonstrate the key role that writing plays in shaping public debate. As I noted in the course description, environmentalists have traditionally relied upon the power of their prose to transform the thoughts and behavior of their contemporaries. The topic has the added virtue of enabling us to encounter a wide variety of genres addressed to an equally wide range of readers. The diverse readings will help us understand how the needs of the audience influence the language and structure of a particular piece of writing. They will also, I hope, offer a bit of dessert fare for each of you while encouraging all of you to broaden your repertoire of writing skills and strategies.

The writing assignments will begin with those things that you know best-your own experiences and your own opinions-and move toward topics that are less personal and less familiar. If the going gets tough, you can count on the companionship and sympathy of your fellow students. This is a shared enterprise.


Many of the readings assigned in this course are taken from two books: Writing Worth Reading by Nancy Packer and John Timpane and Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. Some of the other readings are drawn from Writing Nature by Carolyn Ross. While Writing Worth Reading will answer many of your questions about the mechanics of writing and presentation, you may also want to consult The Mayfield Handbook of Scientific and Technical Writing.

Class Participation

This is not a classic textbook course. You cannot do the work at the end of the semester and hope to pass this course. More importantly, you cannot hope to alter the way you approach writing if you remain a passive spectator in this class. MIT's introductory writing courses are designed to help you develop writing strategies that will serve you throughout your career. By the time you reach college, old writing habits are already deeply rooted. Weeding out the unproductive ones requires hard labor. New, improved varieties will only take root if you nurture them. You will find this process more manageable if you take advantage of the experience, insights, and support of your classmates. If all of you participate actively, you can turn a rugged task into a satisfying collaborative venture.

You have the right to miss up to three classes without penalty, but you should use that right sparingly. If you miss more than five classes, you will not pass the course. Exercises and papers must be handed in promptly whether or not you attend class on the due date. If you are unable to attend class, you may submit an exercise by email. Papers, however, must always be printed out. Find a friend or classmate to hand it in if you must miss class.

Reading Notebook

You should write out a brief response or commentary upon each of the assignments from Writing Nature and on the essays drawn from other sources. Please comment on the five student essays (available in the readings section) as well. A paragraph or two per article or chapter will usually suffice. I will not grade the individual entries, but I will collect the notebooks periodically and read through your responses. On occasion, I will ask you to read a notebook entry in class.


You will be asked to write 8 exercises (one to three pages in length) over the course of the semester. The exercises should help you develop ideas for your papers.


You will write three major papers over the course of the semester. Each one should be addressed to an intelligent lay audience. Do not assume that your reader has any expertise in the subject you have chosen to explore. You will also revise each paper after a workshop in which you read and comment on one another's work.

Required Papers

  1. A five-page narrative essay that builds upon your personal experience of a distinctive natural setting (final version due in lecture 8). The two preceding exercises will provide you with the raw material and lay the groundwork for your essay. The associated readings will provide you with models for this kind of essay.
  2. A seven-page critical essay in which you weigh opposing points of view on a controversial issue (final version due one day after lecture 15). The two preceding exercises will help you assess your material and develop your own point of view. The associated readings will provide an opportunity for the class as a whole to engage in a similar enterprise.
  3. A ten-page investigative essay that builds upon your (limited) research into an environmental issue of interest to you (final version due one day after lecture 24). The three preceding exercises will help you identify the central task of your essay and narrow the range of your research. The associated readings will provide models for this kind of informative writing.


All work submitted to me must have been written for this course alone. You should not under any circumstances make use of material "borrowed" from another source without explicitly acknowledging that source and quoting where appropriate. If you are not sure how to acknowledge the work of others, please consult me. It is your responsibility to understand the meaning of plagiarism and to document your sources. We will discuss documentation styles at several points during the semester.

Oral Presentations

This class offers ample opportunity to refine your oral communication skills. You will be expected to express your questions and your insights in every class discussion. In addition, you will be asked to make two formal oral presentations before the class.