Writing poetry or short stories might seem an unlikely way to tackle climate change or biodiversity loss. But addressing the world’s environmental problems starts with changing lives and minds, says one University of Guelph professor, whose new creative writing course for budding environmental scientists aims to do just that.
The new offering, called “Creative Writing for Environmental Science,” will encourage students to read and write short stories, poetry and essays on environmental science themes or topics.
The first-ever course planned for the 2022 winter semester will mesh science and arts, said course developer and inaugural instructor Dr. Madhur Anand, a professor in the Ontario Agricultural College (OAC) whose dual career as an award-winning ecologist and creative writer straddles the disciplines.
Initially, the third-year course will involve up to 10 students in environmental sciences undergraduate majors in hands-on writing and reading of literary works as well as reading scientific research in U of G’s School of Environmental Sciences.
“I don’t know of any Canadian university with a similar course in an environmental science program,” said Anand.
She added that many such offerings are part of environmental studies and environmental humanities programs elsewhere.
Students will have the opportunity to hear from visiting writers from across Canada and visit labs on campus.
Interdisciplinary work, science communication increasingly important
From climate change to the COVID-19 pandemic to threatened biodiversity, Anand said, “numerous science topics are increasingly important to examine through many lenses.”
“This is an opportunity to have our scientific curriculum reflect evolving interests of students and the evolving needs of society. Interdisciplinary work, science communication, knowledge mobilization, holistic understanding – these are all increasingly important as our world becomes more polarized.”
Noting that she lacked access to such a course during her undergrad in ecology and evolution, she said, “I think reading literature and poems, stories and novels can help us with gaining empathy and humility. We read literature to see the world and particularly other perspectives in a new way. I think science students have a lot to gain by reading and writing creatively.”
Anand said straddling arts and science is not unprecedented at U of G, home to a longstanding arts and sciences undergrad program. In the early 1900s, Dr. Joseph Reynolds, a long-time instructor in OAC and, ultimately, OAC president, established a Canadian literature course on campus as head of English.
“Reynolds was a fascinating character,” said Anand. “He had wildly different, passionate interests in mathematics, physics, biology, English. This is very much part of our history.”
Anand also hopes the course will help break down silos between the arts and the sciences. Students may find their scientific understanding increases from reading literary works and vice-versa, she added.
“Hopefully, students will love having read from a diverse set of works that they wouldn’t normally encounter in their undergrad training,” she said.
“My brain has been forever changed by every single literary work I’ve read, perhaps just as much as every scientific paper I’ve read. Both change how we think and behave and what we think is possible.”
Dr. Madhur Anand