Environmental literature closes gap between science and liberal arts

by Eric Gorton


SUMMARY: As far back as I can remember my favorite writers have been those writing about outside and the natural world. I was really lucky because I grew up in Minnesota and we have a cabin in the northern part of the state, so I've spent a lot of weeks up there in the woods and on the water and really enjoying being in the natural world.

Taking On Tomorrow: Episode 3 - Embracing Environmental Writing

Assistant Professor of English Dr. Paul Bogard embraces environmental literature in and outside the classroom. Check out how he uses this dynamic tool in this installment of Taking On Tomorrow. Read more:

Posted by James Madison University on Thursday, November 5, 2015

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About this series:

Taking on Tomorrow was created to showcase the expertise, scholarship and research of faculty in all disciplines at Madison. A number of factors determine who will be in the spotlight at any given time and what aspect of their work will be highlighted. In this installment, we feature Dr. Paul Boagrd, assistant professor of English.

To nominate a faculty member to be featured in "Taking on Tomorrow," please e-mail Eric Gorton at Please provide a brief explanation of why you are nominating this faculty member. Self nominations are encouraged.

head shot of Paul Bogard talking in his office

Episode 1: Dr. David Slykhuis, College of Education — Maintaining teacher effectiveness amidst constant change

Episode 2: Leah Kirkpatrick, School of Theater and Dance — How a mini grant is having a big impact

More on Dr. Paul Bogard:

One of the cornerstones of JMU’s strategic plan is fostering civic engagement by preparing students to be active and responsible citizens dedicated to the common good. JMU’s Dr. Paul Bogard, assistant professor of English, thinks this is as simple as looking at the sky above your head or the ground beneath your feet. His scholarship in environmental literature combines scientific research with creative writing to promote enlightenment on issues of ecological concern 

In his first book, “The End of Night,” and his forthcoming second publication, Dr. Bogard seeks to educate his readers on topics such as light pollution, climate change, sustainability and the spiritual connection humans have with the world around them. This work to help cultivate mindful citizens and advocate for new ideas for environmental stewardship is a critical example of the university’s mission to be engaged with the world.

Q: What is environmental literature?

A: It looks at how we are sustained by the water, the wildlife, the trees and the beauty around us, and then how do we affect them. The neat thing is that the United States has an amazing tradition of environmental literature. We're really the leading country, if you will, in terms of producing this. So you have people like Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Muir or Rachel Carson who have really made American environmental literature an especially unique genre.

Q: How did you get interested in environmental literature?

A: I think I've always been interested in it. As far back as I can remember my favorite writers have been those writing about outside and the natural world. I was really lucky because I grew up in Minnesota and we have a cabin in the northern part of the state, so I've spent a lot of weeks up there in the woods and on the water and really enjoying being in the natural world. So when I started to read more I think I naturally gravitated towards people who were writing about their experiences outside.

Q: What are some of your long-term goals in the field of environmental literature?

A: I'm really enjoying being an author. I had a great experience writing "The End of Night" and I've had a wonderful experience traveling all over the world talking about the issue of light pollution. I hope that happens with the new book as well. I hope I write book after book after book in this genre.

Q: Why is it important for students to engage with the environment?

A: We all rely on it. We're not separate from it. A lot of times we're brought up to think that nature is out there somewhere and we're here not having anything to do with it. But we completely rely on it for food, water, energy and spirit, frankly. It's something that's important for them to know about, be intimate with, be comfortable with and to understand, because the way that our culture lives and the decisions we make influence the environment every single day.

Q: What is Starry Nights Harrisonburg?

A: Starry Nights Harrisonburg is something that I began with Shanil Virani from the planetarium here at JMU two years ago. We'll be doing our third year this coming March. It's an effort to raise awareness of the many costs from light pollution, and the solutions to light pollution. It's a week of events traditionally beginning in Harrisonburg, then expanding to Charlottesville, Staunton and a couple other places, and this year we hope to do the same thing up and down the valley.

Q: What are the plans for Starry Nights Harrisonburg this year?

A: We're still in the planning stage a little bit but we certainly hope to draw in Shenandoah National Park and get some folks to come down and talk with us. They're starting to do, as many national parks are, night sky programs, so I hope they'll be involved. We have a lot of exciting things planned and a lot of momentum going into our third year.

Q: How has your role as an educator influenced your role as a researcher?

A: I love it. The two go together for me—teaching and writing. The opportunity to stand in the classroom, talk with students, hear their thoughts and share with them the experiences I've had and the literature that I know is a really wonderful one. Just as research is, I think teaching is a form of discovery. Every day in the classroom I'm discovering students saying wonderful, interesting, insightful things. Also just talking with them makes me think about and discover things that I hadn't considered before. So teaching, research and writing all go together for me.

Q: You teach a liberal arts discipline, but the content is scientific. Do the liberal arts and science work well together?

A: The better question might be how could the liberal arts and sciences work together, because unfortunately in a university system, not just here at JMU but I think nationwide, we have an unfortunate split between the sciences and the liberal arts. I don't believe in that. I think it's a false split. These disciplines belong together. They inform each other. I think students in the sciences ought to be taking liberal arts classes and vice versa. We have every reason to bring these together to make our students, JMU and education in general stronger.

Q: What good is a Liberal Arts/English degree?

A: That's a good question that we hear all the time. I think that an English degree will give you a lifetime of value. You learn how to write, to think, to ask questions, to communicate, to research, to take in data and put it in a form that people can use. These are skills that, no matter what field you go into, you'll be using them. We have graduates who are going to law school, who work for the FBI, who are becoming doctors, who are becoming writers and who are becoming mothers and fathers. We need people who can ask questions and communicate and the English degree is just a wonderful degree for that.

Q: You are working on a new book now. What can you say about that project?

A: With the new book, funny enough, instead of looking up at the dark sky, I'm looking down at the ground now. It's about our relationship with the ground. I traveled to a number of different places with unique ground, like the Nazi death camps in Poland, and the Alaskan tundra, and to Iowa and places where we have a really unique relationship with the ground, to look at how the ground sustains us. It gives us the water, food, energy and spirit that we take in and use, and gives us life, essentially.

Q: How do you feel your work exemplifies JMU's vision, "To be a national model for the engaged university- engaged with ideas and the world"?

A: I think my work absolutely does that. What we're doing here in the English department is really all about engagement. We're asking students to be engaged with the literature that we're reading, through their writing and thinking, and through the community as well.

Published: Thursday, November 5, 2015

Last Updated: Wednesday, March 9, 2016

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