Awareness into action: linking learning with research in ecolinguistics
Humanities Department, University of Gloucestershire
This case study describes the close linkages made between teaching and research in the Language and Ecology module at the University of Gloucestershire, a module which was highly commended in the 2006 Green Gown awards. As part of the module, students become involved in the international Language & Ecology Research Forum, contributing insights from their own research and reflection at a variety of levels from short comment to full articles. Some students who took the module went on to publish papers in an on-line journal, publish book chapters, and be offered funding to attend conferences, all in their first year at university. Establishing a forum such as the Language & Ecology Research Forum and working with students to make their contributions of a high enough quality to contribute to the research community requires a significant time commitment but is valuable in engaging students and stimulating new directions and ideas for research.
Background / Context
Students arriving at university for the first time, whatever subject they have chosen, embark on a journey of critical discovery of the world around them, developing skills which will ultimately help them shape that world for future generations. In the English Language programme at the University of Gloucestershire, one of the first modules that students take is Language and Ecology, a module designed to help them develop the kind of systems thinking and critical awareness skills necessary to function effectively within an interdependent, rapidly changing, and fragile world. The module is based on the premise that through discourse analysis, students can interrogate social and cultural constructs which have a potential impact on the ecosystems which support life, including constructions of consumerism, progress, economic growth, success, and convenience, as well as constructions of nature and human relationships with other organisms. At a personal level, interrogation of such discourses can help students make informed choices about their future, for example rejecting certain constructions of success and searching for new models to base their lives on. At a social level, critical language awareness can help students contribute to social change through resisting damaging discourses, and promoting alternatives which have the potential to address emerging global challenges. This case study focuses on the role of the Language & Ecology Research Forum in enabling students to both learn from, and contribute to, the international research community, and in doing so put their awareness into action.
Activities / Practice
From October 2006 to January 2007, 31 students took the first year module Language and Ecology, part of an English Language course in the Humanities Department at the University of Gloucestershire. From the very first class they were encouraged not to think of themselves as just ‘preparing’ for things they would do later in life, but learning by actively doing things now. They were encouraged to take on the identity of a researcher and become involved in the international research community through participating in the online Language & Ecology Research Forum. This was the first cohort of students to take the module, so there were no role-models of previous students who had successfully played a productive role in the research community. But now there are, and in subsequent years the course will begin by showing students the work of previous cohorts.
The Language & Ecology Research Forum was established in 2001 and has become the main international site for ecolinguistics, which is not so much a sub-branch of linguistics, but linguistics in the full context of society and the ecosystems that society depends on. The site itself brings together an international network of researchers, resources, bibliographies, and an on-line journal Language & Ecology (ISSN 1745-3631). To enable students on the Language and Ecology module to contribute to the forum, a special student section was set up, with spaces for reflective comments, paragraph length ‘insights’, bibliographic items and full length articles.
Students were initially asked to contribute to any of these categories via email, which, as expected, resulted in no contributions. A second tactic was more successful – that of gathering comments, insights, bibliographic information and articles from the wealth of materials that students produced in active learning exercises during class and in their assignments. Students were, of course, asked if they would like their contribution displayed in the forum, and all expressed delight at having had their work selected. Reflective comments were personal, and so left unedited, but the paragraph length insights and articles were copy-edited to remove inaccuracies and improve the overall quality, and then offered back to students to agree the changes.
The different types of contribution, from brief comment to full article, together with the copy-editing, meant that students from across the spectrum of ability could contribute perspectives to the international research community. Indeed, there were a number of extremely useful insights from students who were not from a strong academic background.
In research terms, the collaboration between students and facilitator is valuable since students can investigate a wide range of discourses that the facilitator is unaware of, and the facilitator can select the most insightful aspects and work with students to put them in a useful form for dissemination. This can help reveal new avenues for future research for the facilitator and student or for future collaborative projects where both are involved. For instance, one student, Paul Slater, had previously been interested in electronic gadgets, and wrote a paper about Stuff magazine, bringing to light and critiquing a rather shocking discourse that the facilitator had been completely unaware of. With some copy editing by the facilitator, the essay was published as an article on the student section of the Language & Ecology Research Forum, eventually being accepted as a paper in the online journal Language & Ecology (Slater 2007). Through critical examination of the discourse of ‘gadgeteering’, Paul Slater reports that he has lost his interest in the latest gadgets, and gained an interest in sustainability. His article provides a useful resource for encouraging others to become similarly aware of the role of media in promoting consumerism, and a useful avenue for future research.
The core readings for the module were drawn from the online journal Language & Ecology, which is part of the Forum, as well as a series of papers in a similar vein published by the facilitator elsewhere. The readings were selected so that there was constructive alignment between lectures, reading, active learning class activities, and the final assignment that students write. The active learning activities consisted of analysis of a wide range of genuine data: hundreds of pages selected and removed from redundant book stock, popular magazines, piles of junk mail advertisements, collections of nature poems and photographs etc. This helped prepare students to go out and discover discourses in the texts which surround them, and know how to analyse them when they did find them.
The final assignment instructed students to follow the style of the short, accessible articles in the Language & Ecology on-line journal and produce a similar article, using a similar methodology but with different data. Students were asked to discover and analyse one particular discourse which has not been investigated before in the context of ecolinguistic analysis (and there are many of these). Usually the discourses chosen were ones which the students are deeply interested in in their personal life, and participate in themselves. In this way they are forced to ask deep questions about how the media are promoting consumerist ideologies, and confront discourses such as those of Stuff magazine, Top Gear, Heat magazine, gambling, or advertising, examining the effects of the discourses both on themselves, the wider society, and life-supporting ecosystems. It is the personal dimension which is so productive in stimulating students to discover new insights, which may not always be written up perfectly, but can be copy edited to be expressed to a wider audience.
In terms of student contribution to the Language & Ecology Research Forum, the first cohort of 31 students contributed 44 (unedited) reflective comments, 7 short insights (up to 500 words), and 6 full length articles. Three of these articles were later accepted for publication in the online journal Language & Ecology (Gargan 2007, Slater 2007, Williams 2007). The three students who wrote the articles then collaborated to publish a chapter on their experience of the Language and Ecology module for the book Greener by Degrees (Roberts and Roberts 2007). Later on, one of the students, Paul Slater, received funding from the Centre for Active Learning CETL at the University of Gloucestershire to attend a major HE Academy conference on Education for Sustainability. In this way, students in subsequent years have examples of just how much can be achieved in the first year at university, and can read analyses of areas that they too might be interested in. To read the insights and articles written by the students see the course website.
This approach works best when students are empowered by critical analysis of texts they are already familiar with, rather than struggling to understand new genres more familiar to the lecturer than the students. Comments on the active involvement in research in the Language & Ecology module were very positive, including the following:
‘The module was supplemented by an online research forum and students were encouraged to contribute articles and thoughts for possible publication. This encouraged me to research more deeply and to investigate different stances and I was absolutely delighted when my final assignment was published’
‘Enrolling on the Language and Ecology module has been the best decision I have made since joining the University. Not only have I enjoyed it and had a chance to contribute to the international research community, I have also learnt something inspiring and worthwhile for my future.’
‘The active learning in the module made it interesting, lively and inspiring. We discovered links between ecology and language in many different sources, such as popular magazines, the food industry and literature from across the world. The diversity was amazing: every week, a new faade of our own culture and of cultures worldwide was revealed.’ (from Gargan et al 2007)
Not all components of the approach will be transferable to all situations, but it would certainly be possible to set up one or more of the following components for most courses:
(a) an online edited series of articles based on the best work of students
(b) an online edited series of brief insights extracted from students’ work
(c) constructive alignment of readings, active learning activities and assignments so that students can apply established models to original data to generate new insights
(d) co-operating with an on-line journal to publish students’ contributions, or
(e) co-operating with an on-line forum to create a space where insights from the course can be shared.
Aside from benefiting ecolinguistic research through disseminating insights which might otherwise have remained hidden, perhaps the greatest benefit of the approach is the gain in students’ self esteem from having their work valued and publicly displayed. Clearly, however, students participated to greater and lesser extents in the forum, and further research will be necessary to determine the impact of the forum on students who did not have their work selected. Overall feedback, however, suggests that almost all students found that the module significantly enhanced their critical awareness of the texts which surround them, and the implications of the texts for society and the ecosystems that society depends on.
- Gargan, M. (2007) ‘Magic romance: on language, perfume and the environment.’ Language & Ecology 2:1
- Gargan, M., Slater, P. and Williams, R. (2007) ‘Language and Ecology: three student perspectives’ In Roberts, C. and Roberts, J. (eds) Greener by degrees: exploring sustainability through Higher Education curricula. Gloucestershire: Geography Discipline Network.
- Roberts, C. and Roberts, J. (2007, eds) Greener by degrees: exploring sustainability through Higher Education curricula. Gloucestershire: Geography Discipline Network.
- Slater, P. (2007) ‘The gadgeteer: sex, self and consumerism in Stuff.’ Language & Ecology 2:1
- Williams, R. (2007) ‘On voit grand. Trs grand : Language and the construction of nature across cultures.’ Language & Ecology 2:1