Probiotics for Composition-Health?
Building an Ecology of Memoir Writing and Blended Learning
Julie Daoud, Ph.D., Thomas More College, Department of English

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In a shift that marked a watershed moment in my teaching career, I decided to incorporate technology to advance the study of literature over the next several class meetings; the subject matter alone had impassioned student response but I was eager to identify a more effective conduit to engage students with systematic thinking about values. With this end in mind, I decided to phase in digital technologies including 1) interactive software such as the ecological footprint calculator and skype interface, 2) streaming video—featuring scenes from “Flow: For the Love of Water,” a documentary about the global water crisis 3) social media that offered students a way to connect with real world revolutionary awareness and change and 4) gaming such as the “Virtual Tour Grocery Store” that offers student consumers a way to better gage consumer CT. The student-returns on these digital media proved considerable.  What follows is an explanation of how I revised the curriculum to continue our study of the first of three course memoirs.

Phase I: Although most of my students had been asked to measure their ecological footprint by former high school teachers or coaches, I asked them to recalculate the measurement as college students with new consumption habits.  I had dual purposes for their recalibration.  I wanted them to take responsibility for their own individual toll (not their family’s toll) on the environment so that they might begin to internally audit their own use of resources.  I also hoped that their measurement would resonate with Beavan’s statistics about the effect that “disposable” plastic bags that find their way in to the oceans have on wildlife.  If nothing else, it seemed that all of the students were moved by Beavan’s account of the leatherback turtles that washed up dead on Jersey’s shores because of digestions blocked by plastic bag consumption.

I asked students to calculate their ecological footprint by using software at  This site enabled students to calibrate resource-consumption through the creation of animated avatars.  The customized images reflected, for students, individual consumption levels. While we could have calibrated footprint measurements through a classroom questionnaire or workshop, the use of avatars allowed students to calculate ecological imprint with privacy and discretion.  As the site invited students to calibrate and reflect on routine habits and actions, it also offered ideas for concrete change suited to a student’s particular demographic.  For instance, links at the site invite college students to step-up efforts to reduce consumption on their campuses by recycling and reducing printing privileges.  Other links offer students information about participating in eco-awareness campaigns.  The site is free of the constraints of the traditional classroom in which students might resist disclosing their incriminating environmental choices or, on the other hand, might parrot environmental values in an effort to construct the “right” ethos. 

Phase II: In addition to using avatars with students, I connected students to a sustainability expert who’d trained with Beavan in an outreach workshop intended to galvanize grassroots civic organization.  I’d met Amy Strosser through a mutual acquaintance and what drew me to her as a resource for the course was that she had read Beavan’s book and had transformed her own lifestyle in order to live more efficiently through local consumption habits and advocacy for the preservation of natural resources.  Though I’d first met her face-to-face, several weeks before the start of the semester (--we’d met at the local co-op where she combined her bi-monthly shopping trip with our meeting so to conserve gas consumption), she was reluctant to travel to campus to meet with students because of the 20 mile commute.  In lieu of a personal visit, she offered, instead, to skype with students during a class meeting.  This compromise reflected sound thinking: it honored her environmental commitment yet allowed her to interact with students to share her civic commitment.  And, the video conference was a fitting use of software for my blended learning classroom ecology.  In the dimly lit classroom, students eagerly anticipated Strosser’s virtual visit.  Her telecommunication was a fitting substitute for a face-to-face meeting.  As if she was physically present to students, she introduced herself and offered her own perspective on “sustainability.” Rather than lecture, her visit was largely conversational and anecdotal.  For instance, she offered students her own story of conversion, taught them a recipe for borax-based household cleaners and baking-soda toothpaste, and reassured them that their local choices (to eat closer to the earth, to drive less, to find serenity in deliberation) could give birth to global renewel.  Our skype experience with Strosser spawned interest.  Students responded to her with questions with her about her values, her challenges—especially with regard to personal hygiene—and about the Beavan’s portent about the water scarcity crisis.  And the questions that she could not answer became areas for students to pursue.  When the visit ended, students turned back to our class discussion with energy and—what I perceived to be—a level of intrigue that they had perhaps not felt when they’d merely read the memoir.  The skype exchange had put them in direct contact with an ecological “expert” and allowed them the opportunity to engage with Beavan’s approach to the environment—his unique point of view as well as his purpose for writing about the environment—as  well as his assumptions, inferences and call to action.  While students may not have felt a connection with the author—a middle-aged Manhattanite—they seemed to better identify with Strosser, a recent college graduate who had become a vital member of the local community through her grass roots commitment to change.

Phase III: To get students to apply the text to their own lives, I arranged for students to participate in an ecological experiment.  But rather than conduct the experiment individually and to track individual results in journals, I asked students to use the blog to record and report the trials and tribulations associated with the experiment.  The seven-day, cumulative experiment started with water conservation on day one and progressed, in terms of challenge, through the week.  By the middle of the week, students were expected to reduce carbon emissions by biking or carpooling and by the week’s end, they were challenged to minimize electricity and—perhaps get off the grid entirely. 

My preference for blogging through the experiment rather than journaling through the experiment stemmed from my sense that the blog would allow students a venue for more publicly venting frustrations or, alternately, sharing accomplishments.  In other words, while the experiment was individualized, the blog would enable students the social component of collaboration.  According to the research, academics “have been a little slow getting out of the starting blocks when it comes to using blogging as a means of knowledge construction with students” (Williams and Jacobs 4) . But, Ferdig and Trammel find that blogs are a mode of interaction more conducive to active learning, higher order thinking and greater flexibility in teaching and learning (paraphrase from “Content Delivery in the Blogosphere”). Williams and Jacobs emphasize their point that “blogs have the potential, at least, to be a truly transformational technology in that they provide students with a high level of autonomy while simultaneously providing opportunity for greater interaction with peers” (9).

Having posted questions about the experiment on the blog, I added links to the blog template.  Several links—links that I found in Beavan’s appendix—offered  data about the environment provided by government supported organizations such as UNICEF or the EPA.  Another link gave students access to a streaming video called “Flow: For the Love of Water.”  Through this award-winning documentary by Irena Salina, students could investigate what experts describe as the most important political and environmental issue of the 21st Century: the scarcity of water.  Even Tyler, the student who, weeks earlier, had vowed vengeance on the college through his deliberately long showers, reported being moved by the film.  Transformed by the film, he seemed genuinely staggered by the statistics related to water scarcity and indicated that he’d “twist his wrist” and shorten his showers to conserve the sacred resource. 

With these links at their fingertips, students could access a range of statistics and data with ease.  While I asked students to blog occasionally, about their findings, students contributed with some surprising level of regularity.  The exchanges offered evidence that my students were, for the most part, actively engaging with the subject matter.  And at least a few of my students seemed to be profoundly changed by the collective experience of blending the traditional reading of the text with the technological heuristics.  Irene, a single mother who had just begun college at the age of 44, recorded her new level of consciousness: “When Randy [her toddler] and I went to eat at our favorite restaurant last night, I was told by the manager that they could not accommodate our request to plate our food on our own recycled serving ware.  We up and left.  I won’t contribute to the depletion of the earth by eating on throw-away papers and plates.  It was a tough decision but I am happy to have made it even though my son and I have celebrated a lot of special occasions there.”  Her intentionality marked a shift in her own awareness and offered an example of local action that seemed to resonate with fellow students who perhaps had become more aware of their own deletrious conveniences.

Phase IV: On one of the final days of our study of No Impact Man, I arranged for my students, who, for the most part are novice grocery shoppers, to compete as eco-minded, health conscientious shoppers at a web site called “The Virtual Grocery Store,”,  sponsored by the Dietitians of Canada and the Canadian Diabetes Association.  The game, which was as educational as it was entertaining, offered an opportunity for students to earn points for their strategies related to meal planning. After arranging the class into teams, the players shopped a virtual grocery to create a meal plan.  Their selections earned points depending upon the ecology of the item, its nutrient density and its cost efficiency.  As the site tallied student points and appointed a winning team, it enabled students to review food alternatives that would have proven more effective in terms of environmental concerns, personal health, and consumer costs.

As a follow-up to the game—since it only required a few minutes of our class time—we explored a web site sponsored by Greenpeace to gain an appreciation of the risks posed by genetically modified crops.  The exploration of this site enabled students to more fully appreciate Beavan’s interest (in chapter six) in the social, ethical and environmental responsibilities that we shoulder when it comes to making choices about consumption. In other words, the multi-modal supplement to what some students may have interpreted as Beavan’s pontificating, seemed to offer students other vantage points for thinking more critically about the types of food that we finance and consume.  The follow-up seemed a worthwhile endeavor as most students were utterly astounded by Greenpeace data about agribusiness practices and the lack of agricultural regulations on fertilizers and pesticide use as well as increasing reliance on GMOs.

Coda: To conclude our study of No Impact Man, I invited students to join ranks with other global activists through the use of social media.  More particularly, students were offered the opportunity to channel environmental awareness into activism through the “Day Without Shoes” campaign—an annual, international campaign that raises awareness about systemic poverty and the destruction of natural resources through multinational corporations.  Students demonstrated their concern and compassion through web-registration (an act of solidarity with demonstrators on a global level) and a grass-roots community-supported barefoot-procession.  Participation in the campaign was voluntary.  Thus, I was astounded by both the high level of turnout and the media attention garnered by the event: these same students who had vocally resisted No Impact Man only weeks earlier—students who I have come to think of as “Reluctant Environmentalists,” had become regional ambassadors of global awareness and ethical responsibility.  While certainly not as revolutionary as the fomenters of the Arab uprisings in early 2011that toppled regimes across the Arab world—my  students utilized technology to galvanize awareness and action.  Braving the cold earth with bare feet, the campus campaigners got people talking about systemic poverty; ultimately, their demonstration spawned a collection of several carloads of gently-worn shoes that they delivered to local shelters.  Thus, the web based campaign, communicated through social media, gave my students a role through which to voice compassion and demonstrate their investment as conscientious and eco-minded, ethical citizens of the world.


It would be naïve of me to think that all of my students were radically transformed by the semester-long study of memoir writing and the technologically-supported activities related to the respective readings.  However, for the first time in years, student interest and investment surpassed my expectations.  It wasn’t until several weeks after the semester that  I learned that the course had initiated a sort of ripple of change among a handful of students: some had actually initiated participation in a broader, ongoing campaign to preserve global resources.  Having read the memoir, and then participated in active learning that was, in most cases, technologically-centered, students enlisted their support for an electronically circulated petition that calls upon the United Nations to add Article 31 to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The petition, which one student forwarded to my attention after the term had come to a close, pledged support for solving the water scarcity crisis.  By signing their names to the petition, students actively worked to make change as they simultaneously cultivated and confirmed their identities as reflective consumers.

So I believe that my blended-learning experiment in first-year composition course--a course that already diverged from convention through its reliance on memoir writing—was a success.  Through its face-to-face meetings coupled with a range of internet related programs and games—in short, blended learning—students  became a community of active learners.  But when I reflect on the semester, I cannot fall into the trap of retrospective falsification; it would be disingenuous to downplay the initial resistance of students toward No Impact Man.  There was certainly a good deal of doubt and misgiving on my part as we began our study of the Beavan text.  Now, however, I read this moment of struggle as the moment that enabled me to affirm my resolve to implement digital learning techniques.  But the initial nadir serves as an important marker for calibrating what would, eventually, become intellectual, social, and moral growth. 

Having completed my first hybridized course, I believe that there is at least one touchstone worth considering to determine if a course has been a success.  (After all, not many of my students will become lobbyists who protect endangered species and help to regulate the use of natural resources.)  If the course has helped to make students more mindful as readers and writers—in short, as cognizant civic participants—then for me, the course has achieved a worthwhile goal.  One semester, after all, is not quite enough to save the planet.  But like a SPIN farmer who converts an urban plot to a harvest-rich garden—maximizing the yield on what might have been an uncultivated sub-acre, then I have helped to initiate growth unencumbered by dogma (i.e. the prevailing dogma that farmers need hundreds of acres, synthetically modified starters and thousands in financing) and attentive to the development of potential growth and fellowship. The technology that a SPIN farmer uses is a blend: it is not dependent on synthetic chemical controls or cumbersome complexes for irrigation.  Instead, the technology for these small urban plots is a blend of the traditional with the appropriate and accessible modern conveniences that, once administered, produce a high-quality local yield.

I wish to conclude this narrative about my deliberations and discoveries in the field of composition pedagogy in the spirit of Robert Coles, an elequent spokesperson for global caretaking and civic action through education.  I have long appreciated Coles and his legendary valediction to students at each semester’s end as it offers students a place to begin.  Unassumingly, he offers these words: “I hope this course will be many things to many [of you].  I hope you’ll turn over some of what you heard [this semester] in your mind” (264). This valediction, which seems to me to be more a call to awareness and responsibility than a farewell at parting, is worthy of reprisal.  We, as experienced educators, cannot reside in the either/or binaries.  Instead, we must be willing to contemplate the ever-changing factors that provide an optimum ecology for a learning-centered classroom.   Blended learning—pedagogies that we may resist for generational reasons—may  empower students to not only thrive in their own environments, but to till the landscapes beyond the college walls.  Spin-farmers in the making, these students who have thrived in the blended environment, will continue to support the growth of the brightest and best varietals of voice and action—and become the stewards that Beavan hails as the future  leaders of this world.  

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