Interview with Dr. Rochelle Johnson: Education and Career Guidance in Environmental Literature

Interview with Dr. Rochelle Johnson: Education and Career Guidance in Environmental Literature

Dr. Rochelle Johnson is an Assistant Professor in the English Department and the Director of the Environmental Studies Program at Albertson College of Idaho. She is a past member of the Executive Council of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE).

Dr. Johnson is inspired by the environmental writers of both the past and of today. She feels that Environmental Literature reflects and shapes our beliefs and inspires change by encouraging hope for a better world. Her largest accomplishment to date has been the on-going project of writing a biography of Susan Fenimore Cooper, a nineteeth-century nature writer and activist. She has written and co-edited many books and articles; one of her biggest accomplishments has been working with co-editor Daniel Patterson to re-publish Cooper's works for a modern audience.

She studied English at Bates College and Claremont Graduate University. She has been with the Environmental Studies Program at Albertson College of Idaho since its inception in 1999.

About Dr. Johnson & Her Career

Please tell us about your career.

I am Director of the Environmental Studies Program and Assistant Professor of English at Albertson College of Idaho. For the English Department, I teach courses in writing and in American literature, including a course that is cross-listed with the Environmental Studies Program called "Visions of Environment," which is a literary-historical survey of environmental literature in the United States. In addition to my teaching and my service for the college, the community and my profession, I carry on my research, which centers largely on the life and writings of the nineteenth-century environmental writer and philanthropist, Susan Fenimore Cooper.

How did I get here? I studied English at Bates College, and then went on to graduate school in English at Claremont Graduate University. There, I focused on American literature, took a course in Environmental History, and was hooked: my dissertation and research focused on the cultural conversation surrounding "environment" and "wildness" in the pre-twentieth-century United States. When I applied for my current job, I was asked if I would be interested in helping develop their nascent Environmental Studies Program. Yes! I've been here since 1999.

You've received honors and awards, including grants from the Idaho Humanities Council and the National Endowment for Humanities, and you have served on the Executive Council for the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE). How important is this to you personally, and to your career?

These grants have been crucial to our developing understanding of Susan Fenimore Cooper's life and work. They have allowed me to spend weeks at a time in Cooperstown, New York, where she lived and where the New York State Historical Association is located. Much of the editing and publishing of her work that I have done results from my travels to Cooperstown, my collection of her papers and manuscripts, and the writing that these grants have funded.

My position on ASLE's Executive Council enabled me to help shape that organization, in a small way, in ways that are meaningful to me and that have benefited the organization. When I served on the Council, we forged relationships with other professional organizations, ensuring that environmental literature is represented at national and international conferences such as the American Literature Association annual meeting and the biennial conferences of the Society for the Study of American Women Writers. That has been my pet project with ASLE: building relationships among professional organizations. I currently serve as Professional Organization Liaison for ASLE.

Not only have these projects been important to me personally, but they have helped me stay connected with other scholars in the field of environmental literature. The community of scholars that results from these networks is very important - both as a testing place for new ideas and readings and as a forceful group of learners who further our understandings of environmental history.

Who are some of your biggest inspirations?

I admire Barry Lopez tremendously for his dedication to understanding a variety of cultural approaches to the relationship between humans and the physical world. I think that he is one of the wisest people alive.

I am inspired by Mary Oliver to express the amazement and passion evoked by the natural world. I try to remind myself daily of her words from "The Swan," which is published in her collection House of Light (Beacon Press, 1990): the path to heaven doesn't lie down in flat miles.

It's in the imagination
with which you perceive
this world
and the gestures
with which you honor it.

I am inspired by the courage of Sandra Steingraber, an ecologist and poet who has followed in the steps of Rachel Carson in awakening readers to the chemical hazards that we decide to make a part of our daily lives.

In my profession, I admire many people's teaching, scholarship, creative writing, and leadership. Two individuals who come to mind are John Elder, who is Professor of English and Environmental Studies at Middlebury College, and Scott Slovic, who helped establish the Center for Environmental Arts and Humanities at the University of Nevada, Reno.

What are some of your other favorite projects that you've completed in your career and why?

As part of my teaching, I recently edited a book called Rediscovering Indian Creek: The Story of Our Region, and I feel pride in my students and in my community when I think of this project. The book is the result of my work with 36 student writers and one student intern at Albertson College of Idaho. The group calls itself "The Indian Creek Writers Collaborative," and they researched and wrote a book about the natural and human history of the Treasure Valley region of southwest Idaho: the area that we call "home." Our focus was Indian Creek, which is a spring-fed stream that runs some 60 miles through the valley before meeting the Boise River. We worked with community members who have memories of the area and of the creek, and with local and national experts on stream ecology, watershed restoration, and flora and fauna. Thanks to local translators, the book is available in both Spanish and English, so that more members of our community can read the story of our home. The story starts with geology and ends with hope - the hope of cleaning up the creek and improving our (and its) home. Thanks to local businesses and civic organizations, the book is being distributed throughout the community at no cost. This project is a favorite of mine because it truly results from a community dedicated to better knowing the story of its physical environment.

Another of my favorite projects is my ongoing work toward a biography of Susan Fenimore Cooper. Cooper was an amazing woman: she completed many books and stories in her lifetime, she founded and ran an orphanage, she was active in civic affairs, and she knew her local landscape extremely well. She's an inspiration, and her life provides us with a fascinating glimpse into rural nineteenth-century life.

About Environmental Architecture

What contributions do you feel Environmental Literature has made to society?

Environmental literature shapes and reflects humans' attitudes and values regarding the physical world and our relationship to it. Environmental literature inspires changes in those attitudes and values, awakens our sensibilities, leads to political change, and mourns damaged places and other environmental losses. Environmental literature also serves as a source for hope, reminding us, as it so often does, of the renewing and healing powers of our relations to nature.

The scholarly and critically-informed study of environmental literature - which some call "ecocriticism" - has made other contributions to society. Ecocriticism has uncovered neglected or forgotten environmental writers, broadened the canon of American literature, and revealed a much more complex cultural conversation surrounding the human relation to nature than most of us suppose existed in our history. For instance, we now know that forest preservation was a concern in the early nineteenth century and that some of the major principles of forest succession were understood then, as well. These sorts of deeper understandings of our history help us now: many people in our society argue that environmental problems are "not a big deal" - that deforestation is a relatively new phenomenon and so can't be cause for serious alarm. When we recognize, however, that deforestation was considered a serious enough problem in the early nineteenth century to warrant the attention of general writers, the problem becomes harder to dismiss. Problems that have been identified as problems for two hundred years are problems.

Environmental literature also helps us envision alternative ways of living in the world. When we discern alternative worldviews in texts, we can begin to incorporate those ways of seeing and living into our lives.

Does environmental literature exist in all cultures and through all time?

Yes. Even in cultures with oral (as opposed to written) traditions, environmental "literature" exists.

What is the relationship between environmental literature and environmental studies?

The field of Environmental Studies explores the various and complex relationships that exist between human beings and their environment. Humans communicate with each other and with the future (through texts and written histories) through language, and their language conveys their beliefs, ethics, values, and assumptions. A solid program in Environmental Studies therefore demands scrutiny of how humans have conveyed their relations to their environments. The study of environmental literature lets us explore the ideological and philosophical bases for the conceptions of nature that have shaped our own understanding of the concept of the "environment."

You have edited a number of original compilations by environmental writers. Please tell us a little about this experience, and why you chose to edit the volumes that you did.

With a group of colleagues, I edited an early collection of ecocritical essays, Reading the Earth: New Directions in Literature and the Environment. I felt fortunate to work with Michael Branch, Daniel Patterson, and Scott Slovic on this collection - each of whom has gone on to make major contributions to the field. It seemed important at the time to bring to a wider audience the exciting work then being done on environmental literature. Since that time, the field has exploded, and there are several dozen such collections. Each of them attests to the vibrancy of this field and to the excitement surrounding scholarly treatment of this body of literature.

With my co-editor, Daniel Patterson, I have also brought much of Susan Fenimore Cooper's work to print. This seemed important because her work was so little known, even though her nature writing was well known in its day. Rural Hours was one of the first book-length works of nature writing by a woman in this country, and when Cooper published it, she saw herself as entering into a longstanding, largely male-authored tradition of nature writing. Cooper wanted readers to consider their own relationships to their homes places, and her carefully written record of the natural and human life of her place served as an example to encourage others. I believe that her dedication to this sort of writing challenges what most of us believe: that when Henry David Thoreau published Walden four years after Susan Fenimore Cooper wrote Rural Hours, he was writing a sort of text that had not been written before. On the contrary: there had been an ongoing, complex conversation concerning the human relationship to wilderness, and Thoreau entered that ongoing conversation in 1854. Susan Cooper was just one voice contributing to that conversation. It seems important to me to bring that cultural conversation to readers, and so my co-editor and I have tried to make Cooper's works available to modern audiences.

You are a member of several professional organizations, including the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment. Can you tell us a little about ASLE and how it has contributed to the field?

ASLE is a professional organization for scholars and writers of environmental literature, and in its first decade, it has grown from a few dozen folks who gathered together and formed the organization to an international membership of over a thousand. ASLE has affiliate organizations in other countries, including Australia, Japan, and England, and its biennial meetings draw hundreds of people from around the world. For me, and for many of my colleagues, ASLE has been a sort of home. ASLE draws together people dedicated to better understanding the human place in the natural world and how that place has been represented in language throughout the world and throughout time.

Any healthy scholarly professional organization like this one serves a vital function: the advancement of knowledge. Through its journal, ISLE (Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment), its email discussion group, its meetings and conferences, and its biannual newsletter, ASLE creates an exciting community of learners: a symbiosis that advances knowledge far more quickly that the studies of any one individual possible could.

How do professionals in Environmental Literature keep in touch with one another?

We keep in touch with one another regularly through email, through meetings, conferences, and seminars, as well as through reading each other's published work. We call each other sometimes, too.

How do you get your information on new authors, trends and books?

I get information about new authors from colleagues, from publishers' catalogues, which I read regularly, through book exhibits at conferences, through visiting large bookstores when I am in large cities, through reading book reviews in journals and magazines, and through reading periodicals that feature environmental authors and information, such as Orion. I get information regarding teaching ideas from conversations with colleagues, as well as professional publications and meetings.

Education In The Field: What To Expect

Tell us about your education. What did you like and dislike about it?

I got my undergraduate degree from Bates College and my graduate degrees from Claremont Graduate University. Both schools encouraged me to explore new ideas and offered me opportunities to become involved in the profession - even as a student. I liked these things about my education. I don't like that my education left me in debt (like most students, I worked, took out loans, and got grants)--but it was SO worth it!

What do you think are some of the best schools and programs for Environmental Literature?

At the undergraduate level, there are strong programs at several schools, including:

At the graduate level, strong programs include:

What advice can you give to prospective students thinking about an education and career in the field?

I would encourage prospective students of environmental literature to read widely (not just environmentally-oriented works), to spend time outdoors, to study ecology and natural history, and to pursue an advanced degree.

How did you develop an interest in Environmental Literature?

My childhood home in New England was close to Walden Pond, and I was drawn to the Transcendentalists and their contemporaries in graduate school. As I read and studied, I found myself immersed in multifaceted conversations about landscape that I wanted to understand better.

Jobs In The Field: What To Expect

What kinds of entry-level jobs are there for graduates of Environmental Literature programs and what is the average salary for these jobs? What jobs do people at the top of the profession have, and how much do they make?

Students who complete an undergraduate focus in Environmental Literature should be prepared for a number of career paths: entrance into law school (some want to pursue environmental law) or graduate school, teaching in the schools, working as a wilderness educator or ranger, editing or publishing, or working for a non-profit environmental organization. Salaries for these types of jobs vary.

Folks who have gone on to graduate school and become professors of environmental literature teach, write, publish, and lead professional organizations. None of us followed this career path for the money, but I suppose that the average "top" jobs in the profession feature salaries of about 70K. (Some people undoubtedly make more than that - and some, like me, far less!)

How can an aspiring environmental writer or editor "get their foot in the door?"

Pursue a solid education, make connections with people whose work you admire, get into the field (spend time outdoors!), and ask good questions of people. Getting to know people is, as in any field, key.

Please name three of the top professionals in Environmental Literature today. How did they get to the top?

Lawrence Buell, a professor at Harvard University, John Elder, a professor at Middlebury College, and Sue Ellen Campbell, a professor at Colorado State University come to mind as achievers in the field, although there are others, too. These people got to where they are by pursuing excellent educations, undertaking groundbreaking research and writing projects, and sharing their work in very generous and collegial ways with their colleagues and with students. They also made real efforts to bring people together and create community. This may sound funny, but they also thought clearly and wrote clearly (and still do) - real assets in our society.

Does a professor of Environmental Literature teach courses in other topics?

Yes, at most institutions. I teach courses in freshman composition, in advanced writing, in American literature, and in interdisciplinary Environmental Studies.

How is the job market in the industry? What do you think it will be like in five years?

The job market for people who want to be professors in any literary field is tight, but not impossible. I always encourage my students to pursue their passions: jobs follow. Jobs always seem to appear for people who live passionately and pursue their true interests with energy and creativity.

The Industry

How has the popularity of the Internet affected the field of Environmental Literature?

Email has helped us all communicate. What a gift that has been! Like most people, our community is better in touch with each other and has easier access to more information through the Internet. Personally, I also benefit from knowing which rare books and manuscripts are for sale at a given time, from accessing early American periodicals online, and from the networks of communication made possible through the web.

What are some of the top challenges for professionals in the field?

I think that one of the top challenges for any scholar of literature is articulating the powers of language in people's lives. I also struggle with helping students realize the complexity of our environmental legacy - not just in ecological terms but in terms of values, attitudes, and assumptions that we hold, and in terms of beliefs that we do not know how to question.

Closing Remarks

Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career, or the profession that would be interesting or helpful to others aspiring to enter and succeed in Environmental Literature?

I cannot imagine a more fulfilling, rewarding career that my career as a scholar and teacher of literature and Environmental Studies. As my dissertation director and main graduate school professor, Robert N. Hudspeth, once said, "I have the best job in the world. I am paid to read great books and talk about them with interesting people." Each day, I work to help students find their passions and to recognize their power as individuals shaping our world, and my medium for doing that is language.

Related Articles