Using Literature to Explore Sustainability: Human Values and Dispositions

Open Access
Kaslow, Matthew Ethan
Area of Honors:
Bachelor of Science
Document Type:
Thesis Supervisors:
  • Xiaoye You, Thesis Supervisor
  • Lisa Ruth Sternlieb, Honors Advisor
  • Robert Edwin Burkholder, Faculty Reader
  • sustainability
  • literature
  • chesapeake
  • bay
  • nature
  • environment
  • learning
  • experiential
Sustainability is, broadly the collective idea of living and acting in a manner that is healthy, efficient, and practicable in the long term. It is quickly becoming an essential concept to many areas of society, relevant to both a singular person and a global corporation. Recent studies of the attitudes and behaviors, held by individuals within society, towards sustainability indicates that standard teaching methods—that is, those focused on cognitive learning of facts and applications—do not effectively impact change. Instead, teaching strategies based on affective learning, the acquisition of values and beliefs, are most effective at influencing a person’s attitudes and behaviors. Along these lines, to ascertain the specific values that act as building blocks towards a favorable disposition regarding sustainability, I conducted an ethnographic study of an Adventure Literature course, ENGL 181A, at Penn State, led by Dr. Robert Burkholder and graduate student Mark Sturges. The philosophy of the course was based on experiential learning, a teaching style designed around affecting a person’s attitudes by engaging them in relevant literature about a “place” followed by informative and fun field visits to those places. The place of interest for the Fall Semester, 2011, in which this study was conducted, was the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. Throughout the study I focused on the reactions and discussions of the students in the class, as well as the effective elements of the literature, such as themes, motifs, language, and plot. Selected literature covered a wide range of styles, including fiction, historical fiction, and non-fiction. The conclusion of the study found that appeals to a value of hometown loyalty and disposition towards nostalgia produced mixed responses, but had potential to positively affect the attitudes and behaviors of the students reading them.