A COPLACDigital reflection by Ken Cooper

When it came time to organize the work of student teams onto a project page for “Storied Landscapes: 21st-Century Nature Writing” I’d already spent several months reflecting upon what localized place—as distinct from abstract space—might mean for the distance learning curriculum. Beginning around March, to mention one example, our synchronous class meetings (in digital space) would offer tiny windows into several different places. Students in North Carolina appeared to be bounding in from recent hikes, wearing shorts and t-shirts; meanwhile in Edmonton, there were more layers of clothing and at times a distinctive icy blue light filtering in through the windows. The course taught by my partner Joe Wiebe and I was attempting to draw upon the traditions of nature writing to address the reconfigured ecologies of contemporary life, and necessarily our COPLACDigital enterprise warranted the same self-consciousness.

By semester’s end our students had created projects that drew upon field work, archival research, and digital tools. Given the spatial orientation of their subject matter I thought it would be important to visualize both their locality and continental scope, some method of collection different from a list. I suggested to Joe a wonderful document I’d found at the David Rumsey Map Collection showing mean air temperatures for the month of April—which was when our site would go live. What if we used the North American terrain to introduce our far-flung student projects? Joe thought I was trolling him; the map’s unusual orientation appeared to be tilting the University of Alberta Augustana even farther north, in “near-arctic temperatures” as he put it.

Eventually aesthetics prevailed, but later I recalled this map in a different context when reading about a 2017 study by Seth Wynes and Kimberly A. Nicholas concerning the highest-impact actions individuals can take to mitigate climate change versus those most commonly discussed. They don’t often correlate: we hear a lot about recycling and LED light bulbs, but very little about giving birth to one less child. I was particularly surprised to learn that one of our highest-impact actions would be to take one less flight per year. As it happens, I was about to depart for the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) in Victoria, B.C. with a group of SUNY Geneseo faculty. But as NASA climate scientist Peter Kalmus has written, “Hour for hour, the quickest way a normal human can warm the planet is by flying on a commercial plane.” A group of his peers all flying to attend a professional conference therefore was deeply contradictory.

I wondered what my carbon footprint might look like in COPLAC terms—it’s a lot!—and therefore have created the simple map below to visualize air travel between member institutions and our headquarters in Asheville, NC. I located the airport nearest each campus, calculated round-trip miles, and then multiplied the distance by a conversion rate of .8 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per passenger mile. This multiplier is higher than some air travel calculations, but Kalmus argues that they underestimate upstream extraction costs, additional greenhouse gases like nitrous oxide, and the role of jet contrails in cirrus cloud formation—all of which heat the planet. The climate impact of our hypothetical COPLAC flights likely is understated, moreover, since most would require a connection and jet engines burn a great deal more fuel on takeoff and landing. Click on a point to learn how many pounds (or kilograms) of CO2e it takes to span the distance between us.

I’ve offered this lengthy set-up to make the argument that one future of COPLACDigital should foreground sustainability. We’ve created a network of faculty reasonably competent in digital technologies and their pedagogy; we can draw upon institutional affiliations that have taken a lot of work to create. It’s not an unthinkable leap from our online learning experiences toward what Ken Hiltner calls a Nearly Carbon Neutral Conference (NCN). Other relevant comparisons are the Kule Institute for Advanced Study’s Around the World Conference and ASLE’s A Clockwork Green: Ecomedia in the Anthropocene. All of them work to create the exchange of knowledge utilizing synchronous and asynchronous technologies. Hiltner provocatively argues for using not the technology of tomorrow but of yesterday, the better to preserve access for scholars worldwide. On a now-meaningful number of campuses, an interdisciplinary group of professors and IT support staff might serve as organizational nodes for a COPLAC-sponsored NCN conference, a sort of demonstration project foregrounding sustainability.

What differentiates COPLACDigital from the professional conferences mentioned above is our explicit focus upon undergraduate research: creating a community of scholars beyond individual campuses. Certainly, the distance learning technologies now facilitating lower-impact academic conferences likewise could be used for collaboration among COPLAC faculty; the more interesting course would be to include our students in that same opportunity. In most cases their work is siloed at on-campus research days, although COPLAC does sponsor regional conferences for some of them.The cost of travel already presents an obstacle to many students, and now we have an ecological reason to be leery of airplane flights. The obstacles to creating ambitious, imaginative collaborations between faculty and students are institutional rather than technical; for example, travel to conferences has been a small perk of academic life, and reconfiguring that as a virtual gathering will take some imagination. Already, it’s becoming quite common to interview job candidates via Skype rather than at professional conferences, albeit due to budgetary rather than environmental considerations. The model of faculty-student collaboration in COPLACDigital at times transcended “coursework” and offers a glimpse of virtual collaboration not solely dictated by scarcity. We should get out ahead on this.

Headshot of Dr. Ken Cooper

Ken Cooper is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York at Geneseo. He taught "Storied Landscapes: 21st Century Nature Writing" for COPLACDigital in the spring of 2018.