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Web Paper Event # 2

hirakismail's picture

Hira Ismail

November 5, 2012 

Web Paper Event # 2

Class Proposal


     In my initial Thoreauvian walk, what I concentrated on was my walk amongst the trees, and my varying reactions to the trees at night versus in the day. This time, I ended up concentrating on something that has been tugging at the back of my mind, which made me wonder about its presence on the rest of the campus. While doing my site-sits throughout this semester, I’ve been noticing how much waste has been left around the area of Rhoads Pond. This made me wonder how often people actually do visit the pond, not just to look at it from afar, but to explore and walk along the edges. There are wine bottles and plastic bags and forgotten balls. I’ve seen cigarette packs and many other various items strewn around the bridge, and some have made their way into the water itself. My proposal for a class session then would be to have our entire class go to Rhoads Pond in order to clean up the area. Throughout the class, we have explored ways in which to represent our environment, in order to influence our community to help restore it. I think it would be useful to participate in restoration ourselves. The site-sits have been designed with the idea that we as students should really know and understand our campus before we graduate and lose the chance. Having a class in which we clean and leave the grounds on which our campus lies healthy would be the natural next step.  

During my observation time, I usually pick up a scrap or two that I can find, but have by no means covered the entire area. Every time I have gone, I have seen trash left behind. If we could each bring a plastic bag and wear gloves or wrap plastic bags around our hands for sanitation purposes, we could have a large extent of the place cleaned up. Also, if we could have tools (like clippers) that could reach inside the water to pick up waste, this would prove helpful too. It is very cold outside, but since we have spent a class session outside already in this weather, I feel we could do the same as a group. The constant moving around to pick up the litter will help us stay warm. I believe it is harder to stay outside in the cold while sitting still anyways. During my last site-sit, I was completely bundled, but moving constantly around the pond area helped me to stay awake, focus, and feel more in tune with my surroundings,  not to mention warm. I feel like this would be a very good way to be proactive. We have been discussing how as a class we wish to strike a balance between studying theories about the environment versus writing our own representations. I want to present this third category of actually acting on it. Doing a community service project to clean-up the surrounding area would be great, but why not start with our own campus, our own home?

The cleaning portion of class would likely take no longer than twenty minutes I predict, possibly even less because we have a good amount of students in the class. The pond doesn’t have that much litter around it after all. Since we have an hour and a half in which to have class, another five minutes could be spent gathering all the plastic bags we collected to one spot outside the fence in order to more easily deposit them in a garbage bin. Or we could initially use cardboard boxes to put the trash in so we might recycle the boxes afterwards, a less wasteful option perhaps. At this point, which would be about 25-30 minutes into class, I suggest returning to our meeting place outside the English House, after finding a dumpster or trash can to get rid of the waste we picked up, and discussing what it was like to clear up the pond briefly. These are some of the questions I would find useful to discuss:


  1. Who do we think frequents this pond? BMC students or non BMC students as well?
  2. What does the litter being there say about the community of people who frequent the pond?
  3. How do we define litter?
  4. How do we prevent litter from being left around? What change in attitude is needed to change the trash that is left so casually there and how can this change be initiated?


From this discussion, we could transition into discussing any reading we had for class that day. This clean-up initiative could be taken up any day in the rest of this semester, but I was thinking of doing it Monday the 12th of November. The Carolyn Merchant reading sounds like it could be relevant to this short project; the title (The Search for a Livable World) suggests so. The clean-up part should only take a short portion of the class, and the rest can proceed as planned—group analysis of reading. The idea I want to explore in this clean-up is how anyone under any circumstance thinks it’s ok to leave excess wrappers, water bottles, or whatever solid object we have on our person, just lying around. This reflects on us as people and our habits when it comes to cleaning. What thoughts and actions can we take to not project our cleaning habits in our own rooms toward our attitude in larger community spaces?

Another major question I have is how does the attitude toward and treatment of Rhoads Pond fit into the bigger picture of Bryn Mawr? If I returned to performing another Thoreauvian walk around campus, I may just do it with a focus on litter. How much of it do we really leave around as students, professors, and faculty? And how much of the messes we make are other people responsible for cleaning up? I know that Bryn Mawr College hires workers to blow the leaves out of the pathways in the fall and to shovel or melt the snow out of the same in the winter, both natural elements that are treated like trash in a way, because they are disposed of. Do these same workers spend time cleaning up wrappers or other garbage that students let lie around? Or do students leave trash around often? What is the mentality that makes people think it’s ok to just make a mess and expect someone else to clean up after them—or worse, not be conscious of whether it’s cleaned up at all? It’s one thing to leave one’s room messy, because only you or your roommates will have to face the consequences. It’s another step to leave the bathrooms messy, letting the housekeepers take care of cleaning it up. And yet another step to leave the pathways messy with orange peels or the pond messy with Ziploc bags and not think about whether it will be cleaned up at all. What causes this attitude, what makes people think it’s ok to treat the world as our “room”? It’s one thing to accept the natural world as our home and one thing to treat it disrespectfully as a result. I think the problem lies in thinking of the earth in terms of ownership.  

Looking at things in terms of belonging can be very problematic; is it when we begin to think of areas as belonging to us that we treat them carelessly? In that case, thinking of the earth around us as ours is dangerous. We need to remember it as a very much shared space, a shared entity. The idea of leaving trash around has irked me for a very long time. Back in Pakistan, around six years ago, I remember walking in a park with my family and noticing the trash cans around the area. Having public trash cans was such a rare sight to me in my experience of the city Karachi, that I became excited. Upon approaching the cans, however, I realized the cans themselves were empty, and were instead surrounded by the trash. I became incensed looking at this. People thought it was funny, apparently, and somehow subversive to deposit the trash around instead of within. I asked my relatives what they thought this behavior was about, and some replied that some people thought this was a good way to defy the government. The can had therefore become a symbol of a government institution, and people in the city who were unhappy about the residing government didn’t want to have anything to do with it. But in the end, they were hurting themselves—either way, the park was trashed. Though the trash was consolidated, it was still in piles around the cans and still gave off a very bad odor. In high school and middle school, I remember seeing the gum people would spit on the sidewalks that would become sun-baked and nearly impossible to scrape. Another way of littering that I couldn’t understand. And now at Bryn Mawr, thankfully the dried gum problem is gone, and I don’t see much litter, but the little I do still perturbs me.

Analyzing the purpose behind littering therefore leaves me with two conclusions. First, littering may be a sign of rebellion. It may be a way of showing defiance, distaste, or dislike in the institution responsible for the grounds left affected. Littering may be a way to take control of a space that people otherwise don’t have control of. Thus, dissatisfied school-age students leave gum on the floor, and dissatisfied citizens leave trash. Secondly, littering may be a sign of carelessness or lack of responsibility. The mess left in Rhoads Pond seems to be more of this category.

In fact, students at Bryn Mawr have historically not needed to worry about cleaning up after themselves. A description of the dorms in the past details how “in addition to the separate student rooms, each dorm was outfitted with a warden, a kitchen, a dining hall and staff, maids, porters, and a communal living area” (Greenfield Digital Center). Pembroke Dance Studio (pictured in Appendix A) used to be a dining space in which only students from within that dorm were allowed. Visitors, even if they were from another dorm, needed special permission to dine within. The environment within the dorms was especially controlled, and the vision of the college was to give women opportunities to establish their own private spaces and academic circles. The idea was to move away from the “domestic sphere” and into an academic one; the students shouldn’t have to worry about cooking and cleaning the way they traditionally would have had to (Greenfield Digital Center). This of course meant that others had to fill in the domestic role, and these workers, too, were women, many of different racial backgrounds. The responsibility of cleaning up has long been in the hands of hired workers. This has changed however with the advent of student workers on campus, in the dining centers especially. Our dishes are put on revolving trays and washed “magically” after we are done eating—but those of us who have worked in the dining hall have also been on the other side, helping wash those same dishes. This gives some good perspective to students of the work that is put in to make us comfortable in our dorms on a daily basis.

Which leads to some further thoughts about how participating on both ends of the spectrum can help us keep our campus, and our communities, and the earth clean. Having to be responsible for the work that is put in toward maintenance helps us become less likely to disturb it. Any waste that is left in the pond should be biodegradable, for example. If this proposal is not taken up this semester because of the weather, then I hope it is taken up next time this class is offered when the weather is easier to handle. However, since we are all still continuing our site-sits, even in the cold, I don’t believe taking the short period of time out to clean the pond should be impossible, and if it is, then our class decision to take care of our personal needs should be applied. I hope to be able to do this for a class day. The site-sits were supposed to help us fall in love with our environment. I believe that because students in general have fallen in love with the college, they are more willing to keep it clean. I think that’s why I don’t see a lot of litter around our campus in general. Hopefully we will be able to show our love for our campus, and this activity can be a start to a bigger initiative around our town and city in general.     





Works Cited


“Residing in the Past: Space, Identity, and Dorm Culture at Bryn Mawr College.” Albert M. Greenfield


Digital Center for the History of Women’s Education. 2012. Bryn Mawr College. 1 Nov 2012.







Anne Dalke's picture


You propose here that we spend a class session cleaning up the Rhoads Pond area, shifting from the questions of "representation" which have guided our discussion to those of "restoration," no longer just "observing" the world, or thinking about how to put those experiences into writing, but actually acting to improve the landscape in which we find ourselves. I'm thinking that we might be able to incorporate this activity into the final field trip we are now planning together; how about picking up trash along Mill Creek?

I'm intrigued by the discussion about litter that you propose to follow our action--it puts me in mind both of Michael Pollan's redefiniton of "weed" and Timothy Morton's (upcoming) definition of "nature." When you suggest, for instance, that leaves and snow, when they are cleaned up and disposed of, are "treated like trash," and so cease to be part of a natural cycle, the word "litter," like "weed" and "nature," also ceases to be a natural category, and becomes instead a construction, the result of the way we interact with our world, and what we choose to do with its products.

I'm reading your proposal a week after the date you suggested for this activity, but it puzzles me why you didn't seek out new readings that address the questions you raise directly. Certainly the forms of ecological imagining that insist there is no "outside," no "away," no "litter"--no possibility, in a closed, limited system, of throwing anything away--would take us further in this direction than what we are already reading, and offer some answers to your questions about why we do it.

There's also a range of wonderful art that demonstrates the catastrophic effects of litter. Do you know the photography of Chris Jordan, which was recently exhibited @ the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery @ Haverford? If not, check out the gallery for his project Midway, and the trailer for his upcoming movie.

What I actually find most interesting in your essay is your observation that "students at Bryn Mawr have historically not needed to worry about cleaning up after themselves." Here you begin to gesture towards some concrete, local, specific answers to your very general questions about what causes "us" to litter: is this act "a sign of rebellion"? "carelessness or lack of responsibility"? Or, in this particular location, the result of an assumption that others, less well off than ourselves, will do this for us?

Your description of Bryn Mawr as a space where women might "move away from the 'domestic sphere' and into an academic one has clearly had environmental consequences. As ekthorp's paper also suggests, M. Carey Thomas's celebration of the material "pleasures of success enjoyed by an extraordinary woman” expressed an environmental unconsciousness that we need to interrogate today. So, too, does the large amount of clothing and other debris left by students @ the end of each spring semester. Perhaps your litter campaign needs to be re-oriented, not to picking up what is left, but intervening in the process of littering-while-leaving?