You are here

Natural World Cluster

For academic year 2018-2019. 

Enjoying a field trip to Fruitlands Museum, a Utopian and Shaker historic site

Seminars in this year’s Natural World cluster will explore humans' conceptions of the natural world along with tensions in the relationship between nature and humanity. What does it mean to say that some things are “natural” and other things are “unnatural” because they are products of culture or technology?  Some courses will interrogate assumptions about the nature of “nature” and “human nature”: What makes something “wild” or “natural”? Does “nature” exist in the city? Is it possible to live a “natural life”? Does living in harmony with “nature” make us happier? What is color in its scientific properties versus color in its perceptual properties? Other courses will approach environmental or biomedical issues from quantitative, qualitative, or philosophical perspectives and consider possible solutions. In some cases, we will compare and contrast two different approaches to investigating the natural world: one rooted in sensory data and subjective encounters with the natural world (such as walking a path); and another that relies on quantitative data (such as using mathematical models to understand how atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are changing). In others, we will consider the tension between the natural and the technological and how ethics seeks to reconcile the two. Finally, what are the implications for government action? Should the government move to protect or promote things that are “natural,” or “wild,” or “harmonious,” or (for that matter) “technological”? Faculty teaching in the Natural World cluster come from the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, Chemistry, English, Mathematics, Philosophy, and Visual Arts.


Natural 1: Better Living

Common Area Designation:   Philosophical Studies       

Living, Naturally (fall):

“Acting natural” sounds good, but it is easier said than done. Our relationship to nature—our own nature, and nature itself—is not always a comfortable one. Nor is it entirely clear what “acting natural” really means, or what counts as “natural.” Ancient Greek philosophers thought that living in accordance with nature was the key to a virtuous and happy life. Modern ways of thinking differ, suggesting that “nature” is something that needs to be overcome, or controlled, if we are to live free and well-ordered lives. We may pretend to love nature, but we generally seek happiness by “artificial” or technological means. This raises a number of questions: Does nature interfere with our freedom, or is it the very source of that freedom? Is being free the same as “going wild”? Is there a tension between living a “natural” life and living an ethical life in society? Does “going back to nature” make us more, or less, human? Can we “go back”? Can we really leave nature behind? These are some of the things we will wonder about in our seminar as we explore philosophical, literary, and artistic sources from the ancient and modern worlds. Readings include selections from Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Thoreau, and Freud.

Living with Technology (spring):

What does it mean to “act natural” in a world where technological advances blur the lines between what is natural and what is artificial? Advances in biotechnology have changed how we can control our health, our bodies, and the world around us in ways that can affect future generations. Is this a blessing or a curse, or a combination of both? Together, we will examine contemporary issues using a bioethical perspective to discern how to live a “moral life” when confronted with complex choices, often asking if we can and, if so, if we should. Can we edit our genomes or those of other species? Can we extend life and enhance performance with drugs? Can we make better crops to confront hunger? Can we learn about human health by experimenting in animal models? Can we assist the infertile in their quest for offspring? If the answers are yes, should we? Our discussions will draw on readings from Plato and Aristotle from the fall as well as selections from Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, and John Rawls.


Natural 2: Environmental Justice

Common Area Designation(s): Philosophical Studies

Justice in Theory (fall): 

We certainly have a problem: the way we live is damaging the environment, but we need that environment if we are going to keep living satisfying lives. This problem seems to require government action, but … what should the government do? Should we just worry about existing people? What about future people? Or also about animals, or ecosystems, or “the environment itself,” whatever that is? And how do we even begin to answer those questions in meaningful and respectful ways? In this seminar, we will study two political theories (liberalism and conservatism) and four theories of the environment (anthropocentrism, sentiocentrism, biocentrism, and ecocentrism) to see how other people have answered those questions. In the process, we will work on developing our own answers to these pressing questions.

Justice in Practice (spring): 

The U.S. has one of the most extensive environmental regimes in the world, with more laws and more extensive regulation than almost any other nation. With that, we’ve certainly made progress toward protecting our environment -- or at least some parts of it -- the last 50 years or so. And yet we still have so many environmental problems. What can we do? In this seminar, we will look at two further political theories (green theory and capabilities) and three examples of what “we” can do, talking about the costs and benefits of each: government regulation, business innovation, and grassroots protest movements. In the end, each of these options leads us back to a slightly different question: what can we do? Us, you, and me – what can we do? It is a question worth asking and answering.


Natural 3: Environmental Mathematics

Common Area Designation(s): Mathematical Science

Modeling the Environment (fall):  

If we continue to use fossil fuels to generate energy for transportation, what effects can we expect to see from the pollution they generate? Are there realistic alternatives to those fuels? Our ability to develop answers to such questions and to understand the political, economic, and social issues involved depends on understanding quantitative information. Mathematical models--equations of various sorts capturing the relationships between variables involved in a complex situation--are fundamental for understanding the potential consequences of choices we make. In this seminar, we will introduce a number of basic techniques for constructing models and explore the ways they are applied to environmental issues. Students in this course should have a strong competence in high school algebra and an aptitude for analytical thinking.


Analyzing Environmental Data (spring): 

Are we experiencing global climate change? Does a high-fat diet lead to increased risk of certain cancers? Statistical thinking is one method humans have developed to discern underlying patterns in quantitative information. Statistics form an ever-growing component of our public debate on issues in the environment, human health, and politics. In this seminar, we will learn some basic tools of statistical inference (that is, the process of inferring the presence of a general pattern from the data contained in a smaller sample) and how and why those tools actually work. In the process, we will develop an appreciation of the power and the limitations of statistical thinking and learn to analyze claims backed by statistics. Students in this course should have a strong competence in high school algebra and an aptitude for analytical thinking.


Natural 4: Nature in the City

Common Area Designation(s): Literature

River Stories/The Blackstone (fall): 

Are we separate from nature? Are we superior to nature? Is nature in the city as well as the suburbs? Holy Cross and its neighborhood offer a historic gateway to such questions. At the foot of campus is the Middle River--part of the mighty Blackstone that powered the industrial revolution--and yet many do not know it is there. In this seminar, we will explore the new Middle River Park, just out our back gates, to uncover the great story the river tells from its geological past to its urban present, and to learn how human and nature’s energies combined to form the place we see today. Together, we will study famous rivers in history and literature, including Mark Twain’s colorful tales of life on the Mississippi, to think more about the meaning of waterways on which so much of American life did and still does depend.

City Stories/Worcester (spring): 

In this seminar, we follow the Blackstone into Worcester, the city that grew out of the river. Through short field trips, we will learn to read the city’s landscape--its topography, buildings, streets, parks, and airspace to see how they too connect to the river’s history. Works of notable inhabitants, including several major American poets, early suffragist Abby Kelley (whose house was a stop on the Underground Railroad), and even western scalp-hunter Samuel Chamberlain, will help connect Worcester’s story to the larger world. We will read the gritty poems of Mary Fell that portray the history of European immigrants to the neighborhood that grew up around the city’s Blackstone Canal and the decay its old mill buildings saw in the late 20th century. We will walk the streets near our campus that Fell describes, now being gentrified into loft condominiums and some of the best cafes around. River development, commercial decay, and cultural restoration—these themes pervade the American landscape today, including perhaps your own town. The goal of our year is to write our own history of how nature and humans combine to make the landscape we live in at Holy Cross.


Natural 5: The Science and Art of Color

Common Area Designation(s): Arts or Natural Science

Exploring Newton's Rainbow (fall):   

Did color exist before animals could see? Why do leaves change color in the fall? If flamingos are pink because of their diet of shrimp, could we feed them blueberries to turn them blue? The natural world is rich in color and we experience that color daily without questioning (or fully understanding) its origin. Beginning with a discussion of Newton’s rainbow and culminating in an understanding of the chemistry of modern paints, this seminar will explore the evolution of color from a scientific perspective. We will explore the measurable physical properties of light, the chemical structures of pigments and dyes, and the ways in which biological systems use these things provide an objective introduction to the science of color.

Goethe and the "Waking Eye" (spring):    

Contrary to Newton’s scientific study of color, poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe considered color a visual phenomenon happening to the eye. His theory, which laid the foundation for artistic explorations of color, described color as something perceived psychologically and emotionally. This idea will serve as the touchstone for this studio-based seminar. Together, will we tap into the expressive and perceptual properties of color through hands-on creative projects that explore its psychological, spiritual, and symbolic potential. We will learn how perception of color is not absolute, but relative to its surroundings. With this in mind, we will even question cultural biases about color. Deepening our understanding of color will ultimately deepen our perception of the natural world.


Natural 6: Wilderness and Environmentalism

Common Area Designation(s): Historical Studies or Social Science

The Idea of Wilderness (fall):   

Wilderness, whether understood as a concept in the imagination or as the reality of a resource-rich hinterland available for exploitation, is central to the American experience. In this seminar, we will trace the incorporation of wild, ostensibly unsettled lands into the expanding American republic from the first European settlements to 1940. Together, we will explore evolving religious and cultural attitudes toward nature, wild lands, and settlement, as well as the progressive displacement of the original inhabitants and the destruction of the Indian way of life.

The Last Wilderness (spring):    

In this seminar, we will examine how an expansive environmental movement emerged in the United States after World War II, as well as issues related to quality of life, species preservation, and the effects of human activity on the natural world. The growing appreciation for the remaining wild lands culminated in the 1964 Wilderness Act that ensured significant tracts of land would be preserved in their natural condition. Together, we will consider how the national parks movement affected the lives of Native Americans living on lands designated to be preserved as wilderness. While the focus of this seminar is largely on the history of North American wilderness and its connection to environmentalism, a gripping narrative of contemporary wilderness in the larger world will be part of the second semester’s readings. John Vaillant’s The Tiger offers an extraordinary study of the fraught interactions between humans and the Siberian tiger in Russia’s Far East.


Natural 7: Writing/Reading Place

Common Area Designation(s): Literature

13 Ways of Writing Nature (fall):   

In this seminar, we will strike out on a ramble through contemporary creative nonfiction nature writing. Together, we will explore how writers create the world on the page and use adventure as a means of discovery. Students will learn to read as writers, paying close attention to the choices writers make to produce certain effects in their essays and books. Students will also practice bringing together their emotional side (How does this make me feel?) with their analytical side (What formal choices has the writer made that could explain the way I'm feeling?). Weekly creative nonfiction assignments and adventures in the field will give students opportunities to experiment with their writing and help them build towards drafting a longer essay that we will workshop at the end of the semester.

The Myth of the Frontier (spring):    

Since America's beginnings, the frontier has shaped our national identity and values. Frederick Jackson Turner claimed that westward expansion defined the American character because the wilderness forced pioneers to leave behind their old ways: "It takes him from the railroad car and puts in the birch canoe...Little by little he transforms the wilderness, but the outcome is not the old Europe…here is a new product that is American." In this seminar, we will read writers who critique the myth of the American frontier and examine the impact of our conquest on Native American. We will also explore how the story of westward expansion changes depending upon the gender or ethnicity of the person recounting it.


Natural 8: (Un)Natural Food in America

Common Area Designation(s): Historical Studies

The Rise of Modern Food (fall):

In this seminar, we will explore together America’s transformation from a nation of farmers to one of industrial food giants. Along the way we will examine debates over diet and the meanings of “natural,” “modern,” and “pure” food through primary and secondary sources. Readings will include the biblically-based arguments of the first vegetarians of the nineteenth century, Upton Sinclair’s 1905 expos√© The Jungle, a history of modern milk production, and food advertisements that have attempted to convince consumers that one product is more “natural” than a competitor’s offering. We will investigate together how the history of American food production and consumption reflect much larger questions of gender, class, race, environment, and so much more than what’s on your dinner plate.

A More Natural Food System (spring):

The American system makes a lot of inexpensive food. But there are high hidden costs to this abundance, such as the plight of immigrant laborers or manure run-off from farms in Iowa slowly suffocating sea life in the Gulf of Mexico. In the spirit of a Jesuit commitment to forming “women and men for others,” our seminar discussions will explore alternative visions for what a more “natural” or harmonious food system might look like. We will make special use of contacts in greater Worcester and meet with representatives from local businesses and nonprofits who are leading the way. The semester will culminate in small group projects that offer one way we might make our food system better for all involved.


Cluster Director:

Natural World:

Stephanie Reents, Ph.D., Associate Professor of English