Sharon Seelig is a long time member of the community, having come to the Pioneer Valley in 1967 and to Smith College in 1980. Seelig, the Roe/Straut Professor in the Humanities, primarily teaches classes that focus on Renaissance English literature and early modern women writers. Over the past few years, she began integrating environmental themes into her courses and teachings here at Smith, and getting more involved with similar kinds of issues on campus. She currently serves as a member of the College Committee on Sustainability and as a Faculty Fellow for the Center for the Environment, Ecological Design, and Sustainability (CEEDS).
When asked about her work as an English literature professor with ties to the environment and nature, Seelig attributes her interest to early childhood, where she spent her first five years on a farm in Southern Minnesota and lived in very small towns thereafter. “I wasn’t an only child, but my brother was 13-years older than I was, so I might as well have been an only child. I spent a lot of time wandering around by myself noticing things like the ferns by the house, the yellow violets under the willow tree, and the abandoned garden with surprising flowers.”
Seelig’s passion for both literature and the environment led to the creation of her First Year Seminar: Reading the Earth, which was first offered in the fall of 2008. “It has been a lot of fun to try to bring together my own training as a reader of texts to reading the world as a text.” The course, inspired by geology faculty member John Brady’s method of education through exploration and discovery, is based on the idea that we employ similar tools in literary criticism as we do in observing our natural world. From Brady’s course, Seelig developed her own focus, which was not to have a prescribed body of knowledge, but instead to allow student observations and insights to direct the class. “I wanted this to be a course about seeing,” Seelig explained.
Outside of the classroom Seelig has deepened her connection to the natural world by spending her summers as a National Park volunteer, first in Utah and then at Glacier National Park in Montana. Seelig described the latter as one of the most wonderful things she has ever experienced. “I had wanted to do this for a long time, and it turns out it is not as easy to get this gig as you might think.” Seelig described her acceptance into the program at Glacier as a hard-fought win, “I mean, I campaigned seriously for this job… [when I heard I had gotten the position] I was as happy at that moment as when I got tenure at Smith.” Seelig went on to say that although the job was hard, there were also amazing benefits, like the opportunity to share the splendor of the natural world with others. “Each week we walked through a burn area with beautiful wildflowers, which were different every week. It was just wonderful.” As she reflected back on the experience, Seelig commented that “my interest in the natural world led me to do this, and I see it as in harmony with what I do here.”
Seelig continues to be an active proponent of environmental health and education through her teaching and contributions on campus. Even her daily habits reflect an environmental awareness. “When I leave Seelye I try to turn off all the lights in all the rooms. Again, it is a tiny step, but I believe that if you are aware of these things and you are practicing them personally, the idea might spread.” She also offered some creative ideas to our current landscape aesthetic. “This will not fly, but I wish we could bring goats onto campus! Lawns are a problem. Must they be only blades of grass? I mean, is that really necessary? What is wrong with clover?” Seelig attributes her motivation for taking on environmental issues to her long-standing concern about the planet. “I have seen the effect of climate change in the 40 years that I have been in the Valley. I know what is happening and it distresses me. And it worries me that many students don’t seem as concerned about it as I am. I am very glad for those who are, but it seems to me a real crisis.” And one, that in Seelig’s opinion, is starting to be addressed. “We are moving in the right direction and the sustainability committee is working on this. There are a wonderful group of alums who are the advisory board to CEEDS and they are full steam ahead and engaged, and I feel if that spirit can spread, people will learn!”
As our conversation came to a close, Seelig recited a Thoreau quote about civil disobedience that still lingers in my head: “It is not necessary for a man to do everything, but a man must do something.” Seelig reiterated that something is “…what you can. It doesn’t mean you alone can solve the problem, but you must do what you can do. You absolutely must, it is your obligation as a citizen, as a human being. It takes many people’s gifts and skills to do this, but it is important.” Through her work both in and out of the classroom, Seelig aims to continue to empower and engage those around her. “The challenge is how to spread awareness and provide students with information without insisting on one answer. Because it is important that people work through the process and come to their own conclusion.” Yet, Seelig warned, “there are a lot of things that people won’t know about if we don’t provide avenues for their exploration.” Sharon Seelig is one professor at Smith who is certainly providing some of those avenues.
-Hanna Mogensen, ’14