Making Powerful Arguments:

Concepts of Nature[1]


Professor Patrick Frierson (call me “Patrick”)

Class meets in Olin 184 on Mondays and Wednesdays 2:30-3:50

I’m in my office Mondays 10-noon for “office hours,” when you can come talk me either about specific questions or even just about what sorts of questions to ask.  You can also drop into zoom any Tuesday evenings to talk with me from 9-10 PM (at, and you should feel free to email me at with any questions or to make an appointment to meet either over zoom or in person. 


Course Description: What is “nature”?  How can and should human beings think about and relate to the more-than-human world?  In what ways have “our” concepts of nature shaped our relations with this world?  What concepts do we need to employ in order to communicate the urgency of our current environmental problems?  How might new concepts of nature provide for new ways of situating ourselves in nature? This course explores concepts of nature from a variety of cultural contexts and in different genres of reflection about nature.  We examine historical sources of widespread contemporary concepts of nature as well as historical and contemporary alternative perspectives on nature in philosophy, literature, science, and art.  Throughout, students will learn both how to write persuasively and how to use writing as a means for reconsidering one’s own and others’ underlying assumptions about “nature.”  The course is discussion-based and writing-intensive, with in-class writing and opportunities for revision of writing.


Course Learning Goals:

Discussion-related goals:
· Practice respectful but rigorous debate
· Learn collaboratively with classmates and professor

Reading-related goals:
· Read inquisitively and generously
· Read with attention to detail and nuance

Writing-related goals:
· Use writing as a means to discover and reconsider ideas
· Develop arguable and defensible thesis statements
· Integrate appropriate evidence to support argumentative claims

You may notice that none of these goals explicitly mention the specific content of this course: Concepts of Nature.  All of them, however, are directly tied to that content.  We are exploring a particular topic—“Nature”—and what I primarily hope for is that we learn to respectfully and rigorously debate that idea, learn collaboratively about it, generously and inquisitively read diverse voices speaking about nature, use our writing about nature to discover new ways of thinking about it and to reconsider our default assumptions, and so on.  I’m particularly interested in exercising these skills on this particular topic, but it’s the skills that are going to be the focus of this class, not your knowledge of this or that content.  That said…I’m open to adding a couple of learning goals based on what you want to get out of the course.  So…

Additional learning goals (What other goals do you have for this course?)

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Course Assignments:

· This class is an intellectual community.  The bare minimum level of participation in our communal life is showing up for class.  Everyone is expected to show up to every class, unless they have an absence excused by the Dean of Students or the Welty Health Center.  I know that we are living through a tough time in our life together, but the challenges of illness and isolation just make it all the more important to be present when we can be.
· Active listening.  Everyone is expected to listen to the other members of the intellectual community with attention and respect.  Among other things, this implies that if you tend to talk a lot in class discussion, you should practice the discipline of attentive waiting, giving your classmates the opportunity to weigh in.
· Contribution to class discussion.  Every student is expected to contribute to class discussions.  You may not contribute to every class discussion, but you should provide others the opportunity to learn from and with you.  If you have trouble with spontaneous engagement, prepare some comments before class and look for a chance to introduce them to our discussion.
· Confidence, respect, and authentic engagement.  In order to create a genuinely respectful classroom, we need to be willing to voice disagreement with one another, and to hear opinions with which we disagree.  We also need to present our views with evidence and to respond to those with whom we disagree in ways that respect their rationality and humanity.  Slurs and ad hominem attacks will not be tolerated.  Those who make offensive comments (including myself) should be addressed with an explanation of why those comments are offensive and an invitation to clarify or retract or apologize for them.  Finally, we can and should bring our whole selves into the classroom.  While your opinions should be backed up with evidence, your life experiences and situations are evidence.
· Naturalness, interruption, and raising your hand.  For some people, interruption is part of the ordinary give and take of a respectful discussion.  For others, it is rude and a form of shutting people down.  In our classroom, we should generally avoid interrupting one another (though I reserve the right to interrupt folks who are going on too long), but we should also allow for natural give and take in discussions.  Particularly for those averse to interruption, please raise your hand.  Someone who raises their hand, particularly if they do not typically dominate discussion, should get priority in our conversations, and those speaking after raising their hand should not be interrupted.

· You are expected to show up for each class having done the readings listed on the timeline below.
· For each reading, you should be able to articulate the main thesis of that reading and identify specific passages that are particularly important.
· For each reading, you should identify at least some important nuances in the reading, areas where the reading is ambiguous, and/or specific (and potentially productive) confusions about specific aspects of the reading.
· Periodically, there will be in class quizzes or short writing assignments that give you the opportunity to illustrate your engagement with the readings.

Writing Assignments:

·       For specific desiderata of papers written for me, see the attributes of various levels of papers in my grading criteria.

·       Over the course of the semester, there will be several short writing assignments, four short papers, and one lengthy and heavily revised final paper.  All assignments are listed on the timeline below. 

·       Note that the final paper will be revised at least seven different times.  The goal is to end up with a paper at the end of the semester that reflects your very best work.

·       All written work should be submitted to me by email to  Work must be submitted in .doc or .docx format.  I will not accept googledocs or pdfs, but I am happy to show you how to convert googledocs to .docx format.  When you submit your work, your filename should consist of your first name, your last name, and a short description of the assignment.  For example, for the assignment due on January 24th, I would submit a file called Patrick Frierson Bacon sentence.docx.


Course Grading:

Your grade in this course will be based on your participation in the life of the community and on your ability to exhibit, through written and oral communication, increasing success in achieving the learning goals of the course.  In my experience, letter grades can often be paralyzing for students, and the lack of any quantitative feedback can be disorienting and inhibit motivation.  My goal throughout is to provide adequate feedback while avoiding letter grades.  If at any time you want more or different sorts of feedback, please let me know. 

Grading Discussion: For class participation, I will keep a record of attendance and participation.  Students who have more than three unexcused absences will suffer a 1 notch reduction in their grade (from B+ to B, for example), with an additional notch reduction if they have more than five unexcused absences.  Students who miss more than eight classes cannot pass the course.  

In addition, at the end of each class, I will make a note of students who were particularly exemplary in class discussion, based on the learning goals above.  I will also note students who made effective use of the course readings in the context of class discussion.  Your discussion grade will be based on a combination of this quantitative data and my qualitative assessment of your overall contribution to class discussions.  Students who attentively listen but never participate in class can get no higher than a B- for this portion of class.  Students who dominate discussion without careful attention to the text and without attentive listening to classmates can get no higher than a B- for this portion of the class.

Grading Reading:  I will not directly grade your reading, but I will look for evidence of inquisitiveness, generosity, and attention to detail and nuance in both written and oral presentations of your ideas.  This means that you should make specific references to the texts in your comments in class, and you should use quotations and citations well in your written work.

Grading Writing:  I will give two sorts of grades to writing in this class. 

·       For short writing assignments, I will merely note whether you completed the assignment or not.  You must complete every short writing assignment in order to pass the class.  Every short writing assignment that you turn in late will result in a one notch decrease in your final course grade (from B to B-, for example).  (I will give one free late pass, so only your second and subsequent late assignments will be penalized.)

·       The four short papers are due on February 7, February 23, March 7, and April 18.  For each of these papers, I will give you numerical scores on a scale from 1 to 10, explained in my grading criteria here.  Papers that are submitted late will be docked one grade notch for each 48 hours that they are late.  For some of these papers, revisions are required.  Any short paper submitted time may be revised up until the end of the semester, and the grade for the short paper will be the best grade it receives over the course of its revisions.  Late papers can (and in some cases must) be revised, but I will not regrade them.

·       The Final Paper will go through many revisions.  The first draft is due on March 9th.  I will provide a 48-hour grace period for those who fail to turn their first drafts in on time.  After that grace period, failure to turn in this draft of the final paper will result in a one notch penalty to a student’s final grade in the course (not just on the final paper).  Further draft deadlines will not have a grace period, and failure to turn the draft in on time will result in a one notch grade drop for the final paper.  I will give a numerical score (based on my grading criteria) to the drafts that are turned in on March 9, April 11, and April 27.  The final grade on your final paper will be based on the quality of your final draft (due on the last day of class), adjusted for any lateness of drafts.

Final Grade.  Your final grade in the class will be based on your 4 short papers (10% each), your class participation (20%), and your final paper (40%), adjusted based on the criteria above regarding late submissions and absences.


Accommodations.  If you are a student with a disability who will need accommodations in this course, please meet with Antonia Keithahn, Associate Director of Academic Resources (Memorial 326, 509.527.5767, for assistance in developing a plan to address your academic needs and ensure that you are best able to meet the requirements for this course. All information about disabilities is considered private; if I receive notification from Ms. Keithahn that you are eligible to receive an accommodation due to a verified disability, I will provide it in as discreet a manner as possible.  Note: If you need accommodations for this course, you need to contact Ms. Keithahn during the first week of the semester to ensure that she and you and I can work out a plan that will allow you to successfully complete the work for this class.

Likewise, in accordance with the College’s Religious Accommodations Policy, I will provide reasonable accommodations for students who, because of religious observances, have conflicts with scheduled exams, assignments, or required attendance in class. Please review the course schedule at the beginning of the semester to determine any such potential conflicts and give me written notice (email is acceptable) by the end of the second week of class about your need for religious accommodations.  While I am happy to provide such accommodations, I understand that asking a faculty member for assistance can be intimidating; if that’s the case, you can contact your academic advisor or Adam Kirtley, Whitman’s Interfaith Chaplain, for support in making this request. If you believe that I have failed to abide by this policy, here is a link to the Grievance Policy, where you can pursue this matter.


Course Timeline





Jan 19

All readings will be handed out in class.

“The Anthropocene”


Selected Fragments from Heraclitus,  Anyte, and Laozi


Genesis 1:1-2:4


Opening paragraph from Chuck Sams, Wakanish Naknoowee Thluma, ‘Keepers of the Salmon’

·       Brainstorming “Nature”

·       Using generous and nuanced reading to challenge and inspire.

·       Exploring/generating complex questions


Just Write!

Jan 24

Bacon, Preface and Plan of the New Instauration and Selections from New Organon (Preface and Book One, §§1-10, 95, 99-107; Book Two, §§ 1, 4, 10-12).

These readings can be found on pp. 42-73, 105-106, 108-112, 123-126, and 132-135

of this pdf. 

Be sure to print this and bring it to class.

Our focus for this discussion will be giving specific textual citations for claims.  The topic will be “What features of Bacon’s conception(s) of nature seem familiar?  What seem alien?  What questions does Bacon pose for you?”

Choose one sentence from Bacon’s reading.  Treat that sentence as a thesis statement and write 220-230 words in its defense (no more and no less!).

Jan 26

Bacon, The New Atlantis

Here, our focus will be giving concrete and specific reasons for our opinions, and also listening carefully to the opinions of others.  Ideally, we’ll also practice respectful and substantive disagreement, pointing our where we disagree with one another and giving reasons to justify our point of view, while also respecting one another.  We’ll discuss the question of what features and to what extent Bacon’s utopian vision of the New Atlantis (and more broadly his conception of the ideal human relationship with nature) is actually an ideal worth aspiring towards.

Revise your Bacon paragraph.  Add at least one substantive point and shorten the paragraph to no more than 200 words.

Jan 31

Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality,

Intro (Dissertation on the Origin…) and First Part (pp. 9-23 of the pdf).   

You should focus on the First Part, the first 5 paragraphs (pp. 10-11), then pp. 12-14 (from “we should beware” through “departing from an animal state”), pp. 18-20 (from “But I stop at this point…” to “which remains to be noticed”) and finally pp. 22-23 (from “Let us conclude…” to the end of the First Part)

Here we are going to build on our earlier discussion.  The focus will be on what Rousseau’s conception of nature is, what the different stages of human “development” are, and what is genuinely valuable or detrimental about more “natural” vs. less “natural” ways of human life.

Use Rousseau to either support Bacon or raise an objection to him. 

Feb 2

Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality, the Second Part, pp. 23-37, especially pp. 23-30 (up to “in their benevolence”), and Appendix (9), especially p. 41, the paragraph that starts, “What, then, is to be done…”.

For this class, we are going to stage a debate between Rousseau and Bacon over the value of technological and social progress.  Come to class prepared to defend either side, and with specific textual support and broader arguments in support of each side.  You’ll be randomly assigned a position to defend.

Briefly sketch some ways that the concepts of nature in Bacon and Rousseau differ.  (Minimum 80 words, no maximum.)

Feb 7

Rousseau, Reveries of a Solitary Walker, walks 1, 5, and 7 (for me, this required printing pp. 3-10, 49-58, 68-83 of the webpage).

This day will consist of a paper workshop.  You should bring printed copies of your first paper.  You will be organized into groups, reading and commenting on one another papers, and we’ll talk about how to be a helpful peer commentator and also how to revise your own work.

First Paper Due:  Choose a “natural” object.  Draw on either Bacon or Rousseau to formulate a thesis related to what it means for the object to be natural. 

Write a paper defending that thesis in 300-500 words.  Your introductory paragraph should consist only of your thesis.  Your conclusion should be no more than two sentences and should make clear how the rest of your paper proved your thesis.  While you should draw on Bacon and/or Rousseau, your paper should be something that you care about writing.

Feb 9

Bacon and Rousseau review


In lieu of reading for today, you should all attend the talk on Classical Chinese Philosophy by Prof. Tao Jiang (Rutgers University), which will be on Thursday, Feb. 10, from 11:30am-12:50, at

If you are not able to make the talk live, please let me know and I will try to make available a recording. 

This class will provide an opportunity to catch up, but also a more free form opportunity to talk about how our reading of and writing about Bacon and Rousseau helps us (a) express our views about nature; (b) revise, refine, or challenge our views about nature; and (c) open us up to new ways of thinking about nature.

Revise Paper based on Feb. 7th paper workshop

Feb 14

Daodejing, entire.

(For a broader discussion of classical Chinese conceptions of nature, see here.  Note especially p. 31 for a close reading of a passage from the Daodejing.)



Feb 16

Daodejing, selections



Feb 21

President’s Day



Feb 23



The hokku of Basho (the “Banana-Tree” poet)


Professor Akira “Ron” Takemoto will lead our class on this day.  Please read this handout before class.  For fun, you might also want to check out these modern haiku from a recent issue of the New Yorker.



Consider how to adjust, as a class, to a new professor, one with a different pedagogical style than mine.  Specifically practice “reading” this new voice in our classroom and adapting your classroom participation to different sets of expectations.

Paper 2.  Write a paper that shows how some ways of thinking about nature that emerge in the Daodejing offer important alternatives to Baconian ways of thinking about nature.  Show specifically how incorporating a more Daoist conception of nature could provoke changes in contemporary practices.  You should make substantive use of both Bacon and the Daodejing.  The paper should be at least 600 words.

Feb 28

William Wordsworth, “Tintern Abbey


Charlotte Smith, “Sonnet XLII: Composed During a Walk



Revise Paper 2.  Take into account my comments on that paper and your own self-assessment of the paper.  You should also incorporate Basho in a substantive way.  (Ideally, you should eliminate extraneous material to make the revised version shorter than the original version.)

March 2

Eiko and Koma, River

Eiko and Koma, Tree

Eiko and Koma, Dancing in Water: The Making of River

(Optional: See Eiko’s A Body in Fukushima)


Merce Cunningham, Rainforest and see commentary here.



Talking about dance.  We’ll start class by talking about the dances that you watched and in what ways they inspire or express questions about nature.


During this day’s class, we will also discuss your final paper questions and what makes for a good guiding question for a final paper.

Formulate a question that you want to answer in your “final” paper (see below).  Submit these questions to me before class and bring them to class.

March 7

J. S. Mill, “On Nature


Mini-paper #3.  Either (1) Use one text other than Mill to show how Mill makes assumptions about nature that are overly narrow or shallow.

OR (2) Use Mill to show how another text we read makes assumptions about nature that are unrealistic, irrational, or confused.

This paper should be able to be integrated into your “final” paper, due on Wednesday.  There is no minimum length for the paper.  I just want you to make one substantive intellectual move.

March 9

Thoreau, Walden, read the first paragraph of “Economy” and then all of “Where I Lived and What I Lived For” and “Winter Animals” (pp. 5, 50-60, and 162-168 when I print from this website)


Miyazawa, “The Bears of Mt. Nametoko


“Final” Paper.  This should be a paper of at least 1800 words in which you answer a question about nature that is worth asking.  In the course of answering that question, you should make use of and also question the concepts of nature at play, drawing from the range of concepts of nature we have read this semester.  The genre of the paper should be academic scholarship, but it can (and should) draw on some of the forms of writing that we have read this semester.

This paper must be emailed to me at no later than midnight on March 11th.  Please do not put it off until the last minute.  If you turn it in late, your grade on the final paper will drop by one full grade point (from an A- to a B-, for example).

Use the Chicago Manual of Style for formatting and grammar standards and the Chicago Manual of Style author-date system for citations.

March 28

Over the break, please enjoy two films:

Woman in the Dunes


Grizzly Man (unfortunately, the latter link has ads)

In class today, we will talk about the varying concepts of nature expressed in these two films.  I’d like us to continue to practice some important discussion skills. 



At the end of class, you’ll be assigned to small groups.  No later than midnight on March 28th, you need to email your final paper to me (at and to everyone in your group.  I encourage you to revise your paper before sending it out; take into account comments I wrote on your first draft, as well as changes you want to make now that you’ve had some distance from the paper.

March 30

Read one another’s final papers

Paper Workshop

Bring a physical version of your final paper to class.

April 4

Chuck Sams, “Wakanish Naknoowee Thluma, ‘Keepers of the Salmon’




CTUIR, “The Seasonal Round




Treaty of 1855


Optional: Selections from They Are Not Forgotten



Paper Revision #3.  Email to me a revision of your paper based on comments you received in Wednesday’s Paper Workshop.

April 6

Sacred Salmon (YouTube link)

Celilo Falls and the Making of the Columbia River (YouTube Link)



April 11

CTUIR Department of Natural Resources, “The Umatilla River Vision”


Paper Revision #4.  Over the weekend, you should reread your paper and revise it.  You should make at least one major structural change (moving paragraphs around, changing what evidence you use for what, etc.) and at least one major substantive change (incorporating a new objection, changing your thesis in response to further reflection, integrating a new sources, etc.).  You should also shorten the overall draft by at least 15% by cutting unnecessary material.

April 13

Poems and Essay by Elizabeth Woody


Chad Hamill, Songs of Power and Prayer Chapter 1  (pp. 22-24; the rest is optional)



April 18

Long Tent


Short Paper #4 Due Sunday, April 17, by midnight. This is not a polished paper, but a chance to use writing to discover and reconsider ideas.  Free-write at least 1000 words that bring your final paper into dialogue with the Plateau Indian perspectives we’ve been studying the past couple weeks.  The goal of this writing is to explore how your paper might change in the light of what we’ve been reading.  The writing doesn’t need to be polished.

April 20

Long Tent





April 25

Plateau Tribes: Facing Climate Change (video)


Watch at least one of the Long Tent videos and come to class prepared to share something about it.  Currently two of them seem to be available at

Probable Paper Workshop.  Bring your Paper Revision #5 to class.

Paper Revision #5.  Revise your paper, integrating new Plateau Indian material into it.  This draft of the paper should be at least 1800 words and no more than 2500 words (excluding bibliography and footnotes).  Before turning this draft in, pause and be sure that you are turning in work that takes some risks, but also work that you are proud of.  If you find your final paper boring or shoddy, throw it away and start over (and talk to me about how best to do that).

April 27


Possibly read selections from Laudate Si (Pope Francis) or Braiding Sweetgrass or…?


Paper Revision #6.  Revise your paper in the light of the Paper Workshop on Monday.  (This need not be a major revision, but it can be.)

May 2

Professor Victoria Sork visit

(Or possibly read at least the summary for policymakers from the IPCC Climate Change 2021 Report)


Paper Revision #7.  Revise your final paper in the light of my comments on Revision #6, the Paper Workshop on Monday, and your own sense of what needs to be improved.

May 4


(Reread “The Anthropocene”)




May 9

Let’s read whatever you want!

Celebration!  Let’s take some time to reflect on what we learned, and just to enjoy the community we have created together.

Final Paper Deadline.  Take the time to read over your paper carefully, fixing all grammatical errors, refining the prose, tightening up the argument.  For this final draft, don’t make major changes.  This is your chance to polish a snapshot of your thinking about nature at a particular time.  The final product should be something that you want to save and share with others.


[1] This syllabus owes a great deal to collaboration with colleagues from Whitman College, more than I can possibly acknowledge.  I particularly thank Mary Raschko, Chris Leise, Rob Schlegel (especially re: