"It’s creating affection for landscape and place that ... incentivizes protection and care. That’s my hope.”
English Instructor, Sustainability Education Coordinator
Not many of Exeter’s faculty members understand deer travel patterns and wind direction as well as they understand the intricacies of writing a well-argued essay. Jason BreMiller, an English instructor during the regular session, is not like many other teachers.
He is also chair of Exeter Summer’s English Department; the Academy’s sustainability education coordinator; director of the newly formed Exeter Environmental Literature Institute; and a field instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School. In other words, he can light a fire from wet wood and within the minds of the students he teaches.
The sustainability education coordinator position, new to BreMiller, supports student environmental initiatives and clubs on campus. He also works with departments across disciplines to expand environmental education at Exeter.
It’s a role uniquely critical to the high school years, he says. BreMiller recalls when the noted environmentalist Bill McKibben visited the campus in 2012 and called climate change the defining issue of these students’ time. “So this four-year window in their lives as a space for crystallizing … and nurturing environmental consciousness is really important in terms of setting habits or precedents in their lives,” BreMiller says.
And that means challenging students in and out of the classroom: That’s where BreMiller’s National Outdoor Leadership School experience plays a role. He was in college when he took his first NOLS course, spending time in the Cascade Mountains in Washington. In addition to learning various mountaineering skills, many NOLS courses culminate in a few days of solo time in the wilderness for participants.
In 2010, he became a certified NOLS instructor. “I had always been thinking about ways to place my classroom teaching in conversation with outdoor experiences,” he says. “NOLS is a way for me to do that. It’s a school. They think deeply about pedagogical approaches. NOLS complemented and strengthened my teaching.”
BreMiller has taken Exeter students on extended backcountry trips as part of that attempt to join their indoor lives with the outdoors. “They see how their Harkness training applies to an out-of-Exeter real world context,” he says of these opportunities. “It really benefits them, and the expeditionary training at NOLS can strengthen the work they do at Exeter. There’s some real reciprocity.
“Our students spend so much time in their own heads nurturing the cerebral parts of themselves,” BreMiller says. “But getting them outdoors in a demanding context really taps them into their raw physicality in ways that are important. It helps them see themselves as more than just a brain. There’s no substitute for visceral firsthand encounters with natural spaces … [which] act on [students] in ways that they’re not even aware of, deriving benefits unconsciously. It’s creating affection for landscape and place that in the long run incentivizes protection and care. That’s my hope.”
BreMiller is also spreading that ethos in the recently debuted Exeter Environmental Literature Institute. The weeklong conference is meant to help high school teachers of environmental humanities courses build and refine their curricula. “It’s a pretty wonderful professional development opportunity,” he says, noting the institute quickly filled its 25 slots with teachers from around the world. “There’s clearly a real need for this, a craving.”