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Professor Teaches Students about Trashing the Planet


Leah Dilworth has advice to the world regarding trash: “Remember: every single thing you see around you is future trash.” 

Dilworth, an English professor and chair of the English department at LIU Brooklyn, has been educating and inspiring students since 1993. She was born in Austin, Texas, then moved to New York in the 1980’s. She studied at Oberlin College in Ohio before earning her master’s degree and Ph.D. in American Studies at Yale University. Growing up with open-minded, liberal parents influenced Dilworth to view not only people, but society with an open mind. The environmental movement started about the time she was born, she said, so it has always been a part of her cultural landscape. 

Dilworth’s upbringing planted a seed for her passion in sustainability and especially trash. Her research and personal work originally focused on material culture and items that were man-made. For many years, she was interested in collecting as a way people make meaning–for example, the ways in which museums use collections of objects to tell history. She finds all kinds of objects fascinating and full of significance. 

Dilworth’s interest in trash was piqued when she heard the anthropologist Robin Nagle of NYU give a talk. “[Nagle] spent several years as a visiting anthropologist with the NYC Department of Sanitation, and she was trying to start a museum for the DSNY,” she said. “It’s the only uniformed city service that doesn’t have a museum! I thought then (and still think) that is an awesome idea. This got me thinking more about the significance of the ways people discard stuff.”

Dilworth’s passion for trash and sustainability soon developed into creating courses to educate LIU Brooklyn Honors students. She first developed a similar honors elective regarding trash in 2011. 

The course gave students a sense of how trash is meaningful in every aspect of human activity from global systems, to our most intimate acts. That was Dilworth’s main objective while developing the trash elective, Waste and Want: the Meanings of Trash. She said, “the first assignment for the course was for students to keep 48 hours worth of their own trash. I gave everyone a black plastic bag and asked them to put in it everything they would normally throw away (excluding items they would recycle or flush). Then in class, we all opened up our bags and discussed the contents. It was really interesting and a bit uncomfortable. Garbage reveals a lot about people! But the main point of this exercise was to make students conscious of their habits and relationship with stuff.” 

The goal of her lessons and course was conveyed to her students. LIU Brooklyn alumna Ana-Maria Leonte, who graduated in December 2019, was among the students in Dilworth’s course, Waste and Want: the Meanings of Trash. Not only did Leonte enjoy the class trips and the information, she was inspired by Dilworth’s teachings and perspective. 

Dilworth was very engaged in her teaching method and her passion for environmental awareness, according to Leonte. “I was definitely inspired by Dilworth’s teachings to live more sustainably,” she said. “The choice of the readings, films and educational trips outlined a great perspective of how waste impacts our surroundings and how important its management is. Also realizing how much damage human waste does to the ocean and our planet in general, compelled me to take action and try to make a difference.” 

Dilworth practices what she preaches and tries her best to live sustainably despite being in a capitalist economy and society. Her daily actions are bettering the environment, Dilworth said. “I’m aware that everything I buy will eventually be trash, so I try not to buy much,” she explained. “I compost all food and yard waste with the DSNY; I recycle religiously. Our household garbage (what isn’t recycled or composted) is now really only plastic packaging. I try to bike or take public transit whenever possible.” 

As Dilworth’s student Leonte said, “One lesson that I took from Professor Dilworth was that one individual’s actions can make a difference in the world. By changing my behavior around waste, I can inspire others to do the same.”

This story was written for the JOU-136 Environmental Reporting class.

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