Sarah J. Ray '98 on "Coming of Age at the End of the World"
In this talk, Sarah Jaquette Ray '98, associate professor and coordinator of the environmental studies program at Humboldt State University, examines the challenges of teaching depressing material about climate change and social injustice to college students – the very generation saddled with "fixing" all our problems – in the current political and historical moment.
Focusing on her ethnographic research, she describes strategies for connecting students' emotional responses to the material in order to combat apathy and despair and to generate empowerment to effect positive change. She ends her talk by asking the audience to resist nihilism and misery in favor of feelings of hope and collective empowerment.
Giovanna Di Chiro.: It's good to see everyone here this afternoon. My name is Giovanna Di Chiro. I teach in the Environmental Studies program here at Swarthmore. I'm excited that everyone is here this afternoon to hear from one of Swarthmore's highly accomplished alumni, Dr. Sarah Jaquette Ray. Sarah is an alumna of Swarthmore College. She is a member of the Class of 1998 and she majored in Religious Studies, and got a certificate in Women's Studies. Back in the olden days, she was a student of Professor Mark Wallace in the Religious Studies Department, and other professors in the Religious Studies Department, too. She also was a student of Professor Carol Nackenoff in Political Science, and yesterday, coming full circle, she got to come back to Swat for the first time in 20 years to talk with students in Professor Wallace's first year seminar, which is a course with the really uplifting title, Visions of the End.
I first met Sarah way back in 2001 when I was on sabbatical leave doing research at University of Oregon, Center for the Study of Women, Gender, and Society. Sarah, at that time, was a graduate student at University of Oregon working on her Ph.D. in the Department of Environmental Sciences, Studies, and Policy. Even back in the early days, she and I discovered intersections and synergies in our own research topics, which focused on how environmentalism, despite its progressive aims, has had to wrestle with some of its retrogressive roots, including its foundations in racism, eugenics, colonialism, sexism, homophobia, and ableism. I realize this doesn't sound like a particularly upbeat research topic, but like Mark's first year seminar, it's not all so bleak.
Despite the essential, critical perspectives that we engage in, in our research and teaching, we're both hopeful about the promises and transformative potentialities of environmentalism in environmental studies more broadly. Again, this afternoon, Sarah also again, coming full circle, visited my environmental studies course, Race, Gender, Class and the Environment, and we had really wonderful, engaging conversations. Professor Ray is the Coordinator of the Environmental Studies program at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California. In her teaching and research, she seeks to bring together questions of social justice and environmental values. She's the author of "The Ecological Other: Environmental Exclusion in American Culture," published in 2013. She's the editor of two volumes, "Disability Studies and The Environmental Humanities Toward an Eco-Crypt Theory," and the second volume, "Critical Norths: Space, Nature, Theory, and Theory," both published in 2017.
She's currently working on a book, which is the subject of her lecture today, called "Coming of Age at The End of the World: Eco-Grief, Effective Resilience, and The Climate Generation," as well as another edited volume on Latinex literary environmentalisms coming out from Temple University Press in 2019. In addition, Sarah co-leads a statewide collaborative initiative in California that's working to develop teaching resources for K through 16 across the state that center questions of social justice and students' affective journeys with the material world.
Today, Sarah's lecture is titled, "Coming of Age at The End of The World: Eco-Grief, Affective Resilience, and Teaching The Climate Generation." Please join me in welcoming back Sarah Jaquette Ray.
Sarah J.: Thank you. Thank you so much, Giovanna, for that introduction and for bringing me back. This is really full circle on so many levels. When I walked up Magil Walk from the new inn at Swarthmore, which feels like a place out of time, it doesn't seem to fit there because I'm so used to The Jumping Cow, the coffee shop at the train station. I used to work at The Jumping Cow and we used to make these Buddha bagels. Anyway, it was a time and a [inaudible 00:04:39] it's basically collecting dust and the paint is stripping off and it's not a functioning place anymore. There was a coffee shop in the train station. Anybody else remember that? A couple people.
Anyway, it's been 20 years. It's been a long time. Before I get started on this topic, which is my new book project and I'm really interested to hear what a new group of folks think about this, I am really learning and taking direction from my current position at Humboldt State University, where I lead a BA program in environmental studies that was launched in 2012, and they brought me on in 2013. At that time, it had 11 students and now it has 150 students and we're in the process of hiring an Environmental Justice tenure track professor to help me.
My story comes from a feeling of being overwhelmed by the successes of this program that tried to distinguish itself. Our BA program distinguish itself from what was happening in environmental sciences. We have a lot of science programs in a different college, and there was not a lot of discussions despite Humboldt State's mission being very centered around social justice and environmental responsibility. Those are two key terms that have come up in all of our materials. There was very little discussion between the folks who were doing environmental sciences and therefore, [inaudible 00:05:51] to responsibility and sustainability on campus, and the folks who were doing things like critical race, gender, and sexuality studies. Those worlds were not talking and I'm sure they must've thought to bring me in to try to see if we can connect these worlds better, and it's an ideal that still exists out there, but I'm hoping that the success of the program is because we're trying to bridge these worlds in ways that haven't happened on the campus very well.
Before I get into that, I wanted to give you the context for that. I want to thank some people. I really want to thank Giovanna for bringing me here. I secretly, ever since I met Giovanna and found out she came to Swarthmore, I was telling her, "[inaudible 00:06:24] I want to come back. Is there some way we can come back?" I'm just so grateful to her for making this happen and for inviting me into her class today, which is a real treat. It reminded me of the days, the days. Mark Wallace, I want to thank him too. He invited me into his class yesterday. I got to have that same experience. I remember being a freshman in Mark Wallace's class and never knowing what to say, or think, or talk, so I could really identify. It feels like yesterday.
Anita Pace, who helped out with some of the logistics, and of course, Swarthmore College. I won't list all the people that Giovanna listed, because that will take probably the rest of the time.
Some scholars who are doing the kind of work that I'm interested in, whose ideas emerged throughout this, and I'm not going to cite them as I go through, but I really want to acknowledge them at the outset, are Heidi Hutner, who's doing work on eco-grief. I'm really using her framing of this term to talk about eco-grief. It's not my term. I want to thank Jen [inaudible 00:07:17], who's the first person who ever said to me, after I felt like, as I was leading this new program at Humboldt State, that my research agenda around environmental justice was getting derailed and all I was doing was hosting private office hours to help people through existential crises around the material we were learning about environmental apocalypse. She said, "Why don't you make that your next research topic and it will help you inform what you're doing with your students in your classroom." I really want to acknowledge Jen [inaudible 00:07:43], who is coming out with an edited book called "Affective Eco-Criticisms" momentarily. In that, is my first chapter on thinking about teaching climate change and affect, so thanks to her.
The title of this talk may seem a little bit like a misnomer. I don't really think I'm going to teach you about how to teach climate change. Students have taught me about how to teach climate change, and so I really want to acknowledge and thank the students who have basically told me that this is what I need to be doing with my time, so you can thank them. If you don't like this topic, if you think I have something wrong, I'll just say please give me feedback. They're the ones teaching me too, so I will take your feedback and take it back to them too.
Just a little bit about why it is that I care about this particular topic. Besides what I mentioned earlier about leading a program, what that enables me to do, is I can see the trajectory of a student's experience from coming in from a freshman 100 level to graduating. I get to design a whole curriculum where I can see the whole entire arc of a student's experience in college, which is an amazing, awesome responsibility and really exciting, but it meant that I could start to see a lot of patterns that were happening, where students' emotional experiences with the material was starting to follow patterns. I could see by a look in a student's eye or their body language as they came into the door, exactly what stage in the arc of the emotional journey that they were in. I'd say, "Aha! You've have the critique of science. Let's go. Let's have the tissue."
There were aspects of this journey through the program and the content that they were learning in their classrooms that were causing these existential crises, where various rugs were getting pulled out from underneath students, and they would come to me privately me in my office hours. I was realizing I was getting overwhelmed with that, and I realized, "I think I need to make this the content of our classes," so that we could do this collectively in the time that I was being paid to do it, rather than in all the midnight emails, because I was up late at night writing emails to comfort students through these massive shifts, which I'll describe in a moment.
My interest in this topic has enabled me to get involved at the state level, or it inspired me to get involved at the state level. California, as you may know, is really involved in climate education and climate change work. There's an initiative that's coming out of the University of California Office of the President, that is actually led by a Swarthmore alum named Matt St. Claire, that is trying to accelerate and improve climate education across the state of California. It turned out that my interest in affect and the students' emotional experiences with the content was really interesting to those folks. They wrote me into be involved with that. That has given me a whole new scaled up perspective of how serious students' emotional responses to climate change are impacting an impinging on faculty, especially in the environmental sciences, impacting their ability to teach students. That gave me another finger on a statewide pulse a bit.
If I could give my talk in a three part act, this is how it would go. Here's the three part act. Young people come to college, idealistic, energetic, and full of hope. That's why we like young people, right? That's why we're college professors, some of us, right? They take classes and learn how screwed up the world is. They become fatalists in the face of no easy solutions and immobilized by a growing awareness of their pervasive complicity in the problems. How many here are students? Anybody feel this way? A little bit sometimes? Sometimes. Okay. You know what I'm talking about. I feel like I need to know this resonates with somebody at least. This is the story about what many are calling the climate generation. Late millennials and iGen. Is that a term that you're all familiar with? The iGen. This is the next generation we're going to get. They're apparently freshman this year. iGen? Yeah. Okay, iGen.
Young people who have been coming through college for the past eight years or so and maybe into the indefinite future until the apocalypse. It's about how they come to college with all kinds of great energy and idealism and are ready to contribute, and how we as professors unknowingly and unwittingly kill that spirit in them and this is a question of why would we do that. Why would we try to ... If we say in our materials that we're producing the leaders of the future, which I know Swarthmore probably says in their materials, but we definitely say it in ours. We're producing these citizen leaders that are going to do all this great stuff, why would we do this to them? That was the beginning of my questioning.
Before we get into how this terrible educational experience I'm calling college happens to them, I wanted to tell you a little bit about the typical Humboldt State student and why they even come to the Environmental Studies degree in the first place. This may or may not sound familiar to anybody in this room. Humboldt State is a very different demographic than Swarthmore. It's in a different region, but I want to give you a little of a flavor of the not really stereotypical, but maybe kind of a caricature of a Humboldt State Environmental Studies major.
Here's the journey to the Environmental Studies program. This is before they even set foot in a classroom with me. They've had a little Disney, right? Love of animals. A little bit of circle of life love. My daughters are three and seven, so this is the stage that they're at, and I can assure, I'm watching down the road and I'm thinking, "This is going to be that. We're going to have to give them some doom and gloom early and often." Then they discover Jane Goodall or David Attenborough and they fall in love with them, and they want to get close to the turtles and kiss some dolphins. Then, we're in California, so folks like John Muir are really big figures, grandfathers, so to speak of the environmental movement in California. We're near Yosemite, we've got the Sierras. Some of these students may have had access to camping and hiking and that sort of thing when they were growing up.
They start to learn and read about how important the natural and wilderness landscapes of California are, especially since they're mostly from L.A. This is Al Gore, right? Way up there. Remember that movie? How many of you guys have seen "An Inconvenient Truth"? Okay. I would say the number one quality that all Environmental Studies majors share is that they've seen this movie. I ask them, as they come in, to tell me why they chose Environmental Studies, and almost two to one, this is a major watershed moment for them. I find that really interesting. I'm going to keep coming back to Al Gore, because I find the rhetorical strategies of "An Inconvenient Truth" to be really parallel to what it is that most Environmental Studies classes do to students. I'm going to try to take you with me down the hole too.
Then they look around and they realize that this city that they are from, about 50% of Humboldt State students are from Los Angeles area, kind of is a symbolic of exactly everything that Al Gore was just talking about. They have this moment of the wool taken away from their eyes, that they live in this very anti-environmental city, and they decide, "How can I go still to get a college education within the state of California, but get as far away from that as I possibly can? Where else but Humboldt State University, which is way, way, way up there?" Do you see how far that is? Most of our students are from here, this is a 12 hour drive and there's no direct flight. It's isolating. That creates all kinds of other sets of problems that I can talk about later.
This is the story of most students coming to Humboldt State. I'm not sure if this is familiar to any of you, and your story of coming to college, but I want you to know where they're coming from, because I think, and I'll get to this a little bit later, but the positionality of a student or the experiences of what a student is coming into the program with, has everything to do with what's going to happen to them during the program as they learn these things. I'll talk more about that later.
What happens when they get to a college? A whole new journey begins. Perhaps they start out in the field of environmental science, because they thought they were going to be Jane Goodall or wildlife. We have a really strong wildlife program. They decide that some of the sciences are not as appealing. They may not want to do lab work. They discover that there's this other degree called Environmental Studies. They didn't even know what that was or that it existed or how it was different, but some great advising on our campus leads them our way. They want to understand the human element. They want to think about power and politics and economics and history and religion and literature, and they're thinking, "That's the liberal arts approach to environmental studies. Sign me up for that. That sounds so much better."
They thought it was going to be easier than environmental science or wildlife, because Botany 105 basically drove them away. It's actually, in some ways, emotionally more difficult. The emotional challenges of the Environmental Studies degree turns out to be the new muscle that we're trying to build together, not equations or lab collection and stuff. I wanted to give you also a flavor of what Humboldt State's environmental and social justice mission is. Humboldt State students often can voluntarily take the Humboldt State graduation pledge, which basically says, "I pledge to explore and take into account the social and environmental consequences of any job I consider, and will try to improve these aspects at any organizations for which I work." You can imagine that Humboldt State, with this kind of identity, is very attractive to students who want to do precisely the kind of environmental and social justice thinking that this degree is doing. In fact, that kind of looks like our degree and not any other degree on campus.
They come with all of these hopes. They come with all of these goals. They love nature. They love John Muir. They love all that stuff, most of them. What happens when they actually show up and come into our classes? What ends up happening through the course of the first couple of years, if not sometimes three or all of the years, is that students have several cherished beliefs about the environment and about their role in the environmental movement shattered. Here we go. Prepare yourself. What are those cherished beliefs that we shatter? This is where it gets ugly. One is that environmental problems can be fixed. Over the course of many courses, they start to realize that the problem, the extent and the scale of environmental problems is way beyond and worse than everything that they ever imagined. Al Gore was so old. Now the environmental problems are 20 times worse. They get updated.
The scale of it, the extent of the problems, and also we provide a structural analysis of environmental problems. We reject things like technological optimism and technological fixes or ecological modernization, and things like this notion that they come to this degree, they're going to get their four years, and then get a degree and go fix the problems. We really challenge that. We even challenge what it means to define an environmental problem in the first place. This is very frustrating for students who just want to get to solutions right away. We sit back and we say, "Let's spend four years talking about how we're even defining the problem in the first place before you go and try to solve those problems."
Another one is that educating people will help. It's a common mythology that students think that we need to have a lot more people educated about the problems, and then they'll do something about it, and that's going to solve the problem. Through the courses of psychology, economics, communication, all kinds of courses that they're taking all across campus, they actually learn that educating people is not going to help. We read Kari Norgaard's wonderful book, "Living in Denial," in which she talks about the myth of the information deficit model. There's all kinds of people who are talking about this. More information is actually not going to make any change happen. After they get that message from lots of classes, it's very disappointing.
A third one is that experts will help fix the problems. This is where the robust critique of the sciences and how the sciences are very situated in social processes and how they are shaped by capitalist forces and by history and all kinds of ideologies, and a critique of higher education as a colonial institution, the list goes on. All of a sudden, the faith of the adults in the room who are going to fix the problems, goes out the door. That puts a lot on their lap. My students, I was talking about this in Mark Wallace's class yesterday, my students are pretty pissed off about that when they realize the adults are not doing anything and that they have to be left with this burden to fix all these problems.
Another one is the myth that nature exists. That seems like an obvious one, right? We do this robust social deconstruction of the idea of nature and how nature as a concept is actually something that we can historicize and understand within the context of American history and what our dominant Western values are about nature are really products of society, stuff that Swarthmore students are probably thinking about a lot, social construction. This notion that nature is a place that people can go to, to have an ahistorical, apolitical, pristine experience to cleanse themselves is really attractive to students and fundamentally, if this is not true, then why are they even there? This is really depressing to students.
They go down this slippery slope of thinking, "Why would I be fighting for the environment or trying to fix the environment if nature doesn't even exist? If nature doesn't exist, then what's stopping people from just blowing the whole thing up?" This is really depressing. Then, we debunk the myth, the individual actions like riding a bike will help. We actually tell students, "This is just absolving you from all of your complicity in the problems." This is a particularly hard one too, and I want to give you a quote from an essay that I teach from a person named Michael Maniates, who wrote this wonderful essay, I recommend it, called "Teaching for Turbulence." I have students read it in their first year. This is what he says about individual actions. "Social change does not happen through mass uncoordinated shifts in lifestyles or consumption choices. The small and easy approach of making green lifestyle choices is attractive, plausible, and dead wrong. This is because even if most Americans did suddenly green their lifestyles, underline processes of production and disposal that are largely insulated from personal consumption decisions, would still drive the planetary ecosystem toward collapse, albeit just a bit more slowly."
This is really depressing for students, because they've come to Humboldt State and they've acquired all of these new green lifestyles, they're participating in all of these sustainability efforts on campus, and all of a sudden we're challenging the politics or sacrifice that go with this green lifestyle stuff.
How does this make them feel? This about how you're feeling right now too, maybe. The sped up four year version of what we do to them. That was a very sweet Valentine's card I got from one student. I made a joke in class that the students were having a depressing moment, and I said, "This is like that drug commercial where you crack the eggs on the frying pan and this is your brain drugs." Does anybody remember that advertisement? Okay, some. I said, "This is your brain on 295, which is the class that we were in, Environmental Studies 295." This is where the inspiration for this comes from. That's how they're feeling. That's maybe how you're feeling right now too.
What ends up happening with students at this point, is that they have a great sense of inability, their ineffectiveness, they're totally powerless to do anything. They have no skills. Everything that they thought they could to do solve these problems has been challenged in some way. They realize that they can't, in any lifetime, possibly attack the scale as one single person, the scale of the problems. They also get a great, great sense of urgency about this problem. The problem is much more urgent than we ever thought. Maniates writes, "Left unchallenged, this urgency plus inability equation can overwhelm students with a sense of hopelessness and despair." This is where I want to start talking about what do we do with hopelessness and despair in the classroom, because right now, students are thinking of dropping out.
When this was starting to happen, I had the fortune of meeting up with Jen [inaudible 00:23:31], the woman I mentioned earlier and having a conversation about all of this and saying, "This is really overwhelming me. I'm having late night office hours and the students are going out the door, and I'm the only person running this program," so I had the great sense of obligation to make sure the students were graduating so I could justify my own existence on the campus. The fate of the program and the fate of their lives and the fate of the planet felt like it hinged upon fixing this problem. I started to take it very seriously as a research topic.
What does this all add up to? Sorry about that. What ends up happening at this point, is that students ... I started to realize after this conversation with my friend Jen, that there was a typical arc that was happening in these classes. I started to research these arcs and matching them up to different arcs that were happening in other fields. One could even think about what's happening in our classes with environmental despair in terms of the ladder of white privilege. Has anybody ever seen this before? This is what happens when a white person starts to realize that they have white privilege and benefit from white privilege, and they go through these stages of denial and guilt and nihilism, and that sort of thing. It turns out that this is actually, given the fact that the majority of our students in Environmental Studies were in fact white when I started, this aligns with what's happening because they're starting to realize that an incredible amount of their environmental passion is invested in their white privilege.
Another way of thinking about it, a person reminded me of the stages of grief. Anybody heard of the stages of grief? What's happening is that they're going through eco-grief, and so this is what's happening. If you start to think about those emotional things happening in classrooms, there are tools that we can go to, to help us think about what's happening. I personally, with my Religious Studies background, couldn't help but go to Joseph Campbell's "Hero's Journey" in thinking that what's really happening to students is they're going through some sort of buildings Roman or some kind of coming of age process where they're called to action. David Attenborough got them called to action or Al Gore or whatever, and then they go through an ordeal. They go through the ordeal of college. Then something happens where they reconcile things and can move on. How do you do this? How do you make sure this happens? I'm not Yoda. I got to figure it out.
We try to figure out how to put this into the classroom, and I'll tell you about that in a little bit. How does this help me? How does thinking about this help me navigate teaching tough materials? I want to give you a sense ... Oh. Take a step back. Sorry again. That this is what I ended up coming up with as the environmental studies journey that's quite similar to the ones that we just saw, but retooled for environmental studies, that students enter in this idealistic bubble and then they go to move through loss of innocence, a kind of guilt, some sort of nihilism. Then a student reminded me that during her junior year she was going through a baking cookies stage, and this was her self-care stage, so she was bringing cookies to class all the time and she was emerging back out into the world. I thought, "That's great. That's self-care. That's a self-care stage."
A lot of professors will end their ... Just like Al Gore, right? Al Gore's narrative is that he takes you through the ringer. You go through the ordeal, and then at the very end, do you remember what he does at the end of "An Inconvenient Truth"? How did that make you feel when he ended with that? Underwhelming. A little anti-climactic, given what he just told you.
That's like what many environmental science faculty who I talk to do. They've responded to their students' angst about all this material, and then they sacrifice the last day of class to read a little Rebecca Solnit or a little hope at the end. I think ending on hope is really problematic. I can talk more about that later, but hope itself is, I think, after doing a lot of research on this, not the end game affect we want to get students to. This actually has the potential to defer responsibility into some future.
In thinking through and studying these things and reading a lot about it, I really think this question of efficacy, students will be able to have a lot more emotional ability to face challenges and to acquire grit or whatever the generation apparently doesn't have enough of, if they find pride in their abilities. The sense of ability or efficacy to do something is really important to develop. At this stage, what we end up doing is talking a lot about what does it mean to solve the problem. What does it mean to be a social change agent? How is it that you're going to intervene? What is the that your scale system passions are? Are you going to transform overnight into Al Gore? Probably not. Are we going to single handedly overturn capitalism tomorrow? Probably not. If you step back and think about what efficacy means and what action looks like and what change would look like, students start to feel like they actually do some of that work, because overcoming capitalism tomorrow or getting past post-carbon, beyond carbon is going to be a massive, massive thing. They're not going to see that tomorrow. That sense of efficacy is really important to get that.
I also think that there's a sense of resilience. That's where the title of the talk comes from, this notion of affective resilience. In our senior Capstone in particular, we spend a lot of time talking about affects, different affects and how it is that different affects can share different people's actions towards the environment. Stuff like sacrifice and guilt and doom and gloom, and the Jeremiah form and apocalyptic tropes can leave people in the state of fear. Psychologists will tell you that fear and guilt are not effective affects for action. We spend a lot of time talking about how do you think about pleasure and climate change. Those things don't really seem like they should go together, but you have to invite the question.
One of the things that happened once I shared this with students is that some of my students rightfully critiqued me, because that's what students should do. I have one student that said ... Excuse me. "Deconstructing harmful ideologies and particularly, white male privilege is an absolute requirement for white people in environmental studies looking to enact change in the world. What about those of us coming into the program already having done much of that work and/or are not white bodied? How can we utilize everyone's ideas and positionalities effectively so we can all experience growth?"
I had made the mistake when I laid out that linear, beautiful thing, of having a very white-centered understanding of what my students were going through. They helped me revise the arc, the trajectory, to be more open-ended and to accept the possibility of a lot of different emotional experiences with the material. This is one thing more like what we can think about. It's more of a mess that's not linear. Students really feel like they go back and forth between some of these affects, and there's also, in a category of guilt that I had before, my students told me, "I feel like that's just white fragility." I said, "Great. Okay." Exasperation was white fragility in the classroom. That's a serious thing that's happening. A lot of these emotions are similar. We can bring some of the affects in it, but I really wanted to reflect to you that linear trajectory of the arc is very much situated on a particular student's positionality and that the emotional experiences that are happening in the classroom are much more complicated than that.
How does this help me navigate students through tough materials? How do we get them through the material and turn their shattered truths into collective efficacy and resilience? That's really what I want to talking about. Also, I was also trying to save myself because I was dying under all that myself. It's depressing material and also, 150 students are coming to you individually in tears. Four key principles that I want to then unpack a little bit after I tell you the overarching principles.
One is that I try to get comfortable with negative feelings and create space for it. We often think a classroom is not a place that we're supposed to have any feelings. We're there to control our feelings with our minds and do things with our minds, and so creating the space for negative feelings. I want to make sure I provide a caveat here, I am not suggesting that classrooms become group therapy sessions, and I will get to this in a minute, but I am not suggesting that professors become professional therapists. This is something entirely different I'm trying to propose now. I hope that becomes clear.
The second thing is that I try to structuralize community among the students. I can't understate the importance of this particular dimensioning, because then they rely on each other and not on me, and actually, that's really good for me and it's actually even better for them. The practice of creating community and building relationships among students and building their network among each other and relying on each other through the problems and not being isolated is exactly the practice that they're going to have to do in their lives and in the real world. It's the best practice. Any way you can do this, you do this. This is the best thing ever.
I'm also now really transparent about the emotional purposes of assignments and curriculum design. I let students articulate their own desires for learning outcomes. One of the things I do now in my classes, is I do a workshop where I ask students to do a visualization exercise, where I ask them the question, "What would it take to thrive in a climate change future?" The first time I did this exercise, students had nothing to offer and they rejected the exercise, and they said to me, "I can't even imagine a future, much less thriving in it." At first, I was angry at them. I said, "This is a cop out. You're surrendering your power to somebody else. Step up to the plate." Then I realized, actually, this is a crisis of the radical imagination. Thinking about letting students figure out what their own desires are, their own affective desires are in the classroom, is a really important aspect of what I do now.
Also, relying on the skills that I had training in. I got trained in academics and we can do things like study social change and study how people become social change agents. This is something that we do as a class together. These are four key principles.
I also have brought into, and this is the research that I'm going to be engaging now for the book, and I'm just giving a couple of little examples so that you can get a flavor of it. One of the new fields that I'm drawing on to think about this is affective neuroscience and pedagogy, and really simply put, books like this are teaching us and providing scientific evidence to show that emotions really matter and a student's ability is to grasp and retain and care about information. That seems obvious, but it's not the way Western educators are taught, and it's certainly not what I was taught when I was doing my PhD.
Inclusive pedagogy also insists on if you want to have a pedagogy that includes a lot of different voices and a lot of different learning styles, that emotion, making the personal political is very important. This resonated with my feminist pedagogy training that I had at the University of Oregon, so this feels right to me. What do these educational psychology worlds tell us? They tell us that emotions are central to student success, centering emotions is a matter of educational equity and inclusion, and the emotions of collected efficacy, pride, and desire for the future are necessary for cultivating resistance. How do you do that in the classroom? We'll talk about that.
Other fields that I've been drawing on, and this is a whole new world and I love teaching this stuff, and I have a huge bibliography of this stuff. Social movement theory in history so students can see how it is that they're part of a larger movement and they are not alone. One of the big things that we fight against and we spend a lot of time thinking about is countering the myth of the individual, that they are individually having to face this tidal wave of climate change alone. No, in fact, they're part of a larger movement and that gives them a lot of hope. Notice that almost none of these actually have the word "hope" in it. Again, I'm not really interested in hope. I'm interested in affective resilience.
Another body of scholarship that's really important to me now is ecopsychology. Here I'm thinking about the new terms and the new more research that's being done by so many people on climate trauma, disaster mental health, new terms that are talking about the grief that people experience with climate and environmental change. These are really useful terms to help students grapple with what's happening in a classroom and debate them.
Finally, eco affect literary and social theory, again, this is more of my background is in environmental literature studies. The role of narrative and getting people to certain affective places or emotional places is so important. Al Gore's film is a narrative. It gets us to a place of feeling like ... I forget what you said. You said something like it seemed anti-climactic or whatever, at the end. The feeling at the end of "An Inconvenient Truth," where you're not really that inspired to change your light bulb. You're just really depressed. Our syllabi are doing that kind of thing to students. As a student, I think it's a fantastic idea to analyze your syllabi as stories and narratives that you're being told and guided through, and professors are deliberately doing that whether they know it or not.
What does this all add up to? Framing, storytelling, and narrative matter a lot. They create conditions for effective pedagogy, especially [inaudible 00:36:28] pedagogy and for perseverance and social movements. Curricula tell stories and I want to know how can educators learn from educational and environmental psychologists, scholars of storytelling to serve the climate generation better. That's really my project question.
If it's such a great idea, which I just laid it out to be, why are so many people not doing it? Here's where I think is some really important critiques of doing this, I would want to put on the table. Some of these are really important and valid, and I respect them. Some of them I want us to really interrogate. One is this pretense that professors have of this notion that we're supposed to be neutral and not be political. This notion that we're supposed to bring our politics, our emotions, our biases into the classroom feels like the wrong way to teach. I'm not suggesting that's what centering emotion does, but that is one of the resistances to doing so.
This one is really strong, this notion that, I mentioned it earlier, that what's happening in the classroom is sort of a suppression of emotions and sort of like a triumph of the mind over the heart. That's kind of why the buildings are up on the top of the hill on campuses and that kind of thing. This Cartesian dualistic thinking permeates our educational philosophy and it really feels quite frankly, too messy to think about bringing emotions into the classroom, and I have to say, it is really messy, but it's a lot less messy to do it collectively where they all have each other, than it is in my office. I don't have any more tissue paper. It's running out. That is way messier for me.
What I have tried to do is not think of classrooms as like I said, group therapy sessions, but think, "What do I have the skill sets to do? I can do these kinds of academic things, these very scholarly things, that will have different emotional results." Our academic training does have emotional results. We can just tweak it and design it better to have the results that we think that the students would like to have.
Another good reason for not doing this is a phenomenon of cultural taxation, so it's very commonly underappreciated and undervalued that women and female faculty of color are doing a lot of this uncounted labor of emotional care for students, and so this is probably the number one reason I would support for not doing that. Recognizing and fixing cultural taxation would be really important to do before you even do any of this stuff. It's all part of it.
Finally, Jennifer Atkinson is teaching a class at UW Bothell right now this semester, and we're in touch quite a bit about it, on environmental despair and depression. She just had a cover article in the Seattle Times about her class, and so I recommend you look it up. After the coverage of her class, she got a ton of hate mail attacking her for mollycoddling her students through these "Woo woo" feelings of climate destruction when it's really just a hoax, and attacked for the snowflakiness of it. It's a critique that is lodged. I've even been trolled about this too because I had an article covering my focus on eco-grief in the classroom, and I got a nasty email from somebody saying, "I really wish that my tax dollars weren't paying for that waste of time." That's an interesting one. It reflects a larger political moment.
If it's such a great idea, why aren't more [inaudible 00:39:42]? Maybe you have some other reasons. I want to turn now to six strategies that don't require becoming a therapist, spiritual guide, or mother, and then I will conclude. Six strategies. One is that I think these are academic strategies. These are not emotional strategies. You will not find psychology or clinical psychology in this. Seeking positive news and developing a robust critique of negative news bias. Approximately 80% of news about climate change has a negative frame, and that is because in general, news has a negative bias. There is data. You can study this. It's out there. I'm not just making it up. Also, develop a rhetorical analysis of frames. Here's where, for example, I really like to use William Cronon's essay, "A Place for Stories," in which he compares and contrasts declension versus progressive narratives, and what that makes people feel and do.
Declension narratives, like Al Gore's, makes people not feel like doing anything. Progressive narratives that you feel like you're riding up toward some of kind of utopia, makes people feel like doing something. Whether or not the frames matter more than the reality, I'm not going to get into that. I'm a literary scholar, so I can frame our reality. The rhetorical frames are doing work on our students. If they can get some meta-analysis and some distance from the rhetorical frames, that's very empowering regardless of what's really happening. Going on a media diet is one strategy.
A second one is to incentivize self-care and activism in the classroom. There are all kinds of ways that we can reward students' efforts to cultivate resilience and build community in and out of the classroom. I know a lot of that already happens on Swarthmore's campus. I have now a very nice relationship with our Center for Community-based Learning, and also, students are just involved in all kinds of stuff. Our students are very activist. I actually want them to be less activist sometimes. I'm like, "Come back to the classroom and do some thinking and talking and discussing and reading, and then figure out how you want to go and spend those energies." That kind of impulse of theirs, can we get them to attach their activism that they're passionate about to what the content of the class is. One way we can do that is to incentivize it by building into their class.
Another thing I like to do is something that's generally called impact mapping, and this is to have the emotional effect on students of recognizing that they are part of a collective, doing this work together, and that if they get tired and need to do some baking cookies one day, they know that a lot of people are still doing it. This prevents burnout. I'll give you an example of how this feels. One of the things I like to do with students is, by the time they're juniors, I ask them to write what they're going to do for their Capstone, and I capture all of the things that they're going to do for the Capstone in "I will" statements. "I will do this. I will do that." They write a perspective around this. "This is what I'm going to do in my Capstone."
Then I collect them all and put them on the board for them, and let them soak it all in that this is what they and all their classmates are going to do. All of a sudden, the problem doesn't seem so big. They don't feel so small, and that's part of a collective [inaudible 00:42:39] of people doing this work, it feels a lot easier to do and a lot less overwhelming. For example, I want to pursue accessible conservation. This is going to feel like an inundation. I'm not going to read all of these to you, but that's the whole point. I want you to feel inundated by all of these "I will"s. I want to enlist my interest in diversity to work in a national park service. I want to research the need for mental health discussions of food security. I want to do all these things. I want to use theater in social advocacy. I want to improve the relationship in military in the environment. I want to be reconciling being a Catholic in environment. I want to use writing to channel my love of the world to change it. When you have all of these "wills" of 30 students in front of you, students have a sense of buoyancy, an affect of efficacy that collectively, they're going to do this work together.
The final thing, maybe not the final thing. I said six things. Another thing I like to do is include context on emotions and social change. Here is where ... This is really easy to do. Bring in a lot of readings about the concept of hope. Is that a useful thing or not a useful thing? Bring in some readings on [inaudible 00:43:40]. Bring in some readings on environmental trauma and talk about it. Another thing to do is to build confidence in your professionalization. Students really need to know that all this work that they're doing is going to have value in the world. It's going to impact the world, and maybe also, since most of our students are first gen are in a lot of Pell grants and all kinds of scholarships, they might need to have some paycheck after college even though while they're getting a paycheck, they are also trying to figure out a way to overturn capitalism, which is an interesting paradox.
Finally, rethinking student learning outcomes. I'm in a CSU, which has very heavy duty assessment culture, which I was talking with Mark about, is not that big in Swarthmore. That's cool. You're cool. That's awesome for you guys. Whoops. Hang on. Whoops. What did I just do? Sorry. I don't know what happened there. Rethinking student learning outcomes and asking students to come up with their own student learning outcomes. These are the things that technically we're supposed to assess, whether or not students have achieved or acquired when they walk across the stage, if they walk across the stage. We have an 11% graduation rate in six years. Think about that.
Rethinking student learning outcomes. I'm rethinking now, instead of thinking to myself, "They need to be citizen leaders in the 21st century," or I don't even know. The things that you all probably have on your web pages too. I'm starting to think about what are the affective outcomes or what are the affective skills, and this is where I'm thinking about how that then, once you have an outcome laid out that you want them to have when they graduate, they will then shape everything that you do in all your classes and in your syllabi and your courses, and even down to the minutia of your assignments and how you run your classes.
Now I'm going to move onto a conclusion. I knew I was going to be perfectly timed. I talked really fast so I wouldn't run the east coast, and so that's okay. In conclusion, a lot of times my students ... I go to classes and give talks on why the humanities matter for the environmental crisis, or why does social justice matter, and that's what they roll me out for on campus. I'm not that person. Students will say to me, "What are you doing yourself to improve these things?" I think to myself, "Gosh, if you could just come to my class and we can read a little Maniates, and you can learn about how having a bike doesn't matter, then you won't ask me that question anymore," but that's not obviously what we're going to do. This is what I said, "I may not ride my bike to work," and this is my opportunity to say what I want to say to those students.
I confess to many lifestyle sins. I have two kids. They use plastic straws. We have a no straw campus now, by the way. Do you have a no straw campus? I think you had straws on campus. Straws. They're apparently the worst thing ever. By the time I got to my second kid, I was not using reusable diapers, I confess. Then there's the car seats. You know about the car seats? You're not allowed to reuse them. That's awful. My green sensibilities have been totally trashed by having kids. I'm also never going to barricade myself to a pipeline or sit in a tree for 30 days. Just not going to be me. I can't monkey wrench our way to a post-carbon utopia. That stuff is not how I'm going to do it. I still do lie awake at night thinking about all of these things, just like my students, wondering how, within the limits of my own lifetime and my smallness too, in the world, I can leave the world a better place than I found it.
I have learned that I can't carry the world's grief around this, much less, and this is where I'll choke up, much less the grief of my children of the world that they're going to inherit. I've learned that I can't change the 2016 election, although that's what they wanted me to do right afterwards. I walked into class on Wednesday and they were like, "Fix it, Sarah." That's not actually what they said, but that's how I felt. I was like, "Oh, my God. I can never teach again. I've failed everybody." I'm not going to uninvent the automobile. I wish I could. No one person can, but the point of all of this is that collectively, we can.
Students really need to resist the self-erasing nihilism, right? Have you guys seen this movie? You got to see this movie. Who's doing all the work in this movie? The wife. Sorry. Who's getting all the glory? Much of the environmental decisions we can make as a household, something like 75% of the decisions are really typically in most American households, something that a woman would be in charge of. That gendered analysis of the greening of our lifestyles is often missing.
Students should resist the self-erasing nihilism of the command of environmentalism to leave no trace. I ask my students and I ask you to resist misery. Take pleasure in knowing that we are not impotent, doomed heroes facing the tidal wave alone. We are [inaudible 00:48:30] expanding exponentially, leading one hell of an impact. I put it to you just as I put it to my students. What would it take to desire rather than fear the future? What are the very next steps for you to thrive in a climate change future? Thank you.