Global warming changes everything, including my approach to the classroom. I design courses that ask students to use writing to embrace uncertainty about the planet’s future and communicate with others about the just and sustainable world in which they want to live. I emphasize critical thinking, reading, and writing skills that help students see how all forms of communication—from literature, art, and professional journals to massive intergovernmental climate reports—are situated within social, political, and economic contexts. In all of my classes, I think with students as we investigate how writing allows us to navigate a world outside the classroom that is changing in profound and personal ways.
Experience has taught me that students must learn how to communicate responsibly when engaging with complex global challenges. From day one, I arrange for students to engage respectfully with their classmates by designing discussion plans and group tasks that facilitate collaboration. Frequently I use think-pair-share activities to discuss controversial topics. For example, before discussing the ethics of conservation I once asked students to react to an essay arguing that endangered species restrictions actually work against conservation efforts. Rather than responding immediately to a provocative claim, students gathered their thoughts individually before articulating them back to a partner. Students had time to pause, reflect, then reason with their fellow students. As they considered whether regulated elephant hunting can be an effective conservation strategy—the article’s topic—I listened to what students found most provocative and adapted my discussion plans so that students embraced responsible collective learning practices.
Responsible communication requires recognizing that many stakeholders have been historically excluded from scholarship. No matter students’ own identities, they must be able to craft persuasive and compelling arguments that recognize how voices have been excluded from environmental considerations. I have students read essays like philosopher Kyle Powys Whyte’s “Indigenous Climate Change Studies,” which asks students to decolonize their understanding of the Anthropocene by considering how indigenous peoples’ experience of settler colonialism is in many ways a type of human-induced climate change. In my American literature surveys, I have had students contrast a classic book like Walden with texts by excluded voices such as Tillie Olson’s novel Yonnondio in order to see how a working-class woman writer from the 1930s communicates her environmental experiences in a significantly different style than her mid-19th century literary counterpart. Whenever I include texts like these, students choose to return to them frequently to discuss how other writers rely on or challenge dominant thought.
Throughout the semester I hold individual conferences to provide students a space to reflect openly upon their identities and situated experiences of place. By practicing how to communicate when the stakes are simultaneously personal and political, students who spend the first several weeks of the semester thinking they have no connection to environmental issues learn to uncover the ways that a problem like climate change will affect their lives. I also use these opportunities to guide students through interdisciplinary work as they connect personal experience, their professional goals, and the planetary stakes of environmental change. Students frequently design research projects around these conversations. As students discover their own strong connections and listen to their classmates’ experiences, they recognize that everyone has a concrete relationship to environmental change. They also learn that just because a problem seems far away it might, in fact, be affecting the person sitting next to them in class.
A livable future will require fundamentally different relations between humans and their environments, and the classroom is a place for students to learn how to embrace this challenge. I encourage students to recognize that even though we are all part of the same Anthropos, our experiences are uniquely shaped through race, class, gender, sexuality, and relationship to settler colonialism. We must embrace this truth as we develop sustainable and resilient visions of the future. Ultimately, my hope is that students embrace the uncertainty of climate change and reflect upon their individual identities as critical thinkers, responsible writers, and active participants in global society.