Something’s Gotta Change

Teaching environmental anthropology can be difficult mentally and emotionally. I didn’t get into this field because I felt hopeless. I got in because of my love of natural history and trying to understand why people would continue to make stupid environmental decisions despite knowing the consequences (but that’s a post for another day). Yet the longer I live and the more I observe and experience, the more inclined I am towards jaded skepticism that humanity will actually take real action to stop ourselves from reaching a point of no return. This gets reinforced by my critical thinking about problems. As well as my belief that anything I write about what I’ve learned as a researcher is more likely to collect digital dust than inspire appropriate and sustainable action on the ground or in the halls of government (impostor syndrome symptom). This is not a great attitude to bring to the classroom.

fractal gold
“193158” by nexvs6 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Over the past few years I’ve been reflecting, in the few quiet, non-busy moments I have, about what drew me to studying the human-environment relationship. It certainly wasn’t the need to be in a constant state of anger, grief, angst, and depression about the world. Or a mad desire to wake up most mornings, think “Fuck it, nothing I do matters anyway”, and burrow deeper into the warm nest of blankets until the snooze alarm goes off for the 3rd time. That’s really modeling some great behavior for my students and not taking care of my responsibilities or addressing the consequences of life choices I’ve made.

I also had a couple of moments this term that forced me to look in the mirror and think about better ways to teach and inspire the next generation of environmental scientists and science literate citizens. The first was an essay in Inside Higher Ed about teaching how to create solutions versus only teaching how to criticize under the aegis of critical thinking. (I’d rather learn how to create than to criticize, E. Patel, 11/19/19). Critical thinking and imagining solutions to real problems has always been a goal of my pedagogy. Yet reflection on my instructional praxis has led me to consider that by emphasizing the problem description and current action (or not) I leave little time to explore the widest range of solutions and build adaptive capacity. My choice to spoon-feed students the background/fundamental, rather than making them struggle a bit more to identify the issue through their own experiences and learning/research, limits their learning and imagination, adaptive capacity development, and potential discovery of out-of-the-box solutions.

Which brings me to the second moment… this was the first semester since my first term at the university I required a full research paper in one of my classes.* My Method and Theory in Ecological Anthropology students chose a related course topic to explore in depth. They submitted the usual Gaussian distribution of papers, skewing heavily towards the upper end as a number of students produced some very well-written research papers. One student approached me early in the term though to make a special request to write more of a perspective piece about their experiences as an Environmental Science & Policy (conct. Culture & Environment) student. They wanted to critique their experience and offer ways that the curriculum might be improved. Eager to have more insight on my students’ experiences and as a researcher of environmental knowledge, I agreed to their proposal with the usual caveats about including peer-reviewed research, etc.

The final result impressed, annoyed, and disappointed me. Enough that I am still thinking about the message over a month later. The paper was well written and brutally honest. I could hear the student’s voice loud and clear as they described their initial enthusiasm to learn and subsequent loss of hope. To explain why their course of study had left them hopeless, they described their perception of a standard curriculum structure for an ENSP/environmental course:

  1. Define sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the future’s ability to meet its own needs”.
  2. Define an example of declining ecological health.
  3. Contextualize the declining ecological health in terms of political, economic, cultural, and social systems.
  4. Define the positive feedback loop between the political, economic, cultural, and social systems and their perpetuation of the declining ecological health.
  5. Conclude that this feedback loop is unsustainable.

Nowhere here is an opportunity to discuss how to break the feedback loop and transition to a new place that is more sustainable. The student also wrote that one of their professors, unnamed, stated that “It’s too big. You’ll never change anything.” Wow, what a shitty thing to say to a young adult. To me though, I also read that perhaps that instructor is in a lot of pain themselves and may not be getting the support they need. I think I will stick with my dark humor, at least it builds morale and keeps me sane. The student said that their education left them uninspired, although they appreciated the bluntness and honesty of their learning experience, and indicated that they were writing this under a cloud of depression they knew would lift over winter holiday break (I suggested at this point in my comments that they should seek therapeutic help from a professional because this could be more serious). Finally, they ended the essay with a couple of suggestions:

  1. Dedicate a section of the course to individuals or programs already involved in seeking and implementing solutions. Who are they? What are they doing? What barriers exist? (I would also add, what opportunities exist?)
  2. The ENSP program should provide mental health services given the content of the discipline’s study. (This second is more problematic. The university offers professional mental health services – not enough for the range and growth of problems I’ve seen over the past 7 years. It cannot be placed on the department or faculty to do this. We do not have professional training and many of us already are dealing with our own stresses. However, it might be useful to consider offering/requiring a course on Environmental Psychology or co-sponsoring workshops with similar departments that teach students and faculty mental resilience exercises to deal with stress, anxiety, depression, etc. that comes with working in the environmental field.)

Granted, this is the perception of a single student. A data point of one. My experience with students in general, and with this particularly bright individual, suggests that they may not be far off the mark for the majority of their experience. This left me frustrated and annoyed. I felt sure I was leaving time for this, building in exercises into class to build and stretch adaptive capacity and overall resilience. However, on reflection perhaps I wasn’t doing this consistently or obviously or with enough time to make it really transformative. As for students communicating this need for solutions more directly to me or other instructors, for time to consider possible alternative paths, I cannot blame them. I know at their age I would not have had the ability to articulate these sorts of questions without feeling like I was stepping across some invisible line between learner and teacher, non-expert and expert.

So where to go from here? I don’t see myself as the source of all solutions – which is also part of the issue for the students who want an easy “Do this, not this!”. Surviving the challenges of the Anthropocene will require all members of society contributing their skills and knowledge to solutions – rich/poor, educated/”uneducated”, old/young, every color, religion, ethnicity, gender, and mental/physical abilities. This is an easier lesson to teach in the anthropology classroom than in other disciplines I believe. I also feel that highlighting one action group over another in the classroom sets up a bad dynamic leaving me again as the source of all solutions. I find my information on the internet like everyone else, and not every individual or group has equal access or time/money to produce a slick webpage advertising their work. Some that do are falsely advertising or talking big but doing not so much. To this end, I can bump up the current internet/media/science literacy training I do with students. I also want the students to know that they are going to have to contribute more both to their learning and to future solution finding and implementation. The skills and knowledge it will take will come from places they don’t expect and will require cooperation between diverse people that don’t always see eye to eye. This requires more alternative assignments and group work. To this end, my climate change course is tackling what I call The City Project this spring term. My research methods students will be working with me to develop a conceptual model on sources of environmental knowledge in western contexts and how this affects our decision making and action. I will write more on these projects as they progress.

*Yes, I know this sounds antithetical to a university education. Term research papers in disciplines like anthropology are de rigueur.  However, I know that unless a student is a decent writer already I focus on minor grammatical, spelling, flow, and clarity details in grading rather than the factual content and story the student is relating. This requires multiple readings – particularly on papers when I’ve gone to town with the comments – to ensure that I grade everyone fairly and equally. Grading papers is particularly time-consuming and stressful for me. I use rubrics to speed up the process and make it more fair, but I also believe it is important to provide feedback. Writing well is a basic necessary skill. Beyond rubrics and alternative assignments, I really need help with grading student papers.

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