Thursday, December 8, 2016

Teaching Environmental Issues (After the Election)

Three years ago, I designed Ecocriticism and Medieval England (syllabus here, if you're interested), a senior-level, interdisciplinary capstone course for all majors. This semester's section has been interesting, given the election results that dropped into the middle.

Rather than addressing Trump directly, I talked about the Republican party platform section on the environment and the environmental consequences.

The week before the election, I'd been talking about the monstrous figures in Africa and Asia on the Hereford Mappa Mundi and how they shaped Europeans' attitudes during later travel and colonization while trying to ignore the Trump sticker on the laptop of a student sitting front and center.

Wikipedia has a hi-res image of the whole map

The morning after the election, as I made my way to campus sleep-deprived and stunned, I knew I still had to teach that student, and others who didn't share my pretty far-left politics.

I decided  to be honest. I told the students I was deeply dismayed by the election results, that I'd been in tears a lot, but that I knew everyone didn't share my views. I said the classroom remained a place for respect for all, and for civil discourse.

There's a social work student who sits in the back, a little older than traditional students, and she gave me a nod, a look of compassion. The rest of the class breathed a little easier. 

A student who'd been mostly quiet asked, in a voice of anguish, what now? And I said, my own voice cracking with emotion, "keep fighting." I asked what she was going to do after graduation, she said she didn't know; I said: Go into politics. Make your voice heard.

One of the course assignments was for the students to take on a (small) environmental project for the duration of the semester. Some students bought reusable bottles or mugs for the water or coffee, one group car-pooled to school from their off-campus house, others turned off lights or committed to recycling more or unplugged things that drain power even when off.

Last night was the last class meeting. Here's some of what I said, more or less:
You all come from different majors, and you have different reasons for taking this course. Some of your are interested in environmental issues, some of you saw a course that fit your schedule, some of you saw a hybrid course that meets only once a week and thought it would be easy. It's a challenge bringing such a diverse group into conversation. It takes work on the part of the professor, but it also takes good will and cooperation on your part, as students, and you brought that to the classroom. Thank you for that.
I asked you to think about a lot of unfamiliar things: medieval history and literature, ecocriticism, environmental issues. I asked you to change your lives, albeit in a small way. These are not easy things to ask of students, but you engaged.
Teaching environmental criticism is not, in my mind, just an intellectual exercise. It is an explicit act of resistance and activism. In asking you to thinking about how the people of medieval England wrote about the natural world in literary and documentary texts, and their own relationships with animals and the environment, as well as with other human beings, I have also been asking you to think about contemporary ideas about the environment. 
Ecofeminists have observed that medieval writers wrote explicitly that women were more closely connected with nature than men, less rational, less capable; aristocratic women were often given by their fathers to their husbands in an economic arrangement, and their purpose (like Kate Middleton's) was to produce heirs. Their fecund bodies were a resource controlled by men.
Ecofeminists didn't go quite far enough, because they didn't recognize that the bodies of peasants, male and female, were also seen as resources controlled by the aristocracy as sources of labor and excess production. This enabled lords to evict peasants from farmland so they could graze sheep when wool became more valuable than food, rendering them homeless.
Thinking about the Middle Ages and the environment is valuable, in my mind, in two important ways.
Understanding medieval technologies can help us to better understand our own. It takes more than 700 hours to spin the thread needed to make enough fabric for a simple peasant dress. That contrast with the speed with which garment factories today can churn out fast fashion gives some perspective. Understanding something about what it takes to heat a house, or for that matter build it, to travel, to grow and harvest food, to create a manuscript -- the sheer amount of hours of labor required -- helps us to see contemporary farms and homes and books and cars in a different light.
The other issue is that our attitudes toward our "natural" surroundings have a very long history. They are deeply embedded in our culture. We need to understand those attitudes, and understand how they shape the way we build communities and organize transportation and commerce today, and understand how long-standing their hold on our culture has been, in order to get a sense of how we got here -- and how we might be able to make change and envision a better future.
We need to change. We need to make change happen, and we need to do it fast. We are already beyond 400 ppm, a threshold some climate scientists think portends disaster. Wildfires in Kentucky and California are a result of droughts caused by humans. Most of you directly experienced the flooding from Hurricane Sandy. 
You all need to go out into your communities and, like a pebble that drops into a pond, make a ripple. And if enough of you make that ripple, it can turn into a wave.