Pedagogical Approaches to Teaching the Arts
with Climate Change
In my last post, I describe the (not quite) theory of teaching the arts with climate change as a monster: one which, in being unafraid to conjoin multiple and even contradictory forms of knowledge, treads new intellectual and creative ground. Here, I’ll focus on the pedagogical practices that make of these monsters an invigorating learning environment for students.
In many cases, it means a focus on experiential learning. At Wofford College in South Carolina, many courses in the Environmental Studies department feature a lab which, as faculty member Professor Kaye Savage explained, students are often surprised to discover is not science-focused but interdisciplinary. Savage, a geologist by training with a background in fine arts, who had a lot of input into the structure of the department, feels very lucky to be able to exercise both her “scientific” and her “artistic” self. She says this is one of the key components of the interdisciplinary learning on offer in the department: “It’s so important to let students get their hands on materials. Whether it’s out in the field or in a lab or even in a classroom, it makes [the learning] come alive in a way it never can in a book or on a screen.”
Not many institutions, however, will have the resources to invest in purpose-built interdisciplinary spaces; nevertheless, many educators are finding innovative ways to break down their metaphorical classroom walls, even if the physical walls remain very much in place. Elizabeth Trobaugh, who teaches Cli Fi: Science and Stories at Holyoke Community College in Massachusetts, is one such example. Her previous experience of running an interdisciplinary program with an ecology professor gave her both a passion and a firm understanding of how interdisciplinarity works, and she was able to “grab the science and integrate it into my literature course.” As well as devising a range of active reading, writing, and discussion activities which probe narratives around climate change, she brings in scientific colleagues to do live experiments in class, to demonstrate, for example, the albedo effect: “I’ve seen many students have that ‘aha’ moment and it’s quite wonderful.”
At the Centre for Environment and Development Studies (CEMUS), a transdisciplinary center at Uppsala University and Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Sweden, students take considerable control over the course structure itself. Every year, two students are appointed as coordinators for the course Perspectives on Climate Change: Ecopsychology, Art and Narratives. Working together – and given that they often come from diverse disciplines, this is an interdisciplinary experience in and of itself – they decide on which lecturers, artists, and external partners and stakeholders to invite so as to bring the syllabus to life. This, of course, is an experimental and unusual method, which Malin Östman, educational coordinator of CEMUS at large, argues is precisely its strength: “We should dare to use more experimental methods from the arts. Sometimes it will fail, but the same goes for all pedagogical methods.”
An openness to experimentation is also a key component of Sarah Fahmy’s approach to the Creative Climate Communication course at the University of Colorado, Boulder:
Much of the learning takes place outside, in the field, where it’s easier to see that we don’t live here alone and this planet isn’t only ours… It’s important for them to see that not everything has to be rigorously theorized. An important part of research is doing things that are fun – and laughing! The pedagogy is very participant-driven, which means often our ideas as facilitators end up being challenged or changing, but that’s fine because we’re not precious. We’ve also got used to the idea that not everything we start will go to plan; it’s the process that’s important, and making sure we create a space in which everyone’s voice is heard.
In Fahmy’s eyes, an openness to experimentation goes hand in hand with an openness to failure, and an assumption that students’ views are just as valuable as the educator’s. Rather than clinging rigidly to an initial idea or vision, she is willing to let them go in favor of a better idea that may come about during the learning process.
Evelyn O’Malley, who teaches the Theatre for a Changing Climate course at Exeter University in the UK, also noted that adopting a collaborative approach to pedagogy was empowering for students:
There is a real sense of shared responsibility for the material amongst the students. The collective element of the learning is one of the pleasures of the teaching. I’m always looking for ways that the students can facilitate each other’s learning; I can be part of that, but I try not to be an all-knowing lecturer at the front of the class. The students are always smarter than me and able to ask better questions. I try to set up my classroom as a space where we can think together and go down the rabbit hole together; hopefully, we’ll end the module with better questions than we began with.
In creating classroom structures where students feel supported in taking risks and making mistakes, and where the emphasis is on collaboration and asking questions rather than heroically rushing to find the best individual answers, O’Malley supports students to sit with the “trouble” and the uncertainty of taking responsibility for their own learning.
Yet what is the link between giving students an active role in their own learning and giving them the tools to actively work towards a sustainable future? Ian Garrett, who teaches in the MFA Design for Performance program at York University in Canada, has some ideas in this regard:
Performance is a way of imagining what society might be: at a time where we need a lot of social change for a sustainable future, it becomes a very useful process. The core is being able to communicate ideas about different possible future scenarios and, through the process of play, to come at it from different perspectives. Students work on specific projects around improving sustainability on campus, and this is usually empowering for them: they’re doing it about a place they’re invested in, and are presenting it not just to me for a grade but to a stakeholder who has agency that they have identified. It deepens their relation with a place and their systems thinking.
Systems thinking and project-based work give students a multi-faceted understanding of their artistic discipline as entangled within a complex web of change, yet it also, particularly in tasks where they focus on improving one element of their campus and present their projects not only to professors but to external stakeholders, gives them tangible evidence of their research’s impact beyond the university. As such, it has both ethical and practical ramifications.
It is no wonder, then, that every single academic to whom I spoke stressed how much an open, collaborative approach was as enriching to them as it was for the students. Many, such as Min Hyoung Song, who teaches the Climate Fiction course at Boston College in Massachusetts, also stressed how much it had impacted their own research, and for the better:
I was in the midst of revising a book manuscript on climate change and contemporary literature (both poetry and fiction) in the Spring, so there was a dramatic circular relationship between the manuscript and the course on Climate Fiction I was teaching. The students made what I was writing more personal, and allowed me to see from their perspective the kinds of preoccupations I was having. And just as importantly, together we explored how spending so much time with literature helped us to think differently about the topic.
In Song’s words I sensed a real hunger to connect with students, and an ability not just to say that they value students’ insights as much as their own but to demonstrate this through actively allowing such insights to change their teaching and even their research trajectories. Yet, such trajectories, in their openness to grappling with the complexity, uncertainty, and difficulty that is climate change, are emotionally as well as intellectually challenging: How to tread the line between hope and despair? How to empower students while giving them tools to engage with the – in many ways – grim realities of the situation? These are the questions I’ll be asking in my next and final post in this series.
This article is part of our series on Arts & Climate in Higher Education.
Clare Fisher is a novelist, short story writer, and researcher based in Leeds, UK. She is the author of All the Good Things (Viking, 2017) and How the Light Gets In (2018). Her work has won a Betty Trask Award and been longlisted for the International Dylan Thomas Prize and the Edgehill Short Story Prize. She is studying for a practice-led PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Leeds and teaches Creative Writing at Goldsmiths College and Queen Mary University of London. She can be found on Twitter at @claresitafisher.