I love teaching college students. Absolutely adore it. Mid-January is here, and for me this means a new academic semester has begun and teaching resumes. This time around, I have the pleasure of teaching Sociology of Environment and Natural Resources. My 40-some students and I discuss some of the potential reasons behind environmental degradation – overpopulation, overconsumption, global production systems. We also spend a quarter of the class learning about and analyzing global environmental justice case studies. After units on climate change, energy policy, and agricultural systems, the end of the course focuses on potential solutions and student projects.
Having taught this course before, I’ve learned the basic rhythms of a course wherein students think not just about an abstract subject matter but something different, something bigger and yet more personal. Instead of teaching statistics, for example, I’m asking them to question their orientation to the natural world. Thus, this is one of the few courses in which students feel compelled to analyze their behavior and grapple with whether those behaviors should change. More than any other course I’ve taught, this one is the most challenging and rewarding. Challenging because, especially at this particular university, I encounter many students who are quite conservative and think of environmentalism as a strictly political issue (and, at that, a liberal one of which they want no part). At the same time, teaching this class generates tangible rewards; when worldview barriers are overcome, breakthroughs for students can be life-altering. About 30 of the 40 students will think about what they read and perhaps reduce their consumption temporarily or think about driving less and biking more. But in a smaller portion of the class, I can watch deep-seated philosophical changes take place, something I have yet to experience in other classes of mine like Social Statistics or Social Psychology.
A vivid example comes to mind. One student in the last session of this course began the semester with his head firmly planted on the desk. He showed up for class most days, but within about ten minutes his head would be buried in his crooked arm. Yes, he was that student that, for instructors, creates worry and unease, even when the rest of the class may give you their undivided attention. Despite my gentle urging, this behavior continued on through February and into March. In March, we began reading about environmental justice cases around the world. Stories of communities touched by toxic contamination from extraction activities and production facilities. Many times, people in affected communities will notice their contamination, resultant illnesses or ailments, and begin long-term grassroots activism to fight the extraction, the facility, or at least get basic answers for their families and neighbors.
These stories, in turns out, brought my sleepy student back to life. During those class periods, and for most of them that followed, this particular student transformed before my eyes. He became alert, engaged, and inquisitive, often staying after class to ask questions or discuss a particular case study. Through those conversations, I learned this student was from a town in Utah where coal mining was the main economic activity. He described being raised in a community where a strange silver dust covered most cars, homes, and park equipment. He also described a debilitating condition he had, in which the discs of his spine were being slowly crushed, for reasons no doctors has been able to explain. He told me that many of his neighbors and family members suffered from similar and other ailments. Apparently, the coal processing plant near his home discharged methyl mercury, and people in his community noticed widespread health problems that many residents, according to my student, saw as related to coal processing. The case studies we were reading and the class discussions my student shared with peers moved him so deeply because they seemed to describe his own experiences as they unfurled. He encouraged his mother to join with some of her neighbors to conduct a health study and get access to grant monies for further research, and by the time the class ended, the Utah Department of Health was looking into the local claims of illness and chronic conditions. Any concrete outcome may take many years, but the beginning seems encouraging.
While events such as these are certainly not common, I begin each semester with the hope that Sociology of Environment will change my students’ perspectives on the natural world. At the very least, I hope it transforms environmentalism from a political issue into a deeply personal and broadly human issue for them. From my experience, this happens the most fluidly and meaningfully in a classroom where we can all interact and where organic discussions can develop (this may even be a topic for a future blog). Though each class has its distinct personality, here’s to hoping that this semester sparks critical thinking and a new environmental ethic for my students. I will keep you posted….