- Climate Justice PedagogiesAffect, Empathy, and Scale in the Anthropocene
In what follows, I take each key word in my title separately, lay out a proposition (or provocation), and pose what I think are some of the most pressing questions related to each. My overall argument is that a clearer understanding of how affect works in our classrooms and how it is transmitted across scales—as well as a more targeted exploration of empathy and compassion across scalar, species, and temporal boundaries—might enable environmental humanities scholars and teachers to grasp the affective dimensions of the Anthropocene and facilitate more justice-oriented pedagogy and politics.
Proposition 1: Affect
Affect in the classroom needs more attention, both in terms of what our pedagogical goals are—that is, what we hope students will feel as well as learn and what they'll do later with that knowledge—and in terms of managing student affect in our classrooms and offices.
In their important resource Teaching Climate Change in the Humanities, Stephen Siperstein, Shane Hall, and Stephanie LeMenager remind us that emotions "can be the raw material out of which knowledge is fashioned."1 They describe climate change as a "disorienting dilemma" that can prompt either outright denial or "transformative learning."2 Their book includes several chapters devoted to how affect in the classroom can lead to the latter.
Students tend to see environmental studies classrooms as potentially depressing places, even if they have opted into them, and it is tempting [End Page 14] to want to mitigate that sense of despair. Still, we need to dismantle the hope versus despair binary, as some scholars are starting to do. Janet Fiskio, for example, says she "holds students in the presence of the unbearable grief of climate change" and resists any too-easy turns to "technological optimism or environmental education."3 Fiskio recommends we move from "the language of mitigation, adaptation, technology, and hope" to that of "mourning, solidarity, hospitality, and love," and she asks students to "conjure their own words for the affective flows that run through their experiences."4 Sarah Jaquette Ray's work on the "affective arc" of environmental studies classrooms, which is too often an uncritical "arc of hope," is really useful, as is the online climate change emotions pedagogy resource Ray and Nicole Seymour have curated.5 The psychological phenomena Scott and Paul Slovic outline in Numbers and Nerves—including psychic numbing, pseudoinefficacy, the prominence effect, the asymmetry of trust, and compassion fatigue—can impact students and teachers alike, and these phenomena warrant further analysis in terms of our pedagogy.
Questions: How do you measure and manage affects in your own classrooms? What assignments might help us do this? Have you felt the compulsion to end on a note of hope, to avoid leaving students depressed? Why is the hope versus despair binary so entrenched, and what other affective binaries might want to deconstruct? Assuming many of us want our students to leave our classrooms with senses of agency, global citizenship, and environmental responsibility, how do we equip them with the emotional resilience they'll need?
Proposition 2: Empathy
We should supplement conversations about empathy with discussion of compassion as perhaps a more realistic and effective way of getting students to feel for other humans, other species, and future generations.
Empathy and compassion aren't synonyms, even if empathy is often used in that sense. Really, empathy is an affective bridge, a way of "feeling with" others that allows us to get from one perspective and one scale to another. Empathy might inspire emotional or political engagement. But it can go badly wrong. Narrative theorist Suzanne Keen warns that it can be imperialistic and inauthentic or just wrongheaded (if we identify with the wrong character, for instance). In his book Against Empathy [End Page 15] and elsewhere, psychologist Paul Bloom champions compassion, defined as "positive feelings toward others, a desire that others do well and do not suffer, as when you wish that an anxious friend would feel more calm without necessarily feeling any anxiety yourself."6 With empathy, one does feel the other's anxiety, and this can contribute to burnout or compassion fatigue. Compassion, by...