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  • Performative PedagogyModeling Affect and Action in Climate Change Courses
  • Matthew Schneider-Mayerson (bio)

Given the widespread uncertainty about how we ought to respond to climate change, instructors inevitably serve as models for their students. The scope of this modeling is greater than we tend to admit, extending from framing to behavior to affect. If this is the case—if all pedagogy is performative and affect is always a component of learning—then climate change instructors in the humanities (and beyond) ought to model more consciously by demonstrating alternative environmental affects in response to our charged subject matter.

This essay draws on my experience teaching a course called Energy Humanities at Yale-NUS College, in Singapore, and contrasts it with a previous iteration of the same class, taught at Rice University. At both institutions, the course offered an introduction to scholarship on energy and climate change from the humanities. After spending a month on energy and environmental history, the majority of our time was focused on climate change, which was presented as an issue of environmental justice via a diverse set of materials that included sociology, anthropology, philosophy, documentaries, interactive multimedia projects, short stories, and novels. We examined current and potential responses through politics, art, and activism.

My pedagogical approach is to have the heaviest hand in the course's structure, texts, and assignments and then to serve as a facilitator and "meddler in the middle" during most meetings.1 This neutrality encourages students to respond to our assignments and discussions in any way they choose and diminishes the likelihood that they will experience the course as a campaign of environmental persuasion. [End Page 32] However, I invariably slip up now and then and expose my unvarnished sentiments. In ideologically diverse classrooms at Rice University, I found that these moments seemed to diminish my effectiveness, especially with conservative or skeptical students who tended to see these moments as evidence of "bias," which permitted them to discount their learning experience. I have noticed the opposite effect in my classes at Yale-NUS College—though it should be noted that many of my students are environmental studies majors and that very few of Yale-NUS's students question climate science. In their comments on the last day of class, their course evaluations, and their responses to an anonymous biweekly survey I conducted on their emotional responses to the course, many of my students read these moments of uncontrolled affect as a kind of demonstration. These moments conveyed how one might or even should feel in response to these emotionally difficult subjects, for which the students did not have a readily available affective map to guide them. Sociologists such as Kari Norgaard note that we possess "cultural scripts" that direct our responses to most issues and situations, but I would argue that they are ambiguous and flexible when it comes to climate change.2 Students know how to avoid the topic in casual discussions or quip about the weather, but what should they do when they're forced to stare into the abyss? This uncertainty means that instructors play a prominent role in modeling affective and behavioral responses. Far too often, the cloak of objectivity and distance that academia venerates means that students learn to respond with objectivity and distance, instead of emotion and engagement.

The two moments my students seemed to find most meaningful during our semester illustrate this point. The first was my admission of coming to tears while sitting in a hawker center—an open-air food court that is common in Singapore—while reading an assigned book chapter on expected climate migration in the decades to come. Their response to my experience was probably shaped by a few aspects of my description, which was relayed to them in a brief and unplanned confession. There is the emotional vulnerability of allowing oneself to feel and exhibit emotion about an academic text describing the projected suffering of a geographically and temporally distant population. This was heightened by my position as a male professional, whom students might expect to be less likely to openly display such raw emotion. There was also the publicness of this vulnerability—the fact that, as I described...


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pp. 32-36
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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