Crisis and Creativity in Environmental Pedagogy

When I developed a course for Lawrence University called “Environmental Justice and Citizenship,” I envisioned that the class would first analyze powerful narratives about environmental inequalities and then explore notions of environmental citizenship that might respond to and address those inequalities. However, reading about toxicity, pollution, and climate change led quickly to expressions of frustration and despair. The narratives might have been skillful, beautiful, strategic—but all that was easily lost in the face of students’ emotions.

Especially when it comes to the environment, we think of catastrophe, not potential.

These strong feelings were of course apt, given the urgency and scope of threats to the environment. As activist and writer Derrick Jensen insists, “despair is an entirely appropriate response to a desperate situation.” But research suggests that consuming dire depictions of environmental challenges might deter us from taking action and finding solutions. Moreover, an overly gloomy classroom may well discourage the kind of open mindset necessary for personal and academic growth. Given the often-debilitating realities of environmental issues, how can we build an environmental pedagogy that doesn’t leave students disempowered and disengaged?

Creative Experiments in the Environmental Studies Classroom

Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake features a Monopoly-esque game called “Blood and Roses.” The game pits the Blood side, which plays with human atrocities, against the Roses side, which plays with human achievements—“Artworks, scientific breakthroughs, stellar works of architecture, helpful inventions. Monuments to the soul’s magnificence…” But as the novel’s protagonist, Snowman, explains, the game is flawed: while he can list dozens of atrocities ranging from “The sack of Troy” to “Saddam Hussein,” his list of human glories is much shorter. He muses, “That was the trouble with Blood and Roses: it was easier to remember the Blood stuff. The other trouble was that the Blood player usually won but winning meant you inherited a wasteland.” I suspect most of us are like Snowman. Especially when it comes to the environment, we think of catastrophe, not potential.

Two Dear Climate posters. On is of squirrels with acorns and the other depicts a herd of buffalo.

Posters from the Dear Climate project, which encourages people to make and share creative responses to climate change.

Yet, as Atwood’s game suggests, the human tendency for destruction runs counter to another very human characteristic: our profound creative potential. Accordingly, when my class became stuck in doom and gloom, I decided to see if creative activities might inject the class with a sense of playful energy and focus students on new possibilities. As they analyzed the stories other people tell and why they matter, students were called on to become storytellers themselves. That is how students from freshmen to seniors, majoring in a broad array of disciplines, began tackling assignments like writing a six-word climate memoir.

Playfulness and Vulnerability

In a unit focused on gender, our class read Terry Tempest Williams’s “Clan of the One-Breasted Women,” which explores a family history of breast cancer caused by nuclear testing in the American West, and Cherríe Moraga’s play “Heroes and Saints,” which dramatizes the impacts of pesticide use on mothers and children. We paired these works with a cluster of theoretical readings; I found that the students were especially intrigued by ecofeminist critiques of hierarchical and dualistic thinking, including Greta Gaard’s “Toward a Queer Ecofeminism.” We closed the unit by reading about how ecofeminists of the 1980s to the present have used visual art as a form of activism in “The Greening of Gaia: Ecofeminist Artists Revisit the Garden.” I then asked students to locate at least two additional images produced by ecofeminist artists and to post them to an online class forum. Before our next class meeting, I printed poster-sized versions of the images and hung them around the classroom for our in-class activity: an art gallery walk and response.

A picture of a whiteboard showing student comments.

The whiteboard on which students reacted to Agnes Denes’s “Wheatfield—A Confrontation.” Photo by Claire Kervin, 2018.

Students circled the room, writing comments next to each poster: words or images that occurred to them; emotions spurred by the pieces; interpretations or claims they could make about each work’s meaning; connections between the works and the theory we had been reading. As everyone circulated, the whiteboard comments became increasingly impressionistic and creative: all-caps and exclamation points for emphasis; arrows and “I agree!” to point out connections and commonalities between ideas. Soon the comments, stacked on top of each other, began to look like found poetry.

The playful spirit sparked by the exercise spilled over to our subsequent large group discussion. I picked especially intriguing comments from the whiteboards and asked their (previously anonymous) writers to take ownership and expand upon their ideas. One generally reticent student, “Andrea,” blushed upon having two of her contributions picked for discussion. The other students at her table noticed and started encouraging her in gently teasing tones: “Ooooh Andrea, it’s you again! You’re good at this!” Andrea must have gained some confidence from the experience, since she spoke up in every class period thereafter. I imagined Terry Tempest Williams, who ends “Clan of the One-Breasted Women” by calling her pen a “weapon” against oppression, would approve of her budding sense of semantic power.

Storytelling and the Power of Narrative

Rob Nixon writes,

Stories matter—they matter immeasurably. Measurement, data, metrics, and modeling are the lucrative priorities of universities these days. In the face of this pressure to quantify, it is easy for humanities scholars to lose track of what they do best, like explaining why telling a story one way as opposed to another can have profound imaginative, ethical, and political consequences.

A drawing of water dripping into a puddle.

Dear Climate, 2018.

I wanted to help students think critically and imaginatively about how stories shape our world. To help them do so, I asked them to read Rob Nixon’s essay alongside Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. In Atwood’s novel, the Crakers, a quasi-human species, become obsessed with origin stories, even though storytelling was supposedly bred out of them. Following the Crakers’ lead, I divided students into small groups and asked each group to invent their own creation tale.

Initially the class moaned and groaned about the difficulty of coming up with anything truly original—itself illustrative for the students, as they began thinking about the existing patterns in origin stories and what those might indicate. Soon enough, though, they were laughing while inventing clever and outrageous stories of their own. When they’d finished, each group elected someone to read their myth aloud. Memorable contributions included one story about humans descending from plants and another explaining how we were deposited on Earth by aliens who declined to share a planet with us. We then discussed what ideology of nature each group’s story might catalyze and whether the myth encourages or discourages hierarchical thinking. In this way, the activity built on the discussion of hierarchical binaries we had begun during the gender unit. Students synthesized their theoretical understanding of concepts like Karen Warren’s logic of domination and Val Plumwood’s interlocking dualisms as they moved these ideas into new intellectual territory.


I hoped this course would create a community of informed, motivated environmental citizens. However, I worried that facilitating a positive group dynamic might be especially challenging in a class focused on difference: after all, environmental injustice emphasizes the disproportionate impact of environmental degradation on people of color, women, and the poor. What I did not anticipate was how incorporating creative exercises would help create an inclusive classroom.

Two Dear Climate posters. One shows a woman wading down a flooded street. The other is a drawing of an eye with a tear.

Dear Climate describes their work as hacking “the aesthetics of instructional signage and the techniques of meditation to lead viewers and listeners towards a better informed, more realistic, and more affectionate relationship to the more-than-human world, including geo-physical forces, and other species.”

Text of a poem.

Excerpt from “To the Boy at the Bus Stop Beside the Ocean,” written by student Phoebe Eisenbeis as part of her midterm project. Phoebe’s poem, inspired by Ross Gay’s ode “To the Fig Tree on  9th and Christian,” reflects how the growing expansiveness of our classroom dynamic sometimes showed up in students’ writing.

Case in point was a six-word climate memoir exercise. During a discussion of climate justice, I shared a (likely apocryphal) anecdote about Ernest Hemingway. The story recounts how Hemingway was challenged to write a story in just six words; in response, he jotted “For sale: baby shoes, never worn,” on the back of a napkin, starkly silencing the doubters. I asked students to complete their own six-word story about the climate. One student, “Alicia,” shared her effort with a friend, “Clara.” Clara excitedly waved me over, saying, “You’ve got to read this. It’s so good but she doesn’t think it is!” Soon the whole table of eight students was exclaiming over Alicia’s originality.

In the weeks after this activity, I noticed a shift in the dynamic around Alicia and Clara: the two often conversed in Spanish in the minutes before class started, and in the weeks after this activity, I witnessed one student at their table tentatively use his high school Spanish to enter the conversation and heard another ask about Alicia’s hometown in Texas. In this instance and others, I was struck by how when students were compelled to do new, sometimes uncomfortable things, our class became increasingly positive, open, and cohesive.

Pedagogy in the Face of Environmental Crisis

A drawing of a woman talking to a fish.

Dear Climate, 2018.

The importance of creative approaches in the environmental humanities is a topic much under discussion in recent years, but the discourse has primarily centered on creative research and writing styles. My experience has convinced me that environmental crisis calls equally for creative experiments in pedagogy. Regularly incorporating low-stakes creative activities shifted the tone of my course and helped students achieve learning goals such as practicing critical thinking, synthesizing course concepts, and engaging more deeply with the reading material.

I don’t want to imply that the classroom transformed into a utopian space. There were still personality clashes, students who refused to turn in their work, and awkward moments. Students’ fledgling creative efforts might not have reached the status of “monuments to the soul’s magnificence.” However, it’s telling that this course forms an exception to my own tendency to, Snowman-like, allow the darker teaching moments to dominate my memory.

Featured image: Posters from Dear Climate, an ongoing creative-research project that was founded in 2012 by Una Chaudhuri, Fritz Ertl, Oliver Kellhammer and Marina Zurkow. Dear Climate encourages the free distribution of their work.

Claire Kervin is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Lawrence University. She specializes in contemporary American literature, with particular interests in eco-fiction, environmental justice narratives, and new materialist theories. She is currently writing an article on the ecological vision of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. If not teaching or writing, you can find Claire in her vegetable garden with her chickens. Contact.