torsdag 21 juli 2016

On the contradictions of teaching sustainability at KTH (book chapter)

This is blog post #4 in my "summer spillover series" (here is #3). I'm currently on vacation but this blog post is about something I "should" have written about when it happened (more than one and a half months ago) - long before I went on vacation.

The previous blog post was about an upcoming (2017) book that I have submitted two chapter proposals to. This blog post concern one of these chapter proposals and it has the (preliminary) title "On the inherent contradictions of teaching sustainability at a technical university".

There are quite some topical similarities between this chapter proposal and the previous summer spillover blog post about a text that has been written for the magazine Interactions (a special issue focusing on "teaching sustainability"). Both of these texts are about teaching ICT & sustainability and both are written together with my colleague Elina Eriksson. We originally thought that we could write a text for Interactions magazine and then extend it into a twice as long text/book chapter, but that didn't work out for various "dramaturgical" reasons. So despite the fact that these texts treat "the same" topic, they are in fact distinct texts with hardly any overlap at all when it comes to the actual text being written. Yet another difference between these two texts is that Elina is the first author of the proposed chapter (below) while I'm the first author of the text to Interactions Magazine.

We submitted an extended abstract (2500 words long) to the book editors in the end of May and not much has happened since then except for one thing and that is that we were recently invited to extend our extended abstract (proposed chapter) into a full chapter for the book "Digital Technology and Sustainability: Acknowledging Paradox, Facing Conflict, and Embracing Disruption". That means we have our work cut out for us in August as the deadline for the first full draft of chapters (5000-6000 words) is August 31.

The chapter of course has an introduction as well as some analysis/discussion/wrap-up, but the brunt of the chapter is structured around five examples that start with an anecdote (100-200 words) that is followed by an elaboration/analysis (400-600 words) of that anecdote. The anecdotes are harvested from our experiences of teaching a master's level course on sustainability for ICT students at a KTH Royal Institute of Technology during the last four years (we will teach the fifth cycle of the course during the second half of the autumn term). Instead of an abstract, I offer you the first of the five anecdotes (the only one that has been written this far).

On the inherent contradictions of teaching sustainability at a technical university

Elina Eriksson & Daniel Pargman

It’s a sunny Friday afternoon, but the lecture hall is dark and cool. I am wrapping up my lecture, describing what Earth might look like in the worst-case scenario - if the average temperature on the planet was 6 degrees warmer, as a result of climate change. The slide-deck ends with a black slide and I smile a slightly ironic smile to the audience and wish them a great weekend. I feel rather shaken, but relieved. After weeks of reading up on planetary boundaries, climate change, ice core data, sea level rise and species extinction, I am now finished. When I pack up my computer, I see three students approaching the lectern in the corner of my eye. As I turn to them, I register the crossed arms, as if they are grasping for support, and that the student in the middle has tears in the eyes. One of them asks without prompting: “Can’t you say something more optimistic?”

As a lecturer, I stood dumbfounded. In this lecture, I had presented facts; all the measurements, calculations, all the observable changes of the planetary system. I guess it shouldn’t have been surprising that the student’s reaction to these facts were emotional since I, over the weeks that I prepared for the lecture, had myself felt an increasing sense of alarm, dread and sorrow over the state of the world, the direction we are moving in and the insurmountable predicaments we are now facing. Not to mention the anger and frustration I felt for the lack of concern from politicians, industry and media. Instead of admitting my own apprehension, I tried to say something chirpy along the lines of “we’ll talk about what possible solutions might look like later in the course”, quickly bid the students goodbye and scurried away. I carried an emotional backpack to a coffee break with my colleagues, put it down and described the incident. Had I done something wrong, evoking such feelings in the students? One senior colleague answered that yes, I should not dump something like that onto them, especially not on a Friday afternoon. 

But what was I really “dumping” on them, I had but accounted for a score of scientific facts {Stocker, 2013 #339; Steffen, 2015 #473; Steffen, 2007 #432; Füssel, 2012 #494}. Science-based facts, that we in every other situation revere at a technical university. But in light of this anecdote, many questions arise. Should we avoid evoking emotions - both my own and those of my students? Ought I instead to have wrapped my students in cotton wool and downplayed the scale and the urgency of the problems we are facing? If so, how exactly am I supposed to do that? By portioning out (moderately) bad news in-between cheerful accounts of what we are currently working on that might help, or at least to some small degree help? If it on the other hand is fine - or even commendable - to evoke emotions in my students, exactly what responsibilities do I then have as their teacher? Do I have a responsibility to take care of their emotions, and how exactly am I supposed to do that? And for god’s sake, I’m a university teacher and not a therapist and our seminars are academic seminars and not support groups! Again, what am I supposed to do? Direct them to the nearest health center or tell them to talk to a psychologist? Deliver my facts in a detached manner and let them deal with it as grown-ups as best as they can. Or should we embrace their worries and follow up the lectures with some structure that makes it possible for the students to vent their concerns? There are so many questions and so few answers...

As shown in this section, emotions are stirred when presenting facts about our current situation. There are many emotional barriers that are met when approaching facts about the planetary boundaries, as described in Norgaard’s (2011) book on the social construction of climate change denial. In her study she shows that the most common emotion management strategies to avoid fear and helplessness is to is to control the exposure to information, not think far ahead and focus on things that one can do (but perhaps not are the most effective). Unfortunately, educators were one of the groups that most frequently used these strategies (Norgaard 2011), which contributes to the inertia in tackling the problem. We would argue that this is not only an educational problem but is also present within HCI research (Knowles and Eriksson 2015). But there is no more time, we have to find other strategies to handle negative emotions that do not lead to inertia, and dare to talk about the hard facts, even if it hurts. 

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