Creating Space for Indwelling: Tristan, the Outreach Counselor

#29 in the Teaching Climate Change Study and Field Notes Blog

I had a dream recently in which I was riding in the back of an Uber with Michael Mann. I was very excited, kind of starstruck, in the dream. But, he didn’t acknowledge me. He kept making tweets on his cel phone, and I was sitting next to him, in the Uber, reading his tweets on my cel phone and thinking, wow I’m in an Uber with Michael Mann this is so cool.

But when I woke up, I realized it actually wasn’t that cool.

I’m told that in dreams, being in a car signifies the control you feel over your life. Being in the driver’s seat would indicate that you feeling pretty good. But, in this dream, I’m in the backseat of my own life reading 150 character tweets about about climate change, instead of actually connecting, with the expert sitting right next to me, about this sticky and wicked problem that consumes my working days and penetrates to my unconscious self.

In dream analysis, the climate scientist or expert represented by Michael Mann was in fact, really also me – the dream indicates that there is a split between the expert part of myself that knows what to do about climate change, and the other part of myself that is afraid of that very knowing.

I think it’s time for me to stop waiting for some expert to tell me what to do. I devour books and papers about climate change and I embed them into every assignment that I design as a college writing professor. I have been teaching climate change pretty intensely since 2005, but I still get student comments like this one, which I read last week in my never ending folder of student essays to grade:

These devastating and seemingly irreversible events are right on our horizon and yet… the public is largely unaware of it….it’s like a prophecy with a seemingly never-ending list of drastic changes our environment faces and somehow this is one of the first times I have ever heard of such daunting information. I am a 21-year-old living on a tropical island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, where global warming will be felt particularly hard. And again I am wholly unaware of just how grim our outlook is. That seems completely and utterly backwards to me.

This kind of comment has kept me interested in one research question (“What do college students know, think, feel, and do about climate change?”) for the past fifteen years, and it’s that question that led to the “Worry & Hope” study, which was finally published this month in the Journal of Community Engagement and Scholarship special issue on knowledge translation. (For you podcast people, the study was also featured on the Citizens Climate Radio podcast this month, paired with Sarah Jacquette Ray, whose excellent book A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety is the result of decades of similar teaching experiences.)

For me, the “Worry & Hope” study involved literally hundreds of hours spent listening and transcribing student voices. My co-researcher Matthew Lynch has written about the climate grief spiral that he went into during the 18 months of focus group research we did together, especially after reading David Wallace Wells. (Imagine sharing an Uber with him!) I had a particularly rough week in 2018 during the four days when Hawai’i held its breath waiting for Hurricane Lane, a slow-moving potential Cat 5 hurricane that dissipated at the very last moment. Note to self: don’t transcribe interviews about climate anxiety during a tropical cyclone.

We all have a split self in regards to the climate predicament. We are split between knowing and not-knowing. What I’m interested in is the felt-sense of this knowing, the sensation of swimming in one’s own finite pool of worry. As I was writing the lit review for the paper, I discovered some genius work from the 1950s by Hungarian-British polymath Michael Polyani, who called this type of tacit knowing an “indwelling.” And I just love that word.

I think that the student comment and my dream have something in common. I think the student is split between their own “indwelling” and the relative infrequency with which they have the opportunity to engage with explicit information about the impacts of climate change that will so directly impact their future.

This is the very heart of the “doomism” vs. “hopeism” tension embodied in the stances of Michael Mann and Jem Bendell. To oversimplify it, Mann is a techno-optimist who focuses on explicit knowledge. Bendell, on the other hand, just completed a four day solidarity fast organized by Scientist Rebellion). Bendell’s approach takes us inward, diving down into the pool of worry, even into a hidden cave at the bottom of that pool where, in the Deep Adaptation framework, we find a sustaining resilience through facing what we know.

This reminds me of my ‘transparent eyeball’ post. (Image: Pixabay)

I wrote about this in the “Worry & Hope” paper:

The indwelling of climate change information, the tacit, unspoken, difficult part of it, is a different prospect to a 20-year old student facing climactic disruption, social upheaval, or climate collapse than it is for their 40–60-year-old college professor.

In my experience, university discourse belongs increasingly to the techno-optimists, while the doomers huddle around the fringes of the academy. The more urgent the climate predicament becomes, the more difficult it seems for faculty to talk about it or to teach it in a coherent fashion because:

a) there is not a reliable schema or shared climate literacy, and because;

b) the emotional environment is so fraught, and because;

c) faculty are busy, fragmented, and burning out at insane rates from remote learning.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the higher ed sector lost 650,000 jobs last year, or 13% of the academic workforce. For full-time faculty, this means more work. At my own college, there are fewer course releases for committee work, coordinator roles, or special projects (including the Teaching Climate Change Study, which I used to have more time for). Everybody’s got their nose so hard to the grindstone it hurts. And it’s hard to look up.

We just need to create some space for the indwelling.

As we enter the homestretch of this remote spring semester, possibly glimpsing a light at the end of the tunnel vision that remote teaching has required, I’m bringing the Teaching Climate Change Field Notes Blog off of the back burner. I finished the transcript of an interview I did last fall with Tristan (a pseudonym), the first counselor that I’ve interviewed (30 posts with faculty from different academic disciplines and a few guest interviews, here.)

I started the interview by telling him about the study:

I’m interested in how climate change is changing our function. You know, what does it take and what mean for our work and identity and pedagogy, and all that stuff.

He began by describing his work as a high school outreach counselor.

College is a wonderful place because you can help people explore what their next steps are. I want to understand why our current college students are strugging in picking the right path for them. They are hungry for something but they don’t know what it is just yet. This fuels my energy towards helping.

Tristan is what I would call a “solid” person, the kind of upstanding citizen who says “oh my goodness” instead of “oh my god” and listens more than he talks. The salt and pepper sprinkled in his hair gives him an air of authority, but it’s the humility you hear in his voice that makes you really trust him.

Tristan’s position has a counseling function in a faculty line, which means he has tenure and a top rank that is equivalent to a full professor.

I just feel blessed to have so many mentors and people looking out for me and saying, there is a reason you are in this position. I try to use my position to make meaningful changes. I’m in this position because now I can be the voice to those who might be nervous in speaking up. I can be a voice for youth and perhaps I can change the needle a little bit or a lot and I think that’s how I got to where I am today….I’m going to keep pushing so that twenty years from now I can feel like, okay, I’ve earned it.

Just as the data in the “Worry & Hope” study illustrate, Tristan cites his own lived experience as his main source of information about climate change (college faculty rank fourth in the study). Al Gore (who ranked third, along with Leonardo DiCaprio) gave him a “holy cow” moment, but Tristan emphasized that:

There’s other things too. It’s when you go to the beach and look at the shoreline and you think about when you were a kid and you think to yourself, that wasn’t like that when I was ten. And so then you start looking into things that may have contributed to that shift in the shoreline.

One of Hawaiʻi’s most vulnerable roads (image KITV news)

I remember driving from Windward side to North Shore, that is an eye-opener when you see how close the ocean is to the road, it’s like, oh my goodness. It’s like, you know, the weather is not like it was, and then, what am I doing to slow this down? … I guess the overriding thing in my undergraduate and graduate studies was just how can I be a more mindful citizen?

Tristan also does college outreach at middle schools, and he helped to bring an early-college sustainability certificate to a high school that was able to graduate 13 high school seniors with a college-level certificate in sustainability last year. “I work with grades 6 to 12, and they know there’s an issue out there (with climate change) and I believe they’re serious about it, but they don’t know how to be an active participant. The majority will just sit on the sidelines knowing that something needs to be done.”

But then Tristan had kind of an a-ha moment, adding: “or maybe they are doing it already — their school has a community garden, or they are doing an eighth grade portfolio on certain topics, for some, they are actively researching their contributions to their community, but maybe just not knowing that their plan actually could have an effect on change. How do we tell them that, get them to really own what they are learning?”

How do we tell them, “this is what you can do with it, instead of saying you really should learn about climate change. Because I feel they are learning about it, but they just aren’t realizing it.”

Tristan used an interesting example that helped me see teaching climate change in a new way. A local hospital reached out to him for advice on creating a hiring pathway for new IT professionals to work at the hospital. He explained, “A hospital is more than healthcare; they have databases that need to be managed, doctor’s notes online, and without a solid IT infrastructure they can’t do their jobs well. Climate change is the same — it’s not just about Environmental Studies majors, it’s that everybody should have Environmental Studies AND —” I interrupted him, saying:

It’s got to be the new Gen Ed!

We keep trying to fit this in around the edges when we need to turn the whole thing inside out and put climate change and sustainability at the center.

We talked about our teenaged children who went to innovative sustainability-oriented elementary and middle schools. I was lamenting that my 14-year-old is more interested in TikTok these days than the meditation garden she designed for a portfolio project as a save-the-world eighth grader. In his counseling role, he sees the way kids grow up with climate change in their schooling.

In K-5, it’s about getting your hands dirty and beach cleanups. But then maybe they are over it. Like, you know, I don’t want to get my hands dirty any more, but that information is still in there somewhere. My son is worried about passing his classes, and there’s teenage boy things he’s doing like video games and cars, but he will say things in random moments that tell me he’s thinking about stuff. He’s starting to see himself as a public policy type of guy. If you understand the science and are engaged with what is happening, you can learn how to get your hands dirty in different ways.

As our conversation came to a close, I asked Tristan what he would change about the way we are teaching climate change in higher education.

“I would go from the ground up. If you change the minds of our instructors, show them how we have a problem right here in your comfort zone, in your discipline, whether its accounting or whatever, what is your role, then you craft it in your essay assignment or your history reflection or your science paper or whatever.”

I think He seems to be saying, to stop looking at it, stop pointing at it, stop calling it “climate change” — that thing, over there — and instead really be IN the predicament, the more complex tacit knowledge of it — the indwelling.

“Once you show them certain big things they can’t unsee it. They may be reluctant at first, but you know it’s swimming in their heads.”

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