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The Pedagogy of Hope: Teaching Hope in the Environmental Classroom

Thu, March 30, 8:30 to 10:00am, The Drake Hotel, Walton No.

Session Submission Type: Roundtable


In his 1993 presidential address to the ASEH, William Cronon identified a key challenge of teaching environmental history: the subject often evokes despair in students. Noting that this emotion seemed neither personally nor politically useful, Cronon called upon environmental historians to communicate the field’s lessons in a more hopeful key. Nearly twenty-five years later, this roundtable considers how effectively we have answered this call. We will share our attempts to bring hopeful narratives and strategies into our environmentally-themed courses. Introducing students to the core components of historical inquiry, including uncertainty, contingency, and complexity, leaves them feeling more optimistic about the environmental present and future than when they entered our classrooms.

Sarah Hamilton shares lessons from her course on Detroit’s environmental history. Against popular imaginings of Detroit as a post-apocalyptic wasteland, her students found hope in the city’s repeated transformations of landscapes, and in its resilience over time. Amy Kohout reflects upon teaching post-apocalyptic fiction in environmental studies classes. In making the familiar strange and privileging questions of uncertainty, such texts offer students hopeful possibilities for the future. Brittany Bayless Fremion discusses how Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael (1992) helps students recognize their personal power to bring about environmental change within a wider non-human world. Meanwhile, Jim Feldman confronts the scalar tension between individual initiative as a path to environmental hopefulness and systemic forces beyond any one person’s capacity to shift. He helps students negotiate this tension by revealing the historical contingencies involved in the creation of present-day economic, social and environmental systems. Finally, George Vrtis delineates how foregrounding environmental historical analysis and historiography and constructing thick, complex environmental historical narratives can inspire an empowering, hopeful engagement with our environmental travails.

If possible, the program should link this roundtable to the one entitled “Hope and Environmental History,” as the two were conceived together.

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