Teaching a Teachable Moment (and Trying to Make it Last)

Teaching a Teachable Moment (and Trying to Make it Last)

Being a scientist by training can sometimes leave me a timid communicator. By scientists’ standards, I’m probably not objective enough in my writing, but by advocates’ standards, my rhetoric could be much stronger. And then there’s the classroom. You have to constantly decide whether to connect the dots for the students and teach them directly, or present them the information and let them make the leap of knowledge. I find myself constantly walking these lines whether I’m writing or lecturing.

Of course, true scientists will warn that we can’t link any one extreme weather event to climate change until all the data is in. “All the data” means linking singular events to other events before and after to see if any patterns emerge. Not knowing future events at this juncture means that scientifically, it would be irresponsible to make such leaps. However, communicators shouldn’t miss an opportunity to link the predictions of scientists come true. When these predictions materialize outside people’s window, there’s also a responsibility to provide answers (otherwise fossil fuel companies will happily insert the wrong ones). This is especially true when said window resides in one of the major epicenters of the world and nation.

I teach mostly non-majors at Pace University. Most of the students who take my class have never paid attention to environmental issues before. Usually when I teach about climate change, I have to find a way to connect the issue directly to them. Hurricane Sandy made that easy. Suddenly the information on the power point slides sank in a lot deeper. The only divide between me and the students was that I lived uptown, one of the few unscathed neighborhoods of the city, while many of my students resided in areas that were flooded, evacuated, or without power.

One student from Staten Island (one of the most devastated areas of the city) came to class (which had been cancelled for a week and a half) all fired up. She wanted me to explain the mechanics of the storm and how climate change made it worse. So I spent 20 minutes talking about sea level rise and storm surge, hurricanes and ocean temperatures, and how Arctic ice melt may shift storms northward into our path.

Next semester, I’m teaching an entire class on the science of climate change. I’m hoping this storm will attract more students to sign up to learn about the issue, but even a couple weeks after life has gone back to normal, I’m afraid their interests may have already waned.

When I write for an Internet audience, I can’t just dive right in like I’m able to do when I teach. I have to find ways to connect to the audience first, and draw them in before slapping them with the facts. While most of our readers are interested in climate change, most of them don’t reside in New York, so my perspective is what’s interesting. What is similar, though, is that like teaching non-majors, I can’t use too much jargon and need to keep concepts simple. And, like I said before, my uptown Manhattan neighborhood, although only a few blocks away from massive flooding, didn’t lose power once and experienced less than an inch of rain, so the only stories I could relay were ones posted on local blogs. When time is of the essence on a blog, I have to use what I have at my fingertips.

I feel like the sad fact to which I’ve conceded is that it will take natural disasters of this sort to get people talking about climate change. While studies show that more people believe it is happening, the news still barely covers it and our politicians continually find ways to avoid it.

Laurel Whitney is an adjunct professor in the Environmental Studies department at Pace University.