The Pedagogy of Hope: Continuing the Conversation

Brittany B. Fremion

Editor's Note: This is a follow-up post to last week's The Pedagogy of Hope.

The roundtable I participated in at the American Society for Environmental History conference at the end of March focused on ways instructors find hope in environmental history narratives in their courses. And I certainly work to incorporate research I present and learn about at conferences into my classes. In an effort to bring what I learned at this particular gathering to a wider audience, I offer this follow-up post.

My roundtable, “The Pedagogy of Hope: Teaching Hope in the Environmental Classroom,” featured instructors in environmental studies and history programs. Each presenter brought a unique perspective and strategy for finding hope to the roundtable. Jim Feldman from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh frequently checks in with his students after discussing particularly taxing topics in his environmental studies course. He works hard to engage current events and demonstrate to students that sustainability is “not a narrative of decline, it’s a narrative of hope.” Sarah Hamilton, now at Auburn University, talked about a course she taught at the University of Michigan in 2014, wherein students developed an environmental history of Detroit. By working directly with community leaders and members, her students recognized the significance of community action groups and the power of individuals to bring about change locally. The collaborative endeavor increased student empathy and demonstrated that “change is ongoing and they can be a part of it” (check out the course website: https://detroitenvironment.lsa.umich.edu). Amy Kohout uses post-apocalyptic fiction in her American environmental history course at Colorado College. Her use of Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, for example, creates opportunities for the discussion of hopeful narratives and what fiction may do for the study of history: it presents “the wide range of possible futures.” Finally, George Vrtis from Carleton College assessed the state of the field and its historiography, pointing out that while “hope is a feeling, not an intellectual enterprise,” it is important to kindle hope to help students understand the environmental challenges we face. He contended that there are hopeful narratives in environmental history and that instructors can identify them by designing discussions that encourage students to find themes that inspire them. 

Finding hope in environmental history—or any field, really—is important. Hope drives interest and cultivates passion, which in turn provokes a response. I took my first environmental history course as an undergraduate at the University of Saint Francis, in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The instructor, also my advisor, assigned William Cronon’s Changes in the Land and William Ashworth’s The Late, Great Lakes. The class, and these books in particular, made a profound impression on me. I learned about the transformation of the American landscape both before and after European settlement, and the “death” of Lake Erie in the 1960s. I was astonished that the field rose out of the environmental movement in the 1970s (in fact, these activist roots are what first drew me to environmental history). I became interested in environmental issues, joined the Sierra Club, and helped establish a nature preserve on campus for Earth Day. I went to graduate school, first for a MA in history and then a doctorate. Now I teach my own environmental history class. The point is, I channeled any anger and despair I felt about the environmental present in 2003 and translated it into action. In turn, I have found hope (see previous post).

Following the short presentations by roundtable participants, audience members contributed to the conversation by bringing insight from their own experiences. Some of the questions they raised include the following, which I leave to you:

1)    How can one find hope in global environmental histories or histories typified by more tragic narratives? (I’m thinking of histories like Mike Davis’s Late Victorian Holocausts.)

2)    Is there danger in overemphasizing hope? (This question was prefaced by the revelation that a prominent historian once told a student that “environmental history is depressing, so it should be.”)

3)    What other strategies enable instructors to teach empathy and hope?