In-Flight Behaviour: Teaching Cli-fi Literature in First-Year Intro English Classes
What I Did and Why I Did It
by Professor Greg Garrard in Canada
I had taught a class about cli-fi novels to graduate students at Bath Spa University in the UK once before, but the 2014-15 academic year was my first opportunity to teach it to Canadian undergraduates at my new institution, the University of British Columbia in the Okanagan.
One of the biggest differences between the two systems is that British students typically take courses in two subjects in their first year, and then only their chosen subject thereafter, whereas UBC students pursue a liberal arts programme that requires them to take courses in a range of disciplines.
As a consequence, British lecturers pretty much teach students in their own subject only, whereas Canadian professors are frequently asked to teach ‘service’ courses to students who are majoring in other subjects.
My cli-fi course could have been calibrated to any level of the degree. I decided to make it into a first year intro course that would cater mainly to non-English majors for two reasons: first, I wanted this most crucial of topics to reach the largest possible number of students; and second, I wanted to use the course to demonstrate the value and significance of humanities-based approaches to a subject that is overwhelmingly discussed in terms of science, engineering and governmental politics. My choice of literary and other texts could, I hoped, enrich students’ knowledge and understanding of climate change, while teaching evaluations (TEQs) could provide a rudimentary sense of whether or not the objectives of the class had been achieved. However, students normally complete TEQs in a rapid, unconsidered fashion, and some research suggests such questionnaires really only measure the likeability of the teacher and the students’ estimate of their expected grade for the course (Clayson, Frost and Sheffet; Clayson and Sheffet), so I also included an essay prompt that implicitly asked for reflection on the value of the course: ‘”Literature has little to contribute to progressive climate politics.” Do you agree?’ Quotations from students below appear under their real names, are drawn verbatim from both TEQs and essays, and are used with permission. It is worth noting, though, that the addressee of these statements, qua pedagogical researcher, was also grading their essays, making them questionable as sources of reliable evaluation (Garrard "Problems and Prospects in Ecocritical Pedagogy" 236) The responses gathered by means of a learning-focused essay question suggested that formal assessment is underused as a means of obtaining more reasoned and thoughtful pedagogical reflections from students than TEQs.
The 13-week course justified its ‘service’ designation by incorporating substantial elements of composition – another aspect of teaching that British lecturers seldom undertake, at least formally. The course texts included Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth; selected stories from Helen Simpson’s In-Flight Entertainment; Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour (the title of which we perennially confused with Simpson’s, as in my chapter heading above); Steve Waters’s play The Contingency Plan; and a small number of critical essays and extracts by Kari Norgaard, Mike Hulme, Richard Kerridge, and so on. As a newcomer, I reluctantly accepted the widespread North American habit of over-assessing and micro-managing students’ learning, despite my concerns that such assessment regimes are not supported by pedagogical research (Gibbs).
The objectives of the course had to be strictly limited from the outset. The requirement to spend a minimum proportion of 35% on the writing component had to be borne in mind, even if the stated figure is impossible to measure and in any case never checked. Additional objectives included introduction of basic narratological terminology, and reflective analysis of the ways various disciplines characterise, or ‘frame’, climate change. The commitment to spend a decent amount of time on each literary text (Garrard "A Novel Idea: Slow Reading") meant that other attractive options relevant to the teaching of climate change fiction, notably Mitchell Thomashow’s suggestions for enhancing ‘biospheric perception’, could not be included. Nevertheless, Thomashow’s characterisation of the problem was a guiding insight throughout:
A fine paradox emerges. Global environmental change is too elusive to grasp, yet too profound to ignore. Not yet the province of concentrated public attention, it appears more subtly, through its images and metaphors. Not easily understood, it leaves its marks and trails nevertheless, in the form of local signs and global reflections. International networks of commerce and communication may hide the ecological origins of your daily life, but they bring images of the planet to bear on your every move, whether it’s the Netscape icon of a comet passing over the globe, or a Coca-Cola ad panning the world’s cultures for coke drinkers. (Thomashow 37)
Timothy Clark’s work on the disorientation of temporal and spatial scales brought about by climate change (Clark "Some Climate Change Ironies: Deconstruction, Environmental Politics and the Closure of Ecocriticism"; Clark "Scale") was another point of reference that emphasised the paradoxical quality of life in the era of climate change.
What We Learned, What Students Said
Our starting point was the failure of the UN-sponsored IPCC/COP process, which was originally designed to forge a science-based political consensus for global action to curb greenhouse gas emissions. A student named Jessy pointed out that ‘As global reports and documentaries have not been effective in reaching the general public so far, climate change literature may be our last hope in convincing many people that climate change is happening’. Taking note of this failure was not meant to cast doubt on the scientific position: the IPCC Assessment Reports are assembled from publically-funded, peer-reviewed science, which I argued should be given more weight than sceptical weblogs or position papers produced by fossil fuel-funded ‘think tanks’. Nevertheless, five successive reports, each of them better grounded and more confident than the last, have not, as yet, galvanised international action. As Mike Hulme points out, the supposed separation between the scientific work of the IPCC and the politics of the COP forums has proven difficult to sustain, leaving the scientists open to charges of ‘politicization’:
Does the IPCC offer impartial science or does it shape policy? Does the IPCC reflect the views of participating scientists or the views of the government officials who have to approve its reports? Some disagreements about climate change can be traced to different interpretations of the authority of the IPCC. (Hulme 96)
The climate fictions chosen for discussion provided opportunities for two types of reflection on this problem. Since Kingsolver, Waters and one of Simpson’s stories feature scientists as characters, discussion of the fictional dilemmas they face illuminated the fundamental problem with the hegemonic construction of scientific knowledge in Western societies: scientific authority is seen to depend not only on methodological impartiality (guaranteed procedurally by peer-review and public funding), which is indeed essential, but also on rhetorical impartiality. For example in Flight Behaviour, Ovid Byron resists the suggestion of protagonist Dellarobia that he try to ‘save’ the imperilled monarch butterflies, saying: ‘“I am not a zookeeper … I’m not here to save monarchs. I’m trying to read what they are writing on our wall.”’ (Kingsolver 320) Dr Byron believes that his reputation as a scientist depends on sounding unconcerned about the fate of the butterflies, even though the two kinds of impartiality have no necessary relationship at all. In the event, goaded by a TV journalist desperate to avoid talking about climate change, Byron violates the disciplinary protocol, venting his passionate feelings in a tirade that is then posted on YouTube. Discussion of this point is especially useful for students intending to major in natural sciences, clearly.
The other discussion one can initiate based on the failure of the IPCC/COP process is a more general one about the social utility of science and its limits. As Hulme explains, ‘climate’ is a concept with deep-rooted meanings for different cultures and bioregions, so it cannot be revised overnight by scientific appropriation and redescription. Flight Behaviour conveys this complexity by the wonderfully subtle means of placing a brilliantly memorable symbol at the centre of its narrative: the monarch butterfly swarm. Dellarobia first encounters it without spectacles, on her way to an adulterous assignation, and so is forced, against her agnostic disposition, to think of the butterfly-clothed trees in Biblical terms:
The burning trees were put here to save her. It was the strangest conviction she’d ever known, and still she felt sure of it. She had no use for superstition … By no means was she important enough for God to conjure signs and wonders on her account. What had set her apart, briefly, was an outsize and hellish obsession. To stop a thing like that would require a burning bush, a fighting of fire with fire. (16)
Her Appalachian neighbours publically proclaim the arrival of the monarchs as a miracle and a sign from God, although there is little agreement as to what precisely it means. Privately, they see the butterflies as either an economic opportunity – for tourist dollars – or a potential obstacle to their plans for land development. As the novel progresses, the symbolic meanings accumulate: Ovid Byron and his team add a scientific perspective, while environmentalists from California and England emphasise the beauty and fragility of the butterflies. Such is Kingsolver’s conciliatory ambition for the novel, moreover, these symbolic meanings more often grow together than clash violently (Garrard "Conciliation and Consilience: Climate Change in Barbara Kingsolver's 'Flight Behaviour'"). Reacting perhaps to the obdurate incommensurability of cultures of nature in contemporary American political discourse, Kingsolver chooses in her fiction to imagine figures like Pastor Ogle, an evangelist preacher with remarkable environmental sensitivities. Siobhan explained this intermediating function in her essay:
Literature is a cultural broker and like Dellarobia in Flight Behavior, literature connects us to ideas that could have happened years ago, in a far off country, or maybe both. Dellarobia connects two far off worlds, the world of scholars and scientists, and the world of low-income church-goers. She connects her community to the world around her, where tragedy is disguised as beauty.
The phrase ‘cultural broker’, which had been coined by another student earlier in the course, came to be used frequently in class.
Much discussion throughout the course focused on the ‘knowledge/action gap’, at both individual and international levels. A wide range of explanations for the gap was discussed: the limitations of our evolved psychological capacities; the organised resistance of fossil fuel-funded scepticism; the inertia of existing energy systems; the social norms that restrict conversations about weather; the power of international capital; and so on. Crucially, the selected climate fictions were not presented as evidence for or against any of these explanations, but rather as dramatisations of the cultural processes by which climate change becomes cognitively and emotionally legible. Furthermore, the fictions were seen as making implicit or explicit metanarrative claims for literature itself in relation to climate change. For example, the title story of Simpson’s collection incorporates several narrative levels that imbricate the reader in complex emotional responses: the first person narrator, with whom we initially identify, is an arrogant, sexist climate sceptic. His interlocutor in the story is a former climate scientist, who reiterates the force of the scientific consensus, strengthening our suspicion of the narrator. However, the scientist has now retired and, having realised no one else is acting to prevent climate change, wants nothing more than to die in the first class cabin of an international flight. The narrator’s uneasy resistance to such heedless hedonism at once challenges his earlier scepticism and encourages the reader to question the relationship of knowledge and action in her own case. In this instance, it is the distinctive quality of narrativity that gives this story its significance.
In my experience it is a never-ending struggle to persuade students, English majors or no, to analyse the formal qualities of a narrative as well as to engage with the human dynamics of its storyworld. Dellarobia, in particular, was judged to be highly ‘relatable’ (top candidate for the neologism most hated by English profs), which meant her travails were considered beneficially emotive. Much as I wished students to observe how Kingsolver used focalisation and idiolectal metaphor to encourage such identification, I agreed with their judgment. Several students claimed that climate fiction was needed because few people respond emotionally to data, as in Kate’s suggestion that:
Human beings respond to all different kinds of information. … I feel that to be able to visualize is an advantage that hopefully humans can look past the dramatized Hollywood idea of climate change and see that the effects are real and no matter if one responds to scientific data or fictional stories that it is occurring and connection must be made to change it.
I tried, in the discussion of methodological impartiality, to stress that since the humanities also partake of these practices, they too institutionalise progressive forms of rationality. I also attempted to introduce Ursula Heise’s approach, which treats literature diagnostically as a source of information about enculturated notions of environmental risk (Heise 138), to little effect. As it turned out, demonstrating the utility of literature and criticism in advancing the rational understanding of climate change as a ‘wicked’ socio-ecological problem proved too demanding for this particular instructor/class confluence.
Kate’s response was like several others that continued to map the science/literature distinction onto a similarly dualistic configuration of reason/emotion. Siobhan, for example, stressed the value of the immersive, empathic experience of reading a novel like Flight Behaviour:
A common saying is “you are what you eat” but I have a radically different and definitely more reasonable twist. What about “you are what you read?” … Reading puts our brain into gear to think about the world around us.
Much as I want to honour the capacity of literature for realistic depiction and emotional involvement, I also feel the need to emphasise its distinctive forms of rationality and artificiality. This objective may exceed the capacity of a single introductory course, however.
An intriguing extension of the idea that climate fiction renders cold, hard data emotive, in Thea’s essay, emphasised the cognitive as well as affective benefits of the multiplicity of stories contained within a single novel of substance.
When written effectively climate change literature has the ability to make the arguably [sic] most influential issue of our time accessible to society. … works of fiction offer multiple stories regarding climate change, proving to readers that there is an array of stories connecting climate science to emotion, giving readers a reason to care about the issue.
The emotional power of literature is its ethical warrant, as before, but that power is seen as deriving from its specifically dialogic narrative techniques rather than a single source in the author or narrator. Despite the enthusiasm for multiple voices evinced here, though, Steve Waters’s two-part play was very poorly received by students: it was too English and too preachy, and they mostly loathed reading a script rather than a story.
I envisaged the course as incorporating reflection of the place of science in contemporary culture, as well as justifying the humanities to those who will not continue to study them. I also talked a lot about narrative technique and the fictionality of fiction – its complex, ambiguous relationship to the nonfictional world we think we inhabit. Despite my efforts, many essays treated the fictions as unmediated sources of information about such extratextual realities as the relationship of gender and climate change or the environmental ethics of Christianity. The abrasive, disruptive, unassimilable singularity of literature was not much in evidence – though Barbara Kingsolver, for one, was a poor choice to convey such otherness. Her overtly literary prose, though, ought perhaps to have made more of an impression.
Students are generally confused, and with good reason, by the term ‘realism’. It is always shadowed by the notion of what is ‘realistic’ (i.e. conforming to the student’s own sense of what it possible or plausible), whilst at the same time it alludes to the loose literary history and repertoire of narrative techniques gathered under the heading of ‘realism’. While a student’s personal sense of verisimilitude is inevitably informed by wider cultural mores and assumptions – Newtonian physics, popular post-Freudian psychology and the capitalist ideology of progress, roughly – climate fiction can be held to a novel, more demanding standard thanks to the IPCC projections. In that peculiar new kind of context, Simpson’s apocalyptic short story ‘Diary of an Interesting Year’ is probably unrealistic – though no author has, to my knowledge, imagined anything more realistic, in this sense, as yet.
The next iteration of this course will be much larger – 150 students rather than 35 – and will involve lecturing and managing TAs rather than teaching a seminar. It will also switch topic somewhat, dropping the play to focus on narratives only, and combining climate change and biodiversity loss under an ‘Anthropocene Culture’ rubric. I have added Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s immensely popular They Say/I Say to shape the composition element away from the correct employment of semicolons and towards the use of evidence to develop reasoned argument. I will again use assessments as an opportunity to collect rich (if biased) information about students’ responses to environmental fiction and criticism, but I will focus the essay prompt more explicitly on learning and teaching. Over further iterations, I plan to explore the ways that the assessment regime for this and other courses constitutes a ‘hidden curriculum’ that may convey values at odds with those overtly endorsed (Sambell and McDowell). I will also try to incorporate some of Thomashow’s smart perceptual exercises, and look for constructive means of redirecting students’ irrepressible obsession with smartphones and laptops towards genuine deep learning. My learning curve in the next few years will be every bit as steep as theirs.
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