Nearly 100 Wellesley students are enrolled in a new interdisciplinary course this spring: ES 125H, “The Climate Crisis.” The course is cross-listed in the environmental studies and peace and justice studies departments, and is unique not only in its size but in its design. Co-taught by five professors, the half-credit, ungraded course discusses the climate crisis from a broad, interdisciplinary perspective. The course is taught by environmental studies professor Jay Morton Turner, biological sciences professor Becca Selden, English professor Dan P. Chiasson, peace and justice studies professor Catia Confortini and political science professor Tom Burke. Each professor will lecture for 1-2 weeks about topics within their disciplines related to the climate crisis. In addition to attending these lectures, students will hear from guests and engage in interactive projects.
The course is structured around a central theme: “place.” Along with other related topics, the course explores the effects of the climate crisis on different places and the relationship between sense of place and perceptions of climate change. It also discusses the human experiences of the crisis in different places, with attention to the role of power differentials in determining these interactions.
The syllabus states that “By sharpening and deepening your understanding of place, [ES 125H] is designed to make the climate crisis more vivid and meaningful to you.”
Students will keep journals recording their reflections on the course, observations of the natural environment on campus and “phenology,” which Professor Selden defines as observations of the seasonal phases of different organisms. A course newspaper will archive observations from each student’s journal.
“What I’m trying to instill is this idea of a shifting baseline, where if all you know is what you’ve seen in the last few years, it’s hard to see the changes … we really are having this big impact, and in ways that it’s every tree around us,” Professor Selden said.
Professor Selden researches climate change as a part of her work specializing in fisheries. In her research and in the course, Professor Selden discusses the influence of climate change on natural resources and human livelihoods.
“I’m hopeful that when we take this livelihood perspective, it can motivate action,” Professor Selden said.
According to the course syllabus, Professor Turner will teach about the scientific mechanisms and effects of climate change, as well as mechanisms of sustainability, while Professor Chiasson will discuss, among other things, ways of observing and describing nature, place and change. Professors Turner and Chiasson were unavailable for an interview.
Professors Confortini and Burke have little experience researching climate change and are both learning from the experience of teaching the course. They hope that the course will encourage students to consider how their own interests and specialties relate to work in addressing the climate crisis.
“While Wellesley offers a lot of courses and programs that are around climate change and sustainability, they’re really more for the specialists,” Professor Burke said. “It’s not just environmental science majors that are going to be working professionally on climate change.”
According to Professor Confortini, she has been able to draw on experience with feminist organizing and research about peace, conflict, justice and gender in teaching the course. She stresses the importance of intersectionality in organizing to combat the climate crisis. A central theme of her lectures will be “how the crisis affects differently gendered people differently, but also how differently gendered people react, respond, and organize vis-a-vis … climate change.”
Professor Burke’s research focus is on American politics. He is conducting new research for his lectures in the course, and he plans to incorporate his previous research by discussing the effects of place and political partisanship on climate policy.
The professors hope that Wellesley will continue to grow its number of interdisciplinary courses. Following a similar model, future courses focused on the climate crisis could approach the issue from more perspectives currently not included in this course.
“[The class is] a window into what Wellesley could be if we really collaborated more with each other, between faculty, with students, if we … had a curriculum at Wellesley that was really organized around these synergies,” Professor Confortini said.
According to Professor Selden, a major benefit of this course is that it makes engagement with scholarship and action related to the climate crisis more broadly accessible to students.
“One of my goals is to … build a large, critical mass of students on campus who have this shared passion and this shared climate literacy and hopefully can maybe motivate action on our own campus or broader action,” Professor Selden said.
The course is slated to run again in the 2022-23 academic year.