Flooded towns and washed out roads, the historic flooding that Vermont experienced in July, reveal our climate future. They also raise an important question: has adapting to online learning has become so easy that it allows us to avoid addressing the most existential challenge that faces humanity? How does higher education confront and not just work around climate change?
The streets of many Vermont towns are still filled with debris and during the peak summer season, many were cleaning up wreckage and organizing assistance for community members who were most impacted. While certainly not as society-altering as heat waves in India or wildfires in Canada, Vermont and its colleges provide a window on some of the possibilities and dangers for how higher education responds to climate change.
At Goddard College, while the storms did only some damage to the campus in Plainfield, Vermont, staff and faculty members had their homes damaged and some were cut off for days. As a result, our Masters in Creative Writing Program was forced to shift its summer residency to fully online. In 1963, Goddard College invented the low residency model where students come to campus for 8 days before working remotely for the rest of the term. Today, all of its programs continue in this model. Students were naturally disappointed by this change, but given the devastation to communities near campus, the difficulties traveling to the area and the inability to be confident in food deliveries or electrical supply, they were understanding. Faculty and administrators worked quickly to set up Zoom rooms and move meetings online, and the residency went forward relatively smoothly despite the devastation right outside many of our doors.
At the same time, however, our adaptability demonstrated another danger. The COVID-19 pandemic honed our familiarity with remote learning and allowed us to pivot in response to this latest external threat. How does higher education ensure that we are not normalizing the damage caused by climate change by simply building workarounds? How do we strive not only to avoid the effects of climate change, but also to serve as models for how society should be responding to this ongoing global catastrophe?
Higher education has had an important role in elevating public awareness around climate change, not to mention funding scientific research on related topics, but it has also been shaped by funds from the fossil fuel industry. One report concluded that 27 universities had received over $700 million from this industry over ten years. While Goddard and other small schools might not be big enough to merit such corporate influence, how colleges like Goddard respond to a changing climate can help our students and communities become activists and global citizens in the late anthropocene era.
Particularly for the writing students at Goddard, it would have been possible for each to remain in their own homes, focus on their own writing and forget about the devastation brought on by the floods. But the faculty and students did not allow this to happen. Instead, the faculty quickly reorganized the lectures for the week, inviting climate change journalist Dharna Noor to provide the program’s keynote address. Noor has a long history of reporting on how fossil fuel companies fund climate change research and create narratives that downplay the effects of climate change, suggesting that it is responsibility of individuals to make better choices to help climate change, rather than call for regulating fossil fuel companies. The lecture led to discussions of how writers and educators shape and reshape narratives. Students and faculty considered how to build a curriculum that inspires writing that considers and confronts climate change.
Noor pushed the writers in the program to help others “make sense of the world.” “We are nowhere near where we need to be,” she concluded, and we “need to be ready for the moments when the elites and the fossil fuel companies are vulnerable,” so that we can be prepared to know what we are going to ask for.” Colleges and universities have a unique role in this vision, not just in educating the public about climate change, but in changing narratives, imagining new futures and understanding what we should demand of fossil fuel companies and government regulators.
Goddard Creative Writing Faculty member, Eric Micha Holmes, pointed out “that ‘climate crisis’ is actually a crisis for humans,” and liberal arts colleges, such as Goddard, particularly those that put students at the center of their learning, are ideally set up for this human challenge. We are creating students who don’t merely “respond” to climate change, but who will work through the damage that humans have done to our planet. Student work focused not only on how to write directly about climate change, but also on how to write in the time of climate change, where human damage to the planet is a part of the landscape.
In many ways, despite its small population and budget, Goddard is better positioned to respond to the Vermont floods than other schools might be. Our flexible student-centered curriculum has always responded to the many pressing needs and concerns that students bring with them, and we have long emphasized social justice in a multitude of forms. Our students pride themselves on their commitment to social justice, decolonization, and anti-fascist art and practices. At the same time, however, I believe this is a model for higher education more broadly.
Students at Goddard come from a range of backgrounds and life experience. We enroll students from ages sixteen to ninety. This diversity of experiences enriches classroom discussions and allows students to understand complex changes to our world from a variety of perspectives. I would argue that we need to change our approach to climate change from disaster response to a deeper understanding that climate change is a paradigm shift that touches everyone in every corner of the globe, in different ways. Higher education has a responsibility to respond to the immediate effects of climate change and to prepare students and society to better understand and respond to these results.
When climate disaster strikes, it is our responsibility to help neighbors clean up and to continue educating students despite a variety of challenges. But we should not simply return to “business as usual.” We need to help students and communities process the trauma of climate change disaster while helping them envision alternative futures.