Resilience for Sustainability in Higher Education

For a decade, Jane Haladay and I have taught environmental literature at the University of North Carolina, Pembroke, North Carolina’s historically American Indian university founded in 1887 for the education of Lumbee teachers. Since 1887, UNCP has become a uniquely multiethnic campus, drawing African American, Native American, and white students of all ages from its persistently impoverished nine-county service region in southeastern North Carolina. Since 2008, when we first piloted an environmental literature course at UNCP, Jane and I have gone up (successfully) for tenure and promotion, and we have witnessed a sea change in the landscape of public higher education in North Carolina, with state funding slashed, tuition increased, programs cut, two system presidents ousted, new ones installed, and civil rights centers shuttered by an unabashedly conservative Board of Governors. At the same time, we have witnessed the dismantling of North Carolina’s environmental regulatory apparatus, with climate change skeptics and deregulators appointed by former Governor Pat McCrory to lead the state’s Department of Environmental Quality. Today, North Carolina residents are suffering from the harms of open-air hog waste lagoons, factory-style chicken farms, carcinogens in municipal and private water systems from Fayetteville to Wilmington, coal ash dumps one breach away from flooding more rivers, an expanding wood pellet industry poised to clearcut thousands of acres for fuel for European export, and rapid suburbanization and development around the state’s larger cities. While UNC system faculty and staff attempt to do their work free of political interference, the state’s legislature seems to consider a business-friendly “collaboratory” it created, housed at the flagship Chapel Hill campus and directed by a Republican political appointee, sufficient for the oversight of the environmental and social complexities of our times. And now, we have been warned, thanks to the work of the United Nations’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, that “[n]ature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history—and the rate of species extinctions is accelerating, with grave impacts on people around the world now likely.”  

            Having previously written about teaching environmental literature at UNCP, published in ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature & Environment in 2010, we considered writing a book about our efforts to teach for sustainability, in a region we believed had been underrepresented in environmental literary studies. We planned to combine pedagogy, literary criticism, and environmentalism, but we found ourselves struggling to find a foothold and our voice. Thanks to these significant shifts in higher education, environmental policy, and other areas (lest we forget the state’s infamous “bathroom bill,” 2016’s HB2, criminalizing trans people for using public facilities that corresponded to their gender expression), we began to realize that educating for sustainability—in terms of curricula in general and classroom teaching in particular—had become increasingly vulnerable in North Carolina’s current political and economic climate. This worrisome and wearying recognition led us to consider editing a collection of essays by others in higher education who have their own stories about surviving in the face of unsustainable circumstances, systems, politics, and places. We wanted to know how others were advocating for sustainability in ecologically compromised or vulnerable regions, how others were persisting with sustainability-focused teaching and learning despite institutional enmity or animus, and how others were confronting higher educational climate changes that might be eroding, redirecting, or reconstituting the theory and practice of education as if the planet mattered. We recognized, too, that the realities of neoliberal academia—contingent labor, low pay, and way too many specious metrics—made long-term commitments to places and institutions difficult if not impossible, and we acknowledged that the political ideologies now ascendant in many states scorned learning and sustainability alike. Put another way, we realized, rightly, that what interested us was not what we had done to or in our small postage-stamp-sized place on the planet, in our relatively short time on campus, but that we were not alone in seeking a path in higher education to a better future, in trying to bend higher education to confront the urgency of global climate change, all the while vying with trying institutional politics and cultures.
            The response we received was a gift, and the opportunity to correspond with a range of committed and thoughtful individuals across higher education across the globe was professionally and intellectually invigorating. Now that Michigan State University Press has transformed our work into a book, Narratives of Educating for Sustainability in Unsustainable Environments (2017), now that it’s sat on the shelf a while, and inspired by Anthony Lioi’s call for papers, I would like, first, to share in brief the insights our contributors make and, second, suggest next steps or perspectives. To my mind, the diverse writers in our collection point new paths forward, even as the modus operandi of Trumpism in the United States and reactionary conservatism abroad—far-reaching, massively-scaled destabilization that morphs and remorphs at breakneck speed—compel us to gird ourselves with new vigor, with stouter strength, amid greater consequences. As you read on, I hope you will imagine how the ideas presented by the diverse writers in our collection might apply to you; your teaching, research, and service; and your own campus; I hope, too, that the insights of these scholars will extend a conversation worth having across our scholarly community. 

            Hampering us are the systemic challenges of a higher education “gig economy.” Narrating her academic life story from growing up in Minnesota to graduate school and adjuncting in Nebraska and New York to an assistant professorship at the University of Central Arkansas, Jennifer Case emphasizes the disorienting demands for and repetitions of relocation and rebelonging. Even as she finds meaningful success in connecting herself to the places she inhabits and in emphasizing a place-based approach in the composition and creative-writing classes she teaches, she asserts that, nonetheless, “the inherent mobility of academic life does not, at least initially, facilitate a supportive, sustainable relationship with place, and increasingly, the job and working conditions have been proving unsustainable, too” (12-13). For our chapter, Haladay and I describe our teaching of a short story by Chad Locklear (Lumbee). The story touches on the many facets of life in southeastern North Carolina that make life difficult—violence, racism, sexism, homophobia, poor health and early mortality, and un- and underemployment—even as it honors the landscapes and waterways that comprise the heart of Lumbee culture. As we explore the short story with our classes, we focus on questions of belonging, staying put, or moving on, all cross-hatched by responsibilities to family and community. Taken together, these chapters urge us to warp higher education’s fixation on temporariness and disconnection toward the sort of long-term belonging promised by tenure, even as institutions that are (or promote themselves to be) “anchor institutions” carve out venues for their faculty and staff to put down their own anchors. University service, that is, need not be membership on a campus committee; instead, it might take the form of long-term, university-sponsored participation in local boards or councils, nonprofit groups, and political action committees—activities all that reinforce the social fabric while doing shared good.

A pervasive sense of institutional permanence or job security and an authentic feeling of shared destiny among the people who comprise them are fundamental in making our institutions resilient. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports,

Many colleges are finding they need to adapt their physical campuses. They must not only deal with higher temperatures and higher water, but also judge the level of risk facing their campuses and decide how best to prepare and plan their buildings and grounds to manage that risk decades into an uncertain future. And some must do so in communities where the words ‘climate change’ can turn a potentially productive conversation into a political argument.

Daniel Spoth, Briana R. Burke, and Jennifer Schell reveal the tensions and opportunities of the cross-fertilization of institutional resilience and teaching and learning. Writing from seven feet above sea level from Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, Spoth interweaves the imperative that his campus must prepare for rising seas with the refusal of Florida’s political establishment to acknowledge the science of climate change. What’s more, he grapples with the responsibility of faculty at colleges like his to prepare students from across the country and state to survive wherever they land after graduation, not as individuals but as communities, mindful of and committed to humanity’s shared challenge and responsibilities. In her chapter, Iowa State University’s Brianna R. Burke confronts the environmental, economic, and social impacts of coal—by bringing the issue home to her students not only through fiction, film, and music, but through their visit to the Iowa State coal-fired power plant. In this way, Burke leads students in exploring the shared responsibilities, all while mindful of the disparate perspectives of insiders and outsiders. Concluding the section, Jennifer Schell’s chapter outlines her place-based curriculum in a course on academic writing about the social and natural sciences, themed to the topics of biodiversity and extinction, at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Complicating her efforts are the layoffs, furloughs, workload changes, and other budget cuts facing her campus, the result of falling oil prices in a state whose operations depend almost completely on fossil fuel extraction—the very driver of the severe threats to circumpolar ecosystems that she presents in her classes, threats her students increasingly are unwilling or unready to confront. Together, Spoth, Burke, and Schell advocate for a sort of radical witness and transparency: We faculty must seek to understand the environmental impacts of the institutions that employ us, make transparent to our students these environmental impacts, collaborate toward resilience on campus today, and inform and equip our future alumni with the skills and perspectives they need to make durable the communities and workplaces they will inhabit after graduation.

            Institutions that cultivate permanence for their human resources will find themselves better positioned to achieve resilience amid unfolding and future challenges, dynamic contexts that will compel new ways of thinking about environmental sustainability and its operationalization in higher education. Derek Owens of St. John’s University ruminates on how best to conceptualize our response to new world orders, chaos, and extinction; after all, climate change will impact regions and microregions differently, and responses to these impacts will vary across campuses. Drawing on a rich set of sources—experimental memoir, trauma theory, poetry, environmental studies, philosophy, ecocriticism, and others—Owens comes down forcefully on the side of teaching and learning that likewise embrace diversities of every sort, bringing into our classrooms multigenre, multimodal, multimedia experimental risk-taking encompassing a plethora of forms known and unknown, remembered and forgotten.

Although we faculty and staff are the individuals and collectives that will make resilience possible, the efficacy of our response will depend on our ability, collectively and institutionally, to broaden our individual and communal values beyond those that have driven higher education as overwhelmingly individualistic and primarily socioeconomic. At Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, Corey Taylor, Richard House, and Mark Minster established an interdisciplinary living-learning community focused on sustainability in engineering. Constrained as much by students’ tendency to see sustainability as tangential to their future careers in engineering as by limited funding and time, the three emphasize the significance of cultural mores in shaping the values not only of their students but their institution as well. Likewise, Andrea Olive and Keely Byars-Nichols showcase structures and opportunities that give students new ways of practicing new values. Olive, of the University of Toronto, Mississauga, teaches political science and geography; in her classes, students learn about species of their choosing that inhabit their region. After conducting copious research, they draft recovery strategies for these species that are submitted and, often, approved as federal policy. Byars-Nichols, of the University of Mount Olive in North Carolina, teaches critical food studies by having her students conduct interviews of community members, author auto-ethnographies, and engage in service-learning with community partners focused on food security and agriculture. In this way, both transform their pedagogies in multimodal ways: Olive might not be able to change every student’s heart, but she and every one of her students are changing policy; Byars-Nichols, similarly, empowers her students to imagine in deeply personal ways new approaches to the food we eat, how we produce it, and whether it builds not just soil but community.

            This essay asks hard things of us: to survive in unsettling times in destabilized places, to forge deep connections despite higher education’s adjunctification of academic labor, and to rethink our disciplines and teach in ways that encourage new values and opportunities for practice. Just as we must do these things, so too must we reinhabit and restore where and who we are—taking care, in other words, of ourselves and the places that matter. Celebrating its capacity to connect empowerment of self and others, Jesse Curran of Stony Brook University turns to yoga inside and outside her classrooms, with considerable benefit to herself and her students alike. Through her example, yoga connects mind and body, serving as a means of self-preservation as well as a form of embodied teaching and learning modeled in the classroom, creating “a balanced worldview” that embraces cooperation, empathy, and an understanding of the human condition. For Barbara George, a doctoral student at Kent State University, the restoration of an abandoned asylum as a community park and environmental education center in Pittsburgh brings about self-restoration. In contrast to the constraints of her place in the corporate, bottom-line-driven world of higher education, her work as an Outdoor Classroom teacher liberates her from the artificial boundaries of “atomized” academic disciplines, resituates knowledge as a product of collaboration, and empowers her to practice academic freedom. Her self-restoration, she reports, likewise manifests itself in her life in higher education, as she no longer exists simply as a student and contingent instructor but as a collaborator with and organizer of graduate students across campus. Finally, for Margaret Noodin of the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, reinhabiting and restoring higher education in particular and planet Earth in general requires restoring and reviving Indigenous languages and literatures, like the Anishinaabe language and literature she studies and teaches. She writes that “teaching endangered concepts of sustainable ecological relationships is best done using endangered languages and literatures,” cultural systems founded on and defined by the coexistence in mutuality of all aspects of the natural world. To emphasize her point, she contrasts the passive, externalizing connotations of the word sustainability in English against the Anishinaabe term ganawendamaw, “a verb that connotes a spectrum of animacy for all life allowing rocks, water, and humans to be described as co-equal partners in the creation, maintenance, and evolution of a place” (247).

            Taken together, from Case’s meditation on academic rootlessness to Noodin’s homage to Indigenous languages, these diverse scholar-teachers have much to recommend in the way of resilience of higher education and our planet. First, faculty must be able to make themselves at home in the communities where they work, cultivating a sort of topophilia and the breadth and depth of social connection that will sustain them in the long term. By the same token, higher education must reject what Gaye Tuchman terms the “new managerialism” that purports to “improve organizational rationality to maximize economy, efficiency, and effectiveness” yet, in practice, spawns increasing reliance on low-paid, part-time contingent labor (22, 68). Second, all who labor in the academic work of the university—not just conventionally appointed, tenured or tenure-eligible faculty—must become knowledgeable and active in the governance of the institutions in which they work. By the same token, universities must enfranchise all faculty and staff with responsibilities for the academic mission of the institution, no matter their employment status or tenure eligibility, in all decision-making frameworks in fulfillment of shared governance. Third, as faculty and staff are engaged in shared governance, so too must students become partners and participants in shared governance, welcomed into the decision-making frameworks, fiscal planning, and physical plant operations of their campus and enjoined in the work of making them sustainable and resilient. Indeed, such engagement of students’ experience, know-how, and energy is the bedrock of education for transformation: bulldozing hierarchies, working in partnership, and applying concepts and paradigms to knotty problems.

            The reclamation of higher education by its academic citizenry, citizens who practice academic freedom in collective partnership with one another, presents unparalleled opportunities for reimagined, redesigned, and responsive curricula and pedagogies. Put one way, Byars-Nichols, House, Minster, Noodin, Olive, Owens, and Taylor have reclaimed their classrooms for the planet, seeking disciplinary and transdisciplinary ways to share the knowledge, perspectives, and skills that their students need to know and be able to do in order to survive in the places they live and work. Even as they build new course structures, engage new thinkers and languages, embrace new forms of expressing knowledge on a changing planet, and conceive new assignments, they, more importantly, are placing their faith in their students. From collecting oral histories to service-learning, from conducting undergraduate research to crafting public policy, from building interdisciplinary connections to collaborating outside of class, from restoring endangered languages to remembering forgotten stories, these faculty are equipping students with critical knowledge and providing them with the tools, opportunity, and independence to apply, practice, and refine their capacities. Moreover, these faculty are tearing down the walls that the academy has built between disciplines, recognizing that the problems the world faces do not respect either academic departmentalization or the division of the academic house into “academic” and “student” affairs. We in higher education can and must embrace the opportunity to collaborate with other faculty, staff, and students in rethinking what we teach, how we teach it, whom we engage and support, and why, and we must thus build deeper and broader capacity to develop students as individuals and as cohorts for the work ahead. All the while, we must remember to take care of ourselves and our neighbors, just as Curran turns to yoga—“finding peace within the frenzy” (196)—and as George organizes other graduate students on her campus. When we take care of ourselves, after all, we affirm ourselves and our value to each other and to the world, and we prepare and nourish ourselves and our families, friends, and coworkers for the commitment that follows, driven not by ego but by confidence, openness, and purpose.

Though the work is hard and the tasks are hefty, we can turn to models of new ideation and practice. Bawaka Country’s “Meeting across Ontologies: Grappling with an Ethics of Care in Our Human-More-than-Human Collaborative Work” epitomizes the paradigm we need. Unique in their self-conceptualization, the composite author of two books and several academic and popular articles,

Bawaka Country is the diverse land, water, human, and nonhuman animals (including the human authors of this paper), plants, rocks, thoughts, and songs that make up the Indigenous homeland of Bawaka in North East Arnhem Land, Australia. Ours is a story of lives entwined and of new places of being and belonging. It is also a collaborative narrative of unexpected transformations, embedded families, and the spirituality and agency of nonhuman elements in, of, and as the landscape. (267-268)

Underpinned by wetj, a Yolŋu concept that joins all human and “more-than-human” beings within a system of interconnected kinship that is maintained “through obligations of attention, responses, and responsibility,” Bawaka Country narrates their striving to overcome obstacles and challenges to their epistemology, ontology, and labor of co-becoming and sustaining together, weaving first-person narratives within collective voice. Challenged by the compartmentalization, hierarchies, research protocols, and funding cycles of Western neoliberal higher education, nonetheless they persist, committed to and emboldened by wetj, and document and model a kinship network of community-based research educators and Indigenous peoples. Their collaborative scholarship makes palpable and immediate the potential for intergenerational, interpersonal, interspecies sustainability, well-being, and self-determination, a fitting conclusion to this call to arms. May all of us invested and engaged in the academic enterprise of higher education—faculty, staff, and students, and families, communities, and more-than-human lives as well—commit ourselves anew to the world that seeks our collective transformation as a matter of survival. May we do so with respect and in collaboration with others, and may we channel the power of our partnership into remaking the university into the teaching and learning community the planet needs.

Scott Hicks, Ph.D., is professor of English and director of the Teaching & Learning Center at the University of North Carolina, Pembroke. His classes in African American and environmental literatures and first-year composition feature service-learning, and his recent scholarship explores W. E. B. DuBois, the Harlem Renaissance, and environmental justice. His current research, in the scholarship of teaching and learning for sustainability, seeks to develop tools and strategies that university faculty can use to educate for sustainability. with an emphasis on exploring ways that centers for teaching can help faculty embed teaching and learning for sustainability in their classes.

Works Cited

Gardner, Lee. “For Colleges, Climate Change Means Making Tough Choices.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 3 May 2019, Accessed 13 May 2019.

Haladay, Jane, and Scott Hicks, editors. Narratives of Educating for Sustainability in Unsustainable Environments. Michigan State UP, 2017.

“Media Release: Nature’s Dangerous Decline ‘Unprecedented’; Species Extinction Rates ‘Accelerating.’” Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, 5 May 2019, Accessed 13 May 2019.