Teaching Sustainability and Social Justice through Contrasting Narratives
Every story is told through a lens, and that lens is complex and pieces of it are often unknown. Uncovering the lens is critical to understanding the way in which a story is told, and the conclusions that are made. Helping students learn to examine the lens along with the story helps encourage critical thinking and allows them to contrast narratives.
Traditionally, English teachers help students examine texts based on the factors presented within the pages: tone, syntax, rhetoric. Searching beyond the text to understand historical context, the author's perspective and intentions, and political influences are not part of traditional language arts pedagogy. Incorporating the broader context into the examination of a text is an alternative pedagogical approach that has been debated since the time of Plato. In the cases of sustainability and social justice movements, understanding the context in which a text is written is immensely important, and can be incorporated with both traditional and alternative pedagogical approaches by focusing on point of view.
A traditional approach can involve closely examining the point of view of a character within the pages of a novel. Close examination of the characters' language, tone, and rhetoric could illuminate the ways in which race, gender, and class influence the character's perspective.
An alternate approach would be to study the author's point of view to reveal important outside influences of culture, politics, environment, and gender (for instance). Gathering this additional background in which to ground a reading can help student's analyze and contextualize the information presented.
Another idea is to have students put themselves in a differing point of view than their own, cultivating an appreciation for the larger context and a sensitivity to differing perspectives. Similarly, students can exercise "dissoi logoi"- where one student argues both sides of an issue to help gain a more complete picture of two differing viewpoints.
Read more from faculty about the importance of understanding point-of-view when dealing with social justice topics:
- Close Reading – and Close Writing – Environmental Justice: Amanda Hagood, Hendrix College
- Teaching Environmental Justice with Rhetorical Theory: Ecofemenist Wayfinding, Emplacment, and Agency: Lisa Phillips, Illinois State University
View sustainability teaching activities that explicitly incorporate exploring point of view:
- Using Poetry to Explore the Rhetoric of Environmental Justice: Amanda Hagood, Hendrix College (Traditional Approach)
- Mock Public Comments on the Draft EIS for West Virginia's King Coal Highway: Lauren Waterworth, Appalachian State University
Explore ways in which reconciling perspectives is important to topics of sustainability:
- Teaching from Multiple Perspectives: Daniel Jones Morgan, Vanderbilt University
- Productive Sustainability Discourse Through Insisting on Diverse Perspectives: Hetesh Soneji, City College of San Fransisco
Comparing and contrasting the same story as told from different perspectives helps students think critically about information as it is presented and formulate more complete views of a particular topic. This can also help students get past preconceptions that are uncomfortable and/or controversial so that they can more objectively confront the complexity of the issues and solutions.
Example activities that involve contrasting perspectives
- Introducing students to a critical realist approach to environmental justice in the U.S.: Anna Versluis, Gustavus Adolphus College
- Applying Environmental Justice Concepts–Contextualized Essay Options: Paul Jefferies, Ripon College
Examining how the arc of a story changes over many decades can expose many factors about its current state. How has the story changed over time? What factors (events, people, institutions, narratives) have influenced the evolution of the ideas? How did we get where we are and what might happen going forward? This approach is particularly relevant to social justice topics since they develop over time and public opinions change dramatically.
For example, Richard Kujawa suggests this approach in his Environmental Justice History of Electronic Waste essay. He notes that the differing representations of e-waste that have changed through time, by various sources including:
- International law
- Investigative journalism
- Scientific data (see related activity about examining hazardous waste data first hand)