In the fall of 2018, Rich Wallace, a professor of environmental studies, and his advisee, Jess Greenburg ’21, began informally discussing the issues of anxiety and despair that tend to come with the territory when studying the environment. Wallace had been seeing the topic of “climate anxiety”, an affliction that many professionals and students studying the environmental sciences have been experiencing for decades, according to scholarly literature.
Quickly, the pair realized that this casual conversation could turn into a full-blown research project and the two began to take a deeper look at how to address climate anxiety, particularly in the classroom from both a faculty and student perspective.
“Talking with and listening to Jess really helped me gain a critical perspective on my own work, especially in the classroom,” Wallace shared.
“Once we started working together, we planned a Summer Fellows project in which we would write a guide for students and faculty to help them gain important perspective on how to integrate traditional teaching and learning practices with strategies for reducing anxiety and despair in and outside of the classroom. That idea quickly morphed into a journal manuscript which, if published could be widely read by students and faculty in environmental studies.”
Alongside Wallace’s long-time collaborator at Yale, Susan Clark, their research article, “Confronting anxiety and despair in environmental studies and sciences: an analysis and guide for students and faculty,” was published in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences.
According to the article, one of the first steps towards overcoming climate anxiety is to acknowledge it directly in the classroom. This can help both the faculty and the students feel less isolated.
“We know more now than ever before about how students learn, how anxiety affects every aspect of our lives, and how to deliver course content in a way that actually feels good to students and isn’t scary or nightmare-inducing,” Greenburg said, adding, “It’s important to show that compassion and empathy towards students, who will then go out into the world and keep modeling what they were shown by their professors.”
They also recommend focusing on self-care, noting that students and faculty are rarely told to slow down and enjoy themselves, but rather to constantly be productive. By encouraging students to take a break, pursue passions and rest, it can help combat the anxiety and dread that can come with the territory.
Wallace explained that is it important for faculty to treat their students as holistic individuals and to be open to learning from them. In turn, students need to care about their professors and work to get to know them. This can help develop reciprocal relationships.
“Most faculty believe that those individual relationships with students are the single most rewarding part of our job. It is also how students most directly influence how professors themselves teach and learn,” Wallace said, referencing the Summer Fellows research project with Greenburg as a perfect example of how a professor-student relationship can lead to incredible educational outcomes.
With these uncertain times causing more stress than ever for many people, the timing of this article couldn’t have been better.
“Having a piece about anxiety and despair published at a time when so many faculty, students, and staff at colleges are experiencing so much anxiety over what will happen next to our colleges is incredibly powerful,” said Greenburg.
“The responses we’ve received from people around the country who have read this piece, are sharing it with their students, and using it to help move through this time are really special to me, and I’m so grateful that I could put something that meaningful out into the world.”—By Mary Lobo ’15