How to Properly Inflate Your Tires (and You Are the Tire)
a guest interview with Dr. Miku Lenentine, Coordinator of the Center for Resilient Neighborhoods at Kapi’olani Community College
I have a group of favorite colleagues who are amazing teachers. I’ve interviewed some of them for this blog: Chih-Hao (“A Ham Sandwich is Better than Nothing”, Linda, (“This is not just a pandemic, this IS climate change”) Sebastian (“Professional Development, Equanimity, and the Life Path of Faculty”), and of course, my learning community partner, Dr. K. (“Dark Ecology & Dr. K.”). Note that I use pseudonyms and write about them with consent, since this is a field notes blog associated with a research study.
I think of these friends as the “A Team” for sustainability. Meaning, the best. They are the teachers I recommend to students, the friends I turn to for advice, the allies in collaboration and campus politics. They are the ones who get ‘er done. But it so happens that at least half of the A Team is sitting out this semester, on sabbaticals and other leaves of absence. And this includes me.
I’m on a sabbatical dedicated to the Teaching Climate Change research project, and to really pondering this question of what, and how, we need to be teaching in these end times that feel (and may very well be) on the brink of ecological collapse, or World War III (or both). Sometimes I think back to the Mayan Calendar thing in 2012 and I wonder “what if time really did end?”. What if we are already living in the time after? Even though we still have things like food and water and Amazon shipments, still, assumptions have shifted. The vibe has changed.
I’ve changed. I’m almost embarrassed at how gung ho I used to be about Sustainability. I really thought that teaching college composition was relevant, and could be done in the context of Sustainability. I spent about fifteen years working with faculty across other disciplines to integrate core concepts of sustainability into their courses and build an interdisciplinary minor-equivalent program. The idea was that every student could minor in sustainability and graduate with an interdisciplinary understanding of climate change and its localized future-present impacts.
I got a sneak preview at some STARS scores from a couple of our campuses. This is the first year that a STARS report has been filed, so it’s a major achievement to gather this important baseline data. But I learned that, at one campus, 11 % of students graduate with an understanding of sustainability. That is not a very good return for fifteen years of effort, now, is it?
So it’s hard to know if it’s just me and my disappointment, which is also burnout, but I don’t think things are going well for faculty. Not just on my campus, but anywhere. Covid took its toll and we’ve just acclimated to Zoom fatigue. Sustainability is still a thing, but it has gotten defunded, lost in the shuffle and institutionalized as a spiffy coat of light green paint.
Wah, Wah, Wah!
I hear myself thinking these thoughts as war is being waged in Europe and I know I am being a big baby. I think I may have become a crusty old Full Professor! I used to shake my head at those cynical relics when they got in the way of the curricular revolution for Sustainability.
Gen X faculty like me have been doing this work for a long time but we haven’t influenced higher ed because the Boomers just never retired. And now we are tired, but way too young to re-tire. (I’ll explain the tire thing in a minute.)
I’ve been thinking about an editorial I read in the Chronicle of Higher Education. This essay, The Great Faculty Disengagement, by Kevin R. McClure and Alisa Hicklin Fryar, was the best I’ve seen about faculty in a long, long time. They wrote that:
“(Faculty) are withdrawing from certain aspects of the job or, on a more emotional level, from the institution itself….They are still teaching their courses, supporting students, and trying to keep up with basic tasks. But connections to the institution have been frayed. The work is getting done, but there isn’t much spark to it.”
It’s not just me; things actually suck!
I’ve met so many faculty leaders at conferences over the years, people who’ve inspired and influenced my teaching. I could name a hundred amazing people who are working full tilt to transform higher education for Sustainability.
I’ll just list my personal top five faculty influencers in the chronological order in which I was inspired by them: Derick Owens (a composition scholar whom I wrote about in this post, “The Way you Treat Others is the Way you Treat the Earth”) David Orr “What is Education For, 1992”, Debra Rowe on change agents and community colleges, Aurora Winslade, now at Stanford; and, here at home, Dr. Robert Franco, Dr. Chip Fletcher, (“Blessed-Cursed to Be Here”) and Dr. Aunty Manulani Aluli-Meyer (whose guidance on hermeneutics helped me write “Planetary Pono”).
These leaders inspired all of us faculty who have been co-creating a sustainability transformation in higher education. I have always 100% believed it was happening.
But what if it isn’t.
What if this Great Disengagement is the faculty being beat down so far by ever increasing workload, bureaucracy, competition, cancel culture, and constant cutbacks in everything from professional development to tenure to office space. What if this is the faculty feeling tired of trying to teach in an institutional structure that is no longer fit to context?
I took this picture near my neighborhood last night. It’s a young Koa tree in the foreground, with the giant Albizia trees in the background. The Albizia — huge, with shallow roots and a smothering canopy — are dangerous and harmful, though beautiful in their way. They are fine trees in Indonesia, and were planted here on purpose to hold the soil down after the native Sandalwood forests were sold and cleared for plantation agriculture. They didn’t do anything wrong, but they are doing a lot of harm. How can these Albizia be removed, honorably?
The forest has been a helpful refuge and metaphor for me, and I visit these trees and ask them these questions on my sunset walks, which have become gratitude constitutionals. (I’m not trying to be all Brene Brown or something but I’m telling you, it works.) Flowers love to be complimented for being so beautiful. Bees love to be acknowledged for their work. Dogs like having their ears scratched (and cats prefer their bellies) and trees like a calm palm on the trunk. Just a simple pause; “thank you for helping me breathe today.”
I’ve learned a bit more about this way of walking from a new friend, Miku Lenentine (her real name, since this is a guest interview and not part of the TCC Study). Dr. Lenentine is the first Coordinator for CERENE, the Center for Resilient Neighborhoods at Kapi’olani Community College. CERENE was created by Dr. Robert Franco, master of acronyms, and one of the faculty influencers listed above.
“What I love about CERENE is that it’s about the neighborhood level — this was a stroke of genius from Bob, I think. Resiliency is about this inside-out approach, and the urban spaces and how people live,” said Dr. Lenentine.
Of course, I had to ask her the question everybody asks: what’s the difference between sustainability and resiliency?
“Resiliency is really important when things go wrong. And things are going really wrong on a planetary level, but also on a neighborhood level. Climate impacts are being experienced right now. The neighborhood scale brings in the idea of being neighborly, and it builds in relationship. It’s really helpful. As one of our student leaders pointed out, it helps us think about our human neighbors and our non-human neighbors — which maps beautifully to indigenous knowledge systems and thinking about all our relations.”
When I think about it, sustainability and the way we have taught it did focus a lot on individuals. A lot of us taught ecological footprint as an assignment, and then we got the radical vegans and now, finally, we realize that these behaviors can’t be brought to any kind of scale without systemic change. So now what. Now we have to change our minds, and the knowledge system on which the whole higher education endeavor is built.
It’s just a great big Albizia tree.
As Miku describes (in this long excerpt from our interview):
“We need a whole different way of being in order to address this world out of balance. And Sustainability doesn’t work for that, even though it’s an important mainstream movement. Or like in ecology, they talk about restoration ecology. There’s a positive intention behind it but….restoration to what? What’s the human, value-driven baseline we are trying to restore to?”This language and framing is helpful, and shows us how the work has evolved.
So then I whined and moaned a little bit more about my concerns for the future of higher education before asking Miku, as a newcomer to campus, to tell me what she sees. Because maybe I can’t see clearly anymore. She said:
“It’s not just here, it’s the world. There’s a collective introversion occurring. People have forgotten how to be people! How to interact with each other and do self-care and things like wear clothing and be out in the world. It’s been so long that people have forgotten who they used to be. Maybe we are transforming into something new, but are we transforming into who we wish to be and what we wish to be doing?
“Did we forget that we can choose how we want to show up in the world? To be our best self? Did we forget that was possible? We need to be keeping our little hearthfires alive! We need to remember that we are humans who have a calling and a best self. That means brushing your teeth and combing your hair and showing up in the morning. And there was once a world that supported each other doing that. But we’ve all forgotten, in various ways.
“Self-care and professional development are things that went out the window trying to adapt to this crazy new technology world and this crazy way of teaching. The burnout has happened without the self-care. I’m not getting a lot of sleep these days myself, but I’m still doing my practices. If you didn’t have a practice going into this, then 2.5 years later, people are just not people any more.”
So it turns out that the thing I’ve been doing at sunset is a practice, and that these practices are part of resilience.
“It’s like inflating the tires on your car: we need to be able to inflate the tire of ourselves big enough so we can absorb the shocks and the stressors. People have not been inflating the tire. We are all running on the rim!”
(She credits her husband, River, for this metaphor, and it really works for me too because faculty are definitely the tires of any university. Where the rubber meets the road.).
“While there are so many good things happening on campus, what I do see is… zombies.” Faculty are not inflating their tires, so they aren’t modeling practices for students. This whole epistemological thing is actually pedagogical as well. Because a big part of teaching is presence. It’s how you show up.
The good news, Miku said, is that teaching with technology has given us all a lot of practice not in bouncing back but “bouncing forward” which is what resiliency is. “Zoom actually brought a lot of efficiency, but that just resulted in more meetings and emails and things to write. We are actually becoming not-human.” She quoted Gandhi who said:
“I have so much to accomplish today that I must meditate for two hours instead of one.” — Mahatma Gandhi
The crazy thing is that there’s another level to all of this: the fact that these imbalances or overdrafts we’ve been making from ourselves are the same as the overshoot that is pushing the planet past its boundaries.
If we don’t resist this mindset, then we can’t change our minds, and if we can’t change our minds there’s no chance for the planet.
It’s a very difficult task (or possibly, very easy) that we can only begin, in order to open a new way of thinking for the next generations. In the old days, the university existed to perpetuate culture: that’s literally what it was for, to pass on the critical teachings of western philosophy, literature, and science. And now those times are ended and it has to be for something else.
Here are five practices that Miku recommends. (Note that while they look simple, these are actually advanced practices that build on the basics of healthy eating, drinking water, and sleeping enough.)
1. First thing in the morning, watch the sun rise. Connect to something bigger than yourself.
2. Give gratitude for things. (Try my “gratitude constitutional” or any other practice you know.)
3. Sing, chant, or practice breath work. (If in Hawaiʻi and you know how, practice oli)
4. Stretch your body and connect to yourself as a human animal.
5. Visit a forest.
“These are things I have learned to do from my teachers,” she said. “I was given the advice to try a new practice (especially the sunrise practice) every day for a full year. Then, you will really understand what it means to have a practice.”
Dr. Lenentine’s professional path, which winds through ecology and social forestry to traditional ecological knowledge, is so interesting that I’ll save it for a future “Part Two” essay. But here’s another interesting thing about Miku — she is Oʻahu’s second certified Forest Bathing practitioner. And guess what, you can practice Virtual Forest Bathing with her in an upcoming event! Comment “shinrinyoku” and leave your email in the comments if you’d like me to personally send you the Zoom link. And thanks for following the Teaching Climate Change Field Notes blog!
Virtual Forest Bathing with Dr. Miku Lenentine is a faculty renewal experience on April 8, 2022, 10–12 AM Hawaii Standard Time (note: Hawaii does not “spring forward”).