The Way you Treat others is the Way you Treat the Earth: Carrie, the Composition Teacher who Sings Truth to Power (#6)

Twenty years ago, when I was a brand new English Composition lecturer at San Francisco State, and attending my first academic conference, the CCCCs, I saw a presentation by St. John’s University professor Derek Owens, who — back then! — questioned the carbon footprint and waste generated by thousands of college rhetoricians getting together to talk about ethos, logos, and pathos. Owens wrote a book called Composition & Sustainability: Teaching for a Threatened Generation (2001) which left a strong imprint on my teaching brain, becoming a career-long obsession.

He wrote, “The composition instructor enjoys a kind of contextual freedom and disciplinary flexibility unknown to many of his or her colleagues. This is composition’s little secret.” Basically, he said that in exchange for serf status in the academy, and the relentless workload of neverending papergrading, the solace of the composition instructor is their “leverage for encouraging students to explore a variety of themes and experiences” (p. 5).

At about the same time I was reading Owens’ book and protesting the proliferating Starbuckses and general corporatization of San Francisco, some kids were born over here in Hawaiʻi. These kids would grow up in the globalized, militarized, colonized urban core of Honolulu. They’d go to terrible public high schools, skip a lot of school to surf or smoke weed or work in service industry jobs, and a combination of generational trauma, learning disabilities, poverty, and media-saturated childhoods would make them generally skeptical of reading and academics and Standard English obsessions such as apostrophes and comma splices.

These kids would grow up and find themselves — like, actually find out who they really might be — in a classroom with my interview subject, Carrie, a relentlessly quirky lady with two Master’s degrees (English and Counseling Psychology) who wears non-synthetic cotton clothing, carries her food in a tupperware container, and cries sometimes in class. According to Carrie, her students know a lot about climate change and in fact, in their twenty years, have noticed temperature increases, as well as what she notices: a change in the sprit of the people.

My interview with Carrie* (a pseudonym) took place in her windowless office at Community College of the Pacific** campus the area that we call “town.” (**a pseudonymous college)

Photo by sergio souza on Unsplash

The interview was peppered with questions — asked by Carrie, not me, LOL.

What does sustainability mean, and how do you practice it? What are windmills, and how do you make clean energy? What are eco-friendly appliances and what do they do? How much do these things cost? How could I make my home better? Does your neighborhood have recycling bins, and do you know which bins are which at the college and are you using them properly?What is an eco-friendly restaurant and what about eco-friendly straws and how is your takeout food packaged?

Her conversational style gives me a sense of her pedagogy for teaching the entry-level English classes that are her specialty. “The community college level is my favorite place to be,” she says, “I can have much more of an impact here, and really help kids who struggle to write.” I wonder to myself if she has read Owens’ book because she so perfectly embodies the type of sustainability inquiry through writing that he envisioned as a way to invigorate composition studies with cross-disciplinary purpose.

Carrie is basically the embodiment of what writing teachers call the “active tense”. Out of our conversation I can put together a “day in the life” snapshot: organizing guest speakers from the climate commission, rebuilding a stone wall at a community taro patch, teaching her five writing classes in between sustainability committee meetings, making friends with librarians, colleagues, and the janitor (all of whom popped into the office at different points while we were chatting).

“If you want to know who someone really is”, she advised me, “just watch how they treat others.” Based on this, it is clear that Carrie is someone who really does believe that everybody matters, and that everything actually makes a difference. It’s both amazing, and exhausting. I know this life pretty well: the grading of papers in diners, buses, cafeterias, even the beach. I’m just not as good at is as Carrie is.

“I’ll be out at Pokai Bay, just sitting there grading papers, and people ask me what I’m doing…I’m in the water, just floating, and people start talking about themselves. (And the next thing they know, I joke, they find themselves enrolled in ENG 98!). “Just sitting in the water you learn whatʻs important to people. I tell my students that THEY are the backbone of the community. Without them, nothing would exist!”

I admit I’m a little bit biased, but there is truly a sense in which writing teachers are the backbone of the university. Without them, nothing in higher education would exist. Every single student has to take ENG 100 or some equivalent. These courses, as Derek Owens convinced me a lifetime ago, when I was barely older than my students and had blue streaks in my hair, are the perfect place to focus on sustainability. “It’s the perfect springboard for other things,” said Carrie. “I know the learning outcomes I need to hit, I know how one thing leads to another because I’ve done this for so long, so I can I let it flow.” Argument, Illustration, Persuasion, and of course the Research paper…all rhetorical modes are suited to Sustainability.

“I get a lot of ideas from NPR,” said Carrie. “One day they had an interview with Bob Dylan who talked about songs as stories, and I was like, that’s it!” That’s pathos, the connection to the emotions of the audience. From Bob Dylan, then, she was inspired to create the Climate Change Playlist that informs one of her recent paper assignments.

I spent the last hour trying to write this paragraph while watching YouTube videos for the fifteen or so songs from Carrie’s playlist: From Paul McCartney to Prince Ea; from the soundtrack to Chasing Coral (where the scientists cry watching bleaching basically before their eyes) and eight year old Frankie Morland’s World in Danger, to the political folk music tradition of Water is Life, Will Evans’ song for Standing Rock and Truth to Power by OneRepublic.

I’ve seen minutes turn to hours
Hours turn to years
And I’ve seen truth turn to power…

(OneRepublic Fight Like your World Depends On it #BeInconvenient)

If you are interested, or have a song to add to Carrie’s Composition Teacher’s Climate Change Pathos Playlist or would like the associated assignment that she’s developed, leave your email in the comments and I’ll connect you.



interviews and musings from a study about what faculty know, think, feel, and do about the climate crisis

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