Climate in the Classroom

As calls to combat climate change are amplified worldwide, Kenyon students and faculty put a local spin on activism.

By Kenyon staff

As millions gathered in cities around the world for a global climate strike on Friday, Sept. 20, the Kenyon community made sure their voices did not go unheard. Over a hundred students, joined by some faculty and staff members, gathered outside Rosse Hall shortly before the end of afternoon classes to demonstrate their concern for the changing climate and call for action to preserve the environment.

Polling has found that a large majority of American teens and young people are moderately or greatly concerned about the earth’s future, with about 1 in 4 taking action to spur change, and Kenyon students are no different. In addition to displaying signs with slogans like “There is no planet B” and “Climate action now,” students shared tips on living more sustainably, and more than 15 student groups, ranging from the literary magazine HIKA to the Environmental Campus Organization (ECO), educated participants about climate issues and hosted climate-themed activities.

Gambier’s focus on climate continued on Monday and Tuesday of this week, as world leaders and activists like Swedish teen Greta Thunburg gathered at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. With organizational help from the Office of Green Initiatives, about two dozen faculty took part in a “climate teach-in” along Middle Path. By moving their courses out of the classroom and into public spaces, students and faculty aimed to attract the attention of bystanders as they discussed how different academic disciplines can approach climate change. 

“The goals of the teach-in were to think with the climate crisis as it unfolds, from our individual disciplinary perspectives, and to do so in a public and visible way, so that we can carry forward community-wide conversation and action that responds effectively and with hope,” said Assistant Professor of Religious Studies Joy Brennan, who coordinated the teach-in alongside Director of Green Initiatives Dave Heithaus ’99. Courses taking part in the climate teach-in included:

  • “Pacific Literature,” a special topic course taught by Assistant Professor of English Orchid Tierney, asked students to consider how climate change would affect their hometowns. After Tierney opened the class with a poem by author and climate activist Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, a native of the vulnerable Marshall Islands, students connected specific local concerns to the general global crisis. A student from Nantucket mentioned the recent relocation of a critical lighthouse due to erosion, while one from Washington state noted that warmer temperatures may further stress the local salmon population. 
  • Students from Assistant Professor of Dance Kora Radella’s “Intermediate Modern Dance” class performed an original, site-specific movement response to climate change, beginning near the Gund Gallery and ending by Old Kenyon. Inspired by readings and video screenings about the science and environmental impacts of climate change, the 30-minute performance featured a loop dance structure consisting of several movement sequences, representing our complicity in the destruction of our planet. The performance featured accompaniment by Associate Professor of Music Ross Feller, a saxophonist and composer. Professors of Dance Julie Brodie and Balinda Craig-Quijada also had classes participate in the teach-in. 
  • Professor of Anthropology Bruce Hardy asked students in his “Life Along the Kokosing” course to imagine how Kenyon’s own environment would change during this century. By the year 2100, Knox County, Ohio, is projected to have a climate similar to present day Harlingen, Texas. More invasive species are likely to become established, and the communities surrounding Gambier will see both more heavy rainstorms and many more days each year with temperatures crossing 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Students in Associate Professor of Chemistry Yutan Getzler’s “Organic Chemistry Lab II” class examined different Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs), greenhouse gas concentration trajectories that are used to model different climate futures and show how adjustments in emissions might influence the rate of climate change. Getzler’s students were then tasked with writing a six-word short story inspired by a particular year and RCP — ”the strangest assignment” one senior reported ever receiving. Some of their creations: 

    • “More water, but no more fish.” — Phu Duong ’21 and Kai Wilczewski-Shirai ’21

    • “Crowded and underwater, we barely tried.” — Aidan Clarkson ’22 and Carter Powell ’20

    • “West Antarctica: Now Accepting Climate Refugees.” — Emma Becker ’22, Afomia Ayele ’21 and Kirollos Mikhaeel ’22

    “[Climate change] is not an unsolvable problem,” Getzler said. “It is a hard problem. And I think it’s important to engage with that aspect of it.”

In addition to the climate teach-in, several related events took place on Tuesday:

  • A Common Hour gallery talk focused on climate change at the Gund Gallery
  • An afternoon interfaith vigil for the earth on the steps of Rosse Hall, led by Kenyon’s Office of Spiritual and Religious Life
  • An evening talk titled “Solving Climate by 2030” in the Gund Gallery’s Community Foundation Theater, with an additional talk, “Anthropocene: the Human Epoch” scheduled for Wednesday, Sept. 25, at 7 p.m. in the same location.