My class on Literatures of Global Environmental Justice was envisioned in the context of a global pandemic and a lockdown when misinformation about COVID-19 was being spread by the then US president with disastrous consequences for public health and safety. It was a moment that reminded me that teaching students the importance of information literacy was more urgent than ever, if we were to think of an environmentally just society. This was coupled with the fact that in my experience of teaching two semesters of research writing at the University of Pittsburgh, one of the common assumptions that I found among first-year students just out of high school was about data (especially numerical data) being neutral. There was a firm belief in numerical data as evidence, without questioning how the data was created, who conducted the survey, how the survey was conducted and who was interviewed for the survey.
I had three goals as I was designing this assignment. Students should be able to understand how information is constructed and that it is not free of ‘biases’; to narrativize information; and to apply information literacy in their daily-life, social and professional contexts. For this project, students had to choose an already available set of statistics for an environmental justice issue of their choice. Once they had chosen the statistics, their responsibility was two-fold: a) to find out what problem is foregrounded through the data and what remains untold and b) to present the story behind the data either as a visual narrative (building on their practice from a previous visual assignment on comics/photo essays) or through a written account that contextualizes the statistics and demonstrates how the statistics came out in their current shape and what they gloss over. My philosophy of developing this assignment was not necessarily dismissing the power of numerical data for the Environmental Humanities as a field. Instead, as a researcher trained in Literary Studies and committed to the discipline, I was more invested in thinking together with my students about what narratives emerged from the data of their choice.
When I started conceptualizing the assignment, I realized that information literacy as a field has seen substantial engagement from librarians, who often teach courses on this subject. Although I was conceiving the information literacy project as only one of the major projects for this class, I still felt the need to listen to my colleagues in Library and Information Sciences and to learn from them how they go about scaffolding major projects in Information Literacy for their students. It was at this moment that I came to know about the course on Information Literacy offered by Dr. Karen Sobel as part of the virtual Digital Pedagogy Lab at the University of Colorado, Boulder. I enrolled in the course, supported by a research grant from the University of Pittsburgh, and benefitted from the inputs of my colleagues ranging from librarians at community colleges and high schools to faculty at the Digital Pedagogy Lab who were my interlocutors as I was developing the assignment. As I was drafting the assignment, one of the things that I was struggling with was how I would evaluate my students on this assignment because I needed a clearer sense of what I was looking for. Kodi Saylor, who was one of the co-instructors, drew my attention to the part of the assignment sheet where I used a local example to show my students the questions that they could possibly ask of the data. Therefore, she pointed out that since one of the key components of this assignment is to ask effective questions, I might want to have a section of the class dedicated to teaching students how to ask good questions. I took this suggestion and communicated to my students that I was looking for the kind of questions that they were asking more than the answers that they were coming up with. I shared with my students an article by Kyla Wazana Tompkins on how to ask good questions and workshopped their questions in the asynchronous discussion board. The way I had designed the course, although the final research(ed) essay for this class followed the information literacy assignment, the students could use the information literacy project to dig deeper into their topic of research for the final essay, which they had already decided on by then, though they were not required to.
A text that we read together in class for reflecting on the philosophy of the information literacy project was the introduction to Heather Houser’s book Infowhelm: Environmental Art and Literature in an Age of Data. One of the primary arguments of the book that inspired me to design this assignment and also my students in their work was its focus on how artists and writers utilize scientific data in their environmental art and literature to “speak back to forms of epistemological mastery” and positivism that data could end up reifying (2). The work that students came up with was thoughtful and wide-ranging. For instance, Lauren Posey, who is a first-year student at the University of Pittsburgh focused on greenwashing by corporate companies such as Chevron. She looked at Chevron’s 2019 Sustainability Report, specifically interrogating the truth behind Chevron’s statistics which claimed that “We have reduced methane emissions from Chevron’s US onshore production operations by 85 percent since 2013”. Posey pointed out, through a panel in her visual narrative, the part that remains untold: Methane is only five percent of Chevron’s emissions of greenhouse gases.
Mary Guildin, another student, focused on the decreasing rate of bee populations in North America and Europe to dig deeper into the possible causes that might be responsible for the alarming decrease of the bee population. Besides the climate emergency, one of the reasons that she pointed out was the fact that the desire for perfectly manicured lawns was responsible for destroying bee habitats. Nate Madden drew the interconnections between the lack of healthcare in several counties of West Virginia, USA, and the high percentage of deaths due to lung cancer with the widespread practice of Mountain Top Removal coal mining in the state, thereby gesturing to the problem that environmental injustice disadvantages the low-income counties disproportionately. What is significant about the narratives that they crafted was the way they utilized information to show how issues about environmental justice at a local level translate to global problems. Their projects demonstrated that approaching justice as a multidimensional issue going beyond legal mechanisms can be generative for the Environmental Humanities as a discipline.
The idea behind this assignment was to carefully think through in what ways information is an aesthetic category in itself and in what ways information could be mobilized to tell stories about environmental injustice while being attentive to the nuanced, textured and grounded narratives that emerge from this information. It was an attempt on my part to foreground that the core contribution of literary studies towards environmental justice is to embrace how narratives can make a difference in how we utilize the humanities for social change and action.