Musings on a new semester

Spring semester at Stony Brook University, where I work and teach, started last week. To me, new beginnings like this one are one of the most exciting parts of the academic year. Each new semester is filled with new introductions. A new beginning means I have the privilege of meeting a whole new group of students.

It’s this group of students that I will lead over the course of the following months.

I will do my best to nurture this new group, instilling in them the skills, knowledge and drive they need to make positive environmental and social change. And in turn they will share with me their passion and ideas. Spending time with my students is energizing. It boosts my own abilities as an environmental educator and writer.   

As I drive to campus on these early days, I wonder: What kind of students will I find? What are their backgrounds? What are there passions?

This semester I am teaching my spring course, Environmental Writing and the Media. I created this course to expose students to how media shapes our idea of what nature and the environment is. But I also teach them how they can be creators of such media and shape others’ ideas about these ideas, too. 

Throughout the semester I teach my students—some of which are new to sustainability studies—about various environmental issues. By consuming and discussing environmental writing and films, students learn more about: climate change, environmental justice, fracking, garbage/consumption, animals, environmental exploitation, environmental activism, nuclear energy/waste and the human-environmental health connection. 

The class is centered on two primary types of media: writing and filmmaking. Students are required to write weekly blogs and, for their final projects, create films about environmental issues that are important to them. Emmy-award winning filmmaker Dave Chameides coaches my students through the filmmaking process, taking them from idea to finished film in just a few months. This semester animator Jeong-A Seong will accompany Dave in the filmmaking instruction aspect of the course, helping students to bring a new element of creativity to their films.

I encourage my students to attend activist events and lectures with environmental experts and communicators, whom I bring to campus. This semester ecologist and environmental writer Carl Safina, who last year published his New York Times best-selling book Beyond Words will visit our class to discuss animal emotions and intelligence. 

You can find my students’ blogs about animals and the other environmental issues we cover here. Additionally, this is an example of the kind of films my students produce, created by my former student Johnny Lee. During the semester, Johnny showed keen interest in learning more about climate change, an issue he admitted he was not an expert in. By dedicating himself to studying the issue and honing his communication skills, he was able to create this great film. 

Each semester I am so impressed by the incredible work my students produce. I have discovered many talented writers and filmmakers in my classes—many who were not even aware of their own abilities as environmental communicators. It’s a pleasure to see their communication skills, knowledge and ideas expand as the semester goes on…and this is almost exciting as these first few weeks of introductions.

Below are some memories from spring semesters past.