Humboldt State environmental studies professor Sarah Ray speaks at the Plaza Grill in Arcata on March 8. Photo by Tyrone McDonald.

Sarah Ray keeps emotions and knowledge together in her teachings


Sarah Ray inspires students and faculty at Humboldt State. During her lecture, “Coming of Age at the End of the World: Eco-Grief, College Students, and Teaching Climate Change,” she inspires community members as well.

Sarah Ray, environmental studies professor at Humboldt State, spoke as part of the “My Favorite Lecture” series at the Plaza Grill in Arcata on March 8.

The lecture discussed ways to be empathetic to students’ emotions and the methods Ray uses to inspire her students, all while acknowledging the grim realities of past environmental decisions.

“Emotions take on a life of their own in the classroom,” Ray said.

When Ray took the position to lead the environmental studies program at HSU in 2013, there were 11 environmental studies majors in her program. As of 2018, there are 150 environmental studies majors at HSU.

Ray says that humans emotions play a big role in environmental studies.

“Not surprisingly, guilt, despair and negative news do not inspire students to [take] action,” Ray said. “It creates apathy and nihilism. There is a lot of research that shows this is not an effective tool.”

Over time, students’ emotional responses became overwhelming for Ray herself. Out of self-preservation, and for the success of her students, Ray has come up with new teaching strategies for environmental studies.

Ray believes these strategies will be beneficial to everyone who questions the importance of their own environmental role.

“Teaching students environmental content is going to have a negative affect on them,” Ray said. “If the affects can be anticipated, the more effective the curriculum will be.”

As a professor, Ray has watched many environmental studies students learn that their college journey is not what they expected.

Faced with intractable, unsolvable problems, students become incapacitated. Ray calls this “getting the rug pulled out from underneath you.”

After watching students repeatedly get the rug pulled out from underneath them, Ray realized these students need emotional support to deal with the curriculum.

Brooke Holdren, a biology major at HSU, attended Ray’s talk and thinks ethics should be part of science.

“There needs to be more critical scientists,” Holdren said. “Science is political as fuck.”

Ray utilizes inclusive pedagogy to promote not only a students academic success, but their social, cultural and physical success.

Inclusive pedagogy is a way of teaching that uses varying learning techniques, multicultural content and multiple means of assessment.

Going off of Bell Hooks teachings, Ray said, “We have to make the personal political and we have to make content relevant to students.”

Ray also uses social movement theory in her teaching.

“The outcome of social movement theory is to give students a sense of belonging in a larger community. They are not isolated against the tidal wave of society,” Ray said. “Students are involved in a bigger group of people working towards the same goals.”

Ecopsychology uses both ecological and psychological ideas to study the relationship between human beings and the natural world. Ecopsychology includes theories about emotional responses to climate change and has become useful in Ray’s teaching, showing how environmental change causes emotional distress.

Last semester, Ray tried a change-vision-action workshop with her students. Ray had students list how they would like to see changes in the world, and make a personal action plan. Students have put these ideas into actions. This has given Ray inspiration to improve and instill greater lessons onto her students.

Ray doesn’t simply tell her students how to fix the current environmental issues. Instead, she gives them the information and emotional support they need to come to their own conclusions.

“Efficacy is better than hope,” Ray said.

Efficacy is the ability to produce a desired result. Students envision new ways of living with their outcomes.

“Sometimes the outcomes are hopeful and lead to resiliency, while other times outcomes are negative,” Ray said. “These workshops are not monolithic. They can go in many different directions.”

HSU alumnus Larry Goldberg, who started the Campus Center for Appropriate Technologies at HSU in 1978, attended Ray’s lecture.

“You can’t get incapacitated by fear and depression. Get off your ass. You got to do something,” Goldberg, said.

The changes and theories Ray has implemented in her classroom have inspired her to write a book on emotions in the classroom. Ray’s book will look at different aspects to the emotional consequences of climate change. She plans to write the book on her sabbatical next year.

“You have to come up with your own reasons and solutions to our problems, because self-righteousness is not enough,” Ray said.

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