Finding hope for the climate: Lessons from a community climate party

The more you learn, talk, and act on climate change, the more opportunities you have to experience some seriously dark emotions. I certainly have — I know climate dread, fear, and anger pretty well. I allow myself to feel them sometimes, but I also believe that too much of those dark emotions will be our undoing. It’s a constant challenge to find hope amidst the crisis, to see progress amidst the chaos, and to keep trying to do my part to stop this runaway train when I feel so insignificant.

Last week, I found one antidote to my dark feelings, and with it, a renewed commitment to climate action. My local Citizens’ Climate Lobby chapter (Fairfax County, VA) held a community climate party to create a space where neighbors, friends, and families could learn and discuss climate change and solutions. Many of our guests shared their new understandings and ideas with us as they left, and we made connections with people we might not otherwise meet thanks to a shared commitment to improving our planet.

If you’re interested in throwing your own community climate party, here are some of the things we did and what we learned:

Carbon dividends: Since a big goal of this party was to talk about the Energy Innovation & Carbon Dividend Act, we introduced everyone to an important component of the bill as soon as they arrived. We gave each person a “carbon dividend” — a hand-designed card that could be used to “purchase” refreshments. This setup gave people a sense of how the bill works, since it will provide each adult with a monthly dividend that they can use on anything they want. We placed a collection box for dividends by the refreshments and people were surprisingly diligent about “paying” for their snacks and drinks.

Refreshments: Many members of our chapter brought a snack or baked good, and many of our guests brought something too. We served beer from breweries who have signed the Brewers’ Climate Declaration, indicating their support for the Energy Innovation & Carbon Dividend Act. We encouraged people to bring their own cups to reduce waste, but we also had compostable paper goods and a compost bin on hand.

Games: Another premise of this party was that people could earn extra dividends by playing games (we acknowledged that the Energy Innovation & Carbon Dividend Act does not allow people to earn extra dividends, but by lowering their carbon footprint, people will effectively be saving money).

First, we had the carbon footprint game. People were invited to use stickers to write an action they currently do and one they plan to do to reduce their carbon footprint. They stuck these stickers on a large black paper foot that was taped to the garage door (the different feet represented different broad categories of action, like food or transportation). There was a list of possibilities to spark ideas, which encouraged people to discover new actions they could do (for example, quite a few people were surprised to hear the positive effect of washing their clothes in cold water) or to engage in curious discussions (I was especially intrigued by the suggestion to eat more invasive species, which apparently can be a beneficial thing to do). This table had some extra resources for those who wanted to learn more about carbon footprints, and we recommended that people check out coolersmarter.org from the Union of Concerned Scientists to better understand their own habits and opportunities for improvement.

We also had our climate trivia wheel. The wheel lists different categories like food, water, oceans, security, and history. People spin it and receive a trivia question for the category the wheel lands on. Kids and adults alike tend to get into this game.

We decided to incorporate some lawn games as well. We set up horseshoes with a stake that was nearer to the starting line (labeled “Reduce emissions 40% in 12 years,” which the Energy Innovation & Carbon Dividend Act would do) and another farther away (“Reduce emissions 90% in 50 years”). There was also a croquet set that encouraged players to hit their ball (representing the bill) through the hoops, which were labeled with important milestones like “Bill passes the House of Representatives” and “Bill goes to Senate Committee.” We had a disc golf game with a similar goal — can you throw the frisbee and knock down your target? It’s challenging, just like passing important legislation is.

Information: Of course, we set up a table with information about the Energy Innovation & Carbon Dividend Act, including an overview of how it works, its benefits, and a list of the members of Congress who have cosponsored it. We also provided templates for people to write letters to their member of Congress at the party, which we’ll hand deliver when we visit their offices. We were excited to have a volunteer from another community climate organization, Mothers Out Front. Even veteran CCLers could learn about why and how they’re advocating for electric school buses, among other things.

Feedback: Most of the feedback we received was informal — people sharing how glad they were to learn about the Energy Innovation & Carbon Dividend Act or to engage in great discussion with people they hadn’t met before. We did make a survey to understand what people thought of the party and their thoughts about the bill after the event. We shared this with a few guests who we knew well and who aren’t (yet) part of our organization, and we received 6 responses. Most of these guests reported greater understanding of a carbon fee and dividend and were more likely to support the Energy Innovation & Carbon Dividend Act after the party. They also shared a range of activities that they plan to start doing to contribute to climate action, like engaging in more conversations about the topic.

Looking back on the party, I’m confident that we shared helpful information about Citizens’ Climate Lobby and the Energy Innovation & Carbon Dividend Act with new audiences, which is great. But to me, the opportunity to talk to new people with different backgrounds and perspectives from mine, to learn from each other, and to walk away with a renewed optimism and commitment to working on climate were what made the event such a success.

Add climate change to the agenda during this Women’s Wave

This weekend, women around the world will march in the third annual Women’s March. It will bring diverse women and communities together to push for progressive social change. This is important because women’s rights are so deeply entangled with nearly every other aspect of our lives — including the unignorable climate change.

Women disproportionately suffer from the consequences of climate change. This is because the majority of the world’s poor are women, and climate change especially affects poorer communities. These communities tend to directly rely on natural resources for their livelihood and have few resources for responding to natural disasters [1,2]. Richer countries continue to exacerbate climate change, while poorer ones suffer the most immediate and tragic impacts. At the same time, women are frequently cut off from resources that could help them cope with the effects of climate change and are underrepresented in decision-making bodies that provide opportunities for mitigation [3].

Yet in many cases, women are behind powerful, effective, and equitable solutions to climate change. The podcast Mothers of Invention has turned me onto the many ways in which “Climate change is a man-made problem — with a feminist solution.” In each episode former Irish President Mary Robinson and comedian Maeve Higgins discuss responses to climate change that help counteract the inequitable effects of climate change. More in-depth features of some of these “mothers of invention” can be found in Robinson’s book, Climate Justice: Hope, Resilience, and the Fight for a Sustainable Future.

There are concrete solutions we can adopt to mitigate climate change and its disproportional  impacts. Thanks to the Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL), I’ve recently learned about the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, a proposal that was introduced in the House of Representatives and the Senate in 2018, that sets out a plan for addressing climate change in a way that benefits all Americans. Here’s how it works:

  • It imposes a fee on fossil fuels. It starts low (much lower than estimates of the damages fossil fuels incur) and gradually increases. In this way, it incentivizes industry to decrease their reliance on fossil fuels.
  • The government collects this fee and distributes an equal share to all Americans. The government does not keep any of the revenue, which means the government does not expand. It also means that Americans have more money to spend as they wish.
  • Imported goods will also be assessed a border carbon adjustment, and exported goods will receive a refund. This will protect U.S. jobs and manufacturers.

Independent assessments of this proposal have revealed that not only will it be make substantial progress in reducing climate change, decreasing emissions by at least 40% within 12 years. This means it will be good for people, who will benefit from a safer planet and better health and wellbeing.

Since every American will receive the same dividend through this policy, it will disproportionately benefit low-income Americans, as the same sum of money makes a greater impact for people who have less to begin with.

If passed, the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act will help prevent extreme climate change without exacerbating inequality. To make sure it is passed, we need to communicate our support to elected officials. The Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL) provides resources to make writing, calling, and tweeting to Representatives easy. If you’re as excited as I am about the bill, you can also join CCL to make sure our country takes this important step forward for the environment, the economy, and social justice.


Cover Image by Mobilus In Mobili, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Women%27s_March_on_Washington_(32593123745).jpg

Climate change is a people problem

The Earth is warming. It’s because of humans, and it will negatively affect nearly every area of human life. The scientific consensus is robust and clear: we don’t need more research to conclude that climate change is happening because of human activities, is already harming our planet and people, and will have even more catastrophic consequences if it’s not curbed.

It might seem logical, then, that we, individually and collectively, would make rapid changes to mitigate climate change. We’d pass policies that ensure we stop relying on fossil fuels, we’d invest in technologies that improve our ability to stop climate change and adapt when necessary, and we’d adopt more sustainable lifestyles, changing how we travel, shop, and eat. But these things aren’t happening with nearly the speed they need to, and history shows that this inaction is not new.

This is because climate change is a people problem. Both in considering the causes of climate change and the things that need to happen to stop it, people are front and center. People make decisions about policies, about how to spend money, and about how to live their lives.

This means that in order to address climate change, we need to start with an understanding of people. Although we will absolutely benefit from more work that advances our understanding of climate change itself and how we can mitigate it, we also need to drastically increase our prioritization of the social sciences in addressing climate change and all the challenges it brings.

Social scientists can help us understand the human dimensions of climate change, an understanding that is crucial for making sufficient progress in addressing it. The social sciences — fields like psychology, sociology, economics, geography, political science, history, and anthropology — equip us with ways to study and understand how people think about climate change and how they come to develop their beliefs; how our cultures and communities affect our beliefs and actions; what makes for a successful social movement; and how climate change will affect our political, food, and economic systems. The social sciences inform our understandings from the most specific levels (like how individuals behave in different circumstances) to the broadest (such as a consideration of human evolution across the planet over thousands of years).

We need to remember that people play the leading role in our planet’s climate change saga, and, accordingly, to prioritize the social sciences in everything we do to address climate change.

More Reading
If you’re interested in learning more about the role that the social sciences can (and should!) play in addressing climate change, here are just a few articles and organizations that I’ve found helpful and inspiring:

  • Rare: A nonprofit organization. From their website: “Rare is a global leader in using behavior change to achieve long-lasting conservation results.”
  • Climate Central: an organization that researches climate change and reports on it to the public. They’re deliberate about basing their communications in social science research to determine the best ways to get their messages to the public.
  • Humans are not just the problem; they are the solution to climate change, an article by Prof. Karen O’Brien, which discusses different levels, from individual behaviors to collective worldviews, that affect how people respond to climate change.
  • Mainstreaming the social sciences in conservation by Nathan J. Bennet et al., an article about the importance of elevating the social sciences in order to improve conservation policy and practices.

You Can Help Get out the Vote this November: Pick up a Pen and WRITE!

There are some really terrible — dare I say deplorable — things happening in the United States right now. It’s easy to feel discouraged, to assume that we are powerless to stop the runaway train. But the midterm elections will take place in under a month, and they provide an opportunity for us, collectively, to change course. In the lead up to the elections, we all have a part to play in tilting the scales toward justice by encouraging others — friends, family, and even strangers — to vote on November 6.

And fortunately, there are organizations that can help us do this outreach. I recently learned about Vote Forward, which provides a template letter and addresses to volunteers who want to encourage others to vote. Volunteers hand-write their notes to tell recipients why they’ve pledged to vote, and encouraging those receiving the letter to do the same (though not for a specific candidate). All Vote Forward letters will be sent out on October 30 — one week before the elections — so that the reminder is fresh in voters’ minds on election day.

For many people, like me, reaching out to strangers through letters (or postcards) feels good — it gives us the sense that at least we’re doing something. Fortunately, research shows that we’re actually doing more than making ourselves feel good with such efforts: evaluations of “Please vote” letters have revealed that their impact is real. Those writing don’t have to be satisfied with the feeling that they’re doing something positive; they can know that they truly are contributing to a higher voter turnout.

For instance, in the 2017 Alabama Senate race, almost 7,000 people who voted in the 2016 election (but not in other elections) were included in a study. One thousand of these potential voters were randomly assigned to receive a letter; the rest did not. Among those who received a letter, 52.9% voted, while among those who did not, only 49.5% did. This may not seem like a huge difference, but in close elections, this difference is more than enough to affect the outcome.

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Graphic courtesy of Vote Forward

Over the past (almost) two years, I’ve been shocked, disappointed, and outraged at our country’s leaders and the horrific attitudes and policies they’re promoting. It’s often tempting to unplug the Internet, blast upbeat music, and pretend that America is a land of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all. But denial won’t reunite asylum-seeking families, bring justice to victims of police violence or sexual assault, or take steps to save our planet from climate disasters.

If you feel as I do, I invite you to pick up a pen and reach out to others — remind them that election day is November 6 and that their vote matters. Sign up to write for evidence-backed efforts like Vote Forward or Postcards to Voters (an effort I’ve written about previously), and donate your time and a few stamps to improving our democracy. Our collective votes are our only way out of this mess, and we’re running out of time.


Featured photo by Mirah Curzer on Unsplash

Postcards to Voters: What the Research Says

For the past few months, I’ve been volunteering to write postcards to registered voters to alert or remind them of upcoming elections (as well as to mention the Democratic candidate running in that election). My postcards are part of a grassroots effort called Postcards to Voters, which has picked up lots of steam — there are over 18,000 volunteers who have collectively written and sent over half a million postcards.

As I understand it, the primary goal of Postcards to Voters is not to persuade. We’re sending notices to registered Democrats about Democratic candidates, so I predict that few are undecided about or opposed to the candidate they receive a postcard about. Instead, the primary goal is to increase voter turnout (among people who are already likely to vote for the candidate); it’s a Get Out The Vote (GOTV) initiative.

I mentioned this project to a friend who asked me whether there’s research on the effectiveness of Postcards to Voters. To the best of my knowledge, this project hasn’t been studied, and that does make the scientific thinker in me slightly uncomfortable. But only slightly. Because whether it’s effective for the recipient, I know that creating the postcards is a positive outlet for my political angst. I don’t need research to show me that.

But also, there’s a substantial body of research, especially from political science, that can shed light on when and how Postcards to Voters can be successful for GOTV. Fortunately, a number of studies suggest that while campaigns rarely persuade voters, they can be effective in boosting voter turnout, especially for primary elections (which is what Postcards to Voters is aimed at during this time of year).

However, some research on GOTV initiatives is less than encouraging:

The guide to grassroots elections Get Out the Vote determined that GOTV efforts averaged one vote every 15 door knocks by volunteers ($31 dollars per vote), 35 phone calls by volunteers ($35 dollars per vote), or 273 pieces of nonpartisan direct mail ($91 dollars per vote, no effect from partisan direct mail).

(Yes, I found this information on Wikipedia.)

Along these lines, another study revealed that Democrats who received mail reminders to vote in the 2016 Presidential election did not vote at a higher rate than those who didn’t receive the reminders. Again, this is not encouraging, but we have to consider the context of the 2016 Presidential election: I highly doubt that many Americans forgot to vote on November 8, 2016. For months leading up to the election, the American public was swamped with information, opinions, and advertisements about the election. Those who were eligible to vote and were inclined to do so were likely going to vote whether they received a mail reminder or not. This is a stark contrast to elections that are probably way less publicized, like for the Yolo (CA) County District Attorney or the Nebraska Legislative District 6 State Legislature positions (both of which I have written postcards for this past week). There is a much greater opportunity for GOTV mail like our postcards to make a difference when voters aren’t already inundated by information about the election, when a message could actually serve as a reminder. In fact, at least one past study shows that text message reminders can be sufficient for reminding people to vote.

Additional research points to other features of productive GOTV campaigns, some of which are also features of Postcards to Voters. For example, personalized messages work better than generic ones: Since all Postcards to Voters are handwritten, they have the potential to be much more personal than mass-produced messages.

It wouldn’t be impossible to directly study the effectiveness of Postcards to Voters, but rigorously studying the initiative would compromise a lot of what makes the effort so great. For one, an ideal study might require the postcards to be standardized, so that every voter gets exactly the same information, presented in similar ways, with the same designs or embellishments on the card. There is currently a base level of standardization — three points (the candidate, the election date, and one other piece of info) that must be included on each card, but there are many other points for postcard creators to choose among if they’d like to add more info, and the design is totally up to them. This is a wonderful aspect of the project, and probably one that keeps people excited to continue making more postcards.

In addition, a controlled experiment would mean that some people (about half of the registered Democrats for the elections that Postcards to Voters target) would not get postcards — they would be the control group. Then researchers would have to track, for each election, whether each registered Democrat received a postcard or not and whether each registered Democrat voted or not, in order to examine the potential relationship between receiving a postcard and voting. It’s possible some researchers are tracking this exact information right now, but as far as I know, voters aren’t being randomly assigned to receive postcards or not. That would mean that we’re passing up sending postcards to half of our target audience, just so we could have a neat control group for experimental reasons. My understanding is that we’re sending postcards to as many registered Democratic voters as possible for each election, rather than setting some aside for control purposes. Again, that is probably a very good thing.

Postcards to Voters is not an academic exercise. It’s not designed to contribute to political science theory on who votes and why. It’s designed to GOTV as powerfully as possible, to reach as many voters as possible, and to engage as many people as possible in the creation process. It’s true that it hasn’t been scientifically validated, but it does rest on a foundation of research that shows that GOTV efforts can be effective. Personally, I’m willing to forgo the hard proof on this one in exchange for maximizing inclusivity and participation in the democratic process.

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Climate change and mental health

Sometimes I think about climate change and feel a gripping fear. I might step outside to a 60-degree day in the middle of January or read an article about the worsening state of our air, land, and sea, and experience a sudden panic. I have a feeling of impending doom, lack of control, anger at decision-makers who aren’t doing enough to fix this global problem.

But that’s just me.

How does climate change affect other people’s mental health? In previous posts, I’ve written about how the way climate change is framed can affect the way people think about it — whether they think it’s a real threat and what they might be willing to do about it. This post takes acceptance of climate change as a starting point, and focuses on the psychological effects of perceived and actual effects of climate change. Once climate change is accepted or experienced as a reality, what are its impacts on mental health?

A recent study revealed two distinct responses. While some people have little anxiety, others experience substantial stress, and in some cases, depression, to their perception of the impacts of climate change. What causes different people to have such different reactions? The researchers examined the extent to which people had egoistic concern (about the effects of climate change on themselves), altruistic concern (about the effects of climate change on others, such as future generations), and biospheric concern (about nature, plants, and animals). They found that people with biospheric concern reported the highest levels of stress related to climate change, as well as the highest levels of depression.

Other reviews (1)(2) describe additional mental health conditions that, for some people, are linked to the gradual effects of climate change. These include anxiety, depression, and substance use. We can also expect climate change to negatively impact physical health — for example leading to increases in asthma, allergies, exposure to pests and toxic substances, and heat-related death, and a decrease in general fitness.

The gradual effects of climate change will continue to wear away at our mental and physical health until we address the problem.

The sudden effects of climate change are also harmful to mental health. As natural disasters become more numerous and more intense, they threaten the mental health of those who are directly affected. One project that shows these mental health impacts clearly is the The Resilience in Survivors of Katrina Project (“RISK”) Project. For this project, the researchers had already begun a longitudinal study of vulnerable women (poor single mothers in community college) in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina hit. After the hurricane, they continued to conduct surveys and interviews of these women, which allowed them to better understand the tolls that a natural disaster can take on mental health, particularly for people who are already vulnerable.

An article on “Katrina Brain” reports what they found: 4 years after the storm, 20% of their participants still reported anxiety and depression that was higher than they had reported before the storm. A small group of participants reported even more serious mental health impacts like PTSD. The mental health impacts of storms like Katrina tend to be especially bad for people with low incomes and those without strong social supports.

Fortunately, about a third of the participants reported “post-traumatic growth,” a sign of resilience. It’s reassuring that we aren’t all completely doomed to psychological ruin when disasters hit, but it’s not consolation for the “psychological scars” that disasters like Katrina inflict on those who are directly affected and most vulnerable.


Cover photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

Wars are everywhere: When should we use these metaphors, and when should we reframe?

How many wars have you encountered today? Maybe you saw a headline about the war in Afghanistan or elsewhere, but it’s even more likely that you read an article or had a conversation about a figurative war: like the war on cancer, obesity, or poverty. Maybe you’ve even heard about wars on salad, plastic bags, or Pantsuit Nation. There are a lot of wars going on right now.

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A recent paper by Stephen Flusberg, Teenie Matlock, and Paul Thibodeau shines a spotlight on these war metaphors. The researchers combine insights from psychology, linguistics, and sociology to discuss why we use war metaphors, how they shape our thinking, and recommendations for productively communicating about figurative wars.  Here are some things I learned while reading their paper.

Why so many wars?

One study found that 17% of all Times Magazine articles published between 1981 and 2000 and 15% of all Newsweek articles published in the same time span contained at least one war metaphor. Considering the breadth of topics those magazines cover, the figures suggest that there are a lot of figurative wars in their pages (and, by extension, in public discourse).

There are a couple explanations for the popularity of war metaphors. First, they draw on common shared knowledge. Most people know a lot about literal wars. We have structured knowledge about them — for example, that wars are caused by disputes, involve militaries that engage in different forms of physical fighting, and that wars end with winners and losers. When someone uses a war metaphor, then, their audience will almost definitely understand the domain being referenced and will have a wealth of knowledge to connect to the topic at hand.

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War metaphors also carry a sense of urgency. They can tap into emotions, capture attention, and motivate action. These features are helpful when a communicator’s intention is to change the way people think and behave about something. For example, referring to a war on obesity might trigger a sense of fear and urgency for many people, inspiring them to get off their couch or advocate for healthier school lunch options.

Another reason war metaphors are used often is precisely because they’re common. We’re so familiar with war metaphors that when we encounter one it’s not difficult to process it; we can do so almost automatically. This process acts like a growing snowball — the more we encounter war metaphors, the more natural they are to us, so the more likely we are to keep using them. Fighting cancer is a good example of this, since it’s such a common sentiment that we hardly even notice it’s a metaphor anymore.

Are war metaphors helpful? Hurtful?

Yes.

Studies show that war metaphors can instill a sense of urgency and motivate people to change their mindsets and behavior, which is often necessary. For example, when people read about a war against climate change, they felt more urgency for reducing emissions and indicated they were more willing to change their behaviors to reduce their carbon footprint than when they read about a race against climate change. The intensity of the war metaphor shaped mindsets in a way that the race metaphor did not.

But war metaphors can also have unintended counterproductive consequences for the way people think about issues. For example, when a cancer experience is referred to as a battle, people are more likely to think the sick person will feel guilty if they don’t recover than when it’s referred to as a journey. For patients, referring to their experience as a war can be de-motivating, as shown, for example, by a study that found that people who thought of their experience as a battle experienced more anxiety and depression than those who thought of their experience as a journey. War-terms also make people less likely to endorse cancer prevention behaviors than neutral terms.

People also have less favorable views of police officers when they’re referred to as warriors than as guardians, and they’re more likely to endorse violence when war metaphors are used in a political context or in a discussion of a worker strike. These instances of war metaphors that lead people to reason in counterproductive ways underlie my discomfort with the war on science.

Ursula Le Guin’s thoughts about war metaphors sum up one of their major limitations:

War as a moral metaphor is limited, limiting, and dangerous. By reducing the choices of action to ‘a war against’ whatever-it-is, you divide the world into Me or Us (good) and Them or It (bad) and reduce the ethical complexity and moral richness of our life to Yes/No, On/Off.

Guidelines for using war metaphors

Metaphors shape thought by tapping into our complex and structured ways of thinking about the world, and emphasizing certain features of the topic at hand. For this reason, metaphors will mean different things for different people (and especially across different cultures) and in different contexts, so their effects on reasoning will vary. There’s no black-and-white advice for whether to use war metaphors or not, but research has started to reveal how they affect reasoning in different circumstances. This research has paved the way for a few recommendations:

  • Use war metaphors when the topic being described really poses an imminent threat, since they can tap into people’s emotions and incite fear. Climate change is one of those issues. Salad is not.
  • Use war metaphors only when the topic being described actually shares features with wars. If people can’t immediately understand why something is being compared to a war, the metaphor will likely detract from any effective persuasion.
  • Use war metaphors initially, and then reframe. They can draw attention to an issue and elicit an emotional response, but they lose efficacy over time as they become overly familiar and people tune out (just as public enthusiasm toward literal wars tends to wane over time).
  • Explain how the issue at hand is like a war, and how it is not. Since war frames will not have the same effect in all contexts, misunderstandings can be avoided by explaining the connection between the given topic and a war, instead of expecting all people to identify the same connections in all circumstances.

War metaphors make up a large part of public discourse, so it’s important for us to keep working to understand how they shape our thoughts and when they should be used (or avoided). This paper provided a useful analysis for communicators who want to help people think about some of society’s most pressing issues in new ways. But since we still have a lot of research to do on these metaphors, communicators should wield them with caution.

CAN YOU HEAR ME, DEAR STUDENTS?!

I’m just over halfway through teaching an intensive introduction to research methods in cognitive science right now. We’re discussing experiment logic, research ethics, and a variety of methods researchers can use to learn about cognition and behavior. The students are practicing scientific thinking, both in our class discussions and in their writing assignments. You can check out some of the fantastic work they’re doing on our class blog.

This is my first time as instructor of record, and the class meets for a 7 hours each week, so I knew from the start that there would be many challenges. One difficulty I hadn’t anticipated is how difficult it is to really gauge what the students are learning. Like really learning, not just memorizing or considering at a surface level. I’m trying a bunch of strategies that would seem to help with this challenge. Like:

  • Asking “What questions do you have?” instead of “Do you have questions?” a subtle difference that suggests I expect them to have questions and invite them to ask.
  • Building in lots of metacognitive or “formative assessment” opportunities — activities like homework reflections and in-class conceptual questions that are attempted individually and in small groups. These are intended to provide us all the chance to catch misconceptions or topics the students are unclear on.
  • An interim survey, asking students whether the pace of the class is too fast, too slow, or just right, and to describe elements of the class that are working for them and others that could be changed to improve their learning.

These strategies are all helping to some extent. Students are asking questions during class, we’re clarifying lecture topics in our group discussions, and the survey feedback indicated that for the most part, class speed, format, and expectations are all going fine.

Yet each time I leave class, I can’t with much confidence answer: Are the students really getting it? After the first few classes, this lingering question frustrated me. Of course one way to assess learning is through tests. We will have an exam, where I can get a sense of how well the students can repeat the content of my lectures back, and even how well they can apply the concepts I taught to new contexts, but of course tests can’t perfectly reflect what individual students have learned. Plus, the exam will take place after the last class, when there’s no time to remedy conceptual gaps or misconceptions. The exam is not the answer to this challenge. How can I gauge true learning in the meantime?

Since the first few classes, I’ve started to make peace with the fact that I might always leave class feeling less than 100% confident that the students really grasped whatever I was trying to convey. I’ve accepted the fact that gauging learning is really hard, especially in a class like this, where the primary goal is to lay a conceptual foundation that can be applied to research or scientific literacy later on. It’s hard, but I’ve learned and implemented the strategies I mentioned above because they chip away at the challenge. Realistically, I’m not going to be able to always know precisely what’s clear and what’s not (the students themselves can’t even always be expected to know if they’re clear on something). I’ll just have to keep trying to get as close as I can.

Refugee for a day: A glimpse into the ugliness and the beauty humans are capable of

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

But mostly, it was the worst, as 300 exhausted passengers fended for themselves to find cots at 3am in Boston’s Logan Airport.

At first we were mildly frustrated, as we waited 3 hours at the gate for our flight that was continually delayed for mechanical reasons. Our frustration grew when we then learned that our flight was canceled for the evening: “Sorry, folks, we’re not going to be able to fly out tonight. Please go to counter 36 for more information and hotel vouchers.”

We vacillated between hope and despair as we waited for 5 more hours for hotel vouchers and new flight reservations that never materialized for most of us. We started seeing glimmers of hope in everything (A man with a suit! He’s coming to fix the problem!). By 3am even our mirages were put to rest when an announcement informed us that there were no more available hotels in the Boston area and that we would receive more information at 10am.

Based on the avoidant airline personnel we had encountered to that point, few people were surprised when 10am came and went, and we had received no update. By 2pm, we were receiving new tickets for a flight that would take off at 5. By 8pm, after another delay because the flight crew had been stuck in traffic on their way to airport, we were out of emotions. A converted air tanker took off over the Atlantic Ocean 29 hours after scheduled departure with over 300 zombies on board.

During those 29 hours, my fellow passengers and I witnessed some of the ugliness humans are capable of. Some people jogged and jostled each other each time an announcement directed us to form yet another line – for hotel vouchers, meal tickets, or new boarding passes. At random intervals, a new passenger would break down and start shouting, so the state police came to make sure things remained civil. When the airport employees brought “food” and drinks to the line of people waiting for nonexistent hotel vouchers, some people rushed to grab what they could from the stash of mini water bottles and bags of Cheez-Its that made you wonder if someone in the factory had snagged a handful before sealing the bag with 5 crackers in it.

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Some people were hesitant to leave the ticketing area, so they brought their cots over to not lose their place in line.

Our mass sleepover in Logan airport was uncomfortable and denigrating, but for every sneer there were many smiles. We were not happy to be stuck in an airport, but the fact was that we were there. We got to know each other, we commiserated and, somehow, we laughed. I learned that to a Brit, Cheez-Its taste like sweaty socks. We shared – iPhones for those who needed to make calls, sweatshirts (because damn, air conditioned airports are really cold when you don’t have a blanket), and the coveted cots and blankets once we got our hands on them.

A week after this debacle, I still look back and cringe at this experience. But the entire time, I knew I’d get to a comfortable bed eventually where I could sleep for 11 hours. I knew I’d have a good meal and a glass of wine at the end of the trip. When I stopped griping for a moment, I realized that knowing that those comforts were in my near future was a lot more than many people can say, as they find themselves wondering where they’ll sleep tonight, tomorrow night, and for the foreseeable future. We lived like refugees for one night, and it was a pain. But many people do it for years.

 

 

Depression & its metaphors

Depression is high on my Incredibly-important-topics-that-we-humans-struggle-to-make-sense-of list (with a list at least I can impose some order on things that are nearly impossible to grapple with otherwise). It’s prevalent — within a single year, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America estimates that 6.7% of American adults over age 18 have struggle with depression.

And depression is really hard to wrap our heads around, whether we’re experiencing it or not. For one, we can’t really see it — people with depression look just like people without. Depression continues to challenge scientists — why do some people experience depression while others don’t? Why do some treatments work for certain patients and not for others?

Even though it’s a challenge to really understand depression, we still find ways to make some sense of it. One of those ways is through metaphor. We describe depression in terms of things we have more concrete experience with — enemies in war, darkness, lowness, or burdens, for example. Metaphors can both reflect and shape our thoughts about concepts like depression. Research gives some glimpses into the relationship between the metaphors we use to describe depression and how we think about it or actually feel. But there’s still so much we don’t know about depression metaphors and their effects on cognition. Here I present some of what research does reveal, sprinkled with my own speculation.

 

Depression as down

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Depressed by Sander van der Wel. CC BY-SA.

In English, it’s common to talk about sadness as feeling down. Depression is not the same as sadness, but it’s also often associated with being physically low. One reason might be that when we’re feeling sad or depressed, our bodies are often slouched or closer to the ground than when we’re feeling great. This idea that our natural bodily experiences, for example hanging our heads or looking down when we feel depressed, can give rise to conventional linguistic metaphors like “down in the dumps” is called Conceptual Metaphor Theory (CMT). CMT’s main claim is that linguistic metaphors reflect the way we already think about concepts. In other words, we say we need a “pick-me-up” because in our minds, depression is down in the same way that the ground is down. The literal and figurative meanings of depression are associated in mind.

Depression as an enemy

Depression can be something that people fight or slay, or they may be beaten or attacked by it. On one hand, this might be a productive framing, since it implies that people can do something about their situation. They can choose the most appropriate weapons in their arsenal to strike back against their depression enemy.

But for the same reason, the enemy frame may be counterproductive. Many aspects of depression are outside a person’s control, which can be especially hard to understand if we haven’t personally experienced it. In this case, suggesting that a person should fight harder or better may backfire, implying that someone who doesn’t seem to be able to beat depression is too weak. There’s a fine line here.

Depression as darkness

Darkness is another common metaphor for talking about depression. The origins may be similar to talking about depression as being down. When it’s cloudy or rainy, we often feel a more blah than when the sun is out (this association is especially relevant for people with Seasonal Affective Disorder).

Again, talking about cloudy and rainy days as a basis for understanding depression conflates very normal sadness with depression, and clinical depression is so much more than a cloudy day feeling. But our experiences with dark, cloudy days may create a foundation for thinking about both common sadness and depression. Even when we’re indoors, dark spaces are often associated with fatigue and negative feelings.

Depression as a physical burden

It’s also common to think of depression as a physical burden we carry around. Fortunately, burdens can be unloaded, and research has documented positive experiences in psychotherapy can bring about a feeling of unloading a depression burden.

In fact, dynamicity seems to be a productive feature of many depression metaphors. Just as a burden can be unloaded, things that are dark can be brightened, low can be lifted, and enemies can be defeated (or become allies). Even though these metaphors are quite different on the surface, they also have similarities and seem to be compatible with each other.

Depression as multiple things at once

We mix metaphors naturally in speech. Referring to depression an enemy, for example, doesn’t mean I won’t then refer to it as a being down or dark (or that someone else I’m conversing with won’t, as you can see in the short Twitter exchange that follows):

This next tweet also shows a blend of multiple metaphors. The text refers to hitting “rock bottom,” while the image shows a dark cloud. The words and image “say” different things, but we naturally integrate them into one mental image of a low, dark depression.

And depression can be a dark enemy:

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Or a dark physical burden:

These mixed metaphors aren’t confusing at all. We don’t feel like the simultaneous depiction of depression as being both dark and a burden conflict because depression can be both things at once. Metaphors don’t create rigid structures that define our thoughts, but instead they create templates for thinking that can be overlapped and mixed and matched.

Are there ideal metaphors for depression?

On the whole, probably not. Each person will have their own preferred metaphors for making sense of depression. It’s key to be conscientious of the metaphors you encounter and produce, and to evaluate what they imply about mental illness. And if no conventional metaphors seem fitting, you might try designing your own or considering Bruce Springsteen’s comparison of depression to a car:

I always picture it as a car. All your selves are in it. And a new self can get in, but the old selves can’t ever get out. The important thing is, who’s got their hands on the wheel at any given moment?


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