From Climate to Landscape: Imagining the Future (CLIF)
Dr Kym Martindale
Senior Lecturer in English and Writing
University College Falmouth (Tremough Campus)
Students used a field trip to Cornwall as the basis for creative projects imagining the future impact of climate change. This extra-curricular activity, part of the interdisciplinary CLIF project, led to presentations at a major academic conference. This case study was part of the English Subject Centre’s ‘Bringing the Outside In’ case studies initiative.
Background / Context
The CLIF project as such is based in the Cultural Geography department of the University of Exeter, Cornwall, under the direction of Professor Catherine Leyshon (née Brace). I contributed to a previous project run jointly by Professor Leyshon and Dr Adeline Johns-Putra (English, University of Exeter, Cornwall) which culminated in an edited collection of essays (Brace and Johns-Putra 2010). In 2009, Professor Leyshon invited me to bring a group of creative writing students into the CLIF project, an interdisciplinary examination into ‘understanding what climate change means to people, the potential desirability of these changes, as well as perceptions and imaginings of future climate change in relation to familiar habitats and landscapes that contribute to a sense of place’ (CLIF project website). The landscape focused on here, is the Lizard, the most south-westerly point of Cornwall, and a place both remote and wild, yet much visited by tourists. The other disciplines involved are bioscience, geography, and English (Exeter). The project was made open to second year students on the English with Media Studies and English with Creative Writing degrees at University College Falmouth (UCF). Initially, 6 students volunteered, but only 3 have fully committed to the project, the group being augmented by a family member of one of the students. Further input came from a PhD student (English, University of Exeter, Cornwall) who also teaches part-time for English at UCF, and who has acted as a facilitator throughout.
I accepted the invitation for several reasons:
- My own research area is in place and writing, specifically poetry, but it has long felt important to extend the ‘reach’ of research (my own, and generally) and ensure it is visible to, and part of the student experience.
- The collaborative and interdisciplinary nature of the project would, I felt, broaden the students’ academic experience.
- It felt important to offer the students a creative opportunity that was separate from the curriculum – thus enhancing their CV and employment profile – while reinforcing certain elements of the actual curriculum ‘in the field’.
- We teach discourse and critical analysis primarily, and I felt it would be productive for the students to encounter different discourses and ideologies in terms of place and subjectivity.
Activities / Practice
Initially, the group was taken on a guided walk by Paul Simmons of WalkitCornwall, who revealed the landscape’s various histories: cultural, social, political, geological and botanical. This was followed by a discussion in the local tavern, during which students talked about how the guide’s knowledge had opened up new readings of an otherwise deeply familiar landscape, or brought insights into their aquaintance with an alien environment (two of the group are local, two are from south east England). The group then went away to consider how they might begin to respond creatively to this landscape under imagined impacts of climate change. A month later, we held a workshop in which we explored draft pieces the group had done, and looked closely at the entrenched ideologies of Romanticism in (our own) constructs of place, nature and environment. The group expressed much interest too, in attending, and presenting their work at the Environmental Change- Cultural Change conference, University of Bath, September 2010, so I answered the CFP with a proposal to do this. By July, the group had produced a literary essay piece, a short film, a range of photographs, and a painting. This was expanded later this year, by poetry from another member of the group, and all work was presented on the campus at Tremough, as part of the launch of a series of Geopoetic Lunches organised by the Poet-in-Residence in Cultural Geography, University of Exeter, Cornwall.
The benefits to the students were/are several, and are both pedagogical and personal. Pedagogically, they engaged with Romanticsm as it was implicit in their expectations of the landscape and their responses to it; this deepened their understanding of a movement and ideology which they had previously only encountered in the lecture and seminar rooms, and on the page. In this sense, the experience specifically enhanced their reception of ideas they were encountering in their studies of 18th-19th century literature and culture, and of representations of utopia from More to Second Life. The short film in particular, which one student produced, clearly foregrounds the tension for her of the burden we place on landscape in our desire for it to protect the utopia of childhood – and not merely her own, but those of her children perhaps. The literary essay takes this further, revealing the author’s confrontation of her desires and expectations, and arguing that the nostalgia such expectations are founded in prevent us from imagining a future at all. The experience of going out into the landscape and actually being in it, offered the students a heuristic approach to understanding the cultural constructedness of the term ‘nature’.
On a personal level, their presentation and attendance at the conference has been a tremendous boost to their confidence, and will be useful on their CV: it cements certain transferable employability skills, and should they wish to apply for funding towards postgraduate study, the experience will be a bonus. The project has enriched present and future student experience in this sense. However, the benefit extends to us, the lecturers, as the students saw for the first time, academic research in action: not only were they involved in this research as ‘respondents’ but they were producing and presenting work to other academics. This was particularly revealing for them, and rounded out their understanding of the academy’s cultural and social functions and roles. In addition, the conference lectures and seminars, and networking they were able to do, further enriched their learning, and
was inspiring and fertile as they began to consider topics for their final year’s dissertation.
The students said:
‘The CLIF project made me realise that I am a hopeless Romantic (with a capital R!). It made me question how and why I feel about things, instead of just wandering around ooing and ahing at ‘the nature’ I have begun to read it differently and challenge my preconceptions.
The conference gave me an opportunity to see working practitioners in action, something I think as an undergraduate I would usually miss out on. It has given me confidence in presenting my work and I felt really proud of us. Aside from deadlines and assessments it was really rewarding to work on something personal and then present it in an academic forum, it wasn’t about marks it was about doing our project justice, a completely different feeling! […] I can’t put my finger on it but it just feels really worthwhile.’
‘This [presenting at the conference] has given me a more productive confidence in presenting my work in the future. It was interesting to hear and see how the more seasoned academics presented their work even if at times the content was a little lost on me.
It has been so much fun exploring new ideas both within my own thoughts and academic learning and listening to those of others. […]Everything I have learnt so far can only be an asset to any future endeavours.’
The involvement in the CLIF project has been invaluable in several ways.
- It has widened the students’ experience of the academy through collaboration across disciplines and institutions, and attendance as delegates at a major academic conference.
- It has given UCF staff further experience of interdisciplinary and inter-institutional collaboration, and consolidated working relationships between departments and other HEIs.
- It has enhanced the students’ experience of the curriculum, and enriched their transferable skills set, and thus their employability.
- It has challenged the students’ understanding of their own relationship to the environment and climate change as it might impact on a local landscape in ways that strengthen, expand and apply the curriculum.
Future improvements: it has not been possible to assess some of the benefits formally, through assignments, as this was not part of the project’s intention. To assess the students’ work or responses would have required an embedded element, which was not possible, and would have gone against the principle of the research itself (to elicit creative responses that were the students’ own). A more structured process would have made the experience quite different. Fortunately, a colleague at UCF has recently been awarded funding to explore the function of storytelling and narrative in popular understandings of climate change. We are taking the CLIF experience forward to work on the new project, involving new students both as respondents, and as apprentice researchers. The work they produce will feed into the major project, but we can also use some of the methods and tools (oral histories, digital media) within our creative writing programme. We feel it is important nevertheless, to retain the optional extra-curricular status of the project, since this is particularly useful to students in terms of their profile and future employability. In terms of enhancing their performance in the formal curriculum however, we will monitor this, and interview the students concerned with regard to what they feel influenced their performance.
The heuristic learning element of CLIF has also laid foundations for a learning and teaching initiative that will involve the design of a flexible research skill strand mapped into various creative and critical modules. The strand will focus on archives and their use, bringing archives into the seminar room, but also taking students into the archive. Their use of the material, databases and resources, and their understanding of the archive itself, will be formally assessed in short assignments such as research reports, and through applied criteria in longer assignments.
- CLIF project website
- Walkit Cornwall website
- Catherine Brace and Adeline Johns-Putra (eds), Process Landscape and Text (Rodopi Press, 2010)
Thanks to: Professor Catherine Leyshon, Dr Hilary Geoghegan, Dept of Cultural Geography, University of Exeter, Cornwall; Niamh Downing, Dept of English, University of Exeter, Cornwall; Phillippa Carlton-Barnes, Aimée Wright, and Lara Smith, English with Media Studies/Creative Writing, University College Falmouth, and Kath Barnes, independent scholar and artist.
All images © Niamh Downing, except for Fig 2 © Kath Barnes from her sequence Plastic is Fantastic (created as part of CLIF project).