Crisis & Storytelling in the Age of Climate Change (syllabus)

Note: This post is an excerpt of a syllabus for a course taught in Fall 2021, led by Min Hyoung Song (English) and Hilary Palevsky (Earth and Environmental Sciences) with labs led by Robin Wright and a team of 10 juniors and seniors who are acting as discussion leaders. © 2021 Min Hyoung Song and Hilary Palevsky

The Day After Tomorrow - Archive - Zurich Film Festival

Source: Promotional Material from The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

Course description: The realities of a changing climate, including intensified extreme weather events, rising sea levels, strengthening heat waves and droughts, are already being felt by frontline communities around the world. This course focuses both on hearing stories about climate change as told by climate writers, scientists, and members of frontline communities, and telling these stories ourselves. We will examine storytelling as it works across mediums and genres from literature to scientific data visualizations, and consider what it means to write an essay, produce a graph, create a podcast, or make a film. Students in the course will read, watch, and analyze examples of climate storytelling, broadly defined, and produce their own personal essays, infographics, and podcasts.

Learning Objectives: By the end of this course, you will have had the opportunity to develop and demonstrate your ability to:

  • Understand the scientific method by which information is communicated, critiqued, and revised over time by many practitioners, how this has led to scientific consensus on climate change
  • Engage with, appreciate, and critique climate stories across a range of genres
  • Become more aware of how issues of race and racism are pivotal to any consideration of the climate crisis
  • Apply disciplinary perspectives and tools from both the natural sciences and the humanities to the complex problem of the climate crisis 
  • Identify and articulate the strengths, limitations, and synergies of natural science and the humanities for making sense of, and finding solutions for, the climate crisis
  • Find strategies for staying engaged with this topic even when experiencing intense feelings, such as anxiety, fear, hopelessness, or even hopefulness.
  • Examine your own values and experiences and reflect on how to integrate your knowledge and understanding of the climate crisis with the principles that guide your life
  • Create your own climate stories that draw on both the humanities and natural sciences. 

As we strive to achieve these objectives, some questions we’ll foreground throughout the semester are:

  • How do we make sense for ourselves and communicate to others the science and the human impacts of the climate crisis?
  • Whose ways of knowing and lived experiences do we privilege?
  • How can the stories we tell move society towards just climate solutions?

Course Structure: This Complex Problems course is an interdisciplinary 6-credit course that fulfills two of your requirements within BC’s Core Curriculum, as both a Literature course and a Natural Science course. This course aims to offer you not only an intellectual foundation in both of these disciplines, but also to help you develop an interdisciplinary perspective and toolset that is much needed as we–as individuals and as a society–approach the climate crisis. The climate crisis is not the only complex thing about this course, however: the structure is complex as well. Each week, class meetings will include:

  • Lecture meetings on Tuesdays and Thursdays all together as a full class, led by Hilary and Min. Note that despite the term “lecture,” you will be an active participant in activities engaging with us and your peers during lecture meetings.
  • Weekly lab meetings on either a Monday, a Wednesday, or a Friday led by Robin. These are opportunities to complete hands-on, discussion, and project-based activities in smaller groups.
  • Weekly reflection sessions on Tuesday evenings, known as Purposeful Ongoing Discussions (or PODs). The POD leaders are BC juniors and seniors who will not only lead discussions about course material but also serve as near-peer mentors. The purpose of PODs is to provide a community within a larger community, to afford a regular space for reflecting on how course material relates to your own lives, and to offer you mentorship as you adapt to life at BC in your first semester here.

Required Texts:

Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower 

(Please note: This novel contains graphic scenes of violence, including references to rape and cannibalism. If you have any concerns about reading about such matters, please contact Professor Song.)

Articles, Podcasts, and Films. See course outline below for more details. Most longer individual readings will be available for download on Canvas as PDFs in a single compressed folder, and will also be available in the Modules. Shorter readings and readings available in online publications will be available in the Modules. Please be sure to read the relevant material before each class meeting; we will remind you of these readings in our Sunday emails.


Journaling (35%). You will complete weekly journal entries (between 10-12 in total) responding to prompts encouraging you to reflect on the contents of the lectures and reading assignments, drawing out facts or lessons that seem significant, or ask questions that help clarify something that’s unfamiliar. You will submit three of your journal entries, via Canvas, as writing examples for more thorough assessment and feedback.

Lab Reports (30%). Write-ups of lab activities (assessment details provided in the lab syllabus).

Elevator Pitch (15%). Write a 2-minute explanation of the science of climate change for someone who does not know much about the subject in as creative a way as possible and record yourself on video giving this explanation. This elevator pitch should be targeted to a specific potential audience (i.e. TikTok video, reluctant uncle). In addition to the video itself, you will write a short paper (2-3 pages long) reflecting on why you composed your explanation the way you did.

Podcast (20%). Final group-created podcast (8-10 minutes), in which you tell your own climate story in a genre and for an audience of your choice. In addition to the podcast itself, your group will write a short group paper reflecting on the choices you made creating the podcast. You will each also write your own individual reflection on what you learned about climate storytelling through the group podcast creation process.

Deadlines and Late Work Policy: One of the keys to success in this class, and in college in general, is keeping up on your work, both the graded assignments and the reading/watching/listening that accompany them. We give you due dates for assignments both as a benefit to you, to help you keep up with the class, and because it helps us budget our time effectively, as grading is time-consuming.

We therefore ask, for both your benefit and ours, that you submit assignments on time. However, recognizing that you may sometime plan imperfectly around deadlines – especially in this first semester as you are adjusting to college life – and that flexibility can help you balance your academic work with your mental, physical, and emotional health, there is always a 12-hour grace period after the official time an assignment is due, which means we will accept all late assignments turned in during this period without you having to request an extension.

For your weekly journal entries, because those are graded by POD leaders who are also students taking classes themselves, we will not provide extensions, but the assignment is designed so that you can skip two entries during semester with no grade penalty to provide flexibility in times you may fall behind. For assignments to be turned in to Hilary and Min, and lab assignments submitted to Robin, we are extremely generous in providing extensions, but you must contact us to let us know you need the extension. When you contact us, we will ask you to tell us about your plan for completing the assignment, and we will work together to make sure that plan is a reasonable and effective one that supports both your learning and your health and wellbeing. You are never expected or required to tell us any personal or private details of your life in requesting an extension, although we are available to listen should you feel that sharing anything will help us support you.

Attendance: We expect you to come to all the meetings of lecture, lab, and POD, as they are each an essential part of the course and each one you miss cheats you of the opportunity to learn something important. You should aim to arrive a little before the start of class meetings so that you are ready to begin at the designated start time.

While attendance is not an explicit part of your grade for this class, we will keep track of anyone who misses class meetings, and if we notice you missing a couple of meetings in a row or developing a pattern of absences we will follow up with you individually to check in and make sure you are doing OK. If absences persist, we will follow up with you more persistently. While there is no explicit grade penalty for missing class, both education research and our own experience shows that attendance is highly correlated with students’ success in class.

We also realize that we remain in the midst of a pandemic, and so we are planning to be as flexible as possible about absences and making alternative arrangements if you find yourself quarantined or sick. If you are sick (whether with COVID-19 or another illness) or, even if you have not officially been told to quarantine, believe you may be at risk of spreading illness to others, please DO NOT come to class. This is one reason why we’re taking the approach we’re taking toward attendance. 

Course Outline:

Week 1: What makes a climate story?8/31 – Welcome, introduction of the course9/2 – Science Journalism
Week 2: The Day After Tomorrow9/7 Rosh Hashanah– no class. Stream film: The Day After Tomorrow 9/9 Discussion of The Day After Tomorrow
Week 3: The science of hurricanes9/14 Hazards of a changing ocean: circulation, sea level rise, & hurricanes9/16 Yom Kippur- no class
Week 4: Hurricane Katrina9/21 When the Levees Broke (part I)9/23 Guest lecture: Laura Steinberg (Schiller Institute) on Katrina and infrastructure failures
Week 5: Using scientific data to tell climate stories9/28 – Climate Science 1019/30 What makes a good data visualization?
Week 6: Using scientific data to tell climate stories10/5 – Contemporary examples from climate scientific literature10/7 From the visual display of information to words
Week 7: Personalizing the science10/12 – Substitute Monday Schedule -no Class and no POD10/14 Who are the scientists and who are the storytellers?
Week 8: Climate Stories about the future10/19 The novel and genre
Reading: Parable of the Sower
10/21 Imagining the future of Southern California
 Reading: Parable of the Sower; Chapter from NCA4
Week 9: Climate stories about the future10/26 Walls and roads

Reading: Parable of the Sower
10/28 Mutual aid
Reading: Parable of the Sower
Week 10: Climate stories about the future11/2 On endings
Reading:  Parable of the Sower
11/4 The rise of climate fiction
Reading: TBA
Week 11: Ocean acidification11/9 – “The other CO2 problem” – Ocean acidification11/11 – Making the problem known
Week 12: Ocean acidification 11/16 – Oyster aquaculture: An adaptation story?11/18 Compounding changes: Hot, sour, and breathless
Week 13: Bringing climate change home11/23 Hard conversations about climate change11/25 Thanksgiving 
Week 14: The Anthropocene11/30 What is the anthropocene?
12/2 Thinking with trees
Week 15: Positive storytelling about the future12/7 Home is Always Worth It12/9 – Ask Us Anything