The Environmental Politics and Pedagogy of Embarrassment

Authors: Nicole Seymour*,
Topics: Higher Education, Environment, United States
Keywords: Affect, Emotions, Climate Change, Climate Grief, Pedagogy, Embarrassment
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/9/2021
Start / End Time: 9:35 AM / 10:50 AM
Room: Virtual 23
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Embarrassment is the state we need (to endure) in order to have difficult conversations with our students and loved ones about climate grief and other pressing political emotions. It’s also the state we need (to articulate) in order to register our discomfort with the sentimental discourses that crop up around environmental destruction—from reproductive futurism (“let’s save the planet for our Children”) to co-optable notions of “self-care” to paternalistic tropes like the Ecological Indian.

My talk explores this claim through literature and pedagogy. First, I focus on the poetry of Tommy Pico (Kumeyaay), who, in works such as 2016’s _IRL_ and 2017’s _Nature Poem_, couches his politics in embarrassment, as with lines such as, “Don’t tell anyone I’m at / Urban Outfitters, got it? / They sell ‘native american’ / shit n I’ve a reputation [to uphold].” Such moments oppose the kind of “purity politics” that have proved stifling to environmental engagement (Shotwell 2016), and they locate this Indigenous speaker in a contemporary world of consumption—thus contesting the Ecological Indian trope as well as that of the Vanishing Indian.

Next, I turn to my own teaching. While my experience as a white settler scholar differs from Pico’s, I, too, have a “reputation [to uphold],” and I, too, experience embarrassment—especially as I have begun to incorporate “touchy-feely” activities such as meditation into my literature and the environment courses, in order to address my students’ climate grief. I am learning to endure this embarrassment, in part by publicly articulating it.

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