My “Now”

We are reaching the anniversary of one full year since we moved teaching and learning online. My school is preparing for face-to-face classes for the next semester (starting in the beginning of September), with some healthy skepticism and the provision that their status can obviously change with fluctuations in the pandemic. The transition was a large change for everybody. I, like many others, started the transition with asynchronous classes over Blackboard. My school offered professors some much-needed help: in addition to teaching and other duties associated with our jobs (all of which are obviously now online), we had the option take a class from the Association of College and University Educators (ACUE) for guidance in this new setup. This is my first pedagogical class in the 50 years or so that I have been teaching university students. It’s about time; I have plenty to learn. One of the issues that this class has emphasized is the importance of convincing students to take ownership of the material that they are learning by incorporating their own experiences into their work. Unfortunately, especially in classes with a large and diverse set of students, I often know next to nothing about their experiences.

In small senior classes that are anchored to students’ research, the issue is manageable. In the first class, I ask my students to give a short overview of their lives. That means that by the time we start on research projects, I can work with them to choose appropriate, personalized topics.

With larger classes—which often contain up to 50 students—this becomes more difficult. As well as sheer numbers, the diversity of backgrounds is considerably broader. These classes are also General Education and don’t require prerequisites, meaning that in addition to differences in personal and political backgrounds, there is the additional factor of academic level (from freshman to seniors).

For these large classes, I find that the safest starting point that I can offer my students is to describe my own background and its relationship to climate change.

Table 1 – Changes in global indicators from 1945 to “now”

Indicators “Early” Current
Population 2.4*109 (1945) 7.5*109 (2017)
GDP/Capita (1990 US$) 2030(1945) 5950(2017)
Global life expectancy 44 (1945) 71 (2017)
Urbanization (% of population) 28% (1950) 55% (2017)
Electricity availability (% of population) 71% (1990) 87% (2016)
Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration(ppmv) 310(1945) 409(2018)
Energy use (kg oil equivalent per capita) 1336(1971) 1921(2014)

Table 1 is my starting point for this discussion. The year specified in the “current” column indicates the most recent year for which the data were available to me (usually from the World Bank database). As always, the database is a bit behind the actual date of the semester but the overall picture remains the same. I share part of the “now” with my students but we are worlds apart in our relationships to the “early” column. For most of my students, that time period feels like ancient history but I was born in 1939, so it represents part of my “now.”

I have described this distinction before. I dedicated my book, Climate Change – The Fork at the End of Now (Momentum Press – 2011) to my three grandchildren, all of whom were born around the beginning of this century. I refer to them as part of what anchors my use of “now”: I have used their expected lifetimes to demarcate the end of the period. Hopefully, that will be somewhere in the last fifth of this century. By combining Table 1 with the definition in my book, I have extended my “now” to cover approximately 150 years or about 6 generations.

In my August 25, 2020 blog, “School Curriculum: The NYT,” I quoted Einstein as saying, “The distinction between past, present and future is only stubbornly persistent illusion.” I focused that blog on the role of education in securing our next generation’s future. This week, my emphasis is on the “present” or “now” that I share with my students and my grandchildren (who are approximately the same age). In physics, the present doesn’t exist. It is simply a delineation between the past and the future. The “thickness” of this demarcation line depends on the speed in which my tool can gather data and my distance from the source of the information.

I am calling on my students to engage with the course material and make their own definition of “now.”

About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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1 Response to My “Now”

  1. Menachem Muller says:

    I have also noticed a difference in the smaller classes vs the bigger ones. I feel that bigger classes tend to be more lecture based while smaller classes are more discussion based. I am curious how teaching will change if we return with masks or with hybrid learning. I would have a different definition of my “now.” I do not have children so maybe my opinion will change but for me my now would cover only my lifetime. There is of course still value in making the future sustainable for our grandchildren, but once I am gone that will no longer be my “now.”

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