December 10, 2021

Reading books from diverse authors – a campus program that builds an earth science curriculum

Posted by Laura Guertin

Reading diverse books provides an opportunity to travel beyond one’s community, social status, and culture. Engaging with texts by authors of varying backgrounds allows us to share and understand perspectives different from our own.  —  Penn State Brandywine/Vairo Library Diverse Reading Challenge

I am a huge fan of my campus library and their incredible faculty and staff. When I first started at Penn State Brandywine 20 years ago, I had only used the library resources for my own research. Over time, I started realizing the benefits to my teaching by making the library as part of my courses. Every semester, I work with the library on establishing a course Library Guide to facilitate student learning on topics ranging from the information cycle, evaluating sources with the CRAP test, setting up Google Alerts, and building their current event literacy. So when our Vairo Library sets up events for the campus, I try to return the favor by supporting their efforts. Little did I know that their latest year-long program would yet again teach me so much that I could then bring to my students.

flyer for the Brandywine Diverse Reads programThe Library “challenge” seemed simple enough – select a book written by an author of your choice within an assigned category to read over a two-month period. Each month, any participating faculty, staff, or student on campus could come together for a video discussion of what each of us were reading. There was a Microsoft Team set up for anyone that wanted to join, and an asynchronous discussion and sharing of books/resources continued between the live sessions.

For the first two months of 2021, the suggestion was to read a book written by an author of African descent, in honor of Martin Luther King Day (January) and African American History Month (February). As you can see, this model is different than a typical book club, where everyone reads the same book. For this program, we each read a different book written by a category of author. We continued through until the end of 2021, where we wrapped up in the final two months with a book written by an author of Indigenous descent, in honor of Indigenous Peoples’ Month (November).

At first, I was unsure how much I would benefit from being in a group where no one read the same book I did. But I very quickly found it fascinating to see which books my colleagues selected to read, to hear about the content of the books, and how they interacted and reacted to the text. (At the end of this blog post is a listing of the books I read for the program.) Across our selections, we made comparisons between writing style and we applied the content to our own lives and the lives of our students and campus here in the Greater Philadelphia Area. We even had one participant decide to read one recommendation from everyone in the group to further her own diverse reads!

With this discussion format, I am sure I learned even more about people, culture, and community, than if we all read the same book. And what I didn’t even think about when I joined the Brandywine Diverse Reads program is how I could take what I learned from these books and our discussions into my own classroom. I found myself using content from most of the books I read in my climate change course this semester, with plans to use passages and quotes in courses in future semesters. I have so many highlighted passages and went through two Post-It notepads to flag pages with important content, and I’m sure I missed some valuable examples I could still integrate in my courses. I led a pod in the Unlearning Racism in Geosciences (URGE) program earlier this year, and my pod’s continuing work to be actively anti-racist in the geoscience classroom has me reflecting even more on the role of books/essays written by diverse authors and the impact these words can have on students as well as the overall curriculum.



My book selection for #BWDiverseReads21

These are the books I read as part of my campus program, with some books belonging in more than one category. I wanted to read nonfiction books that fall under the broad category of earth science. I have included links to the publisher pages, and for some books I’ve listed a few golden lines (an equity pedagogy – see blog post) from the text (some lines of science/personal interest, some to flag for classroom inclusion). If you are interested in purchasing and reading these books, I encourage you to search out and support a local bookseller – all of the books I didn’t already have in my collection (just never got around to reading!) I purchased from Harriett’s Bookshop in Philadelphia (named for historical heroine Harriett Tubman, this Black woman-owned business celebrates women authors, women artists, and women activists). I’m still processing so much of what I’ve read and what I’ve learned – but I look forward to passing on this information to my students in future courses.

The Alchemy of Us, by Ainissa Ramirez (ISBN: 9780262542265)

  • “If you don’t interact [face-to-face communication]… you have much less opportunity to develop empathy, and without that in society, what are we becoming?” (p. 85)
  • “These [camera] devices capture biases that exist in our world and speak to whom a culture values. As our technologies become more pervasive in our lives, whom they were built and optimized for will be an important discussion.” (p. 119)
  • “Creativity is not just the warehousing of ideas, but a process of giving the brain time to simmer on these ideas. Creativity requires preparation, but it also needs incubation …. There are two parts to being creative: absorbing the whole world and having the time to digest and put things together in a new way. Attaining the second part in our technological age isn’t easy. Our time with technologies is counter to creativity.” (p. 215)

Soundings – The Story of the Remarkable Woman Who Mapped the Ocean Floor, by Hali Felt (ISBN: 9781250031457)

Revolutionary Power – An Activist’s Guide To the Energy Transition, by Shalanda H. Baker (ISBN: 9781642830675)

  • “So what are we waiting for? What holds us back from creating a new energy system? We need a revolution. The system of old shows signs of distress, but the only way to ensure its defeat is through a concentrated attack on the very policies that uphold it. The struggle to reshape this system must be fought not only on the streets, but in the interstices of policy. Poor people, Black people, Indigenous people, and those whose lives have been so profoundly shaped by the design of the current energy system must be the architects of the new system.” (p. 38-39)
  • “A grassroots food justice and food security movement [in Hawai`i] has begun to advocate for a sustainable food system based on locally grown, organic food that does not rely on fossil fuels; however, the multibillion-dollar fossil fuel-based tourism industry requires the constant shipping of food to the islands to quell the hunger tourists face after hours spent lounging on Hawai`i’s beaches. Early on in my time in the state, I heard that the food insecurity is so acute that, at any given time, the islands only have forty-eight hours’ worth of food… In reality, the amount of time may be closer to ten days, but that is no less comforting.” (p. 119)
  • “Revolutionary power is also about love for today. It is about choosing to change our energy system to reflect principles of energy justice and energy democracy now, rather than waiting for climate change to force us to change. Revolutionary power makes the radical proposition that low-income communities and communities of color should own, control, and derive economic benefit from their own energy resources. It asserts that the legacy of structural racism and oppression can be dismantled through energy policy.” (p. 173)

Environmental Justice in a Moment of Danger, by Julie Sze (ISBN: 9780520300743)

  • “Environmental justice movements ideologically center agency, voice, and recognition to reject practices baed on exclusion, hierarchy, and domination. Agency, voice, and recognition of history are core precepts for a more just future. This belief runs through environmental justice movement manifestos, which foreground the notion that “we speak for ourselves” and that the environment is “where we live, work, and play.”” (p. 31-32)
  • “Stories and how they are told matter. Storytelling is a deeply political act that brings a radical democratic vision to an issue often seen as largely scientific, based in engineering or the realm of policy-making…. Storytelling is a communal and ideological performance that involves both the telling and the act of listening. It “counters individualism and internalization” so that people’s individual experiences are transformed into a collective narrative.” (p. 68).
  • “One of the central contributions of environmental and climate justice activists is to make clear how the prevailing status quo targets their lands and bodies.” (p. 81)

The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, by Andrea Wulf and Lillian Melcher (ISBN: 9781524747374)

  • “Others might look at the natural world through the narrow lens of classification. But I see nature as a global force – an interconnected whole. I was the first to talk about global vegetation zones… well, I didn’t use that term, but I described them as long bands that slung across the globe. I also invented isotherms, the wavy lines that you see on weather maps. Instead of the confusing long tables of temperatures everybody else used, I revealed a new world of patterns that hugged the earth in wavy belts. Where others think locally, I think globally.” (no page numbers in this graphic novel, quote is approximately halfway through the book)
  • “For long, scientists have known that earth itself is a gigantic magnet, but I was the one who discovered the magnetic equator…. Almost two million observations were taken in three years. It was an international collaboration on a vast scale – and we called it the “Magnetic Crusade.” (approx. three-quarters of the way through the book)
  • “Ever since I saw the slave market in Cumana, shortly after our arrival in South America, I have recorded the brutal treatment of slaves. My diary is filled with descriptions of their wretched lives… Every drop of sugarcane juice costs blood and pain. I even wrote a book that attacked slavery – it’s called Political Essay on the Island of Cuba, but it applies to all slave-owning nations.” (towards end of the book)

On Care for Our Common Home – Laudato Si’, an Encyclical Letter of the Supreme Pontiff Francis (this was a re-read for me – see my prior blog post about this one!)

Braiding Sweetgrass – Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, by Robin Wall Kimmerer (ISBN: 9781571311771)

  • “To walk the science path I had stepped off the path of indigenous knowledge.” (p. 44)
  • “…in indigenous ways of knowing, we understand a thing only when we understand it with all four aspects of our being: mind, body, emotion, and spirit. I came to understand quite sharply when I began my training as a scientist that science privileges only one, possibly two, of those ways of knowing: mind and body. As a young person wanting to know everything about plants, I did not question this. But it is a whole human being who finds the beautiful path.” (p. 47)
  • “I had given them [students] so much information, all the patterns and processes laid on so thick as to obscure the most important truth. I missed my chance, leading them down every path save the one that matters most. How will people ever care for the fate of moss spiders if we don’t teach students to recognize and respond to the world as a gift? I’d told them all about how it works and nothing of what it meant. We may as well have stayed home and read about the Smokies. In effect, against all my prejudices, I’d worn a white lab coat into the wilderness. Betrayal is a heavy load and I plodded along, suddenly weary.” (p. 221)

The Outlaw Ocean – Journeys Across the Last Untamed Frontier, by Ian Urbina (ISBN:9781101972373)

  • “My goal was not only to report on the plight of sea slaves but also to bring to life the full cast of characters who roam the high seas. They included vigilante conservationists, wreck thieves, maritime mercenaries, defiant whalers, offshore repo men, sea-bound abortion providers, clandestine oil dumpers, elusive poachers, abandoned seafarers, and cast-adrift stowaways.” (p. xi)
  • “…one of every five fish on dinner plates is caught illegally and the global black market for seafood is worth more than $20 billion. Most of the world’s fish stocks are in crisis from overfishing. By 2050, some studies predict, there will be more plastic waste in the sea than fish, measured in weight. The oceans are despoiled and depleted because most governments have neither the inclination nor the resources to protect them. It is hard enough to get the public’s attention about the dangers of global warming, even as the effects of it become clear, including hotter temperatures, rising seas, and more severe storms. But dwindling fish stocks? They hardly register.” (p. 47)
  • “Liberia, the country with the most vessels sailing under its flag – more than forty-one hundred – has no warships. The country with the second most, Panama, does not routinely operate warships beyond its own coast. Therein lies the beauty of  international ship thievery: crooks only have to run if someone’s chasing them, and that’s rarely the case.” (p. 173)

All We Can Save – Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis, edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson (ISBN: 9780593237083) (see what I had to say in a prior blog post about this one, which highlights book circles and educator resources!)