Faculty Spotlight: Karin Martin, Environmental Sociology

“I’ve structured the course to provide students with the opportunity to think through it (the climate crisis) in the specific way that they want to.”

Karin Martin

The perfect example of if they wanted to, they would: Dr. Karin Martin, Professor of Sociology and Women’s and Gender Studies in LSA. Karin saw a gap in the Sociology department at U-M, where no one was teaching or researching environmental sociology so she created a section in SOC 105. A first-year seminar in sociology, on the environment and the climate crisis, and will be teaching it for the second time in the Winter 2024 semester.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, while on sabbatical, Karin went back to where she grew up, a small town near the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, which is primarily a barrier island on the East Coast in Massachusetts. She is no stranger to the area, recalling that her parents and grandparents took her here regularly growing up, and more recently, Karin has brought her child to the area carrying on the family tradition. Realizing the crisis at hand with the climate and what little research had been done on the history of the area, Karin decided to make a change in her academic career from gender studies to environmental sociology.

As mentioned, not only did Karin switch her research focus to the sociology of the environment but she also took the initiative to create a new course. Her long-term vision for this course is to integrate it into the larger Introduction to Sociology courses which reach a larger audience, rather than the intimate structure of seminars. But with this smaller structure, she really strives to create a space where students feel comfortable talking with one another to share thoughts and experiences. She hopes that students gain a better awareness of the way our social world and the natural world are interconnected and entwined with one another, with the last portion of the course focusing on solution-oriented actions students can take to address the climate crisis. Students are then able to pick any topic of their choice and write an Op-Ed piece, allowing students to explore what sector of the climate crisis interests them the most.

The thing that Karin is looking forward to the most: student conversations. The three portions of the course that she thinks bring out the best conversations are around capitalism, the sociology of emotion, and place-based attachment. Students read a chapter from the book Crap: A History of Cheap Stuff in America by Wendy Woolson and explore where “stuff” comes from, what resources are used to make it, whose labor makes it, and what happens to it after we’re done using it, answering the questions where does our trash end up? Students also gain practical qualitative research experience through interviewing others on their thoughts and feelings about the climate, eventually compiling and analyzing a data set from the entire class. Finally, one common theme that Karin noticed carrying through all of their conversations was Michigan and students wanting to understand the locality of the issues. Students specifically will look at examples from Iron Mountain and Flint to examine the history of these cities and people’s transformation of, use of, and attachment to place.

Karin draws from sociology’s study of the power in collective action when thinking about social movements, that going to protests matters and the impact of movements are incredibly important for transforming the future. Instilling this knowledge in students and reassuring them that individual involvement in collective action makes a difference.

By stejenna

Jenna Steele is the Year of Sustainability and Carbon Neutrality Program Assistant for U-M College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.

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