IHE M.Ed. graduate Molly Volanth Hall grew up in an urban neighborhood in the Boston area. Graduating from the University of Massachusetts-Boston with a degree in English and a minor in history, where she focused on environmental poetry and histories of sustainability, Molly decided the best way to use her degree to foster the most good would be to teach.
Having known a graduate of IHE’s M.Ed. program, Molly began her humane education studies with IHE. After graduation, she says, “I decided to pursue my long term goal of teaching college by returning to grad school for English Literature, a component of which includes teaching college writing and literature.”
Molly currently lives in East Providence, RI, where she teaches in the Department of English at the University of Rhode Island.
We asked Molly to share a bit about her work for a better world.
IHE: What led you to the path of humane education?
MVH: Growing up in an urban area, injustices were always very visible. Racism and economic injustice was abundant. Sexism was a regular experience for me personally from a very young age. And “nature” and concern for the environment were virtually absent from my concrete world, especially in the 80s and 90s when the recycling campaign—with all its flaws—was still new and the closest thing I experienced to environmentalism.
And, growing up in the Catholic church and schools, prejudice against other religions and the LGBTQ community were omnipresent. I always felt that those around me possessed an almost willed ignorance and tried desperately to explain that the values they professed were in direct contradiction to the systems they supported in society.
I devoured information. I became vegetarian at age 16. During the same period I also began a non-profit, which held fundraisers to address root injustice issues such as hunger, and began the long uphill battle to establish a gay-straight alliance branch at my Catholic school, which, despite opposition, I achieved after two years.
During college, I expanded my official educational focus on environmental poetry and sustainable history by going vegan, composting, and avoiding the purchase of all unsustainable or human rights-compromising products. After my B.A. I was accepted to IHE’s M.Ed. program, where I could explicitly pursue the connections between all of these issues in an educational setting.
IHE: Share how you’re currently manifesting humane education.
MVH: I am now teaching college literature, where I daily address with my students (between 35 and 70 per semester) issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, privilege, economic injustice, human rights, animal ethics, and environmental ethics through analysis of literature, language, and culture.
I am writing about environmental issues through my own research and analysis of literature and culture. I have published on the connection between the radical feminist politics of Mary Wollstonecraft and the language we use to discuss environment and animals.
I have several journal articles, book reviews, and a book proposal for an edited collection, all of which also address the relationship between ethics, literature, and the environment—both what such literature tells us of people from a previous historical period’s understandings of their relationship to their environment as ethical, as well as how we as modern readers can understand our own position better by reading in this way.
I present this work as well at regional, national, and international professional conferences.
I have also been instrumental in planning learning events, such as conferences on climate change misinformation and on understanding veterans’ issues of homecoming through humanities texts, to participate as an activist publically through my position as an environmental humanities scholar.
I am also deeply involved in my union, the Graduate Assistants United, a branch of the American Association of University Professors. We have been fighting hard to bring awareness to issues of labor abuse, economic injustice, and political change in support of labor rights in general.
IHE: Talk about your work with humane education and literary scholarship:
MVH: My project for my IHE’s master’s thesis was a sustainable and compassionate literary studies curriculum for high school students.
In my M.A. and now Ph.D. programs, I have continued the research to implement such work in college literature and writing classrooms. I have also been teaching college composition and literature for the past three years, and in my syllabi and lesson planning every day I use the skills and training I received, and am informed by the content I explored throughout my master’s program with IHE.
Primarily teaching British Literature and Literature of War, I help my students foster the analysis skills they need to be able to understand their world and the issues of and dynamics by which they contribute to oppression of peoples, the exploitation of animals, and the degradation of the environment.
I also help them foster the creativity and imagination I learned in IHE’s coursework to be essential to the creation of a generation of solutionaries.
My research, which informs my teaching, focuses in particular on how experiences of war in cultures of modernity catalyzed a shifting relationship of people to their environments. This I see as contributing to a lack of actionable awareness in response to environmental changes which are detrimental to us as humans and to our fellow creatures.
The literature of and surrounding the World War I period, especially in England, most clearly illustrates this shift. In my classroom, we analyze together war writers and modernist authors and ask as a class how they demonstrate cultural dynamics that structure our current experience of the world, and how we can take these skills and this knowledge and use it to respond more sustainably and ethically to our contemporary material conditions and political situation.
IHE: What are some of the benefits and challenges particular to bringing humane education to a higher education setting?
MVH: Higher education is increasingly subject, especially in the humanities, to tighter and tighter “outcomes” requirements, which, like the testing done in elementary and secondary settings, turns out to be very transactional and not at all interested in developing better, more thoughtful citizens.
Most succinctly put, a majority of university administrations seem primarily concerned with profit: getting the student what they paid for (a piece of paper that translates into a high-paying job) and getting the school more money (e.g., government and corporate grants which favor money-making industries, such as pharmaceuticals and business, which do not value highly an ethical education).
The humanities (as well as soft social sciences, such as psychology and political science) currently operate under an environment where they must justify any true effort to get their students to engage ethically with materials, especially in general education classes.
Humane education, in essence, is frequently considered a privileged endeavor not suitable for general education classrooms and at worst an almost criminal waste of students’ time, for it will not necessarily earn them money on the other end.
Since most humanities educators are, in essence, humane educators (though not all my colleagues will approach the connection between the oppression of humans, animals, and the environment with the same directness as I do), we must be careful to justify each learning goal as not only ethically useful, but also economically so, or be prepared to go to battle over the need for an ethical education for our students.
IHE: What are your future plans for your humane education/changemaking work?
MVH: Upon completion of my doctorate, I hope to continue to do similar work in my writing and classroom as a tenured professor at a university somewhere. In whichever department I end up, I plan to continue my attempts to raise actionable awareness in my students of humane issues, and to take this beyond the classroom to the university administration as well.
One day, I hope to be able to contribute to mandatory humane education coursework or outcomes in an integrated school-wide way at my school, and to promote the necessity and effectiveness of this model beyond my own institution.
IHE: What would you say to others interested in IHE’s graduate programs?
MVH: No matter what career path you end up in, IHE’s graduate programs cannot but be extremely useful. They do more than develop you as a professional; they give you the space to grow as a whole person, finding and forming the foundation for the humane education work you will do for the rest of your life, however it expresses itself.