Posted on 26 April 2024 in bulletin, climate change, education

Close Reading Climate Change (CRCC): A Working Protocol

In this contribution to Bulletin 29, the authors explore the uses of a new close reading protocol for climate change education.

Bridget Vincent 

Luseadra McKerracher  

Janet Rafner 

Image via Unsplash.

This paper outlines the rationale and protocol for a new interdisciplinary research project titled Close Reading Climate Change (CRCC). Our starting point lies in the close reading classroom, in which small groups of literature students are given an unseen poem and then see, collectively, what they can make of it. This experience is, fundamentally, one of uncertainty: developing an interpretation individually and together requires students to acknowledge and articulate what they don’t understand: to identify and work with, rather than around, the text’s ambiguities. Done right, the close reading classroom creates a space in which people who are elsewhere required to have all the answers can sit with the vulnerability of ambivalence: their own and each other’s. We hypothesise that this classroom environment, with its manifestation of shared uncertainty, offers a space in which people (students and non-students alike) might explore othermanifestations of uncertainty: particularly those we find hard to discuss otherwise, such as the allocation of moral responsibility around climate change. With this mind, we outline a mixed methods plan to evaluate this hypothesis, focusing on climate change responsibility and complicity, across two core sites in different cultural contexts—Australia and Denmark. We also note further plans to explore the efficacy of the CRCC approach at a smaller scale in two additional contexts: Canada and Norway. 

Climate responsibility: A difficult conversation

As members of nation states, organizations, and even families, many of us struggle to talk productively about individual responsibility and collective climate guilt. This guilt constitutes what Pitt and Britzman call “difficult knowledge”, in that it involves not only interpretative difficulty but also psychological confrontation.[1] Research by Vanderheiden, similarly, highlights the larger difficulties of disentangling individual from collective responsibility for climate change.[2] As Michael Maniates has shown, our shared understanding of the individual-collective climate responsibility dynamic has long been shaped by the phenomenon of “individualization”, which inaccurately frames climate responsibility as primarily a matter of personal, particularly consumer, choice.[3] The interpersonal difficulties of discussing climate responsibility frequently come back to the relationship between individual and collective agency, captured in Michael Rothberg’s category of the ‘implicated subject’ (as against direct individual agent). This “difficult knowledge” (about the relationship between individual and collective climate agency) results in “difficult conversations”: interactions characterised by defensiveness, deflection, and denial of individual climate responsibility. This project asks: could setting up a non-specialist version of the close reading classroom (i.e., outside the university degree environment) create a space for better conversations in which we engage with the difficulties of environmental complicity, rather than becoming defensive about them?

In asking this question, the project participates in a research tradition which explores the value of adding an external point of focus to group conversations. This tradition has involved such diverse models as: using a physical object as a point of focus in a workshop; using book clubs and reading groups to talk about social questions; using shared art-making experiences as a way to scaffold conversations; and walking-based workshops, in which the landscape itself acts as the external focus.[4] Underlying all of these exercises is the suggestion that the focus on an object beyond the other people in the conversation can allow for forms of dialogue to take place that would not be possible without this triangulation of conversational attention and the interactional ‘valve’ it offers.

Existing environmental humanities research shows the value of promoting climate conversation and engagement via texts through book clubs and reading groups. Research in climate communication (particularly in empirical ecocriticism)[5] has experimented with text-based climate discussions involving book clubs, classrooms and reading groups. Research also exists on climate and the close reading classroom but focuses largely on pedagogical goals.[6] These groups have had encouraging results but their focus has been largely content guided, focusing on books that are in some way about climate. What remains unexplored is the benefit afforded by the procedures of shared textual analysis (and its attendant collective uncertainties) in the context of climate conversations. How, this project asks, might the specific processes of close reading literary texts promote new forms of dialogue?

Uncertainty in the close reading classroom

The processes of the close reading classroom require participants to examine a short unseen text (usually a poem) and together develop a shared analysis based on individual observations, insights and, crucially, interpretative ambiguities. This inherent focus on the lack of mastery and on uncertainty is key to its social potential here, as it creates an environment of shared vulnerability. The role of uncertainty itself in literary reading has been well-documented, receiving substantial examination by literary critics and philosophers, from Wolfgang Iser, with his grounding work on indeterminacy and reader-response theory, to a recent critical anthology titled Literary Theories of Uncertainty edited by Mette Leonard Høeg, through Marjorie Perloff’s influential The Poetics of Indeterminacy and Hans-Georg Gadamer’s accounts of indeterminacy in aesthetic experience.[7] Here we draw on C. Namwali Serpell’s model of uncertainty, which stresses, citing the OED, that “while its kin terms (ambiguity, difficulty, indeterminacy) tend to get attributed solely to the literary object, uncertainty can refer to either the object or the cognitive state of the observer. It is the quality or ‘state of not being definitely known’ or ‘the state or character of being uncertain in mind.’”[8]

Various researchers have also examined the later effects of encountering literary uncertainty. As Cori Ann McKenzie and Geoff Bender have shown, “a literary experience is an orientation to reading that fosters ‘uncertainty, openness, and imagination’ through the exploration of unresolvable questions and textual uncertainties.”[9] Accordingly, as Kim Devereaux, drawing on Dyutiman Mukhopadhyay, shows, literature “can change our minds by enhancing our tolerance for uncertainty.”[10] In exploring the value of specifically literary uncertainty, the project participates in a larger tradition of uncertainty research developed by Attard and Lane and Maxfield around what Stijn Bollinger calls “uncertainty competence”.[11] Of particular relevance is the Professional Uncertainty Competence project developed by Mette Risgaard Olsen and Susanne Østergaard Olsen. The Olsen study also offers useful methodological grounding in offering an example of a demonstrated framework for measuring uncertainty in an educational context, and by offering specific models of uncertainty itself, developed by Muukkonen and Lakkala, Tracey and Hutchinson, and Hillen et al.[12]

Study Objectives

We aim to explore what kinds of climate discussions develop when participants experience this interpretative uncertainty and are prompted, through specific discussion questions, to reflect on the relationship between this textual uncertainty and their own lived uncertainties around collective climate responsibility. Further, we will evaluate predictions from our core hypothesis, which holds that the interpretative experience of uncertainty will prime participants to hold more constructive discussions around climate relative to pre-workshop baselines. 

Study Design

We will use a within-participant study design wherein up to 1000 participants in groups of approximately 6-12 each will attend a minimum of two and a maximum of five 75-90 minute workshops. Each workshop will be composed of two sections: a close reading section and a climate uncertainty discussion section. Half the participants will complete the discussion before the close reading: half will complete the discussion after it. It is by comparing the two groups that we will assess whether exposing a group to the experience of the close reading classroom affects that group’s later discussion of climate uncertainty. Accordingly, as often as possible, groups will be recruited and organised in matched pairs or small sets based on socio-demographic composition. The order of the two tasks will be randomised between pairs/sets of groups.

This project is being developed in partnership with collaborators in four countries—alphabetically, Australia, Canada, Denmark and Norway—and will be implemented in one or more municipalities or geopolitical regions (e.g. states/provinces) in each. This cross-national perspective will allow us to assess the extent to which the method and its implications and applications are likely to be specific to particular cultural, economic, linguistic, and especially socio-political contexts. The core settings, however, are Australia and Denmark, and the protocol description (particularly details relating to expected sample sizes, randomization strategies, and power calculations) hereafter refers to the Australian and Danish sites. 

The guided climate discussion section: 

The discussion task will comprise a facilitated conversation about individual and collective strategies for mitigating climate change and its impacts and, more specifically, about participants’ feelings of responsibility related to climate change and climate change mitigation (with focus on feelings related to experiencing uncertainty and to experiencing empowerment). The facilitator will open the climate change discussion by inviting participants to reflect individually in silence and write down some brief bullet points about how they experience uncertainty in relation to climate change and, in particular, in relation to their own sense of individual, organisational, and collective climate responsibility and agency. After this reflection, participants will be invited to share their individual reflections. Here the facilitator will explicitly acknowledge (using a set prompt) that this is something we all often find hard to think and talk about, and that disagreement might come up. The facilitator will explicitly request that participants vocalise their feelings of disagreement, and that this vocalisation is central to the exercise—the aim is not to keep the peace but to create a productive and respectful structure for disagreement. Specifically, participants will be requested, when they bring up an area of disagreement, to reflect explicitly on the uncertainties they experience in relation to this disagreement.

The close reading section:

The close reading component will involve a literary scholar guiding participants through the process of analysing a previously-unseen poem or short piece of prose, selected for its power to elicit feelings of uncertainty and ambiguity through interpretative difficulty. The structure of the close reading workshop is based on the conventions of the close reading workshop used in university literature classrooms, but adapted for participants who do not have specific training in literary analysis. Here we will retain the close reading classroom’s focus on developing an interpretation of the text (rather than reading wholly open-endedly) and the classroom’s attendant emphasis on articulating uncertainty as part of this process. 

Each participant will be provided with a printed copy of a poem and encouraged to write on their copy. This annotation process is important to the structure of close reading workshops and also provides the researchers with data about participants’ individual interpretative processes. At the beginning of the close reading part of the workshop, the facilitator will read the poem aloud (following close reading classroom conventions) and participants will be explicitly directed to follow along on their copies and to participate in a process of open-ended noticing, in which they underline or note down anything about the poem they notice as they read or listen. Importantly, they will be explicitly directed, from the outset, to focus on areas of ambiguity, indeterminacy, ambivalence, and uncertainty. How is this lack of understanding related to our enjoyment of the poem? Participants will therefore be primed from the beginning to focus on uncertainty and ambiguity as explicit talking points, rather than to feel that producing interpretations necessitates ignoring or working around difficulty.

After the initial reading and listening moment, participants will be given five minutes to sit with the text on their own in silence and make specific notes on aspects of the poem they find interesting or important, here too with a specific view to uncertainty. Participants, being in most cases new to the experience of the close reading workshop, will then be advised by the facilitator that one of the key aims of the experience is to develop an interpretation together, based on the individual responses. The facilitator will emphasise that putting these together involves practising how it feels to acknowledge and hold space for uncertainty rather than needing to resolve it. The participants will then, mediated by the facilitator, spend fifteen minutes discussing the poem and sharing these uncertainties in the process of coming up with multiple interpretative possibilities. 

Participants from those groups who complete the close reading section of the workshop before the discussion section will be encouraged to keep reflecting on whether/ how their experience of participating in the discussion about climate change responsibility may be being shaped by their earlier experiences of discussing uncertainty in relation to the texts. 

Evaluation of intervention

To assess the efficacy of our close reading intervention, we will evaluate discussion quality both quantitatively and qualitatively. Each discussion will be observed by a member of the research team (most often a research assistant), who will take detailed, ethnographic notes on: the extent to which participants voice their opinions and perceptions within each session, the speed with which the group members begin to express their feelings and share their stories, the extent to which feelings of uncertainty and ambiguity arise in the discussion, and the tenor and mood of the discussion, including the ethnographer’s on-the-fly assessments of the relative frequency of negative, accusatory, or defensive versus positive, supportive, and solution-oriented discursive content. Furthermore, we will conduct rapid individual interviews (after the first and last workshops in a series) about participants’ experiences, feelings, and perceptions of the close reading discussion experience and of their possible roles in mitigating climate change. Interviews will be conducted via telephone, videoconferencing (e.g. Zoom), or email (according to participants’ preferences) by a member of the research team with subsets of participants from each group until theme saturation is reached. Phone/video interviews will be recorded and transcribed.   

As a quantitative proxy for discussion quality (on the assumption that high-quality discussions will affect the views and experiences of participants), we will evaluate individual-level changes in attitudes, perceptions, and feelings through a combination of: 1) a repeated questionnaire administered immediately before the first workshop, immediately following Task 1 (the facilitated discussion), and one week after the last workshop in the series; 2) a single-word emotional affect monitoring task[13]  administered repeatedly (6 times) over the course of each workshop (participants will be asked to report on a slip of paper pre-labelled with their study ID# which emotional state out of a list of eight emotional states best describes how they are feeling “right now”, and then to place that slip of paper in a pre-labelled envelope); and 3) monitoring of emotional arousal over the duration of the workshop using a wearable electrodermal resonance measurement device. The ~15 minute questionnaire includes six components: 1) a socio-demographic component (age, gender, level of completed education, first language, country and postal code of residence, living/housing situation, indicators of socio-economic position/stress); 2) a 5-item big five personality assessment scale; 3) a Cantril ladder, 4) a 1-item self-perceived overall health scale, 5) a 10-item environmental self-efficacy scale, 6) a 10-item climate change worry scale, 7) a 12-item uncertainty competence scale, and 8) a 4-item measure of personal climate responsibility; the first four components will only be administered once, immediately prior to the first workshop in a series. In developing these instruments, we draw on research about validated instruments for climate perception by Valkengoed, Steg, and Perlaviciute and climate responsibility by Munson et al.[14]

Meeting notes, observations and interview texts/transcripts will be analyzed using a semi-inductive iterative approach, with expected global themes to be derived from the workshop and interview guides and with further global and basic themes anticipated to arise through reading and coding of notes and texts/transcripts. Coding will be done using NVivo qualitative analysis software. Within-participant changes in self-reported emotional affect, emotional arousal, environmental self-efficacy, climate change worry and responsibility, and uncertainty over the course of the intervention will be assessed using multi-level mixed models adjusted for socio-demographic factors, with responses clustered by pair or set of groups; the main fixed effect will be order of the tasks. 

Given our within-participant and matched-groups study design (with randomised order of the tasks), to sufficiently power (at P=80% and expected effect size of 0.4), we must receive complete responses from a bare minimum of 100 participants per site for our quantitative analyses. The complexity of our design and the diversity of our anticipated participants also mean that the qualitative assessments will require, per site, a minimum of ~100 participants organised into at least eight groups before we expect to reach saturation on key themes. To accommodate some anticipated attrition, we aim to recruit a minimum of approximately 150 participants, although we will continue recruiting up to 1000 per site, if financial and personnel resources permit.    

Interdisciplinary implications

The context and reach of the research is not only international but also interdisciplinary: we aim in later iterations to use our close-reading workshop model to scaffold further discussions about complicity in other contexts in which uncertainty makes for difficult conversations (in such uncertainty-defined fields as AI development) and application as a public engagement and knowledge translation tool (the research focus of one of the co-authors, Dr Janet Rafner)[15] and prevention and management of chronic diseases (the research focus of another co-author, Luseadra McKerracher), thereby drawing on the diverse national and disciplinary expertise of the investigation team. 

Ultimately, the project’s aims are both investigative and interventional. The project is investigative in that we aim to use the close reading workshop format to enable a conversation about why discussions about complicity and collective responsibility hit roadblocks, and what would help remove these roadblocks. It is interventional in the sense that the workshops themselves aim to act as a space for conversations about complicity. We aim for the workshop project to be about productive climate complicity discussions, and to be an instance of these discussions.


[1] A. Pitt & D. Britzman, ‘Speculations on qualities of difficult knowledge in teaching and learning: an experiment in psychoanalytic research’, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, vol. 16 (2003): 755-776.

[2] S. Vanderheiden, ‘Climate change and collective responsibility’, in: N.A. Vincent, I. van de Poel & J. van den Hoven (eds.), Moral Responsibility: Beyond Free Will and Determinism (Dordrecht 2011: Springer): 201-218.

[3] M. Maniates, ‘Individualization: Plant a tree, buy a bike, save the world?’, Global environmental politics 1, no. 3 (2001): 31-52.

[4] S.F. Akkerman & A. Bakker, ‘Boundary crossing and boundary objects’, Review of educational Research, 81, no. 2 (2011): 132-169; M.L. McKittrick, ‘Climate Change Games as Boundary Objects: Moving Toward Dialogic Communication in Stakeholder Engagement’, in: M. Trice, D. Johnson Sackey & C. Welhausen (eds.), Proceedings of the 40th ACM International Conference on Design of Communication (New York 2022: Association for Computing Machinery): 32-41; M. Poutiatine, Finding common threads: Selected summary of the research on the courage to teach program and the process of teacher formation (Bainbridge Island, WA 2005: Center for Courage and Renewal).

[5] M. Schneider-Mayerson, ‘“Just as in the Book”? The Influence of Literature on Readers’ Awareness of Climate Injustice and Perception of Climate Migrants’, ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, 27 (2020): 337–364.

[6] P. Myren-Svelstad, ‘Exploring Poetry in Dialogue: Learning as Sustainable Development in the Literary Classroom’, ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment (2023), DOI: 10.1093/isle/isad003.

[7] W. Iser, The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response (Baltimore 1978: Johns Hopkins University Press); M. Høeg (ed.), Literary Theories of Uncertainty (London 2021: Bloomsbury); M. Perloff, The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage (Evanston 1981: Northwestern University Press); H. Gadamer, The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays (Cambridge 1986: Cambridge University Press).

[8] C.N. Serpell, Seven Modes of Uncertainty (Cambridge, MA 2014: Harvard University Press), 9.

[9] C. McKenzie & G. Bender, ‘The call of ambiguity: lingering over uncertainty as classroom practice,’ English Teaching: Practice & Critique 20, no, 1 (2021): 51-63, 52.

[10] K. Devereux, ‘Embracing Uncertainty: How literary writing helps us change our minds’, Frontiers of Psychology 13 (2022): 1–7.

[11] K. Attard, ‘Uncertainty for the reflective practitioner: a blessing in disguise’, Reflective Practice 9 (2008): 307-317; D.A. Lane & R. Maxfield, ‘Foresight, complexity and strategy’, in: Arthur, Durlauf & Lane (eds.), The Economy as a Complex Evolving System (Boca Raton 1997: CRC Press); S. Bollinger, ‘Develop your PUNC with the Professional UNcertainty Competence Framework’ (2022), accessible at:

[12] H. Muukkonen & M. Lakkala, ‘Exploring metaskills of knowledge-creating inquiry in higher education’ Computer Supported Learning 4 (2009): 187-211; M. Tracey & A. Hutchinson, ‘Uncertainty, reflection, and designer identity development’, Design Studies42 (2016): 86-109; M.A. Hillen, C.M. Gutheil, T.D. Strout, E.M.A. Smets & P.K.J. Han, ‘Tolerance of uncertainty: Conceptual analysis, integrative model, and implications for healthcare’, Social Science & Medicine 180 (2017): 62-75.

[13] L. Barrett, L.R. Feldman, P.R. Pietromonaco & K.M. Eyssell, ‘Are women the “more emotional” sex? Evidence from emotional experiences in social context’, Cognition & Emotion 12, no. 4 (1998): 555-578.

[14] A.M. van Valkengoed, L. Steg & G. Perlaviciute, ‘Development and validation of a climate change perceptions scale’, Journal of Environmental Psychology 76 (2021): 101652; S. Munson, J. Kotcher, E. Maibach, S.A. Rosenthal & A. Leiserowitz, ‘The role of felt responsibility in climate change political participation’, Oxford Open Climate Change 1, no. 1 (2021): kgab012.

[15] See J. Rafner, S. Langsford, A. Hjorth, M. Gajdacz, L. Philipsen, S. Risi, J. Simon & J. Sherson, ‘Utopian or Dystopian?: Using a ML-assisted image generation game to empower the general public to envision the future’, in: Proceedings of the 13th Conference on Creativity and Cognition (2021); J. Rafner, B. Zana, T. Beolet, S. Buyukguzel, E. Michel, N. Maiden, S. Risi & J. Sherson, ‘Crea.visions: A Platform for Casual Co-Creation with a Purpose Envisioning the Future through Human-AI Collaboration with Multiple Stakeholders’, paper presented at the 14th International Conference on Computational Creativity, 19-23 Jun 2023, Waterloo, Canada, accessible at:; J. Rafner, B. Zana, P. Dalsgaard, M.M. Biskjaer & J. Sherson, ‘Picture This: AI-Assisted Image Generation as a Resource for Problem Construction in Creative Problem-Solving’, in: Proceedings of the 15th Conference on Creativity and Cognition (2023): 262-268.


Dr Bridget Vincent is a Lecturer in English at the Australian National University. Her first book, Moral Authority in Seamus Heaney and Geoffrey Hill, was published by Oxford University Press in 2022. She writes on modern literature and ethics, and her specific research interests include: public apology in twentieth century writing; ekphrasis; the lyric essay; ecocriticism; and literary attention.

Dr Luseadra McKerracher, originally trained as a biological anthropologist, is now an Assistant Professor of Public Health in the health promotion research group at Aarhus University. Her research focuses on health equity and socio-environmental determinants of health during critical periods in the life course, especially pregnancy and adolescence. 

Dr Janet Rafner is a research fellow at Aarhus Institute for Advanced Studies, co-funded by the Center for Shaping Digital Citizenship. She is also Junior Center Director at the Center for Hybrid Intelligence at Aarhus University in Denmark. Her current research focuses on citizen science, participatory futures, psychometric creativity assessment, computational co-creativity, and human-AI interaction.