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Highlights from Recent “Sustainability Across the Curriculum” Workshop

Posted by on Wednesday, March 31, 2010 in News.

On Tuesday, March 30th, the CFT hosted a workshop titled “Sustainability Across the Curriculum” featuring four faculty panelists: Cecelia Tichi (English), Beth Conklin (Anthropology), James Clarke (Civil & Environmental Engineering), and Jack Barkenbus (Vanderbilt Center for Environmental Management).  CFT graduate teaching fellow John Morrell facilitated the session, and CFT assistant director Derek Bruff live-tweeted the session.  Below are some highlights from the discussion from Derek’s tweets.

  • First up, Jack Barkenbus, VU Institute for Energy and Environment,
  • Jack Barkenbus is also executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Sustainability Association (THESA):
  • THESA’s 4th annual statewide conference starts tomorrow at Trevecca-Nazarene here in Nashville:
  • Barkenbus: Sustainability in the curriculum is often nested within particular majors (e.g. env. studies), not *across* the curriculum.
  • Keynote at the THESA conference: Paul Rowland, director of Assoc. for the Adv. of Sustainability in HE (AASHE),
  • Rowland’s Ponderosa Project at Northern Arizona Univ is a bottom-up approach, involving summer workshops for faculty.
  • Next up, Cecelia Tichi, professor of English and American Studies:
  • Tichi: Let’s expand the notion of sustainability beyond “just” the environment. It should include our social systems, large and small.
  • Tichi: For example, what does “sustainability” mean in looking at the US prison system? Perhaps, our investment selves vs. our civic selves.
  • Tichi’s expansion of sustainability has implications for where & how sustainability appears in the curriculum, & for learning goals.
  • Next up: James Clarke, civil and environmental engineering.
  • Clarke: The challenges we face in dealing with environmental dangers (e.g. nuclear waste) are enormous, esp. in the long run.
  • Clarke’s framing of this challenge indicates ample opportunities for problem-based learning in the curriculum.
  • Clarke: Sustainability means making decisions that don’t tie the hands of our descendants. Tough to do when dealing w/nuclear waste.
  • Next up: Beth Conkin, associate professor of anthropology:
  • Conklin: Sustainability comes up in almost all of her undergrad courses (the Amazon, medical anthropology, indigenous peoples).
  • Conklin: Has taught graduate seminars on this topic, as well, sometimes alongside earth sciences and engineering professors.
  • Conklin: Teaching sustainability involves interdisciplinary teaching. Except in particular technical areas, interdisc. is unavoidable.
  • Conklin: 2nd big factor is that this is a topic in the news, it’s timely and relevant.
  • Conklin: 3rd big factor in teaching sustainability is that the topic often has very personal relevance to students.
  • Conklin: One impact of factor #2 is that some of the best writing is done by journalists, not academics. Requires info literacy.
  • Conklin: Factor #1 means that the instructor can’t know everything. Requires a little humility! Also, opp for less hierarchical teaching.
  • Conklin: Factors #1 and #2 mean that instructors should build flexibility into their courses, room for going in unexpected directions.
  • Conklin: When teaching grad students from other disciplines, they have particular things they want to get out of the course…
  • Conklin: …which means they sometimes don’t engage w/common readings as they would in a seminar in their own discipline.
  • Conklin: That means that she needs to pay more attention to accountability structures in these interdisciplinary grad courses.
  • Conklin: Factor #3 (personal relevance) provides ample ways to draw students into conversations…
  • Conklin: …but this can make it hard to move students from personal anecdotes to dealing criticallly w/social issues.
  • Now for discussion at the workshop. How to help students appreciate the problem w/out feeling too guilty abt their own consumption?
  • Conklin: Counter a student’s sense of guilt by sharing one’s own struggles in this area. Or confront this conflict head on w/students.
  • Conklin: This is complicated by the ways in which students’ identities are formed by their consumption patterns, esp. college students.
  • Students sometimes feel helpless to make changes, esp. when living in a constrained environment like a college campus.
  • Conklin: However, that tension can be used to help students start understanding societal constraints, ones that affect personal choices.
  • Beth Conklin recommends Carleton College’s SERC site on the affective domain in teaching:
  • Barkenbus: Some students encounter despair w/this topic. Others are empowered by it to invest, build careers around sustainability.
  • American Studies will be coordinating a year-long theme of sustainability in courses in 2011-2012. Look for faculty workshops next May.
  • Any VU faculty interested in participating in American Studies’ year of sustainability should contact Teresa Goddu:

Image: “Wind Energy” by Flickr user thinkpanama / Creative Commons licensed


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