• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

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Climate, culture and composition

In discussions with sustainability folk on other campuses, one question that often comes up is "what are you guys doing about curriculum?" That is, how each school is addressing the part of the Presidents Climate Commitment which requires schools to make climate neutrality and sustainability a part of the curriculum and other educational experience for all students.

May 15, 2009
 

In discussions with sustainability folk on other campuses, one question that often comes up is "what are you guys doing about curriculum?" That is, how each school is addressing the part of the Presidents Climate Commitment which requires schools to make climate neutrality and sustainability a part of the curriculum and other educational experience for all students. There are, of course, lots of different ways to do this, and the PCC has recently published guidance on how it can best be done. But in informal conversations, the model which most often comes up can be summarized as "kind of like we do with the writing requirement".

The larger the school, the harder it seems to be to guarantee that all students share any single educational experience. There are so many degree programs, spread across so many colleges, that adding a "sustainability requirement" to each and every one of them would be a task of Augean proportion (even if with a longer timeframe assigned). And many of us can't just add it to the "gen ed" requirements, perhaps because the school no longer has gen ed, or because renegotiating gen ed requires the approval of each of those same degree programs, or because gen ed is on its way out.

But most schools do have a writing requirement of some sort, and the larger schools (where this problem is the most difficult to solve) often have an extremely flexible writing requirement. Take any course on a long list (some of them within disciplinary departments, others conducted by an interdisciplinary "writing center" of some sort), and the requirement is filled. As a model for addressing a guarantee of a sustainability-related educational experience, the writing requirement has a lot to recommend it.

Recently, however, I was reading some information about writing courses and the teaching of composition. Most of the authors made reference to composition courses as a kind of introduction to the concept (if not, directly, the field) of cultural studies and critical thinking. As I was reading, then, an alternative model occurred to me. Climate change, and a society's response to it, is a topic well suited to study from a cultural studies perspective. Positioning the next generation of college graduates to think critically on this subject would be of major public benefit. (Please note, I'm not saying to propagandize students about the evils of global climate disruption or the conclusions of climate science -- I'm suggesting that we help students of whatever preconception to think about what they know, and what they believe, and why, and what the implications are, in discourses too long to fit on a bumper sticker.

If we were to choose climate change as the special case of cultural studies to be addressed in a basic composition class, the sustainability requirement needn't be implemented like the writing requirement, it could be implemented as the writing requirement. Reshaping courses offered by an interdisciplinary writing center might be a logical place to start. And for courses offered within disciplinary departments, well, it's hard to think of a department or an academic discipline to which climate disruption isn't directly relevant. A "cut to fit" approach should be able to meet the needs of scientists, engineers, mathematicians, social scientists, humanities students, you name it.

Politically, I'm hoping that working within the structure of an existing requirement will be quicker and easier than trying to implement a new one. I'm not sure that's true, but I expect to find out.

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