• Getting to Green

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


Sustainability work #6 - Plotting the course

First, a word of clarification about the title. "Plotting the course" was a phrase that first popped into my alleged mind in reference to preparing a campus carbon neutrality plan. But then, I realized that such would only lead to confusion. I might think of a carbon neutrality plan as a "course of action", but (somehow) the term "course" brings other images to most minds on campus. So, bowing to the inevitable, lets think of "course" as a unit of curriculum.

October 17, 2008

First, a word of clarification about the title. "Plotting the course" was a phrase that first popped into my alleged mind in reference to preparing a campus carbon neutrality plan. But then, I realized that such would only lead to confusion. I might think of a carbon neutrality plan as a "course of action", but (somehow) the term "course" brings other images to most minds on campus. So, bowing to the inevitable, lets think of "course" as a unit of curriculum.

One of the commitments Greenback made, by signing the ACUPCC,was to provide "the knowledge and the educated graduates to achieve climate neutrality." The logic presented to justify this effort is based on the belief that "campuses that address the climate challenge by reducing global warming emissions and by integrating sustainability into their curriculum will better serve their students and meet their social mandate to help create a thriving, ethical and civil society. These colleges and universities will be providing students with the knowledge and skills needed to address the critical, systemic challenges faced by the world in this new century and enable them to benefit from the economic opportunities that will arise as a result of solutions they develop." Pretty clear-cut logic to my mind, but not logic that has yet had a huge curricular impact on my campus.

Now, nobody expects that an administrator outside the Academic Services org chart is going to be able to influence the curriculum directly, but the reality is that if sustainability doesn't get significant curricular emphasis, building "green" momentum on campus is very difficult. So influencing the curriculum indirectly makes the rest of my job easier in the long term. And making the contacts which will let me influence the curriculum indirectly helps me find faculty members to participate in co-curricular events with sustainability-related themes.

Some schools and regional consortia have encouraged the development of sustainability-related curriculum by offering grants and awards. Nothing like money to get the old creative juices flowing. But, particularly in the current financial environment, Greenback isn't likely to do that. We're a major university but, by major university standards, we're not exactly rich. (No, Greenback isn't a cryptogram for "Harvard"!) Throwing money at a problem is something we do, but typically only as a last resort.

So far, the only ways I've found to encourage the development of sustainabilty-related curriculum are to lobby students, lobby faculty, and offer to either be or find a guest lecturer.

Lobbying students has probably been the most successful, although it's the tactic with the longest resultant cycle time. Getting students to raise sustainability-related questions within appropriate classroom contexts has led to a number of successes. Not new course offerings based on sustainability-related themes (at least, not yet), but shifts in the emphases of existing courses. Analysis or deconstruction and criticism of just about anything from a sustainability perspective. Case studies which incorporate sustainability goals. Reading assignments which address qualitative local impacts of unsustainable practices. That sort of thing. The course remains the same, but the message students receive is somewhat enriched.

The biggest challenge I've had, particularly with first- and second-year undergrads, is getting them to understand the meaning of "appropriate classroom context". A course which provides an introduction to Shakespeare's comedies is probably not the right context in which to ask a question about climate disruption. And the poor adjunct teaching first-semester French shouldn't be forced to go over the names of the six Kyoto gases in that language. Even freshman chemistry class may not be the right context -- although freshman physics or freshman biology might very well be. Still, the number of courses in which sustainability issues could profitably be discussed, without in any way distracting from the intended focus of the class, is surprisingly large. And when teachers get asked questions from a particular perspective repeatedly, sometimes that perspective finds its way into the formal syllabus.

(If we ever get to the point that there's an introductory statistics course based solely on global-warming observation datasets, I'll know I've won.)

Lobbying faculty works best when someone in the department, or a closely related department, provides me with entree. Most professors don't seem to like getting cold calls from self-absorbed staff members, asking impertinent questions about the virtue (one way or another) of their curriculum. But if I can mention a fellow faculty member who suggested I get in touch, I can usually get the professor's attention for a moment or two. And if I then broach the subject in the right way, I can typically extend that time to a useful span.

"Broaching the question in the right way," so far as I have been able to determine, means figuring out what motivates the faculty member, and aligning my motivations in the same direction. Most often, faculty seem to find the prospect of increased student demand for their course offerings to be of personal benefit. So I generally open with a statement that students have been inquiring which courses will help them understand the broad topic of sustainability (which is true), that I'm collecting course numbers to include on a web listing to help students identify just such courses (which is true), that the referring faculty member has suggested that some of this professor's courses might fall into that category (which is at least marginally true -- the suggestion might be pretty tenuous, but not totally imaginary), and that I'd like to be able to promote any courses which do to interested students (which is true, if an incomplete description of my motives). Sometimes, the faculty member has one or more courses which (s)he already thinks of as containing (or offering the potential to contain) sustainability-related material; those conversations tend to go quickly, and end with me offering resources and then requesting referrals to other professors whose courses might also qualify. More often, the faculty member will hem and haw about how sustainability isn't really their topic, and I'll respond with a description of just how broad a topic sustainability really is, and emphasize some aspect of the economic or societal bottom lines which might be relevant to the subject being taught. Those calls often end with me requesting that the professor think about the possibilities, and offering to get back in touch in a month or two.

Lobbying the students seems to work best in a group setting, and I get a lot of opportunities. Lobbying faculty might work in a group setting (department meeting?) as well, but I don't really know -- I've never yet had the opportunity to try. Lobbying professors one-at-a-time is obviously time-consuming. I end up playing lots of telephone tag, and there are only about twenty weeks out of the year when I have any success making contact. But, when contact gets made, the success rate seems pretty good. (Of course, maybe the folks who allow me to get in touch at all are the ones already at least somewhat on board. Hard to tell.)

When time permits, I do sometimes email junior faculty members who teach courses where the sustainability connection is pretty clear. I offer to be a guest lecturer on any subject relating to greenhouse gases, or to try to find a guest lecturer on any other sustainability-related topic. Guest lecturers seem pretty popular, both with students and with faculty, so I've had a number of hits with this approach. Its even gotten to the point that one assistant prof called me out of the blue, asking if I'd speak to her class next semester. Not sure where she got my name, but I'm happy she called.

Of course, I do run into a significant number of (often, older) professors who clearly resent being asked (by me, or the president, or anyone else) to consider changing the way they teach their courses. Some would probably react the same way, even if the emphasis I encouraged weren't sustainability. And some (never yet the scientists) dismiss the whole topic of sustainability as a politically correct phantasm. Either way, I don't push. I make it clear I've heard them, thank them for their time, and disconnect as quickly as I can without being impolite. You can't win them all. And, with the number of students and faculty at Greenback I haven't even talked to yet, I don't have the time or the excess capacity for frustration.


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