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  • Getting to Green

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

Teaching about here
June 11, 2010 - 3:08pm

A conversation, yesterday, led me to one realization about how Greenback might modify its undergraduate co-curriculum to better prepare students for participation in a successful and sustainable social economy. We need to make sure their college experience is firmly grounded right here in Backboro.

What I'm thinking is that "sustainable" is a theoretical condition, not an objective criterion. Sustainability can be judged based on a set of objective criteria, it's true, but the criterion set will vary tremendously with location. What's sustainable here in the northeastern USA is not the same as what's sustainable in the southwest, or even the southeast. And it's certainly not the same as what will be sustainable in some other part of the world.

A simple example: in this part of the country, we're blessed with a lot of second-growth forest. I don't know how big a role biomass will play in sustainable heating and electrical generation, but however big the role is, we probably have enough biomass to keep it going for a while. (Certainly, if we don't, our neighbo[u]rs to the north will have plenty to spare.) But my understanding is the the pueblo dwellings in the Four Corners area. sometimes attributed to the Anasazi, seem to have been abandoned primarily because of insufficient available wood for winter heating. This even though the communities in question were much smaller than many of the towns around here.

Local variations like forestation, water supply, temperature, precipitation patterns, soil types, etc. come immediately to mind to anyone involved in agriculture or the natural resource industries. But I suspect that local variations of a different sort will differentiate urban sustainability criteria, as well. A sustainable Minneapolis, I have to think, will look far different from a sustainable Atlanta or San Diego.

So one thing I'd like to figure out how to do is to create a student experience, outside the classroom, where a good portion of what's learned inside the classroom is evaluated and understood by students in the context of what works in Backboro. Dismantling the town/gown divide won't be easy, but I'm thinking that it's necessary.

And, perhaps, if we can get students evaluating what they're learning at least partially in terms of where they're learning it, we can take the crucial step of getting them to understand what they're learning on the basis of being inside the material, rather than as an objective observer.

I don't know if that last part makes any sense, but I'm becoming increasingly convinced that the way we often teach our students (particularly our K-16 students) -- the sterile packaging and presentation of expert-approved "objective information" as something separate and apart -- is a root cause of the social patterns which have gotten us into this mess, and a contributor to the attitudes which keep us from being able to get out of it.

I've heard the term "pedagogy of place", and it kind of feels right. I'm not sure that there's a single accepted definition/concept of what a pedagogy of place should include, but I suspect that it's something which will both contribute to, and be refined by, co-curricular evolution at Greenback and at other schools.

It feels like a lens that those of us trying to make higher ed sustainable will want to get used to looking through.


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