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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.

When the teacher is ready, the student will appear
October 1, 2008 - 5:49am

One of the joys of doing sustainability work on campus is interacting with students. Now, I've been teaching part-time for a number of years, and I'll be the first to admit that this particular joy enlights my classrooms on only a sporadic basis. In the classroom, the student seems often to be there to get a grade, fulfill a requirement, all the while trying not to actually learn anything. But, in sustainability work, the only students I interact with are the ones who want to be there -- who want to get involved, and learn something, and do something, and change something. They're young, usually bright, generally motivated and engaged, often hard-working. And they can do more than either of us thought, because no one (certainly not me) ever told them they weren't capable of it.

Of course, campus sustainability work involves faculty, too. They're generally enthusiastic, often committed. But, somehow, just not as much of a pleasure to work with. For starts, they're just not as eager to dig right in.

In some of the disciplines (engineering, some sciences), the faculty are eager to help the students dig right in, but not to dig themselves. That's probably as it should be. We're an educational institution, and who does the working (in this case, digging), does the learning. I sometimes -- just from a perspective of wanting to get the project done and done right -- wish that these faculty members would directly apply more of their own personal expertise, more of their personal experience. But I have to admit that if they did, their students would probably learn less than happens when those students are allowed to try, and stumble, and try again. My take is that it's a sustainability project, and I want to maximize its likelihood of success while staying on schedule and within budget. Faculty's take on the same project is often that it's a learning opportunity, and I can bring myself to salute that.

But faculty who specialize in some of the other disciplines (humanities, certain social sciences), on the other hand, seem not to want to be anywhere near any location where actual digging might actually occur. Digging involves moving dirt, and moving dirt involves ... well, ... dirt. It could get on you. If not your clothes, then your hands. And these are people who don't want to get their hands ... well, you know.

I've been around colleges and universities and faculty a lot of years in one capacity or another, and I understand the attraction of learning for learning's sake. At the same time, it's always been clear in my mind that some of what passes for advanced learning is just jargon employed for the purpose of excluding the great unwashed from the conversation. If the theory has practical application, directly or indirectly, then hypotheses can be tested and knowledge is potentially involved. On the other hand, when the theory refers merely to another theory which, in turn, relates to another theory, then the words -- however high-falutin' -- have no more substance than the super-senior collateralized debt obligation swap derivatives which Wall Street fund managers paid good money for without even pretending to know what they were buying. (But hey, if you can get a reputable journal/investment banker to go for it, more power to you. No skin off my nose.)

Where the skin does come off my nose is when some of these professors, very senior in their fields and thus likely to take a back seat to nobody, get themselves put in charge of campus events and projects. Some of these folk shouldn't be charged with organizing a church bake sale. They apparently can think abstractly, but they can't think concretely. And the concrete world is where things happen (or fail to).

Now I've worked in the corporate world, and I know that a lot of managers are in their respective positions because they've gotten promoted to the level at which their incompetence is unmistakeable. But in the business world, the organizational hierarchy gives the incompetent a survival tactic -- they learn to delegate. (Some do it well, some do it badly, but even Dilbert's pointy-haired boss does it.) Academe, of course, is famously non-hierarchical. My observation is that, probably as a result, the delegating skill is rarely learned. (Teaching assistants and academic secretaries might disagree in part, but they'll certainly agree that skillful, effective delegation is extremely rare in academic departments.) Where there's no delegation, there's no management. And where there's no management, projects tend to end badly.

On a number of sustainability efforts at Greenback, then, we've been able to minimize the involvement levels of faculty with dirt-free fingernails. We've come up with a strategem that works more often than not. It's not foolproof, but what strategem is?

What we've started to do, when certain faculty involvement is threatened, is to arrange for them to take on the task of determining how best to generalize and replicate the learning experience which the students (who do the vast majority of the real work) are getting. Is there something in this project which we should provide, more generally, in our curricular offerings? If so, how (and where, and at what level) could that best be done? Working sustainability into the curriculum is part of what Greenback has agreed to do under the Presidents Climate Commitment. Using our current suite of sustainability projects as a set of jumping-off points for curriculum development may actually prove useful in that regard. But even if it doesn't, assigning certain professors to look into the possibility can solve a real short-term problem. If that task is performed successfully, so much the better. If not, the project can still be a success on a concrete level.

I just hope those professors aren't reading this post!


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