Questions about application, theory, and engagement with sustainabilityMary Ann Cunningham, Earth Science and Geography, Vassar College
A second and related puzzle for me is the apparent perception of a gap between practical and theoretical courses. In my mind, theory and practice go hand in hand—that is, practice keeps the theory real and theory keeps the practice interesting—but I hear faculty and their students talking as though the two were unrelated worldviews. It may be that sustainability is too broad (that is, too multidisciplinary) to be seen as having a solid theoretical core (or canon). Or it may be that today's faculty just didn't grow up studying sustainability—which underscores the importance of teaching it now. Like climate change, sustainability is inherently multidisciplinary, but that doesn't mean that multiple disciplines find it in their immediate interest to engage the ideas. My department of Earth Science and Geography is one of the main exceptions to that, and a substantial proportion of our courses have sustainability in the titles and course descriptions. But I think as an institution we could do a better job to clarify and make visible courses in sustainability. Perhaps what is needed are some general theories of sustainability that we could offer in order to expand the respectability and visibility and intellectual relevance of themes in sustainability.
I suppose in terms of my teaching about sustainability in a multidisciplinary context, multidisciplinarity comes rather automatically in geography. (Which is to say that in geography it's generally legitimate to draw on ideas from multiple disciplines as we explore why places and regions are as they are, and why they differ.) I teach a variety of environmentally-oriented courses in geography, such as conservation, sustainable landscapes, environment and land use planning, food and farming, GIS, and next year environmental science. Most of these courses are cross-listed in at least two, sometimes three or four programs. I generally have students enter the central topic from whichever perspective they find useful. They take on project topics that explore issues relevant to their various majors, and I try to make them teach each other as much as possible, so that the relationships among issues are obvious. Like climate change, again, sustainability is an issue that transcends disciplines and belongs to everybody, so taking multiple perspectives on a common problem, such as land use planning or food production, makes sense to students as well as to me.