Questions about application, theory, and engagement with sustainability

Mary Ann Cunningham, Earth Science and Geography, Vassar College

The issues that currently puzzle me about teaching sustainability are (1) what seems like a gulf between those who are enthusiastic and those who aren't, and (2) the ideological distance between theory and practice in the classroom. These are probably very closely related questions. By the gulf between enthusiasts and others, I mean that issues of sustainability are patently obvious and intriguing for some of us. But for others there seems to be resistance to the idea of giving much attention to sustainability. I don't know why, maybe because the topic is trendy or worldly or hippie or socialist, or it's a group identity issue (they're not that kind of people), or it may just be that we academics don't like to be told what we ought to do. In any case, at my institution there's rather tepid support in some quarters for teaching sustainability, it seems to me. I think as a consequence it has been a struggle to implement examples of sustainable practices, and I think our students leave with less preparation to do good for society than they should have. Sometimes we squander a chance to seize their enthusiasm. And I think we lose the opportunity to instill in them a forward-thinking sense of possibility.

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.

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