A Meditation on Universities, Interdisciplinary Teaching, and Sustainability Studies


Like many institutions of higher learning, the University of Denver is committing resources to greening our campus and encouraging teaching and research on sustainability. We have a Sustainability Council, a Sustainability Minor, and a nascent Center for Sustainability. Because of my interest in urban sustainability—and to mark the 100th post of this humble blog—I thought I’d reflect a bit on what’s happening on my campus and where we’re going.

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The catalyst for this essay was a recent panel discussion about sustainability initiatives on campus. Sponsored by the Sustainability Council, the event kicked off a series of cross-curricular dialogues about sustainability-focused teaching and research at DU. The panelists were from a variety of traditional academic units and professional schools (e.g., Law, Social Work, and International Studies).  The goal was to encourage discussion across disciplines and identify cross-cutting themes for future events, given sustainability’s inherently interdisciplinary character.

The event was both inspiring and depressing. Inspiring, because of the good work on sustainability that’s taking place within the academic units (e.g., on human-animal connections, business ethics and sustainability, global health). Depressing, because a common note struck by speakers and audience members alike is how hard it is to do substantive interdisciplinary team-teaching (i.e., something more than the typical dog-and-pony show) about any topic across academic units at DU.  Indeed, this was the main takeaway message of the event. The obstacles are structural, relating to the demands that individual units make on their faculty but also—perhaps more importantly—to the system for crediting team-teaching across units. Several participants noted that faculty with interdisciplinary teaching interests have to work in the “interstices” of what, at DU, is a very traditional academic structure.  This certainly can produce some good results, as the panelists demonstrated.  But a scattershot approach is no substitute for a broader institutional commitment that would better value this work and perhaps make DU more competitive in attracting top-flight faculty and students having interests in sustainability.

Academic territoriality is another serious obstacle.  Several years ago my colleagues within the arts, humanities and social sciences sought to create an Environmental Studies program.  They had a fully-justified proposal, courses ready and waiting, and participation pledges from faculty in a critical mass of departments. But the proposal was squashed because academic deans feared competition that would draw off students from the already established Environmental Sciences program. We’re trying again this year to get something going in the area of Environmental Humanities or Eco-Humanities.  However, the ancient survival impulse to claim and protect turf is apparently still alive and well on campus.  Last year DU’s Department of Geography received approval to change its name to the Department of Geography and The Environment.  It’s not clear how this was accomplished; it could be that all it took was submission of a self-interested request to the university’s Board of Trustees, a governing body that’s un-populated by professional scholars. At any rate, this is astonishing stuff because I thought we were beyond seeing the “The Environment” as an object of study to be owned by particular academic departments and divisions.  It also runs counter to the widespread recognition that sustainability—as something that’s intimately wrapped up with “The Environment”—is an inherently interdisciplinary concept. Anthropologists sometimes get territorial about the study of “Culture”, but I think we’re smart enough to realize that “Culture” is a complex phenomenon on which multiple disciplines can shed bright light.  “The Environment” is similarly complex, beginning with the fact that it is cognized and used differently depending on cultural context and history.  Any comprehensive understanding of human-environment relationships and, certainly, any effort to specify sustainable “best practices” for managing human-environment relationships requires exposure to theories and methods that span the natural sciences, social sciences, arts, and humanities.

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Phoenix: A Model of Unsustainable Urbanism?

Promotion and tenure criteria can also impede the development of interdisciplinary teaching and research. Like many  institutions, a “star” mentality rules at DU, with the single-authored monograph and peer-reviewed journal article serving as coin of the realm.  The quest for star status can produce a certain insularity.  Over the last 25 years I’ve seen some very fine collaborative scholars and scientists leave the university because they ran afoul of the star system for evaluating faculty talent (for a particularly egregious case, see here). Others have left because of academic climate issues, like the particularly talented ecologist who, at a York University (Toronto) workshop on comparative urbanism in 2008, riveted a roomful of participants with a discourse on the importance of wildlife corridors to sustainable urban environments.  Stories like these relate to the challenge of building a faculty for 21st century interdisciplinary work on sustainability.  I’m not convinced that my institution knows how to meet that challenge, nor thought very much about it. Having star academics (whatever that means) in the fold is important, but so too is having the team-players who, because of their presence, make the whole much greater than the sum of its parts.  And it seems that holism and balance in all areas of academic life is what any institution looking to gain street cred in the area of sustainability should be aspiring to achieve.

Even the structure of the curriculum itself can hamper efforts to teach about sustainability.  One place in DU’s curriculum where team-teaching about sustainability might flourish is our Common (General Education) Curriculum.  The “Advanced Seminar” piece of that curriculum invites interdisciplinary and experimental courses.   However, the established requirement for these upper-level courses is that they be writing intensive.  This can work against courses with sustainability themes that might be better taught with pedagogies that are field or lab intensive like, say, a course on urban permaculture.

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Salt Lake City: The Next Big Thing for Modeling Sustainable Urbanism?

The parting shot to the Sustainability Council’s panel  discussion was a comment from one participant who declared that DU is positioned to do some “amazing stuff” in the area of sustainability.  I completely agree, but I don’t see how we can do this stuff without some financial and academic restructuring.  How hard can it be to produce a budgetary and credit-allocation model that actively supports interdisciplinary team-teaching across the traditional units and the professional schools?  Or, to structure a curriculum that allows pedagogy—whether writing-intensive, field-intensive, lab-intensive, performance-intensive, or some other intensive—to follow subject matter and course goals rather than being stipulated a priori?  Or, to combine programs with sustainability emphases—environmental science, eco-humanities, urban studies–under a single comprehensive umbrella?  We don’t have to go so far as to create a separate School of Sustainability Studies like they have at Arizona State University, although the ASU model of academic structure is producing some really interesting teaching, research, and public outreach initiatives. Something along the lines of the University of Utah’s program in Environmental and Sustainability Studies would do.  This program brings together scientific, humanistic, historical, and cross-cultural approaches to understanding the human-nature relationship. However, it’s not clear whether the University of Utah is doing better than any other institution in supporting interdisciplinary team-teaching or building a faculty for 21st century work on sustainability.

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Denver: A Natural Laboratory for Evaluating Models of Sustainable Urbanism

It’s probably not a coincidence that western cities provide the geographical setting for this progressive sustainability work.  Phoenix is a favorite poster child for unsustainable urbanism.  But that makes it an exquisite natural laboratory for thinking about, and testing, ideas about how to do things differently.  Salt Lake City is currently poised to get some run as a model of urban sustainability given that the Congress for the New Urbanism meets there later this year.  If some CNU leaders have their way, we could soon be talking up the 21st century relevance of 19th century Mormon town planning.  Denver has accumulated plenty of credibility as a place to watch for trying out different approaches to creating sustainable urbanism.  It‘s a shame that Denver’s university is not leveraging our faculty talent and unique location to create the amazing program in sustainability studies that, given a little structural and paradigmatic change, lies well within our reach.


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