How many of you got to see John Elder earlier this week on campus? If you didn’t, you missed an amazing scholar speaking beautifully, even poetically, about environmental issues in an awe-inspiring setting. Adrian Ivakhiv and Sasha Woolson deserve a big, and sustained, round of applause for bringing him to campus.
One of the things that Professor Elder spoke about was how and why we use the words we use to talk about environmental issues, and whether we should be using those words. (I’m still mulling over “affiliation”, for those of you who were there). By chance, the day after Elder’s talk, I was reading this essay by Eduardo Brondizio. Brondizio’s essay is mostly about how interdisciplinary scholarship and teaching can thrive, despite the disciplinary and organizational structures at universities. It really is worth a read if you’re interested in interdisciplinary programs (like our Environmental Program), interdisciplinary scholarship and research (like what many of you do), and tackling vexing environmental problems (like many of you are). On campus, students hear about majors, programs, disciplines; faculty talk about departments, colleges, programs, and silos. Sure, there are differences among some programs and departments. But there’s also a huge diversity of differences within particular programs. Brondizio writes,
“Yet, there is so much diversity within the umbrella of most institutionalized disciplines that assumptions (usually stereotypical) about what a given discipline “is” can hardly match what people in a discipline “do.” The problem starts with definitions and classifications, which may list disciplines in the dozens or hundreds, using various types of hierarchies. New “disciplines” are created all the time at the convergence or divergence of scholarship and institutional organization. Furthermore, what is interdisciplinary today can be disciplinary tomorrow. The more “traditional” disciplines have become so large and diverse that it has become challenging to talk about internal coherence. It is not uncommon for colleagues in the same disciplinary department to be completely ignorant of each other’s areas of expertise—including related theories, concepts, and methods—which can be nonetheless comfortably shared with colleagues outside of one’s “discipline” but working on similar problems. Even across groups working on similar issues within a discipline, such as social-environmental issues, one may find completely different vocabularies and conceptual framings depending on one’s theoretical orientation.”
Essentially, Brondizio is asking why we even have disciplines if there’s sometimes as much variation within disciplines as among disciplines. So maybe we’re already making our way toward a silo-less (Editor’s note: glad that didn’t autocorrect to soul-less) university, right? Well, Brondizio questions that as well:
“Still, even if one considers the term “discipline” of limited utility, the same problem is true for concepts that have tried to “pre-fix” it, whether multi-, inter-, cross-, pluri-, or trans- (disciplinarity). Beyond their general reference to different types of combinations, have you ever come across definitions of one of these concepts that satisfy you? They often create more disagreement than productive engagement as some of them stereotype disciplines either as narrow and limited or as historical relics. Arguably, there is little hope for consistency across these terms, and perhaps not much need of it. But there is a point in these discussions: they bring attention to the impact of institutional organization on the fragmentation of knowledge, and attention to the distance within the academy and between it and society.” [bolded for emphasis by me]
As I hope you’ve picked up on over the past 10 months, one of the things many before me in the Environmental Program have tried to do, and I’m trying to continue, is to reduce the fragmentation of knowledge and the distance between the academy and society. There are such amazing environmental scholars scattered across campus. Alison Brody in biology is one of the world’s leading experts on the diversity of ways plants and animals interact. Mark Budolfsen is a leading scholar on the intersection among climate change, inequality, ethics, and public policy. Bev Wemple knows more about ecosystem services provided by water in mountains than anyone I’ve ever met. And that’s just to name a few people I’ve emailed with or talked to at UVM in the past couple of days. There are dozens more scholars I could mention here (and will, ultimately). But what do we need to do to reduce fragmentation of knowledge on campus? How can the organization of the institution change to facilitate that? Or should it?
OK. The day is too beautiful for me to still be in the office. Rick Paradis and I are off to talk about Natural Areas, not in the office.
Enjoy the weekend –
Hi all – I was inspired by the Day in the life of UVM. So here’s a week in my life.
I spent Monday and Tuesday serving as an external evaluator of a similar Environmental Studies program at Miami University in Ohio. It was great fun to talk with new colleagues and old about the best possible models for educating students, engaging the public and policy makers, and generating research and scholarship.
On Wednesday, I (and many faculty in Environmental Studies) attended the 2017 George Washington Henderson Fellowship Seminar, where we got to hear our colleague Bindu Panikkar talk about her important work in Bristol Bay, Alaska.
Thursday morning, I met with Brendan Fisher and Beverley Wemple from Geography to talk about our shared interests in research on the ecosystem services and functions provided by biodiversity in mountains around the world, and I spent most of the day writing a grant proposal that, we hope, will catalyze research, scholarship and teaching in mountain systems around the world, including in the Green Mountains (get in touch if you want to know more!).
This morning, I finally got to give a guest lecture in ENVS001 – Introduction to Environmental Studies. I’m not in teaching shape (I was spent after 50 minutes of engaging with students), but it was still a blast.
We also had a new paper come out this week. I think some of you know I work on mountains and global change, but I’m also passionate about all things related to ants. Some colleagues and I worked on this project for a couple of years, and I just have to tell you about it. It’s published in an open-access journal, so all of you can read it here. But here’s the story. About a decade ago, a geologist was hiking around in the Black Forest in Germany, looking for the locations of some recent tectonic activity. In the middle of the forest, near where the tectonic activity should have occurred, he looked down at his map and thought he recognized where the fault line should be. And when he looked up from the map, he saw a row of big ant nests (these nests are made of thatch, and can be about 1 meter tall) in a perfect row, exactly where the tectonic fault should be. Sure enough, the nests were located almost perfectly on the fault line. He then had a grad student go around the Black Forest to other locations of tectonic faults, and lo and behold, she tended to find more ant nests were there was recent tectonic activity. Somehow, the ants were more common where there was activity than where there wasn’t.
As you might have noticed by now, this wasn’t a double-blind study. The grad student at the time was told to go where the tectonic faults were, then to count ant nests to see if there were more. She could’ve been biased. As a result of that, the German scientists had a hard time getting their work published. They then contacted me and my colleague Aaron Ellison from Harvard Forest. Aaron and I had the idea to conduct a double-blind study (maybe it was Aaron’s idea). So, we recruited my postdoc at the time, Israel del Toro. We told Israel to go to two regions in Denmark and count and map ant nests; one of these regions had recent activity, and the other didn’t. Israel dutifully went out to the field and collected the data, not knowing why he was doing it. When he returned to the lab, I told him what was up, we analyzed the data, and voila! The ant nests in Denmark were closer to tectonic faults than you would expect by chance alone. The distribution and abundance of these charismatic organisms wasn’t dictated by climate or competition, but seismic activity. Cool, no?
Now, that begs the question: Why in the world would ants associate with tectonic activity? Beats me. Any ideas?
Enjoy this lovely fall weather –
Something a little different today. I thought I’d share some of the feedback about what you all would like to see in Our Environmental Program. These are just some of the highlights from many different corners of campus.
Happy Friday –
All – I spend a lot of time thinking about ways in which we can improve the Environmental Program. And I’ve talked with many of you about what we can and should do to help prepare students to enter an ever-changing world. The essay (published in the Chronicle of Higher Education) is adapted from a new book by Cathy Davidson. In the essay, Professor Davidson argues that we have to change universities, pretty much from top to bottom. I don’t think our environmental program needs changing from top to bottom, but there are definitely areas in which we can improve.
And here’s where you come in.
I’d love to hear your good ideas for what you think we could be doing better or differently, what you think we need, where you think we fall short, and/or where we could improve. Feel free to shoot me an email. Or come by and talk in person.
Alumni: what do you wish you would’ve had more of in the Environmental Program?
I’ll compile your suggestions over the next couple of weeks and share what I’ve learn.
Enjoy this beautiful afternoon –
If you would like to work with Nate
Please email him a summary of your research experience and research goals, along with a CV.