I look forward to writing these missives each week. But this will be the last one until the start of the semester in 2018. I could look backwards on the year (and it is amazing that I've been here for a year already). But instead, I'd like to look forward to next year and tell you about some of the initiatives that are likely to be launched next year, or at least worked on seriously by many. You've read some of this before, or I've at least hinted at some of the topics in previous Friday emails. But here goes (and I'm certain I'll forget some things…).
Initiative 1. Preparing students for the world. Last week, I wondered aloud whether we are preparing our students for an increasingly connected world. Early next semester, I hope to have some brownbag meetings, across campus, to think about what we could be doing better, and what we could be doing that we're not doing. I know some faculty affiliated with Our Environmental Program are equally excited about talking about this. I am especially interested in connections with China and connections within the US, but would welcome any and all ideas.
Initiative 2. Advising and mentoring. Starting on February 1, we will have an additional professional advisor housed in Bittersweet. Kevin Chu is going to join us, and he's bringing both a wealth of experience and exciting ideas to the Environmental Program. Kevin graduated from Middlebury and has been working in UVM's Office of Admissions for a while. Once he's here, he and Ibit will be in charge of advising for all first- and second-year students, and they will be point people for all ENVS students across campus. Adding Kevin to our staff will transform, in a very positive way, how we support our students and our faculty advisors across campus. Plus, having Kevin as a colleague will allow Ibit, whose plate is always so full, to think about new projects and initiatives.
The search process was amazing. I’d really like to thank Brendan and his search committee (from RSENR, CALS, and CAS) for all of the hard work they did in getting the applicant pool down from ~100 applications to 4, and finally to Kevin. Amy Seidl got the ball rolling on this search way back in May and June. Cathy in our office did tons of leg work to make the search run smoothly and was an incredible asset on the committee. An incredible crop of thoughtful ENVS students met with each finalist, and their perspectives were a huge benefit. Ibit thought long and hard about each of the finalists and provided the committee with incredible insights about what each could bring to the position and ENVS. And Deans Mathews, Vogelmann, and Falls should also be commended for funding this position that is going to help us, and our students, in so many ways.
Initiative 3. Undergraduate research and scholarship. We will continue to support undergraduate research and scholarship in ENVS. In fact, we are going to increase our support. I will look to hire an undergraduate on an NSF-funded project for ~$5,000 this summer. We will also offer our usual ENVS Summer Research Award (this has traditionally been $2,000 per student, but I want to increase it). The Ian Worley award will be announced in January. And, I hope to announce news about supporting even more undergraduate research and scholarship in the very near future… Stay tuned.
Initiative 4. Strengthening our cross-campus connections. You all know this, but some of the best environmental scholars might not have offices in Bittersweet. (However, there are some darn good folks in Bittersweet). Instead, they are scattered across campus, in Philosophy, Classics, Biology, Political Science, History, Forestry, Plant and Soil Sciences, and elsewhere. Beginning in February, we will initiate a series of meetings with the goal of engaging with these incredible scholars and teachers even more than we do now.
Initiative 5. Building on our Program Assessment. Brendan Fisher has been going above and beyond to think about how we go about assessing our programmatic learning outcomes. We'll finish this up in the early spring. But our discussions have made many of us in the ENVS faculty think more deeply about what we're trying to accomplish, and what we hope our students leave UVM with. Maybe by the end of spring semester, we'll be able say more about this. But I think it's an exciting time in Environmental Studies.
Initiative 6. Alumni engagement. I've travelled a lot the past 3 weeks. Just this morning, I was in the Brussels airport, waiting to board a plane back to the US, when I recognized one of our alumni walking by me. We have thousands of alumni, scattered all over the world. But it was REALLY cool to bump into one in an airport in Europe. All semester, I've been thinking about our incredible network of alumni around the world, and how better to get their insights and thoughts and increased engagement in Our Environmental Program. Toward that goal, beginning in spring of 2018, I will invite a group of alumni to join an Alumni Advisory board for ENVS. I have some names in mind, but I would love to receive nominations up until February 15 (including self nominations!). I'll send out a reminder about this after the holidays.
Again, I'm sure I've forgotten some things. But that's what I'm thinking about now, and what I hope we can move forward on in the spring.
Until then, I hope you enjoy some time away from UVM to think, to write, to explore, to reconnect, to rebalance, to spend time with loved ones, to read, or, if you're Brendan Fisher, to work on Assessment Plans.
Thanks for a wonderful first year.
I'm just back from Japan, where I served as the external examiner on a PhD thesis at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST). It was my first time to Japan, and I hope to go back. The people were lovely, and the sushi was better than I could've imagined.
While I was there, I of course was thinking about Environmental Studies at UVM (honestly, I was). And here's why: the student who was finishing his PhD was from China, but he worked on biodiversity in Fiji. His advisor is a Greek-Canadian-American who is married to a Singaporean woman, and they live in Okinawa. The other external examiner was a lovely British ecologist who hasn’t lived in the UK for more than 40 years; instead, he's lived and worked in Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore, and China. While touring OIST, I met a Spanish myrmecologist who spoke English with a German accent and works in Madagascar; I had dinner with French grad student who is studying in Japan, but works on ants from Australia. And then there was me, who flew for about 20 hours to get to Okinawa. All of these people, literally from nearly all corners of the world, sat down together to talk about our understanding (or lack thereof) of the natural world.
Are we doing a good enough job at preparing our students for an increasingly connected world? To understand and solve problems that will require diverse approaches from diverse teams? To understand the cultural and social contexts in which many environmental issues are embedded? To be frank, I think the answer is no. Late this afternoon, I had an engaging conversation with two of our students (one of whom is graduating). I think, well, I know, they would both say the answer is a resounding no. No we are not doing enough to help our students deal with, let alone address pressing environmental issues in a diverse and interconnected world. So what do we do? I think it's time to start having the conversations about what we can, and should, do as The Environmental Program at the University of Vermont. And in the new year, I'll invite some of you to engage in these conversations. I hope you'll be willing.
Best wishes -
Why preserve biodiversity? That question has motivated me since I was a sophomore in college in the early 1990's. Since then, I've done research on biodiversity and the functions and services it provides, and I've given hundreds, if not a thousand, lectures about why biodiversity is important. Sure, there are scientific reasons to preserve biodiversity. And as you know, the Federal Government and other entities have traditionally focused considerable effort on saving endangered species. There are numerous ethical, economic, aesthetic, and other reasons that we could discuss, at length, for why we should work to preserve biodiversity and those species that are most threatened with extinction.
Maybe you agree with everything I've written above, or at least some of what I've written above. I guess I would be surprised that anyone would disagree with what I've written. But, as I've written before, I live in a bit of a bubble. But there are people who apparently disagree with the paragraph above. For example, here's a perspective that was published about a week ago in the Washington Post. It's entitled "We don't need to save endangered species. Extinction is part of evolution." The author, an Associate Professor of Biology at George Washington University named R. Alexander Pyron, writes "… the impulse to conserve for conservation’s sake has taken on an unthinking, unsupported, unnecessary urgency", "… we should feel no remorse about altering our environment…", and " Conservation is needed for ourselves and only ourselves. Conservation is needed for ourselves and only ourselves." I could go on, but you should go read it for yourself.
As you might imagine, when folks caught wind of Dr. Pryon's essay, there was dismay, anger, and some ridicule on platforms like twitter. And, many of us (and by many, I mean >3000 people, including ~20 from UVM) have signed a letter to the editor of the Washington Post that that counters much of what Pyron wrote in his essay. (And if you want to sign, go here by 7PM tonight, EST).
But the story gets a bit more interesting. Apparently Dr. Pyron posted a commentary on his Facebook page that included the following:
“In the brief space of 1,900 words, I failed to make my views sufficiently clear and coherent, and succumbed to a temptation to sensationalize parts of my argument. Furthermore, I made the mistake of not showing the piece to my colleagues at GWU first; their dismay mirrored that of many in the broader community. As I’ve explained to their satisfaction, and now I wish to explain to the field at large, my views and opinions were not accurately captured by the piece, and I hope the record can now be corrected. In particular, the headlines inserted for the piece for publication said “We don’t need to save endangered species,” and that “we should only worry about preserving biodiversity when it helps us.” I did not write these words, I do not believe these things, and I do not support them.”
Over at a blog called Writing Science, Josh Schimel writes the following, in a longer blog post that I would encourage you to read:
Dr. Pyron is saying things that are scientifically reasonable and thoughtful in his long, thoughtful, Facebook post. Unfortunately few will ever read the FB post; millions may read the op-ed. The public gets the wrong message, and his scientific peers are dismayed. Not a good outcome. Remember, always, that communication isn’t what you think you are giving, but what the reader gets. In this case, most readers get a message that was antithetical to Dr. Pyron’s true beliefs. Ouch. That is a true failure in writing. Worse, it is a failure that Dr. Pyron is going to have to live with because published is forever. You can’t unpublish something. [bold added for emphasis by Nate]
Equally, this is a powerful lesson in the value of peer review: Dr. Pyron did not run the piece past his peers and so never got feedback that indicated that readers were getting a different message than that he intended.
So, there are lots of lessons here, for all of us. One of course is that we should all work on communicating clearly. If someone doesn't understand what you've written or what you've said, it could be your fault. And, now that you've perhaps read Dr. Pyron's piece, you know how you would refute or rebut his arguments, given that you're all interdisciplinary thinkers who know (or are soon learning!) about the importance of biodiversity, and how to have a civil, engaging discussion with someone.
But wait! While I've been writing this, Dr. Pyron has updated his webpage with a longer defense/explanation of his Washington Post essay. Go see for yourselves what he has to say. (Now that I've read it, I have my own thoughts).
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