I have taught a sophomore-level “General Ecology” course a dozen or so times since I first started teaching 2001. I’ve tried to keep the content fresh over the years. But, like the jokes I tell in class, the learning outcomes are generally the same from year to year: students should be able to think ecologically and quantitatively, they should know something about how biotic and abiotic factors interact to shape ecological patterns and processes, and they should understand something about how many of the crises facing the planet today are ecological problems, and solving them likely requires, at least in part, ecological understanding and solutions.
Along with my jokes and the learning outcomes, the other thing that hasn’t really changed is the answer many students give when I ask them to define ecology. Almost without fail, a dozen or so students describe ecology as “studying how everything is connected to everything.” I guess in some ways that’s true. One of my former PhD students did his dissertation research on the connections among exotic ungulates, understory plants, mistletoe, hummingbirds, exotic wasps, and a cute little marsupial called “monito del monte” in Patagonia. (Here’s the paper, if you’re interested.)
I bring all of this up because this morning, I was reminded of Liz Coleman’s TED talk from about 8 years ago. If that name rings a bell, Dr. Coleman was the president of Bennington College for more than 25 years. Dr. Coleman’s TED talk was about how we teach college students to address the big questions. In the talk, Dr. Coleman said
“It's not easy when a system is built on that version of accomplishment, when narrowing your sights is treated as a virtue. We all use the language of experts and of separating things. The progression of today's college student is to jettison every interest except one and within that one, to continually narrow the focus, learning more and more about less and less. This, despite the evidence all around us of the interconnectedness of things. As one moves up the ladder, values other than technical competence are viewed with increasing suspicion. Questions such as, what kind of a world are we making, what kind of a world should we be making, what kind of a world can we be making, are treated with more and more skepticism and move off the table.”
Dr. Coleman’s description of today’s typical college student might be true of students in other programs or at other institutions. But I think it is definitely NOT true of students in the Environmental Program at UVM. We take great pride in the interdisciplinary nature of the Program. Admittedly, there is something to be said about knowing more and more about less and less (that is, focusing deeply on a particular subject). But that focus should not come at the cost of breadth of understanding. And it’s that balance, that sweet spot between breadth and depth, that we seek in designing our undergraduate program. The ability to ask (and answer) the most pressing questions today requires some expert knowledge, but it also requires at least the ability to engage with others who have different insights and experiences and knowledge bases. Ideally, one could do more than just engage others on a particular issue. Ideally, one could not only cross disciplinary boundaries, but synthesize those disciplines in ways that matter on issues of consequence. Doing that is, by definition, being interdisciplinary. Being able to do just that – blend some level of expertise with the ability to cross and synthesize disciplines – is one of the things we hope all students in the Environmental Program are able to do. After all, being able to understand the connections among, say, Energy Law and Climate Change, Environmental Ethics, and Landscape Restoration perhaps isn’t that different from understanding how exotic deer in Patagonia affect the monito del monte.
Happy Friday. Stay warm. And stay interdisciplinary.