The personal is political: Should we require environmental study?

Georges Island and McNab's Island, Halifax Harbour (C. Campbell, 2010)

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Three years ago I started teaching at a small private university in rural Pennsylvania. There are any number of types of culture shock buried in that sentence, but let’s focus on one. At Bucknell, students in the College of Arts and Sciences are required to complete about a dozen breadth requirements as part of a “Common Core Curriculum.” These requirements are both disciplinary (sciences, language, humanities, social sciences, and integrated [team-taught] perspectives) and, much more ambitiously, topical: for example, certain classes are designated “Diversity in the United States,” “Global Connections,” or “Environmental Connections.”

I used to teach in a department where curriculum reform was whispered about like sure death, and where any such requirements, in particular, would have had Caesaresque results. Pedagogical autonomy was paramount, and people guarded their subfields very closely. So at first blush, I thought the CCC was marvelous. It seemed to aspire to the model of a rounded liberal arts education. It connected courses and faculty, normally aligned by discipline, instead by issue. Hopefully, it encouraged students to explore new areas and indulge some curiosities. You could fulfill your Environmental Connections requirement with classes on medieval literature or ethics as well as salamanders. And it was willing to prioritize certain contemporary issues as essential for undergraduates to deal with, at least for a semester.

But the CCC is not without its critics here. Many faculty feel it burdens them with conscripts, students taking the class – obligatorily, maybe resentfully – only to check a box. And that it requires us to dilute our teaching in order to make the content accessible to non-majors. (Try having a Management senior parachute into your environmental history seminar.) (Don’t try that.) Still, humanities departments, with sinking numbers, have tumbled after these designations. “We’re going to win this race to the bottom,” as the department chair put it, to have as many courses as possible qualify and hopefully scoop up more conscripts enrolments.

And for that it works. My classes fill (my intro class on Canada filled as quickly as the intro class on military history – !!) But coupled with the fact that a lot of students take history either as an elective out of interest, or as a singular and particular curricular obligation, I teach mostly non-majors, and very few repeat students. They’re sampling our courses. I’m a pedagogical smorgasbord.

Do breadth requirements work, then?

  • Is this merely a structural solution (mandating enrolment) to a problem that is both pedagogical and structural (that is: why are enrolments declining in the humanities? Is it because our course material isn’t of interest, or because of [administrative, parental] preferences for programs like Management?)
  • Are we teaching effectively when we require such variety? Can we coach intellectual maturation outside disciplinary frameworks? Or does it reduce disciplinary traditions to party trivia? Are we teaching students to think historically, or just to think about stuff that happened before now?
  • Does it require more service of the already-vulnerable humanities, or does it give us a chance to reach more students who otherwise wouldn’t consider taking our courses?

Well – yes, to all of these. Oddly enough, deciding whether to re-offer my classes as Environmental Connections has given me some insight both into my personal motivations as a teacher, and the pedagogical/political landscape around me.

  • Most of us have encountered the unsubtle hierarchy in teaching: departments are more likely to sessionalize surveys, or consider them a service tax, and reserve seminars as a kind of prize. I’m conscious that teaching CCC is good service – and there’s a learned, gendered sense of obligation here, too. I don’t want to resent that, nor see it as a (pejorative) comment on my abilities as an historian.
  • Staking history into a mandatory curriculum affirms that history is important, so it confirms what I already believe, and it’s a good corrective to the usual privileging of STEM fields (especially but not exclusively in environmental discussions). Even one course in the environmental humanities is useful for that.
  • Do these requirements mix students up, draw them out of their departmental cohorts, and into new conversations? Yes, and that’s fun. They’ll occasionally bring in material from other classes, and I hope – but don’t know – that they’ll take historical thinking back with them. That’s a big gamble; I could just be throwing my energies down a hole. Teaching is a kind of faith, and evangelism doesn’t guarantee enrolment.
  • That said, pronouncements that we’re changing the world overstate our influence and the progressive capacity or commitment of fundamentally conservative institutions. While this has been a motivation for me in the past, I’m trying to contain it. Whether at Bucknell (where I’m teaching a lot of the 1%) or Dalhousie (where, like most Canadian schools, the students are predominantly white, middle-class Canadians), the student population (and their parents, and the administration) wants to have their sense of the arc and justice of history confirmed rather than challenged. There’s a lot of structural and ideological weight to push against, no matter what discipline you choose

At the end of the day, it comes down to why I want to be teaching history. It isn’t to send out a new generation of historians, and it’s not even to convey important themes from the past for their own sake. I want students to consider history in the larger exercise of deciding how to live better with each other and the world around them. It’s analysis for the purposes of application.

I appreciate this echoes the relentless questions of utility posed by everyone from the media to university administrations: “So what do we do with this? What does this mean for the next hundred years/the next time we face a similar decision? Why does history matter? … Why should we fund new history hires?” etc. It seems to skirt, or even undermine, the purpose and spirit of good historical scholarship: to convey the voice and intent of your sources; to respect the pastness of the past, rather than seeing it as a stage for contemporary anxieties and preoccupations; to engage with complexity which creates more questions rather than answers.

But I don’t live in the past, and neither will my students. They’ll live – they are living – in a world with unsustainable practices based on historical errors and assumptions and bigotries that we can study and question and maybe begin to respond to.

So, oddly, subscribing to a common curriculum comes down to highly individual motivations. What matters to me as a citizen has always shaped my research agenda; I write about places that I care about. I care more about them as I learn about them. I like helping students realize that places they care about – and places they have yet to discover – matter, too. And I want them to care more about these places by learning more about them. It isn’t, in fact, academic.

I guess I didn’t need to write that three-page teaching philosophy ….



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Professor of History at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, where I revel in Canadiana and environmental history. Also a lover of exploring, maps, Jane of Lantern Hill, and Scandinavia.

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