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Issues in Higher Education and DePauw University

Report from the Midwest Sustainability Conference at Beloit College, March 31 – April 1, 2017

Posted in Reports

After a fall semester hiatus, Reports from the Field returns! We pick up with a welcome spring of 2017 submission by professors Jeane Pope (Geosciences and Sustainability Co-ordinator) and Jen Everett (Philosophy and Environmental Fellows Co-Director). Reports from the Field resumes its schedule of every other week: see you on Friday, February 23.

Report from the Midwest Sustainability Conference at Beloit College
March 31 – April 1, 2017

By Jeane Pope, Geosciences and Sustainability Co-ordinator, and Jen Everett, Philosophy and Environmental Fellows Program

“We want these classes to be transformative, not transmissive,” said a participants at the recent Midwest Sustainability Conference at Beloit College.  It is with this same enthusiasm for student development and empowerment that we went to share the exciting story of “Sustainable (Un)building:  A Deconstruction Practicum in Two Senses” within the broader context of DePauw’s overall sustainability program.  Though a philosopher (Everett) and a scientist (Pope) by training, we have blended our disparate backgrounds into a shared commitment to environmental and sustainability curricula and programming, diversity, and inclusiveness.  Over the years, we have both taught together and helped establish a number of now institutionalized programs, including the Office of Sustainability and the Environmental Fellows Program.

Sustainability at DePauw University

  • creates opportunities for student-driven environmental initiatives,
  • educates the campus community about how environmental quality intersects with societal health and progress, and
  • supports institutional-initiatives regarding the University’s commitment to environmental stewardship.

We are particularly interested in the interaction and feedback between each of these singular initiatives, and the presentation, “Sustainable (Un)Building: A Deconstruction Practicum in Two Senses,” that we gave on two Experiential Studies courses (Winter and May Term 2017) about the deconstruction of the house adjacent to DePauw’s farm lies at the heart of all three.  The central idea behind these courses is that students would first inventory what was present in the house, from appliances and fixtures, to drywall and shingles (Winter Term) and then physically disassemble it (May Term).  And during both classes, they would grapple with critical questions like What is the story of this item?, Where did it come from?, Where do things go when they go ‘away’?, Can’t these materials be recycled somehow?, What are the costs and benefits of various salvage or disposal options?, and ultimately, Isn’t there a better way?

At first blush, these extended studies courses are similar to others presented in recent literature (for example Diyamandogulu and Fortuna (2015) in Resources, Conservation, and Recycling or Boyd et al (2012) in Research and Solutions) that use an expanded cost-benefit analysis to include climate and other environmental impacts when considering the “worth” of materials and the costs of their disposal.  Indeed, arguments supporting environmentally responsible decision-making have often relied on these kinds of quantitative approaches to demonstrate the significant role that so-called externalities can have on the true cost to society.  And while we think that quantitative analysis is a wholly appropriate tool, we note that it is not the only one available.

The power of the humanities, coupled with and enlivened by the arts, is that they allow us to think beyond this world that we have inherited and to question What could be? The interesting – and we believe innovative – feature of the Winter Term course that Jen co-taught with DePauw’s Sustainability Engineer Chris Hoffa was that it combined pedagogy featuring both quantitative and narrative inquiry styles of learning with other impactful, experiential learning activities like field trips and presentations by unique content experts.  One of the benefits of the timing of the Beloit Sustainability conference is that it allowed Jen the opportunity to synthesize comments from student interviews that demonstrate the many significant learning outcomes of the Winter Term course.

What Jen particularly emphasized in her portion of the talk at the conference was the many modes of learning offered by the class and that the students themselves were able to identify. For example:

  Conceptual learning – Anne Harris (Department of Art and Art History) and Harry Brown (Department of English) gave guest lectures that illuminated the tools humanities disciplines bring to the study of materiality.  Anne guided the students in analyzing a first-person narrative of tree becoming wood becoming cross becoming Crucifixion in the medieval poem Dream of the Rood, and Harry provided an overview of Object Oriented Ontology and the many ways that objects carry and express meaning in consumer culture. Students reported that these presentations profoundly altered their ways of thinking about objects and materials in their lives, from toothbrushes to bricks.  These presentations motivated greater mindfulness toward objects and materials that, however humble or degraded, have stories worth telling, and value worthy of salvage.  Students reported that this mindfulness was crucial to their investment in the work of finding destinations for items that would ordinarily be regarded as junk.

  Experiential learning – Students donned respirators against the mold and completed a significant amount of hands-on work in the house – emptying myriad loose contents, sorting reclaimable materials from recyclables and irremediable trash, and beginning the process of “soft-stripping” the house of doors, trim, ceiling tiles, cabinets, and fixtures to ready it for deconstruction.  They reported feeling deeply satisfied with both the physical labor they were able to perform and with their growing understanding of deconstruction as a zero waste practice.

  Inspirational learning – One of the most gratifying forms of learning students reported was an expanded sense of their own capabilities and of the range of green alternatives to business as usual building demolition practices.  Reuse entrepreneurs Michael Bricker (who rescued 11 acres of fabric from the landfill from the RCA dome demolition) and Angela Crouse (who has built a business deconstructing Indiana barns) both emphasized having started their endeavors with no prior experience, skills, or tools, but going forward on the strength of their commitment to a worthwhile vision.  Female students in particular noted how inspired they were to defy traditional gender roles by Angela’s grit and determination and by the Greencastle women who own and operate the nearby Pingleton sawmill.

  Pre-professional learning – DePauw Facilities Management staff members Chris Hoffa and Warren Whitesell each introduced dimensions of professional project management.  Chris tutored students in writing a charter for the deconstruction project that crystallized the value of DePauw’s writing curriculum to students’ future professional lives in almost any field.  Warren facilitated a project scheduling workshop and evaluated the schedules students produced in a team competition.  Students credited these exercises as fostering newfound respect for hitherto underappreciated intellectual and technical challenges undertaken by building and facilities management professionals.  

  Integrative learning – Deconstructing a house might seem an unlikely way to pursue DePauw’s liberal arts mission, but when asked how this unusual winter term course fits in with the rest of their studies, students reported newfound eagerness to explore new ways of transferring ideas across different courses and contexts.  As one first year student put it:  “Every class that seems a little bit strange will probably connect with the least expected class that you take later, and it’s the coolest feeling…..Here I was talking about these old men [referring to her previous semester philosophy class] and everything they thought about life (and then) I signed up to take a house down, but everything has connections and so now it makes me really excited to see how I can connect this class with everything else that I’m doing.”  

In sum, the value of dismantling this house is about more than salvaged materials or even working towards zero waste goals, though these are obviously incredibly important outcomes; the most significant value of this project is how it helps transform student thinking about the world around them, which is ultimately what the liberal arts is all about.

Pivoting to our role as audience members at the conference, we were each delighted to see the numerous ways that faculty and students are integrating sustainability on their respective campuses.  We were perhaps most excited by several presentations on campus farms offered by Knox College, Monmouth College, and Central College and UW – Whitewater.  Each of these institutions provided inspiring models and ideas that we are eager to implement at DePauw with the gift provided by Scott and Beth Ullem.

We were also deeply appreciative of the thoughtful framing offered by Ann Davies, Beloit’s Provost and Dean of the College, as to the particular key outcomes that investing in sustainability has provided for their students.  As she noted in her welcoming remarks, it can be easy to become overwhelmed by global environmental despair such that faculty are unable – or unwilling – to take on sustainability work, but those who do are offered many rewards, including the joy that comes from preparing students to take on the complexities and act, thereby transforming the world.

We are deeply grateful to Beloit College, who paid for food and lodging for all presenters, for hosting us for this interesting and educational conference.  Special thanks to Jen’s colleague Matt Tedesco (Department of Philosophy) and Jeane’s colleague Sue Swanson (Department of Geology) for their work organizing this successful event and for encouraging us to share some of our recent work.


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