Friday, March 2, 2012

Sustainability Conference

I went to a sustainability conference last Friday. It was an interesting experience. I heard some good information, but mostly the conference was useful as an adjustment to standard practice and habit. By this point in the quarter (or the year) I have gotten into a bit of a rut, teaching the same subjects I've taught before, grading the same assignments and looking at the same projects. I think we get into habits of thinking and talking and planning and it is nice to be forced, for whatever reason to think differently, be challenged and adjust.

I didn't feel that I left the conference with any major shift or change in my world view or even in how I plan to incorporate ideas of sustainability. I was a little disappointed, because I was hoping for some inspiration, to see how other faculty incorporated these ideas, not just in science classes, but across the curriculum. However, since starting the new week, I have talked with other faculty about how we might incorporate some of the conference ideas into our classes. And I did leave the conference with a couple of real, immediately applicable, ideas and tips for lessons or adjustments I can make in my classes.

But the biggest take-away I got from the conference was an increased appreciation for the value of my colleagues. My colleagues at Yakima Valley Community College are thoughtful, student-centered instructors who are interested in exploring new ideas and are often willing and interested in helping their colleagues (and their students, of course) improve their teaching and classes.

Unfortunately the value of my colleagues was emphasized by several negative interactions with faculty from other institutions. The conference was well organized. The people who ran the conference seemed interesting, intelligent and thoughtful. They were also open to diversity of opinion and seemed to value the variety of viewpoints in the conference.

But I was disappointed, even disgusted with some of the other attendees. Early on in the discussion, one woman told me that "young people who are involved in these [sorts of sustainability initiatives] are not coming from community colleges; they are coming from elite universities." I'm not sure if her goal was to insult me, because she knew I taught at a community college, but either way I was offended. What a negative, close-minded thing to say. I really loathe this idea that students who attend community colleges are incapable of higher level thinking. Obviously elite universities attract students with good grades and high test scores (and money) but I think it is reasonable to consider that students who may not have been served by the best K-12 schools might still be able to think critically. Furthermore, faculty at these institutions should be expected to challenge community college students to improve their critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills. I believe that involving students in efforts and initiatives like incorporating ideas of sustainability into the classroom are exactly the ways to get these students (any students) involved and interested in classroom discussions and learning.

Another disappointing statement came from a man in the first group who explained that he believes students aren't interested in sustainability because they are too plugged in. This "kids today" argument is so silly. Should we believe that the iPhone and Angry Birds are preventing students from caring about the environment? The way students think about the environment may be cultural, but I suspect it is more complicated than "technology". He suggested that if there were a video game, students would care about sustainability. Apparently he hasn't heard of SimCity. He, or perhaps another person at the table, later suggested that the only way to create "green campuses" was to have college presidents refuse to grant pay raises until the college went "green." So I guess his plan was to just blame the other guy, or "kids today" or "the man." But what I can't understand is why he attended the conference.

My last brush with idiocy was the woman seated down the row from me in the presentation on water quality and water sources in the Yakima Valley. The lectures were interesting. The water quality lecture had to do with wells in the Lower Yakima Valley being contaminated with nitrites and other contaminants, likely from failed septic systems or frfarm animal waste. After the talk, I asked what sorts of filters were being used, curious whether the type of ceramic filtration system used by Potters for Peace would be useful. The woman down the table from me responded to me in a very condescending way, implying that I couldn't possibly understand the complexities of water filtration. The ceramic filters may not be appropriate in this application but they are useful filters. I couldn't determine whether they remove nitrites, but they do remove bacterial contaminants that cause diarrhea and other water-borne diseases. The question, in my opinion, wasn't beneath contempt.

Anyway, the conference was interesting and worthwhile. In the past week or so I've also been lucky to be involved with my fellow quality faculty at YVCC on several other projects. I have been working with a group of faculty on an honors program that we have piloted and hope to expand in the Spring quarter and next year. I have been working with the director of the Larson Gallery to encourage faculty to integrate a couple of next years exhibitions into their class curriculum. Faculty have been supportive and interested in both of these projects and the discussion of sustainability. I am pleased. It is easier to keep up one's energy and interest level when colleagues are also energetic and interested.

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