Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Sustainability & Critical Multiculturalism

At the start of April I went to a Faculty Learning Community retreat on Critical Multiculturalism (you can see me in orange in the top picture). I went as part of a team of YVCC faculty representing a larger group of campus faculty interested in incorporating sustainability ideas into classes and in raising the profile of sustainability on campus and in the broader community.

The week before I was at the NCECA (clay) conference in Seattle where I talked with several groups about sustainability in teaching ceramics and in individual studio practice.

A month or two ago I went to a conference in Ellensburg put on by the Washington Center as part of their Curriculum for the Bioregion Project. The focus was sustainability across the curriculum and focused on the bioregion.

As you might guess, these three conferences/retreat had interesting overlaps as well as slightly different focuses. I have been thinking hard over the last few months (or few years) about how to incorporate and integrate theses related ideas into my own teaching and my own work.

I prefer a definition of sustainability that includes the "three legs" of Environmental, Economic and Social Sustainability, alternately phrased as social justice. Elsewhere I have heard it referred to as Heathy Communities, Healthy Economies and Healthy Environments. In an interesting article in one of the latest editions of the Chronicle of Higher Education, the author argues against the too frequent working definition of sustainability that overlooks the social or social justice aspect of the cause. He essentially says that overlooking healthy communities makes Sustainability into a cause for middle class whites. A colleague referred to it as "that hippie thing."

Especially where I work, I think sustainability is too often seen as a buzz word and an initiative that doesn't really mean much to folks on the ground. I am constantly amazed at the casual ignorance of simple action like recycling. I want to be clear that recycling isn't sustainability, though sustainability sometimes is reduced to the old slogan, "reduce reuse recycle" that many of us learned in school (at least we did in the late 80s where I grew up in Wisconsin).  But I think recycling is an indicator of attitudes about the environment and even about social justice. I have students who regularly choose to walk 5 feet in one direction to throw a soda (or Monster) can in the trash instead of walking 5 feet in the other direction to throw the can in the recycle bin. Why? I think it is sometimes actual animosity towards recycling. Again, why?

I believe increasing awareness and practice of environmentally sustainable practices is the only logical approach to the problems of climate change, but I also think there are obvious social problems in the country and in my immediate community that require a sustainable approach. I see an important element of my role as an educator as both introducing these concepts and helping students see how they might be able to be a force for good in their community. I don't see my role as giving students a solution. For one, I don't have solutions, but for another, a top-down enforced solution isn't one that is appropriate or likely to take hold on its own.

As an example, in the YVCC clay studio I was able to make some changes that decrease our water usage and allow us to reclaim slip as clay. We have deep, wide sinks with PVC pipe extensions on the drains. These extentions allow us to keep standing water in two of the three sinks for washing tools and hands. The throwing slip and slurry from tools collects in the sinks, students can wash and rinse in the sinks without constantly running the water. Once the clay has settled, the water can be drained and the clay collected, dried and pugged into newly usable clay.

This studio change was relatively easy to implement. I educated my work studies, explain the situation and the requirements and advantages to new students at the beginning of every quarter and usually they understand and follow the new system. They can understand that we don't want to clog drains and overflow toilets and they can understand why washing tools and hands and towels in clay water first works as well as cleaning it just under a running tap. They aren't much affected but are able to be studio sustainable. The work studies embrace the change because it makes sense for their job requirements of recycling the clay and cleaning the studio.

There are other changes that I would also consider implementing but they have a higher transition cost. If we were, for example, to switch to a lower temperature firing, there would be glazes to change, firing schedules to adapt and students who were used to the old firing might be resistant. I would prefer to undertake this sort of a change with the support and cooperation of a class for the goal of saving money or or reducing our environmental impact (or both). Undertaking this change with a class has the added advantage of helping a group of students understand some of the considerations behind studio practices and some of the glaze chemistry and physics of firing.

There are, undoubtedly other changes that could be implemented in the studio or, more broadly, other programs that we could look into or develop that would also increase our environmental sustainability, our economic savings and could have a positive impact on the community in general. Though I have some ideas, I would love to see what motivated students could come up with once there is a built-in process for exploring other options. Social Justice or "Healthy Communities" in particular I find myself unprepared to tackle in a classroom setting except on the micro scale.

In the studio every quarter and every year I stress the importance of the studio environment. A "healthy" studio atmosphere does wonders for the progression of both the class as a whole and students individually, and this "healthiness" occurs on several levels. First, the classroom is physically healthier for students when everyone contributes to cleanup. The clay dust is kept to a minimum and people aren't breathing in the silica and putting their lungs at risk. Students who take responsibility for daily studio cleanup also decrease the cleaning portion of the work study students' job, allowing them to focus on clay recycling and other projects. A messy studio encourages students to be lax in daily cleanup. Besides the things I have mentioned above, when students are lazy about cleanup, we end up with tools in the wrong place which can become a physical hazard. Sharp needle tools in the sinks stab the work studies as they clean up, broken glaze left on the counter can cut people and chamois and small tools left in the clay can be recycled through the pug mill, damaging the machinery or, more often, ending up wedged into someone's clay, ruining their bowl or mug.

But the "healthy" studio atmosphere also has to do with the effort and supportiveness of the students. In a quarter when several students work hard, challenge themselves and spend a great deal of time in the studio, their work ethic infects other students and more and more students (not all) also work hard and challenge themselves. This quarter is starting out to be a good example, students had more work than required at the first critique, students are working later into the day, discussing their work together and helping each other with techniques.

Likewise, students who complain can also poison the studio atmosphere for a quarter, encouraging other students to complain and find excuses for not working. I have had a couple of quarters when this has happened. I can sometimes work to stop the rest of the students being influenced by the grump, but if the students are friends or are loud, I can't always stop their influence. A small class can have a similar affect; since there aren't many students in the class, the studio seems empty and people are less likely to come in on their own. I have fewer students but also less work from each students.

The YVCC faculty group who attended the sustainability conference and the critical multiculturalism retreat are developing a website resource with "best practices" for faculty to incorporate sustainability ideas and teaching into their classes. More on this later.

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