The new academic year always comes with a mixture of excitement and dread—feelings I know well, now entering my 25th year as a professor, and with thirteen years of college prior to then. The excitement: something new to learn, and people to learn with! Summers are a nice break, but can get kind of lonely when you thrive on the vibrant give-and-take of a higher education learning community.
Then there’s the dread. I remember the feeling as a straight-A college student facing yet another year of hard work and worry to reach near-impossible goals—I always reached them, but not without making big compromises in life and well-being. Well, professors feel dread too, certainly in anticipation of the 70 hour work week, but also because we inevitably fall short of our students’ expectations, no matter how hard we try.
Why is this, especially for professors like me who have invested so many years into teaching? One possibility: there can be an increasing disconnect between what we offer and what our students want. The divide is not merely generational; it’s also that we faculty have walked down our intellectual paths for years and years, which has taken us far from our—their—starting point. (I frequently muse on this in the context of the EcoTypes initiative I launched last year, which offers interesting empirical insights into higher education students across the country.)
This is certainly true in environmental studies, where the starting point is often passion for change grounded in solid facts of crisis, but then the intellectual journey revisits—and sometimes rejects—this point of beginning via layers of context and nuance. As we walk down our paths, we feel we understand, and can address, environmental crisis in richer ways than we once did, but it may be impossible to fully appreciate these richer ways without walking down this path—there are no shortcuts. The outcome can be confusion and frustration on the part of the student.
As part of Lewis & Clark’s Teaching Excellence Program, we have been discussing student-faculty partnerships, and our ENVS Program is launching its own partnership initiative to build a support network between lower- and upper-division students, alums, and ENVS faculty/staff. But I would like to take this partnership insight into my own classes this fall, and see if it helps address the underlying reasons for the feelings of dread I (and my students) experience. Here are the main elements of this proposed teaching/learning partnership, as I currently envision it:
- Planning. Typically the professor arrives on day one with a fully detailed syllabus outlining every reading, lecture, assignment, and exam, when they occur, and how they all fit together relative to the course’s learning objectives. The student may feel excitement (“I look forward to learning this!”) and comfort (“This professor has their act together!”). But as the course progresses, the student may also feel disorientation (“Why are we doing all this?”) and frustration (“This isn’t working for me”). In a partnership approach, I would come in with a general plan and clear sense of ENVS Program learning objectives for the course; but I’d workshop with the students to arrive at the best way to implement this plan. Then I’d work with student volunteers to plan certain components (e.g., labs or in-class activities) and pretest components to help us finalize them. The aim here is to negotiate our expectations for the course as we take joint responsibility for planning the course.
- Implementation. Typically, the professor prepares an activity, and the students show up and do it. There are understandable reasons for this division of labor; but it reifies the producer/consumer binary between professors and students—a setup for frustration and disappointment. In a partnership approach, if students are involved up front in helping plan course components, they can provide invaluable assistance in implementing these components; for instance, students who helped plan and pretest a lab with me can play a leadership/support role when the whole class does that lab, or students involved in planning/pretesting a reading discussion can then help facilitate that discussion. (There is still an important place for the instructor!…after all, they have more experience doing this.) The aim here is to negotiate our joint commitment to, and responsibility for, the course.
- Assessment. One of the biggest divides between professor and student in a regular course involves assessment: we issue grades that become a permanent part of the students’ transcripts, and they issue anonymous feedback at the end of the semester that directly affect our promotion. Such huge stakes, and such generally poor communication!: students may not consider a grade to be fair, and professors may not consider student feedback to be fair. And yet there’s nothing either party can do about it, since these big assessments happen at the end of the semester. In a partnership approach, assessment is primarily formative vs. summative, directed toward improvement rather than judgment (yes, there must still be summative assessments at the end of the semester!). It’s continuous, happening throughout the semester. And it’s conversational: while anonymous feedback has a legitimate place, partnership-based assessment is done openly, so that professors and students build skills in speaking, and listening, honestly and thoughtfully. Examples of partnership-based assessment could be as simple as a weekly check-in, or a discussion about how a test should be graded prior to taking the test. The aim here is for all of us to practice fairness and consideration we we strive to make teaching/learning work better for us.
We teach environmental studies in a special way at Lewis & Clark, focusing less on the environment as an fixed entity under siege and more on environment as a network of connections (see related references below). Partnership is a way to take this emphasis on connections and relationality into the ENVS classroom: rather than retreat back to our fixed roles as faculty and student, we connect and engage with each other over our joint teaching/learning mission.
Will it work? The answer is up to all of us! I’ll revisit during the semester with updates; stay tuned, and if you are one of my students reading this, thanks in advance for what you will contribute to this partnership.
- Proctor, James D. 2009. “Environment after Nature: Time for a New Vision.” In Envisioning Nature, Science, and Religion, edited by James D. Proctor, 293–311. West Conshohocken, Penn: Templeton Press.
- ———. 2016. “Replacing Nature in Environmental Studies and Sciences.” Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences 6 (4): 748–52. doi:10.1007/s13412-015-0259-3.
- Proctor, James D., and Jennifer Bernstein. 2013. “Environmental Connections and Concept Mapping: Implementing a New Learning Technology at Lewis & Clark College.” Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences 3 (1): 30–41. doi:10.1007/s13412-013-0109-0.
- Proctor, James D., Jennifer Bernstein, and Richard L. Wallace. 2015. “Introduction: Unsettling the ESS Curriculum.” Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences 5 (2): 195–99. doi:10.1007/s13412-015-0253-9.
- Proctor, James D., Susan G. Clark, Kimberly K. Smith, and Richard L. Wallace. 2013. “A Manifesto for Theory in Environmental Studies and Sciences.” Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences 3 (3): 331–37. doi:10.1007/s13412-013-0122-3.