I am slowly regaining my sanity and composure after one of the most challenging classes I have ever taught. Over the last month, I have been teaching an Introduction to Environmental Studies course that I developed and taught in collaboration with a Biology professor. In reality, the course was designed by committee as much as it was by the two of us–the Environmental Studies Program committee decided that the program really needed an introductory course. What started off as a fairly straightforward course became a very exciting new model for Cornell’s block plan: we would use one “theme” (in this case, the theme, or issue, was salmon) to highlight the interdisiciplinary nature of any environmental issue. We would discuss science, politics, economics, arts, culture, in relation to the issue (with other issues coming in to play at the same time). To do this, we decided that we needed to have the course taught by two people from different divisions; in this case, we had a biologist and a creative writer (next year, a geologist and an economist are slated for the job). At the same time, we would bring in people from different fields as the “experts” to help us make sense of the broad range of material we were covering. So for instance, as we discussed the issue of economics concerning the salmon fisheries, we would bring in someone from the economics department. I say it was designed by committee, but I mean that the general vision was–it was up to the two of us to figure out the logistics of it all. All told, we had 8 other faculty come into the class. We also had a visiting writer, and we all went to hear two lectures, EO Wilson at the University of Iowa and Jared Diamond at Coe College. We also went on field trips to see the landfill, the waste water treatment plant, etc. As I say, this is an exciting new model for what we can do on the block plan at Cornell (the “block plan” refers to the fact that we teach, and students take, one course at a time for three and a half weeks and then move on to another class rather than taking several longer courses together at the same time).
At the same time, though, it was incredibly challenging to pull all this together into any cohesive or meaningful fashion. It’s challenging enough for a biologist and an english professor, with their radically different world (and classroom) views, to work together efficiently, but then to bring in all of these other people adds an entirely new dimension. The course was a logistical nightmare and physically and mentally exhausted me. While I am excited by what the course represents and the potential that it holds, I will have to think long and hard about whether I will do it again. On the other hand, what this course consistently did for me was force me to evaluate and articulate my teaching philosophy and methods. I could take nothing for granted as we planned this course, nor as we taught it. Some of my thinking has changed; some of my thinking has remained the same but I have a clearer sense of the why’s. I hope that we can convey both our successes and our serious challenges to the next team to take on this course so that we can help shape it into a more productive experience for faculty and students alike. I am confident that, no matter how exhausting and frustrating this course was, it will make me a better teacher in the long run.