Archive for the ‘environmental studies’ Category

Farmer John Update

August 19, 2009

Awhile back I mentioned that “Farmer John” Peterson, the head of Angelic Organics and the subject of “The Real Dirt on Farmer John” will be visiting us at Cornell. At the time, though, I didn’t have all the details. Well, it took awhile to figure it all out, but we have finally got the details hammered out. So….

We will be screening the documentary at 7 PM in West Science Hall, Room 100 on September 11. This is free and open to the public. After the screening, John will join us for a discussion. He will possibly be joined by some other local organic farmers, most likely including Laura Krouse who, besides running her own CSA, taught at Cornell for many years (she is, as she notes, one of the few people who leave other jobs to farm full time).

I hope to see you all on September 11!

“Farmer John” to visit Cornell

July 28, 2009

I’m in the process of lining up visitors for the next year at Cornell and I’m happy to say that I’ve just lined up a visit from John Peterson, the founder of Angelic Organics and the subject of the film “The Real Dirt on Farmer John.” If you haven’t seen this documentary, I highly recommend it. John grew up on a family farm in northern Illinois. After his father died, he took over the farm and in the 1960s (after being introduced to a world of artists at Beloit College) worked to make it an arts community as well as a farm. Like so many, though, his farm succumbed to the decline in small farms in the 1980s. He sold off almost all of the land and machinery and traveled and wrote. He later returned to the farm to give it another try, only to find his conservative neighbors didn’t want him there because he had the gall to be “different.” He was accused of being a satanist, a drug runner, a deviant etc and the farm went into decline again. But John persevered. With persuasion from people in Chicago who were hungry for organic foods and some connection with the source of their food, John turned the farm into a Community Sponsored Agriculture farm and it is now one of the largest CSAs in the country, providing healthy food to over 1,400 families,  with an impressive learning center and farmer training and biodynamics education program as well. It’s a great story of community as well as a great story of individual perserverance and dedication to a life of farming and connection with the earth on John’s part. Details of John’s visit are not set yet, other than a visit to my Amerian Nature Writers class, but I will update this when it is all set.  He will be on campus on September 11, and I think this will be an evening not to miss. In the meantime, check out the Angelic Organics website and/or watch the documentary (it’s depressing at times, but in the end it will give you hope about our future).


Team Teaching

March 5, 2009

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.

Scott Russell Sanders

February 23, 2009

Since I’ve been at Cornell, I’ve hosted quite a range of visiting writers. On the whole, these have proven to be wonderful events and I’ve managed through the program to meet some great writers. Last week’s visit by Scott Russell Sanders, though, really was one of the best events we’ve had.

In my introduction to Scott, I told the following story: about 10 years ago I was in a program at the Loft in Minneapolis called the Loft Mentor Series.  Each of us in the program had the opportunity to work with four nationally known writers over the course of the year. We also worked during the year with a local writer who offered continuity to the program.  That year, the local mentor was Barrie Jean Borich.  At the time, I was trying to figure out what it meant for me to be a writer, what it was I thought that writing should do.  In that context, Barrie said to me, “You really should read Scott Russell Sanders’ work.” She gave me a few essays and I was hooked.  The honesty, the generosity of spirit, and the clarity of vision in his work was incredibly important for me and has shaped what I think writing can do.

Hearing him read last week (and getting to talk with him when he visited an Environmental Studies course I am currently team-teaching) confirmed everything I already believed about him. His is an essential voice in contemporary America, and his voice and vision are as clear as they have ever been. Sanders’ nineteen books include novels (Bad Man Ballad, Terrarium) and collections of short stories (Wilderness Plots, Fetching the Dead), and most importantly, literary nonfiction (The Paradise of Bombs, Hunting for Hope, Staying Put, Writing from the Center). The most recent of his books, A Private History of Awe, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. I had not yet read Awe, but I have just started. He also read from his forthcoming book, A Conservationist’s Manifesto, and I’m really looking forward to spending some time with it. So, I guess I’ll just put in a plug here: if you don’t know Scott’s work, you should. Read it now. You can also learn more about him at his website here.

scottrussellsandersphoto by Robert Scheer