Saturday, August 25, 2018

A Professor's Environmental Humanities Summer

Dear Students,

Do you know how your professors spend their summers? In a few days I will shift from my summer work to the work you're more familiar with: my work in the classroom. As you and I prepare to make that shift, I thought you might appreciate a glimpse at what I've been up to this summer. 

When I was a student I knew very little about my professors' lives outside of the classroom. They were people I saw for a few hours a week, and whom I rarely saw outside of lecture halls. Every now and then I'd see one in a grocery store or walking down the street, and it was a bit of a surprise to see them living ordinary lives. On the one hand, I think it's good thing to give my students space apart from professors. It is helpful to have some boundaries, after all. On the other hand, the way we live our lives can be part of our teaching. This is one of the advantages of study-travel courses, and it's why I invite you to come to my office for tea and not just for formal advising. I hope you will see helpful lessons (hopefully good ones!) in the way we professors choose to spend our time, and that those spontaneous and organic conversations will offer more food for thought than I have time to offer in formal lessons.

Other than the science professors who spend a lot of time doing lab research, you might think we professors are simply on vacation in the summer.  In part, you're right: we have three main responsibilities as Augie professors: teaching, scholarship, and service. And most of us are on a nine- or ten-month contract; we've chosen a life that pays us less in money than we might make in other jobs, and in return, we have significantly more flexibility with our time.  That's a nice tradeoff for most of us, and it's one of the delights of being part of an academy.While most of us do use some of that time for rest after working hard for an academic year, we also use the summer to catch up on our scholarship, to learn more, to find new resources that will help us to serve our community, and to prepare to be better teachers.

Since I teach a wide range of courses (in philosophy, classics, religion, environmental humanities, Ecology, study abroad, and more) my summer is usually spent in study. This summer was no exception. This isn't a complete list of what I did, but it'll give you the big picture anyway:

One of the lycaenids I photographed in my garden this summer. Actually a very small butterfly, but some small things can give you a big picture nonetheless, if you know what to look for.


After grading exams and Commencement, I started a week of meetings. The big picture: wrapping up the school year, and getting ready for the next. Meetings may not sound appealing, but we tend to get a lot done that makes the rest of the school year possible. This is also often a time when I get to meet with alumni, community leaders, and people who need my help with various projects. File this under "service," I suppose.


The first week: I taught a weeklong graduate class in philosophy for our Sports Administration and Leadership Master's program. This was an intensive 40-hour seminar on Plato's Republic and Augustine's Confessions. We discussed a number of things, like the roles of a leader; the difficulties of knowing anything with confidence and of making decisions when one doesn't know with certainty; and the important place of sports and playfulness in the ethical development of individuals and communities.

The second week: As soon as that class ended I hopped on a plane for Sweden, so I could participate in the EAT Forum in Stockholm. This was a remarkable experience, unlike any academic conference I've attended. EAT is a non-profit based in Oslo that aims to make science-based changes in the world's food systems. The EAT Forum is a place to meet and network with a number of influential, thoughtful people from diverse backgrounds, with the aim of making sure everyone on the planet has access to safe, sustainable, healthy food. They aim high, and I found the experience to be very helpful for me as a teacher and practicioner of sustainability; as someone who researches salmonid fish (salmon, trout, and charr, especially); and as someone who aims to improve our policies concerning those fish and their habitats. Three highlights of this Forum: (1) I met people I wouldn't likely meet anywhere else, mostly working on fishing policy; (2) The presentations were well-crafted, all of them aiming to teach briefly and to introduce a positive possible solution to a well-defined problem; (3) Chance conversations with people like Shafinaz Hossain, a woman from Bangladesh whose Business professor gave her an assignment: go home and look for a problem no one has solved, and regard it as an opportunity to start a business that helps people. What a great assignment! And what an impressive solution she came up with! (Well done, Shafinaz! I'm glad to have met you!)

The third week: Shortly after getting home from Sweden I was on a plane again, this time to Chicago, where I spent a week with 25 scholars - mostly religion professors - and with Dr. Eboo Patel and Dr. Laurie Patton. Dr. Patel is founder of the IFYC, and  Dr. Patton is a scholar of religion and President of Middlebury College. This was a seminar put on by the Council of Independent Colleges.  If all I did this summer was the EAT Forum or this week in Chicago studying Interfaith Understanding, it would have been a summer well spent. I learned a lot (ask me about it!) but here are some highlights: (1) Again, I met people I wouldn't have met otherwise, and that in itself is valuable; (2) rather than teaching how religions can debate one another, this seminar helped me think about how we can help our communities bridge differences without diminishing the importance of faith traditions and theology. To put it in the terms of my own tradition, it helped me to think about how to love my neighbor as myself. That's a vast oversimplification, so look for more from me about this in coming months. I'm really grateful for this opportunity to be a student learning how to help other students.

The fourth week: I had a little downtime at home, but not much. More meetings, and preparation for a long trip in July. I packed up my little Subaru with books and camping gear and started driving west.

The first week of July I spent studying Alaska Native Law at the University of Montana Law School in Missoula.  No, I'm not an attorney, and I probably won't become one. But when I can, I audit law courses on environmental law in order to be a better teacher, scholar, and pre-law advisor.  A few quick facts to help you see the complexity of the matter: there are 229 different tribes in Alaska; Alaska is the largest state in the United States, but one of the smallest by population; and the history of how the federal government has dealt with Alaska Natives is quite different from the way that history developed in the contiguous 48 states. Want to know more? Take my classes! Once this class ended, I was back in the Subaru, headed south.

The next two weeks were spent in Boulder City, Nevada, a city that was built as a home for the workers on the Hoover Dam.  I was there on a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute on the Hoover Dam. We spent two weeks working in archives, touring the interior of the dam, visiting sites of importance around the dam and in the Lake Mead and Valley of Fire parks; hearing lectures by experts from around the country; and reading and discussing historic documents and scholarly works about the dam, water, the desert, Native American history, geology and geography, and much more. As with just about everything else I've mentioned so far, it's hard to summarize all this without doing a great injustice to the value of this Summer Institute. Instead, here are a few more highlights: (1) As before, the people. Dr. Anthony Arrigo and Dr. Michael Green, who led the Institute, and the 24 other scholars from around the country who attended with me are some of the best parts of the institute. (2) Not much can beat direct experience for learning. As Aristotle said, 
 “Lack of experience diminishes our power of taking a comprehensive view of the admitted facts. Hence those who dwell in intimate association with nature and its phenomena grow more and more able to formulate, as the foundations of their theories, principles such as to admit of a wide and coherent development: while those whom devotion to abstract discussions has rendered unobservant of the facts are too ready to dogmatize on the basis of a few observations.” Aristotle, De Generatione et Corruptione, 316a5-10 (Basic Works, McKeon, trans.)
Let me assure you that when you're studying the history of the dam and it's 115F outside, you have a better understanding of how the workers who built that dam (often in heat up to 140F!) suffered. (3) I spent a lot of my time researching the environmental history of the place, focusing - as is my wont - on fish and insects.

The fourth week was a little more relaxed: my wife flew to Nevada from a meeting she had in California, and we drove home together, visiting some National Parks (my first visit to the Grand Canyon!) and some favorite places in New Mexico, where I did my first Master's degree at St John's College. We didn't take too much time on the road, since I had the privilege of helping to officiate at the wedding of two beloved alums in the Augustana Chapel of Reconciliation. This is one of the joys of teaching: we get to watch our alums live and grow, and sometimes we get to participate in that growth in delightful ways.


I'll spare you the week-by-week of August, and instead I'll tell you some of the other things that have made my summer rich. 
Family: I probably spent too much time away from home this summer, mostly as a result of having an abundance of good opportunities that only come around occasionally. It has been good to spend August at home with my wife and sons. 

Reading: For most of the summer, I've read about a book a day.  If you wonder at that, then you should ask me how I do it. I'd be glad to teach you. Or have a look at this Twitter thread, where I give a quick overview.

Observing: If you follow me on social media, you know I like to look at the small things in nature. I learn from experience, and it is my hope that when we post simple images on Twitter and Instagram we are producing a searchable phenology database. Anyway, feel free to see some of what I have seen this summer here.

Tending my garden: This is both figurative and literal. Two months away from a garden allows a lot of weeds to grow, so my literal garden has needed work.  There is great value in working with one's hands, especially if one's main job is theoretical and based in an office. I like growing some of my own food. As preparation for the coming year, I've also been catching up on home maintenance that I've had to put off during the past school year; and I've been making time to reacquaint myself with natural areas around Sioux Falls where I intend to do some more environmental studies teaching and research this fall. 

Getting ready: I've been meaning to write this blog post for a month, but much of the month has been spent preparing syllabi, working on new projects, finishing up old ones, doing scholarly writing, and many other small things.

Sustainability: the last thing I'll mention is that I've taken on a new role at Augustana, that of Director of Sustainability. I've only been at this for a few weeks, so I''m still figuring out what this will mean for the coming year, but the short version is that I am looking forward to developing some new academic programs in Environmental Studies and Sustainability, and to making the whole campus culture and our practices more sustainable. What does that mean? Short version: I want our descendants to be glad we lived as we did, and I want us to be glad, too. This is another version of "love your neighbor as yourself." Want to know more about this? Let's talk.

When you get back to campus, (or if you're new to Augustana) please feel free to come by for a cup of tea or a quick chat. I look forward to hearing about the new things in your life.

Wishing you all joy in the new academic year,

Dr. O'Hara