During this year as a teaching assistant for the Environmental Program's introductory courses, ENVS 001 and ENVS 002, I have worked on improving my teaching skills through journal writing. Before and after every lab I would take a few minutes to write about what I wanted to do and then how it went. From this journal I have chosen a series of snapshots to share my journey with you.
Planner, organizer, listener, learner. What will it all be like? I'm nervous! I was an Environmental Studies 1 student only two years ago. How much time will it take? What will my responsibilities be? Three hour labs. How will I ever keep 15 students interested? What if they won't participate in discussion? Will I be correcting papers, exams? Field trips. The Living Machine? "It's a new, all natural, waste water treatment plant on Shelburne Road." Oh. What do you mean, nobody gives tours on Tuesdays? Bioregionalism... Sure, I know all about that. Well, maybe not three hours worth. Do you know any name games? What are you going to do on your first day? We have a T.A. retreat on Saturday at Ian's house to figure it all out.
Role model, teacher, field trip guide, learner, first impressions. The first day, I'm excited and nervous! For how many of you will this be your first semester at UVM? "What are we doing today?" Lets start out by getting to know some names. Oh yeah, I spent part of my summer right near there. "Did you have time to explore Acadia?" "Are we going to be here until 5:30?" Is everyone clear about attendance and grading? Get your stuff, we are going down to Centennial Woods. "But its rainy!" Has anyone been there before? "How can you tell that this used to be a field?" "How come there aren't any animals in here?" "Is this big enough to be an ecosystem?" "I tried to sit and think, but that airplane, the highway and those power lines..." "I watched a squirrel bury a nut. It didn't even notice me!"
Facilitator, interdisciplinarian, disciplinarian, interest sparker, assistant with course material. Lots of material to cover. I'm overwhelmed! It's a beautiful day. Hand in your reflection papers and we'll go outside. "I forgot mine." Open to your class notes and pick one concept from the lecture that you are unsure about and pick another that you can teach us. Lets count off to see who reviews which lecture. Eleven. Who's missing? "I wasn't there on that day." "Oh wow, this is exactly what my poli-sci class was about!" Last week's discussion on bioregionalism—can someone connect it to our tour of the Intervale Composting Project? ...Anyone? Nice. Who can tell us what "carrying capacity" means? Good. Does everyone understand "tragedy of the commons"? "Is this going to be on the exam?"
Idea generator, provider of safe place for discussion. Pollution, biodiversity, desertification, population, Koyanisquatsi. Today, we talk and talk and talk. I'm excited! Great to see you here today. How have you been? "That was intense!" What was that about? "Do you think we can really make a difference?" "It is just so overwhelming." "Is that really true?" "I feel helpless." "What can I do about global warming?" A life-style change is something that you can stop or begin doing that will benefit the environment. "Yeah, but it's bigger than that. Can't you all see...?" I made these multiple choice questions during lecture. Lets each try to make two more; then we can quiz ourselves to help prepare for the exam.
Peer, friend, supporter, cheerleader, problem solver. We all have learned so much. I'm proud! Working together as a group to prepare a meal at my house, rinsing out the recyclable cans and separating plastics as well as paying attention to how much water is used washing dishes. Talking about A Diet for a New America, the upcoming final exam, labs and field trips from previous weeks, and concerns about current environmental issues. Reminiscing about the activities and the games played on the first day. We are friends even with some tensions between us. We are peers together for a potluck, connected by this course and our growing concerns about the environment. "Thanks so much, Jesse." I smile as I watch them leave and realize that while I have been working all semester to give each of these students something, I am actually taking away from this experience more than I had ever imagined possible.
I walked with hesitation into the busy downtown Manhattan restaurant. A group of UVM'ers happened to be passing through New York and we had arranged to meet for the evening. Among them was a former student I had T.A.'ed six years ago. I was embarrassed to admit that I couldn't quite remember what Kimberly looked like.
There had been nothing to worry about. I recognized Kimberly instantly, and after the perfunctory greetings we found ourselves back at UVM, reminiscing about old times. Did I remember how upset and overlooked we'd all felt when our small group failed to convince the Mock Earth Summit to choose even one hot spot from Costa Rica? What about Stephanie's mindfulness bell? By the way, what was Justin up to these days?
By the time I got up to leave two hours later, I felt full and refreshed, and I knew it wasn't because of the food. That's when it hit me what a gift it had been to have had the opportunity to be a teaching assistant for the Environmental Program.
Being a T.A. for ENVS 1, 2, and then 100 prepared me more thoroughly for graduate school, at Syracuse University in Speech Communications, than almost anything else I did as an undergraduate. I remember how surprised I was to learn that most other incoming graduate students were lucky if they'd had an opportunity to teach even a single class period. As for myself, by the time I'd started graduate school I'd had almost two years of teaching experience. They say that if you want to learn about a subject, learn to teach it; it's true!
For three years now I have been a full-time instructor of speech and debate team coach at the University of Richmond. I teach classes in the Department of Speech Communication, including a course called "Environmental Communication." I also advise the Earth Action student environmental group. Recently, I was appointed Conservation Chair of the Sierra Club's "Fall of the James" chapter. My experiences as a teaching assistant gave me the background and the confidence to allow me to be the best teacher and scholar that I can be. I love teaching.
Additionally, the connections I made with faculty and fellow students as a teaching assistant were some of the most educational and fulfilling experiences of my undergraduate career. Plus, being a T.A. gave me inside access to precious faculty contact. I remember being one of the few in my graduating class who could find faculty familiar with me enough to write persuasive recommendation letters. Not only did I not struggle, but I had the luxury to decide between many!
Yes, these are all exceptional reasons for choosing to be a T.A. But as I stepped into the streets of New York on my way back to catch the train, I must confess that my mind wasn't on a single one of them. I wasn't thinking about the career advantages, nor was I focused on the financial benefits of the job. My mind was wandering to the people I had met and the experiences that I had shared. The potlucks and grading parties and going contradancing with my professor—these are the experiences that stick to my ribs. Mmm! What delicious memories!
The leaves were just beginning to turn. It was my first semester at UVM, away from my Kentucky home. Fresh from a graduating class of 33, I had a lot of adjusting to do. My ENVS 1 class was filled with the overwhelming number of 262 students. I remember thinking that I wouldn't do well in such a large class, one in which I might easily be considered a number.
But then I found myself at Huntington Gorge with 15 classmates. Brian Thompson '98, my ENVS 1 lab T.A., took us on a field trip there. We explored this waterway that most of us had never seen or heard of before. He also brought us to Lake Champlain's Lone Rock Point to see the thrust fault, a geologic phenomenon, and to the Living Machine in South Burlington, where we saw, firsthand, sewage water cleaned with plants instead of chemicals. Best of all, to celebrate our last meeting, we went to an organic food store then made dinner together at Brian's friend's house.
Having had such an unexpectedly great experience in my ENVS 1 lab, I eagerly anticipated ENVS 2. Anna Borofsky '98, my assigned T.A., did not let me down. Whereas Brian's lab was a comfortable introduction to place and community, Anna's lab was about involvement and action. She invited us to her home to watch footage of a rally held in downtown Burlington, protesting U.S. involvement in the Middle East. Anna was one of the protesters. For the first time, I realized that protests weren't just a part of my parents' generation.
Near the end of the semester I participated in a protest on Church Street against Nike's socially irresponsible sweatshops. With three other students I worked on a final project focusing on sweatshops for our ENVS 2 Earth Summit.
Aside from the exciting activities my T.A.s planned, Brian and Anna gave me the opportunity to get answers to questions about the class lectures and academic choices. I learned that I can take action on issues that are important to me and that even in a class of over 200, I'm an individual, not a number.
For 28 years the Environmental Program has helped students realize their potential to make a difference. The strength of the program lies in the diverse interests and passions of our students. As we did in the last issue of the Bittersweet Vine, let us celebrate a bit of this diversity.
Peter's intense love for the outdoors and his experience with TREK, the wilderness orientation for new students, drives his interest in outing club activities. Developing his leadership skills through the Outing Club's Wilderness Instructor Leadership Development (WILD) Program, Peter plans to lead Outing Club trips of his own. He dreams of guiding mountain biking expeditions—an activity that the Outing Club currently doesn't offer. This initiative will help diversify Outing Club programming.
Peter rides with UVM's Cycling Club which went to Collegiate Mountain Bike Nationals this year. Cycling provides Peter with yet another outdoor outlet and fosters his ever-increasing commitment to preserving the environment.
Her decision to study the environment sprang from a nature interpretation class she took her first year at college. Since then, Jen has been Maine Guide Certified (which allows her to lead people on trips in the Maine Woods), and has worked teaching outdoor living skills to 6-8 year olds. She also participates in the Maine Gifted and Talented Festival of Creative Youth where she has taught marine biology and beachcombing to children. This summer, Jen hopes to develop her own basketry course for the program using local resources.
Ultimately, Jen would like to spend her summers working in a nature center, and the rest of the year working for The Nature Conservancy or the Audubon Society. She hopes to get people involved in the environmental movement, facilitating the empowerment of "individuals as part of something larger."
Much of Jen's inspiration comes from the Shaker people whose last living community is located in her hometown in Maine. She feels that their belief in simplicity and disinterest in material wealth help to encourage an integral connection between the individual, the community and the land. Following her basketry course this summer at the Festival of Creative Youth, she hopes to work with the Shakers in their herb production business.
Michael's concern for the effects of capitalism in developing countries, and watching his New Jersey hometown turn into a "highway town," has increased his desire to promote local economies. As a result he declared a cross-college small business minor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Michael is passionate about music, and is currently absorbed with the idea of minimalism. Having played the guitar since he was nine years old, he now plays the piano and mandolin as well. His minimalist approach to music—something he applies to all aspects of his life—involves "taking away all the added, superfluous ornaments and musical clichés...finding the real music within the music." Michael plans to spend this summer playing the local music circuit.
Environmental studies, for Michael, is about getting rid of the superfluous ornaments of mass culture, and putting energy where it is most needed, where it means the most to him.
Justin worked for the Student Conservation Center (SCA) in the summer of 1997 at Acadia National Park in Maine, where, among many other tasks, he assisted rangers with leading interpretive nature walks, and where he also studied the "carrying capacity" of overburdened carriage roads.
Interested also in politics, Justin volunteered for the Burlington Progressive Coalition two years ago, where he helped on the "Bernie campaign" with David Zuckerman '95. He hopes to do that again this fall.
Combining his interest in politics with the spirit of environmental activism, Justin is designing a thesis that involves sustainable urban transportation. What will follow? Justin says, "Probably some travel and then on to graduate school to continue with a similar focus on sustainable transportation." What drives Justin? "The motto that I adopted from my father: 'Results, not excuses.'"
Sarah's interest in teaching was first sparked when she worked with Cher Feitelberg's 4th and 5th grade Pease Mountain Stewardship Program. Sarah worked with the children to develop a nature trail guide, mark perimeter trees, and maintain the trails. She found Cher's method of interacting with children to be inspiring, and central to the definition of her own goals. (See Bittersweet Vine, Winter 1996)
As a junior Sarah interned at Shelburne Farms where she lead field trips for elementary school children who came to learn about forest ecology, aquatic wildlife, farm animals, and broader concepts of environmental stewardship.
Sarah's dedication was heightened this past summer when she worked with the College of the Atlantic's Summer Field Studies Program. She used Acadia National Park as her classroom with children of all ages, and taught everything from tree identification to marsh succession. Here, Sarah's teaching skills were challenged by several blind children with whom she developed very close relationships.
Following her graduation in May, Sarah's plans are still undefined, but she expresses interest in exploring adult education.
When Brook Kastelic '97 and Nell Downey '98 were required to choose a senior 202 project, they immediately knew what it would be—a student-run food cooperative and cafe that would provide a socially relaxed and artistically charged atmosphere for UVM students.
The cooperative, they planned, would rely on local food from organic farms, thereby offering fresh, healthy food, and educating students and the larger community on the importance of sustainable agriculture and regional economy. Nell says their project involved "creating an organization to bolster community spirit while offering a vegetarian menu alternative" and that it was primarily "an investigation of feasibility." They conducted a survey of the student body and UVM faculty, that revealed "a real student demand" for such an establishment.
Brook and Nell also visited Oberlin College in Ohio, where nine various cooperatives are run. The two seniors began to piece together a co-op model that might prove viable at UVM, a co-op that would work with our already-established meal plan "point system" used for payment in the dining halls.
Inspired by the invention of their plan, Brook and Nell campaigned for the acceptance of the "Greenhouse Cafe" throughout the UVM campus. Their idea gained support from the Environmental Council and recognition by the Student Government Association (SGA). So that their project would sustain momentum after they graduated, the two seniors assembled a small but enthusiastic group of ten students.
Although well fueled by aspiration, the co-op plan came to a grinding halt. UVM/Marriot Food Service Director, Richard Rianni, explains, "Marriot has an exclusive contract with UVM and all rights to be the only food source on campus." In Brook's final project document, she notes, "Despite his responsiveness, Rick Rianni is a businessman at heart, so his (and Marriot's) primary motives are profit-driven."
So where did the vision go from there? This past year, Justin Francese '99 and Kate Marvin '00 have led the group's attempts to increase other campus associations' (such as Vegan Society) awareness, and lobby for assistance from Residential Life to help them locate space for this operation. Marriot's agreement with UVM will be reviewed in year 2000. The co-op crew hopes that changes will be made in the contract so the cooperative will be welcomed on campus.
"Food would be treated as something healthy, environmentally-friendly, and over which we want to have conversation, not as just something we have to grab between classes," says active co-op member, Mark Isselhardt '99. Mark and other members talk of a central place where poetry will be read, artwork displayed, speak-outs organized, and acoustic instruments played.
The Greenhouse Cafe group is a good example of students coming together from across the university—from Business to Biology, Environmental Studies, and Natural Resources— to collaborate on a project sprung from a senior ENVS 202 project. The next two years may be pivotal for the Greenhouse Cafe as decisions regarding Marriot's contract will be made. If you would like to be involved, contact: Kate Marvin, (email@example.com), or Mark Isselhardt, (firstname.lastname@example.org).