Faculty Spotlight Feature: Walter Poleman - HCOL 196I, "An Ecological Approach to Living Well in Place"
To begin, would you say a word or two about your academic background and research interests?
I am an ecologist by training, but really more of a 'field naturalist.' Whereas ecologists do a lot of modeling and theoretical work, as a field naturalist, I study organisms in their natural settings, which places a greater emphasis on observation and description. The angle I take is what I call integrated field science, which includes making use of not one but many different disciplines. As for my academic background, I did my undergraduate work at Cornell, and will be completing my PhD in Natural Resources at UVM in October.
And your research interests?
I work in what I call, 'place based' education. In basic terms, I study the landscape, and try to develop an integrated understanding of why a particular landscape looks and functions the way it does. For me, the combination of landscape and community is what makes a place. I make use of the disciplines that you typically find at the University setting, and break down the place I am studying into, say, its geology, soils, vegetation, wildlife, and human land-uses. I do this with the idea that once we have a place broken down into its constituent parts, we can learn a lot from reintegrating the whole back together. What is most fascinating to me is that when you do reintegrate culture and landscape, you see that they are inextricably tied together, and that the divisions between the two are artificial.
What appealed to you about the Honors College to want to offer a course in the college?
To have a group of highly motivated young folks, who get to choose the seminars they want. I must say has been one of my best teaching experiences at UVM. I just read their final essays and it has been great to be able to reflect on what they are reflecting on. I realize that the students who select the course filter out by interests to some degree, yet the beauty of the HCOL seminar is that it brings together students from all different interests, who have at least a theoretically curiosity about place and the environment. Having a small group of highly motivated students interested in the topic, allowed me to experiment with teaching the course in ways that worked well with this group.
And is the course you are currently teaching, An Ecological Approach to Living Well in Place, specifically designed with the Honors College in mind?
Yes it is. I wanted to take some of the tangible natural system analysis skills involved in my own work, and to have my students make use of them in ways that would be transferable to their daily life. So in the same way that I described the research I do, I looked at the class as an exercise in reintegrating ourselves back into the natural systems that we are tied to. It is easy to feel disconnected from our places, we sleep there, and it is where our houses are without taking it much further than that. I had just written a paper on ecological design as applied to education, which the students read, and so the central question of the class for me and my students became how we can take an ecological approach to educational design and what would it look like. With this question in mind, we undertook the challenge together of finding an answer, and while the students were not completely co-creators of the course, they had a lot to say in what we did.
So I gather that the idea of 'living well in place' points for you in several directions: 'well,' as in 'good' or 'comfortable'; or 'well,' as in 'healthy.' Do you mean 'well' in one or both connotations?
On the one hand the idea of living well in place has this keen sense of feeling comfortable in and connected to and knowledgeable about the place where we are. In terms of the seminar, getting my students to understand what that feeling is became one of the major learning objectives of the course. For many of the students it would be the first time thinking about the trees, about the wildlife habitat, about the human history of the landscape. For most, it would be the first time thinking about how we can read the landscape this way. I did teach a course called "Promoting Ecological Literacy" and the title of my Honors College seminar derives from a book written by David Orr, a professor of Environmental Studies and Politics at Oberlin College, and a James Marsh Professor-at-Large here at UVM. He does work in ecological design, and in his book, Ecological Literacy, written in the 90's, he defines ecological literacy as "the art of living well in place." To me, living well in place has to do with understanding both the ecology of a place, and the impact we have upon it, and it upon us. So it is about understanding the ecological principles as they play out in place and then applying the fruits of our understanding to living in a way that not only promotes our own health but the health of the systems of which we are a part.
So 'health' would be part of your definition of 'living well in place'?
Yes, if we live well in place it fosters our physical, mental, and spiritual health. At the same time, if we are living well we are inseparable from the system and are not degrading its health. So there is a reciprocity, a sense of indebtedness, that is very much a part of living well in place. I asked the question as my final assignment of the semester: "What does it mean for you to live well in place now?" And they wrote some beautiful essays where they had their own definitions of what the 'practice' of living well in place would look like?
In your course description, I see that one of the things you do is to get your students outside the classroom. "Using Chittenden County as a stage," as you say, seems to be a major component of your course. Could you speak about that?
I wanted to have a level of student activity in the class which would be in large part student directed. We decided that we were going to not only study a place in the community, but also involve the community in some way as well. We choose as our site the Calkins Natural Area in South Burlington, a large track of land with a variety of natural features bordered by human habitats. We visited the site early on during the coldest part of the winter, and did some tracking to fix the place in the student's minds. Then, for the last month, the students formed groups and dedicated themselves to exploring some area they felt passionate about. One group chose to study the wildlife on the site; another undertook a sugaring project, making use of the large cluster of maple trees in the center of the plot as their classroom. A third group studied the wetlands. A fourth researched the history of the Calkins Natural Area. Another created a geocache, which integrated the cultural and natural histories together with the trail systems and posted it onto a web site, where already it has been accessed by several people from the community who appreciated learning about the cultural history of this place where they have walked their dogs so many times.
So by packaging their learning and passing it on to the community, the work the students did had both what I call an emergent and regenerative quality to it. Emergent in the sense that what the students did over the course of the semester was shapted by their interests and the ecology of the places we studied; and regenerative, in that the product of their efforts would find use value within the community, as has already happened with the geocache, and will continue on the website constructed by the class to make their work available to the public.
If I can backtrack for a moment, you mentioned earlier that having a group of highly motivated students allowed you to experiment with teaching the course in ways that worked well with this group. Could you say more about how you experimented with the course?
Some of how I experimented I have already mentioned. But I can add this. At the beginning, the class was a little unwieldy because I not only wanted to do a systems approach in looking at a certain place, to see how economics and food systems, for example, fit together with others such as transportation, and psychological; but also wanted to take a systems approach in thinking about our education. I meant for the course to be something other than me lecturing in a classroom. I would still bring people in from other disciplines, ecological economics, or sustainable food systems, but because our classroom was going to be the community, we would be doing everything from going over to the Davis Center to get an inside view of the food systems there, to going out to Huntington, Vt. to visit with one of the authors whose books we read, Amy Seidl, who is really trying to live out this idea of what is an ecologically approach to living well in place.
Could you say a word about her, and perhaps how her work connects to yours and the course?
She is close observer of natural systems and wrote a book entitled, Early Spring: an Ecologist and her Children Wake to a Warming World, which she just published. Our students were the first to read it. Her approach is to observe the 'phenology,' which is to look at the unfolding of the seasons in a particular place. In her research, she monitors what is happening with climate upon budding and bird migrations and the recurrence of such annual events on a local level. I had my students do a parallel project to hers where they immersed themselves in the same location every week and observe the seasonal changes as they unfolded and to journal about that. So it was great for them to read this book by someone who was looking at the same things they were but at the town level. For it got them to think about how climate change plays out locally, and to think about its impact upon them rather than watching videos of polar bears and so forth. And to meet and talk to her about her work became for them a very personal and valuable object lesson.
So all this is by way of saying that the approach I had taken was an experiment, to take a systems approach to education by using the landscape and people out there as essentially the mentors and the touchstones for the course. And because the relationships between the two were unknown at the beginning, I did not know what they were going to be or how they would turn out at the end.
To what extent are you making use of technology in your course?
The course was an interesting mix of natural history where the students were out there using observational skills that are important to ecology, observing, reflecting, and writing; but when it came to doing spatial analysis and recording patterns, being able to utilize technology became invaluable. I wanted them to be familiar with publically available mapping software like Google Earth, which is terrific for expanding the context and sense of the place that you are studying. And it is equally the same with the use of GPS, where being able to find a long eared owl and GPS that point and look at a map later and see where it was seen. Or to map a trail system, or to take it to the whole next level of doing a geocache where the community can be engaged, these projects become possible utilizing technologies like Google Earth and GPS.
To be able to map the landscape and to share it by embedding it within an interpretative web site is a powerful legacy to leave a community. By doing so, you are not just providing a report that sits on a shelf, but an interactive document that is immediately available to everyone. So when the two members of the South Burlington Planning Department attended the students' final presentations and gave them direct feedback, they were getting it from people who were going to use what they did. We call this service-learning, in which I am a firm believer, and what the students were engaged in I call 'high stakes' learning. When students are working with the community, it usually raises the quality of the product they create, for they realize that the potential to screw up on some level will mean more than just affecting the grade they get.
One final question. The subject matter of your course raises questions about real world issues of concern to us. From the point of view of your seminar, what do you see as the single most pressing issue facing us today?
There were certainly lots of environment issues that the class considered, but for me the class was about deepening the quality of relationships and creating a particular educational design that would foster that result. I think I succeeded to some degree in creating a learning environment focused upon relationships, with the primary one being the individual's relationship to where they live. But more than that was the deepening of relationships with each other in the class. While some in the class may have struggled with their group projects, for them to have a class environment where they could explore with and learn from others to me was critical. One of the most important aspects of living well in place is the sense of happiness a person feels being connected to others, and the same holds for the students in the class. In terms of a systems approach, I felt that together we were able to design an educational program where by leveraging the relationships that were already there, we were able to deepen them in ways that had both a synergistic and regenerative quality about it: synergistic in the sense that a single class ends up essentially benefiting more than just the students there; and regenerative, to the extent that the benefit for the students would last longer than the fifteen weeks of the seminar. For me, the work that the class did was deeply educational and the students' energy and accomplishments affected me in a way that makes me want to do more of the same.
Last modified June 30 2009 03:07 PM