2010 Kidder Award: Professor Robert Manning
Release Date: 04-27-2010
Bob Manning, whose research helps the U.S. National Park Service manage preserved recreation spaces from Maine to California, is the university's 2010 recipient of the George V. Kidder Award, a teaching honor bestowed by UVM's Alumni Association. (Photo: Sally McCay)
The moment Kevin Jordan '04 fully realized he'd made the right choice in selecting UVM from the nine schools in his college search didn't occur in the Green Mountains, but a couple of thousand miles away in the red canyons of Utah. Studying in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, Jordan was among the fortunate undergraduates who land summer internships with Professor Robert Manning and his team in the Park Studies Laboratory. His summer of 2002 was a memorable one, spent surveying visitors to Zion National Park and in his spare time hitting the trails. One particular jaunt stands out -- an excursion with Manning, his wife, Martha, and a backcountry ranger through a challenging slot canyon route known as "The Subway."
"Where else but UVM could I have the unique experience of hiking a famed hike with one of my professors who just two semesters before was testing me on Aldo Leopold, Edward Abbey, Rachel Carson, and other great environmental writers," Jordan recalls. "It was on this hike and thereafter that I viewed Manning as a friend and as a peer rather than as an instructor or as a supervisor."
Teacher-student mentorships that start in the classroom and grow into close bonds in the field are typical memories for Manning's former undergrad and graduate students. Many of them added their voices of support in backing the professor's selection for the university's 2010 George V. Kidder Award, a teaching honor bestowed by UVM's Alumni Association.
On a warm April afternoon, the students in Robert Manning's 2010 spring semester Parks and Wilderness Management course aren't asking for anything so grand as a hike in Zion. Just a sunny spot on the Green would do. But the professor is having none of it. Manning acknowledges that it is, indeed, a fine day for outdoor recreation -- but that can wait until 5:15, the class's end. Until then, there's work to be done, discussion of issues at the heart of Manning's ground breaking and prolific career as a researcher -- questions of how best to manage national parks in the face of high user demand.
Case in point: Cadillac Mountain at Maine's Acadia National Park, one of Manning's key research sites, hosts as many as five-thousand visitors to its summit on a typical summer day. Some ten thousand feet tromping across delicate alpine tundra presents the very real possibility of loving the place to death.
As he weaves his own research into the discussion and encourages the class to consider the issues and suggest their own solutions, Manning is precise and emphatic, his hands gesturing in synch with his words. While he smiles and jokes often, there's something military in his bearing. Fit with close-cropped hair, one senses that despite his genial manner, Manning could possibly ask a student to drop to the floor and knock out 25 good push-ups.
"To me, the key principal is that intensive use requires intensive management," Manning tells the class. "To think otherwise is being hopeful, but naïve."
When Manning considers his growth as a teacher across his 33-year career at UVM, he notes that it has taken time for him to become comfortable in front of a classroom. "I envy a lot of my colleagues who it seems like teaching comes more naturally to them. They're more extroverted by the very nature of their personalities. They're probably a lot smarter. But I try to make up for that with hard work."
Manning says that work sometimes means stepping outside of his comfort zone, becoming something of an actor at the chalkboard. "If I need to wake up the students by ranting and raving about something, I can make myself do that. I can ham it up. I think some of my colleagues see me do that and think, 'That's not you, Bob!'" he says with a laugh.
Manning traces his interest in a career connected to the national parks back to his time in the late 1960s stationed with the Coast Guard in San Francisco. On free weekends, Yosemite National Park beckoned, putting Manning on the path to a life in which there is enviable little difference between what he does for work and what he loves to do.
Though Manning has visited and conducted research for many national parks -- these treasures filmmaker Ken Burns calls "America's best idea" -- Yosemite has always retained a particular place in his life. He spent a sabbatical year there in 1998-'99; six years ago he and Martha hiked the John Muir Trail's 220 miles from Yosemite Valley to the summit of Mount Whitney. And, yes, he's been asked his favorite place many times. Manning will take Yosemite's high country.
The seamless mesh of Manning's professional focus and personal interest is matched by a similar blend between his research and teaching. It's difficult to separate the two, particularly evident in the team approach of the Park Studies Laboratory.
Peter Newman G'02, a professor of natural resources at Colorado State University, has a vivid memory of traveling with Manning to research planning meetings at Yosemite during his graduate student days at UVM. After a full day of classes, Manning saw the cross-country flight as the perfect time to work over the first draft of Newman's dissertation proposal. "After three hours of talking about word choices, organization, etc. we made it through the dissertation. At the end of this lesson, there was more red pen on my paper than typed words," Newman recalls.
The pair touched down in San Francisco at midnight then started the drive toward the Sierras. "Though grueling, I look back on that trip with admiration and inspiration," Newman says. And though their relationship is now that of colleagues, he adds, "I still shudder when I see his erasable red pen dangling in his pocket."