University of Vermont

University Communications


Teaching Mindfully

By Cheryl Dorschner Article published October 7, 2002

Stephanie Kaza
"We are all colleagues": Stephanie Kaza (center), cultivates close relationships with her students. (Photo: Bill DiLillo)

In most college courses, students are expected to answer questions, solve problems, come to conclusions, master the facts. Quite the opposite is true in Stephanie Kaza’s Environmental Studies courses, where students learn to ask questions, articulate complex, multi-faceted problems and suspend judgment.

The result is open-minded, active students who develop skills they can use to create change in their communities after they graduate.

This “not-by-the-book” approach is part of the reason that Kaza, associate professor in natural resources and the environmental program, was awarded a 2002 Kroepsch-Maurice Excellence in Teaching award, UVM’s top undergraduate teaching honor.

Kaza finds that her courses self-select a rich diversity of students. In Religion and Ecology “there were as many majors as students. It was so interdisciplinary,” she says. And Kaza finds that key to the success not only of classes but also the whole department. “Environmental Studies must have an international face in order to understand our global environment,” she says.

Kaza melds degrees in biology, education and a master’s of divinity with 30 years of Buddhist practice to create environmental ethics courses such as Radical Environmentalism, Religion and Ecology and Unlearning Consumerism. Each applies a similar template to a new topic. “Environmental Justice brings a race lens [to environmental issues]." Eco-feminism brings a gender lens, she says. "We ask in all the classes, ‘Who’s suffering? At whose expense are we getting our food, our energy, our wood products….’”

Kaza’s most recent book, edited with Kenneth Kraft, Dharma Rain: Sources of Buddhist Environmentalism, is a compilation of perspectives from contemporary Buddhist activists who look deeply at causes and solutions to environmental devastation. She’s working on a book on environmental consumerism from the Buddhist perspective.

Most writers addressing these topics are religious scholars, so Kaza finds her science background and experience are sought after in this newly emerging field.

After witnessing Kaza teach a course on Humanities and Sustainability to humanities faculty members from several colleges, Jay McDaniel, professor of religion at Hendrix College in Conway, Ark., said, “As the result of her work, several went back to their campuses and began to … integrate sustainability into their curricula…. Dr. Kaza has this effect on many. She has truly made a difference in the nation, as well as (I imagine) the University of Vermont. She exudes a personal integrity that is contagious.”

Some tenets of Kaza’s teaching:

  • "All the courses have an awakening process that’s kind of my fundamental commitment. I don’t care how many facts they learn, but if they walk away with that (awakening experience) they can use it in other arenas.”
  • “We are all colleagues — students and teachers — together working on the survival of the planet. Our knowledge is not ivory tower; our knowledge is usable.”
  • In Religion and Ecology, “I reinforced that we were not going to come up with answers — these problems are just too complex.” Instead they came up with a series of questions from different points of view. “I saw their questions as koans — can-opener questions in which a lot pops out but there are no answers.”
  • In Unlearning Consumerism, “the point of the course was to look at — not judge — what we consume and what the implications are,” Kaza says. “Students were relieved to have someone help them in this.”

Kaza stresses, “I don’t use the courses to promote my own values, but rather, I design courses to help students articulate their own values, to examine and develop them in the context of their learning.”

“Stephanie’s own religious practice and rigorous personal values-examinations give her advice authenticity and depth,” says Rachel Jolly, whom Kaza taught and advised. “Students respect her because they know that she ‘walks the talk’ in terms of living out her strong beliefs in social justice and equality.”

Kaza sees her students changing physically, spiritually and psychologically. “All college students go through life changes, but my students go through ethical life changes.” Some change their relationships, others become vegetarians. Some have a conversion experience, others find a new worldview that makes more sense to them. At the end of class they always have more friends who share their values as opposed to social friends. Kaza says strongly, “that’s important to me.”

“I’m trying to help students look at their values and articulate them in an environmental context,” she says. “I want them to be leaders. I want them to build their learning community. I try to get students to be ethically sensitive, interdisciplinary thinkers, so they will be multifaceted." Kaza’s goal is no less than to “reduce the judgmental self-righteousness of environmentalism. We can’t move forward on issues without that.”