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Guide on the Side
Thomas Hudspeth
2002 Kidder Outstanding Faculty Award

by Kevin Foley


Great teachers get into your head. They understand you, and eventually you come to understand them. Their ideas sidle into your consciousness and make themselves at home, clearing a few conceptual cobwebs and maybe rearranging your mental furniture a bit.

Tom Hudspeth, with thirty years of experience in the Environmental Program, is no exception. This year’s winner of the George V. Kidder Outstanding Faculty Award, the campus’s highest teaching honor, has devoted his career to promoting sustainability, the practice of providing for the present without sacrificing the future. When Hudspeth works his way into his students’ minds, he might leave some train tickets, a tidy compost bin, or other ideas to help them tread on the Earth with smaller shoes.

Where he differs from many other talented teachers is in the subtlety and empathy of his approach. Some professors pace around the lectern with grand gestures and lecture in eloquent sentences that rise and fall with the cadences of the Baptist pulpit, twisting and forming into paragraphs, pages, chapters. Hudspeth calls these star professors “sages on the stage,” and he admires them. But his style is different. Hudspeth, a soft spoken man with a very large beard, borrows from the scholarly literature of his specialty, environmental education, for another description. He sees himself as a “guide on the side,” asking probing questions, encouraging thoughtful answers, and painstakingly creating an atmosphere to support students as they collaborate rather than compete.

“Watching students grow is exciting and powerful,” he says. “You see them come in as unsure 18-year-olds and then you see them graduate. After that, you stay in touch. So many of them go on to do things in the field. They become colleagues rather than students.”

Snakes and Butterflies
Great teachers are passionate. Hudspeth’s first classroom was the backyard of his childhood home in Houston, a yard that opened into a huge park crowded with turtles, reptiles and examples of all of North America’s major poisonous snake species. This state of affairs, though bad for property values, was perfect for forging a young environmentalist. Hudspeth wandered through the yard, collecting turtles and bugs, and his more meticulous brother would pore through the references to identify them.

From the backyard, Hudspeth moved to the national parks, taking advantage of a private program that placed students in park jobs. His interest in natural history and conservation gained momentum there, accompanying him to Williams College, which launched one of the country’s first environmental studies programs after he arrived. He graduated in 1970, moved on to graduate work at the University of Michigan, and landed an instructor’s job at UVM in 1972, where he played a crucial role in starting the university’s Environmental Program.

Early in his teaching career, Hudspeth often lectured in front of auditoriums, teaching the basics to hundreds of first- and second-year students. “I had butterflies in my stomach every time,” he says. For Hudspeth, teaching with lectures is like driving the interstates; you quickly get where you want to go, but lose something in the journey. While willing to take the direct route and lecture, he prefers to meander the back roads via bicycle, guiding his students through the material in creative ways, but also trading off and letting them guide each other — and himself. It’s a partnership informed by Hudspeth’s considerable experience and insistently high standards (he approvingly refers to an influential past teacher as “a confidant—and a tough coach”), but it’s genuine cooperation.

“Sometimes there’s a fine line where my scholarship ends and where my teaching and the students’ scholarship begins, and I think that’s healthy,” he says.

From developing ecotourism projects in Island Pond to field-testing new ways to teach kids about the environment at Lewis Creek, much of what Hudspeth does is integrally tied in with what he teaches. His twenty-six-page curriculum vitae lists hundreds of papers, presentations and grants; many have student contributors, or even co-authors. “It’s exciting to work with students and share my interest in things I find intellectually intriguing and have them play a role in these projects,” he says.

Outward Bound
Great teachers are flexible. Academic careers tend to narrow—the bachelor’s degree studies the entire beach, the master’s degree takes on the sand dune, and the full professor, often, peers at individual grains of sand. Hudspeth’s is different. Despite decades in academia he has, if anything, branched out.

Much of his current teaching time, and some of his scholarly efforts, are devoted to international projects, which he often pegs to travel study courses in Latin America. The traveling courses drop a small group of students into Costa Rica, Belize or Honduras for a few weeks, letting them see how a village protects a refuge for biodiversity or farms sustainably. The students share their expertise with area projects (one of Hudspeth’s classes collaborated with students from the Honduran Conservation Corps to create interpretive displays for a national park), but Hudspeth says they learn far more from the local people than they teach.

Even the landscape instructs. At a coffee plantation near Lake Yojoa in the humid heart of Honduras, students wander through a pre-Colombian site, envisioning past temples, priests, and ballfields. The class walks and imagines, and then Hudspeth takes them to a small stream, just a few inches wide. The tiny trickle of water is surrounded by a dead margin of scoured rock easily a football field in width, the legacy of a deadly 1998 hurricane. In mountainous Honduras, impoverished campesinos work poor soil on steep hillsides; most of the good bottomland is owned by corporations. When the hurricane came, the rain swept the soil down the slopes, creating massive mudslides that killed thousands. Standing on the spot, a scar slashed through lush greenery, lectures and readings gain renewed power.

“They see it,” says Hudspeth. “Globalization isn’t just a fuzzy concept there, it’s real.”

Green on Air
Great teachers are optimistic. In environmental studies, keeping the faith isn’t always easy. Reading endless articles about greenhouse gases and tropical deforestation and desertification and water pollution is, Hudspeth admits, often a depressing excercise.

He draws some inspiration from a collaborative project he’s run with students for several years. Students find individuals and groups working toward sustainability and showcase their efforts in a public access television show that debuts during Earth Week, and runs again throughout the year. Students research, interview, and produce video for the program. Hudspeth launched the show because he was tired of seeing people who reduced their ecological impact have the effort ignored or even ridiculed in the mainstream press. Having students tell the stories of “green heroes” puts them in close contact with potential role models, and lets them turn abstract knowledge into advocacy. “You can’t help but feel positive once you see how people are making a difference,” he says.

Helping students find lessons in life (and putting life in lessons), is another thing that great teachers like Hudspeth do. He expects that his students will finish their semesters with deeper appreciation of sustainability. He expects them to leave understanding how ecological responsibility, economic reality, equity and education can harmonize and help people find lasting ways to protect their lifestyle and surroundings. But education is more than that. Sometimes it is walking a class along a gash in the landscape; sometimes it is a piñata.

It’s the summer of 2001 and Hudspeth is teaching in one of the remotest parts of Costa Rica. His daughter, Bonnie, a UVM sophomore, is along on the trip, and it is her 19th birthday. The group is exhausted, sweaty, fried from a day of birdwatching, lectures and work that began at sunrise. But it’s a birthday. A party is in order. Hudspeth and the group take a box of cooking flour and fill it with candies and coins. They cover it with banana leaves, palm leaves, native plants of every shape and description. A bird of paradise becomes the head, and a local man fashions a luxuriant tail. That tropical bird piñata, a gift more precious than the usual DVD players and skis, embodied a father’s love for his daughter and the triumph of meaning over the material.

“A lot of students wrote in their trip journals what a powerful experience it was, hitting at that piñata, this gorgeous bird made of palm and flowering plants from the tropical rain forest,” Hudspeth recalls. “It was so unlike a typical birthday.”

Even though he’s a year and thousands of miles away, Hudspeth smiles, just thinking of it.

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