Environmental Self-Studies: ENST reviews its performance on campus

Environmental Self-Studies: ENST reviews its performance on campus
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The Environmental Studies (ENST) Program is going through its regularly scheduled self-evaluation on how they are contributing to the Whittier College curriculum. A self-study must be completed every few years to examine what is working well, what needs to be adjusted, and any staffing changes. Afterwards, they turn that information over to the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), who look at the data to determine if the program is in compliance with their standards, as well as accredit the College. The Environmental Studies Program is participating in their self-study as expected, but has had a high amount of staff turnover since their last review. 

One of the things that makes Environmental Studies unique is that it is not an independent major, it is a track within the Environmental Science (ENVS) major. Both have a shared core, with many of their classes overlapping. “What we aim for in this overall program, environmental science and environmental studies, is to prepare scientists . . . to communicate science effectively to people and to prepare environmental studies majors who are likely to go into policy to understand the science underlying the policy,” said Environmental Science Coordinator and Professor Cheryl Swift. “So, we want scientists who can communicate about policy, and we want policy people who can communicate about science, so that’s the structure of the program.” 

This shared core is especially relevant today. With the Trump administration not placing any emphasis on environmental science, it is more important than ever to have informed environmental scientists who are equipped to communicate their knowledge with policy makers. “I think the scientific community figured out real fast that, after the election of Trump, we have to be able to communicate our science really effectively,” says Swift. “The U.S. administration makes it very clear that we have people who are making policy who are not listening to scientists and don’t understand science.”

The Environmental Science major is part of the Biology department, and the main difference between ENVS and ENST is that ENVS professors are hired through Biology, while ENST is an interdisciplinary track. ENST has to borrow professors from other departments to instruct courses related to Environmental Studies. “It’s tough because they have to serve their department needs as well as Environmental Studies needs,” said Swift. “That creates a conflict because they need to be teaching courses that aren’t necessarily environmentally focused.” Professors hired to teach a specific subject have what is called a dedicated load, where they must commit a certain amount of courses to the curriculum per semester. “There is nobody on campus who was really, actually hired to teach environmental studies,” said Environmental Studies Coordinator and Sociology/Anthropology Professor Sal Johnston. There was a professor with a dedicated ENST course load, but they have since left, which has caused problems in the major. “The issue for a major is, are you teaching the courses that need to be in it for the major to have integrity? So there are courses about environmental studies, but the self-study has to look at [if] we have a collection of courses that adds up to a major,” said Johnston. “For instance, the core for Sociology: there’s a lit review course, a theory course, a methodology course, and a two-semester senior seminar. So you’ve got a really well-developed core around methodological training. At the moment, that kind of training doesn’t exist for environmental studies.” 

Many of the professors who teach in the ENST track across other departments have left or are retiring, leaving gaps in the curriculum that need to be filled. However, because ENST is not a department, it cannot hire staff. Replacement professors will be hired; however, it is unlikely they will have an ENST focus. “There’s no guarantee,” said Johnston. “Dan Duran [teaches ENST courses, but] is in Business, and Business, understandably, no criticism at all, is going to primarily think about their needs before they think about us.”

On a small campus, interdisciplinary cooperation serves an important purpose and helps make the overall curriculum more well-rounded. However, this makes it difficult to have a stand-alone program. 

“Interdisciplinary programs always have that difficulty of not having the anchor that a traditional major does,” said Vice President for Academic Affairs Darrin Good. Good feels that interdisciplinary programs suffer because, unlike other majors on campus, there is not one building that houses the department. 

“Interdisciplinary majors like environmental studies don’t have a physical location that all the faculty are at,” said Good. “[Another] issue is you don’t have faculty who are assigned just to that [discipline].”

One solution Environmental Studies programs across the country have implemented is teaching environmental literacy across the curriculum. “By analogy, part of what happened in the ‘80s in higher education was that there was a lot of pressure to not just have Women’s Studies programs, or Race and Ethnic Studies programs, but to integrate the analysis of race and gender into core curriculum,” said Johnston. “That it should permeate the curriculum, not be a set aside thing that if you’re interested in you go and do.” 

At a big university, it may be easier to have an entire department designated towards Environmental Studies. “Particularly looking at a small school . . .  I think, in some ways, the saturation approach would be more effective,” said Johnston. “For one, it would guarantee all students exposure and literacy, and it also solves the staffing problem because it consciously grounds environmental education in existing departments, rather than putting strain on everybody by trying to run a separate one.”

However, dissolving ENST is not a likely solution at this time because any changes would go through the Educational Policies Committee and would require changing the LibEd requirements. No decisions have been reached at this time. The ENST program has nearly completed their self-study, but it has not been presented to an outside reviewer or to WASC yet. The Quaker Campus will continue to report on this story as it develops.