PC Gadflies Chide Their Own

Ashley Thorne

  • Article
  • June 30, 2009

Advocates of making radical politics the central purpose of higher education have always considered themselves change agents. They like to challenge the system and stick it to the man, finding pride in a defiant discontentment with the way things are. So it shouldn’t be surprising when these revolutionaries turn their cannons toward Leftist faculty members for not being Left enough. Two examples from today’s issue of Inside Higher Ed serve as examples.  

First, Keith Gandal, an English professor at Northern Illinois University, reproaches his fellow English teachers for not including poverty in the gambit of “issues” addressed in literature courses:

English departments have done tremendous social good by methodically studying issues of race, gender, and sexuality, good that has gone even beyond raising consciousness and changing attitudes among students; they have also made it a priority to hire minorities, women, and gays and lesbians. Can we English professors make similar contributions to addressing the ongoing poverty problem? Can we take a leading role in promoting poverty studies and affirmative action for the economically disadvantaged? Poverty is a problem, of course, that won’t go away when this economic crisis has passed, but this crisis might leave the literary profession more connected to it.

Apparently, reading books through the hazy lens of “race, gender, and sexuality” sharpens our sensitivity, but not enough. And when it comes to affirmative action, making it “a priority to hire minorities, women, and gays and lesbians” is nice but doesn’t cut it. Professor Gandal urges English departments everywhere to take the economic crisis as an opportunity to include poverty in the cloud of oppression and injustice which students must overcome.

He suggests that professors have been able to speak to matters of race, gender, and sexuality because many professors are minorities, women/transgender, or homosexual. Poverty has yet to be fully embraced because (allowing an exception for starving adjuncts) few professors have actually experienced poverty. 

Second, there’s a blog on Inside Higher Ed, updated two to four times a week, called Getting to Green. The author is “G. Rendell,” who as the initial entry explains, protects his true identity: “G. Rendell is the pseudonym of a sustainability administrator at a large private research university, an adjunct faculty member, and a farmer. He's been active in the field of sustainability, directly and indirectly, for over 20 years.” Rendell began this blog in January 2008 with the intention of tackling some of the questions raised by the campus sustainability movement—which he called “an elephant we’re going to have to eat one bite at a time.”

I recently began to notice this blog and found that G. Rendell and NAS sometimes share topics. For instance, one of his latest entries, “Developing Sustainable Faculty,” is on the new AASHE digest of new sustainability initiatives in higher education. I blogged about the report last Thursday and noted the 66 new academic programs in sustainability established by colleges and universities that have signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC). NAS views this burst of growth warily, as we have seen the harm sustainability education can do. It is often matched with grudge-fostering, anti-capitalism, and advocacy for redistribution, and it was used as the smokescreen for political indoctrination at the University of Delaware.

But G. Rendell has a different take on the AASHE review. He writes that it is “a shame” that the majority of the report focuses on new sustainability administration and operations and devotes too little space to sustainability in academics. Rendell looks for an explanation for the imbalance. Is it that colleges care more about the money-saving aspect of environmentalism than about teaching its value to students? Or maybe administrators are simply “better at tooting their own horns than academics are”? He concludes that the main reason for the disparity is that “schools haven't done a good enough job at helping teachers infuse sustainability perspectives into the curriculum.”

How to remedy this negligence? Professor Rendell recommends workshops and stipends as infusion incentives for faculty members. Workshops are especially important in business schools, where teaching sustainability “could be seen as promoting greenwashing.” Greenwashing? That’s a useful term. We’ll add that to our list of hybrid words like hangry and voluntyrrany.

Professor Rendell isn’t alone in the quest to get faculty members on board with sustainability. Peggy F. Bartlett of Emory University, whose article Peter Wood wrote about in “Enchanting Sustainability,” has established a curriculum development plan called the Piedmont Project. The Project takes faculty members to the great outdoors and introduces them to a “way of knowing” that is “separate from the rational.” Bartlett edited the 2004 anthology, Sustainability on Campus: Stories and Strategies for Change, publishing authors such as Debra Rowe whose chapter is titled, “Building Political Acceptance for Sustainability: Degree Requirements for All Graduates,” and Geoffrey W. Chase and Paul Rowland, who contributed, “The Ponderosa Project: Infusing Sustainability in the Curriculum.”

Devising cunning rewards for sustainability education looks to be the best option to motivate professors, Rendell writes. He warns against attempts at coercion: “Given the reputation of faculty members as independent-minded, mandates aren't the way to go.” Good call, G. Those pesky, free-thinking faculty members do tend to balk if you tell them what to do. And if sustainability is properly incentivized, it’s essentially mandatory anyway!  Incidentally, aren’t incentives awfully close to free market economics?

Rendell closes by asking for help:

Is there something about the way courses get developed and taught which, subtly or otherwise, discourages the inclusion of sustainability-related perspectives? Is there some incentive (short of reduced teaching load—let's stay realistic here!) that would induce you to work more sustainability issues, cases, considerations, theories into your classroom? Or, to consider the other possibility, are you already doing that and the school's just not reporting it to AASHE (so far as you know)?

So far the entry hasn’t gotten any comments. Perhaps faculty members are simply uninterested in going sustainable. Or perhaps they’ve read Steve Milloy’s new book and are persuaded that G. Rendell’s blog should be properly re-titled, “Getting to Green Hell.”

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