Years ago I came across the book Teaching as a Subversive Activity written by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner in 1969. In what was coined the inquiry method, they advocated for a student-centered approach to education, driven by the art of asking critical questions, a drive to solve big problems, and a confidence to step into the unknown. One of the chapters on “The Medium is the Message” includes a list of unspoken truths of most classroom settings. They include, “Passive acceptance is a more desirable response to ideas than active criticism”; “Discovering knowledge is beyond the power of students and is, in any case, none of their business”; and “Recall is the highest form of intellectual achievement, and the collection of unrelated ‘facts’ is the goal of education.” It’s the sort of sarcasm that’s funny at first, until you realize they’re hitting all the right nerves.
I’ve spent my teaching career trying to avoid such pitfalls; actively working to create a learning environment that is problem-oriented, inquiry-based, community-partnered, and ultimately empowering for our students. My teaching philosophy is that we learn by doing, inquiry, and engagement. My approach to learning-by-doing is informed by over two decades of developing the transdiscipline of ecological economics. In ecological economics, we don’t have one hammer for which every problem looks like a nail. Instead, the aim is to allow the problem to define the approach, to bring to the table disciplinary and experiential knowledge as required, and to test assumptions against one another. For example, I’ve wrapped our introduction to ecological economics class (ENVS 141) around numerous problems and partnerships, each with their own mix of approaches and outcomes. One class engaged Vermont high school students in climate action planning through organizing a Vermont Youth Climate Summit. Another designed a statewide, crowd-sourced film project to document visions for Vermont’s energy transition, resulting in the General Assembly’s declaration of March 21st as Vermont Energy Independence Day. And one of my early courses in ecological economics published the first state-level estimate of the Genuine Progress Indicator, an alternative to Gross Domestic Product. This work was recognized by UVM’s inaugural service-learning award, and through sustained student effort led to the Vermont GPI law. Project steps, exercises, and examples of this problem-based approach to teaching ecological economics are summarized in our workbook published by Island Press.
These outcomes certainly blur the lines between teaching, research, and service, and have each emerged from a commitment to learning by inquiry. Postman and Weingartner ask “What’s worth knowing?” and argue that students will take more ownership of their learning if given the opportunity to ask and answer their own questions. For example, my graduate course in ecological economics is designed around a series of inquiry milestones. Doctoral and masters students propose a research topic, draft an abstract, outline a paper, build an annotated bibliography, present to their peers, and submit final papers to professional meetings and journals. My role is to mentor, guide, and critique along the way. In a similar approach, I had the opportunity to redesign the Rubenstein School’s junior-year core class addressing integration of science, society, and policy (NR 205). After framing a set of complex problems that are strategic to our school’s research portfolio and partnerships, students work in small groups with graduate student mentors to pitch, formulate, research, and ultimately write and present an integrated research proposal. We can teach through cases on how others have integrated across the natural and social sciences in our school, but we can also create a structured learning environment where students actively integrate by posing questions and seeking answers on their own. The risk of frustration and failure is certainly higher in the latter, but the rewards from learning by our mistakes is usually worth it. Inquiry also leads to questions about the self, including identity, cultural biases, social status, and privilege. A “subversive” activity inspired by inquiry is to uncover and confront some of our most deeply held beliefs. These learning opportunities abound when groups break down, questions lead to more questions, and students confront and overcome the limitations of the classroom in building the so-called “soft skills” of conflict resolution, cultural competence, and systems thinking.
In a problem-oriented, inquiry-based environment, learning by engagement can then take many forms. Engagement with the subject matter occurs by asking questions and discovering knowledge. Engagement with each other through team building and problem-solving builds the skills to flourish in an ever-complicated society. And engagement with communities beyond the walls of academia can be the most transformative of all. My courses have partnered with government (e.g., Senator Sanders, VT Legislature, City of Burlington), non-governmental organizations and advocacy groups (e.g. Lake Champlain Basin Program, Vermont Natural Resources Council, Vermont Public Interest Research Group), and the private sector (e.g. Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, TruCost). A partnership with 25 organizations and over 80 collaborators is the foundation to Economics for the Anthropocene, an ambitious graduate training and research project. And long-term relationships built through travel-study courses in the Dominican Republic is an example of full engagement, from identifying community needs, building financial and human resources, implementing projects, evaluating outcomes, and starting over again. Through the creation of Fundación de Libertad with UVM students, faculty, and staff we’ve confronted head-on institutionalized racism and exploitation of Haitian migrant communities. UVM students have helped to build homes, a health clinic, municipal water supply, and a community farm through fundraising, classes, and internships. And a 2006 pilot project with Grassroots Soccer in HIV/AIDS prevention education (originally pitched to me by a group of our students) is today a countrywide program run by youth from our primary community partner of Batey Libertad.
Ultimately my teaching philosophy is to empower students to change the world for the better. I often ask undergraduates: “What’s the purpose of the university?” The more common replies are: “to make money”, “to train a workforce”, or “to appease parents”. Certainly part of the answer is an individual, dollars-and-cents return on investment for our students and their families. But when I brought up aspirations found in university charters of discovering truth, educating citizens, and solving social problems they often give me a “wow, isn’t he naive” look. Perhaps, but as one of my favorite writers Ursula Le Guin has said, “There are no right answers to wrong questions.” In the end, I hope to inspire the courage to ask the right questions, even if they lead to uncomfortable answers.