In my environmental ethics class, I give students a quiz designed to gauge awareness of the places where we live: Do you know where your drinking water comes from? Where is your landfill? Try to name five native trees. Which spring wildflowers are first to bloom where you live?
Few students can answer these questions about IU and Bloomington, and faculty generally don’t perform much better. It’s no wonder: universities are populated by people who come from “somewhere else.” Most of our students hail from regions beyond, and their residency here tends to be ephemeral, even seasonal. Few faculty members—at any university—can claim to be natives of the places where they teach and conduct research. We are, by and large, a rootless bunch.
Our collective rootlessness can create a sense of detachment from our natural and built environment. It also stands in peculiar tension with the fact that large public universities like IU are key repositories of local history and a sense of place.
Some of Bloomington’s oldest and most interesting buildings are found right here on our campus; IU’s famously wooded grounds are an important part of its heritage, as is the local limestone from which many of our buildings are constructed. Not just a place of aesthetic and historical interest, our campus is our greatest asset: a vast living-learning laboratory where students and faculty can collaborate on sustainability research and work together to “green” our campus operations—energy, computing, food, water, transportation, and recycling—while fostering a deeper attachment to place.
As IU nears its 200th birthday, we are guided by a Strategic Plan that acknowledges sustainability as a core value, and place-based education as a priority.
To help make these plans a reality, the Office of Sustainability, together with a diverse cluster of faculty from across the disciplines, convenes an annual Sustainability Community of Practice workshop.
This year’s program commences on Monday, May 11 with a special panel discussion of “Teaching Sustainability: Partnering across Disciplines for Place-Based Learning.” The panel will be held in the IMU University Club from 9-10:30 a.m. and is open to all.
The event highlights the valuable contributions to sustainability and sense of place made by all disciplines and academic units. For example, how does a professor of apparel merchandising address Indiana’s greenhouse gas emissions? How might a religious studies instructor design a lesson plan around the Jordan River? What does coursework in human biology have to do with kindergartners growing vegetables on school grounds? How does the mission of the IU Research and Teaching Preserve overlap with course objectives in studio art?
You may be surprised.
Sustainability is fundamentally about interconnection and integration—integrating disciplinary perspectives from seemingly disparate fields of study; connecting the classroom to the natural and social systems beyond; knowing the distance your food has travelled, where your garbage goes when it goes “away,” or how the Jordan River got its name (be thankful it’s not called Spanker’s Branch anymore).
These vital connections are being forged in a new Bachelor of Arts degree in Environmental and Sustainability Studies at IU. They are fostered through faculty fellowship programs that support interdisciplinary course development and innovative teaching. They are strengthened through monthly “green bag” lunch discussions of sustainability teaching and community engagement.
These initiatives are part of the core mission of the IU Office of Sustainability and its burgeoning Community of Practice, an ever-expanding cohort of teachers and researchers committed to sustainability at all scales, from local to global.
As IU prepares to enter its third century, we should remember that sustainability is also about linking the past and present to the future. The future of IU is brighter because of the connection we feel to this beautiful place and its unique heritage.