Human Ecology: A Grand Experiment

Last month a group of COA faculty and I attended the International Society of Human Ecology (SHE) meetings at the Australian National University in Canberra.  280 people from 28 nations attended the gathering. I decided to focus my talk on College of the Atlantic’s understanding and approach to Human Ecology — not as a body of knowledge, but as a way of knowing and problem solving.  The talk and the event went really well.  SHE’s next gathering will happen on the COA campus in October 2014.

Branding Human Ecology for Higher Ed: A Talk at the Society for Human Ecology Conference

By Darron Collins ’92, PhD, President, College of the Atlantic
February 5, 2013 – Canberra, Australia

Thanks to Rob Dybal and all the conference organizers for putting this spectacular event together. It’s my first SHE conference and I’ve been looking forward to it since I began my new job at College of the Atlantic. Thanks also to ANU for hosting. And, finally, thanks to my colleagues at COA, especially Rich Borden, who’s helped me think through many of these ideas.

Wow, the Pacific Ocean is big–so big, I had the opportunity to fiddle with my title and insert the word branding in my presentation somewhere miles above New Caledonia. I’m aware the word “branding” makes academics queasy. But brands can be powerful things.

My reason for coming to this conference is that I’m concerned about where higher education is going in the US (and here I’d like apologize for my US-centric perspective and also point out that when I say “college” I mean “university”)

I want us to imagine a role for Human Ecology in helping steer toward a new future and I think branding just might help out. Rosie the Riveter changed hearts and minds: Human Ecology can as well.

I’m hoping to play a role in all this from my position as the president of the College of the Atlantic. Just a bit of history to start:

COA wouldn’t be what it is in the context of any other location: we are blessed with beauty and inextricably linked to place. We’re on the coast of Maine, five hours north of Boston, on Mount Desert Island. MDI was once a thriving summer community in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The country’s most influential artists, intellectuals, politicians, and entrepreneurs all came up to MDI in the summer among year-round lobstermen, scallop and ground fishermen. The summer community was torn apart by the depression, the Second World War, and a devastating fire in 1947.

In 1968 a local businessman and a very progressive catholic priest conceived the idea of a college. The businessman wanted to revitalize the summer and year-round communities. The priest had said too many funeral masses for boys coming home from Vietnam and was at the same time frustrated by the environmental devastation unfolding in front of his eyes. COA was founded in 1969 to take on these social and environmental challenges.

The first class arrived on MDI in the fall of 1972. They were an amazing group of intrepid explorers: half-a-dozen staff, a half-dozen faculty, and about three dozen students looking to expand the boundaries of higher education. Faculty from that time say there were as many dogs in the class as students—and the dogs were also very attentive.

Ed Kaelber, a former dean at the Harvard School of Education, led the group as president. Ed wrote a prospectus for the college and I refer to it all the time. The lines that jump out at me are these:

“The term experimental college has much currency. It is unfortunate that we have to resort to this phrase; it should be a redundancy. Any college that is not constantly seeking new ways of doing things is only half alive. College of the Atlantic expects to be experimental in the best sense of the word. We will not be bound by tradition nor will we make the assumption that because something is different it is automatically better.”

Given today’s higher education growing pains and the tremendous price that’s being charged for tuition, there’s an unfortunate tendency for colleges to equate “maturity” with becoming rigid and unresponsive.

One of COA’s biggest successes as an institution has been avoiding that pitfall for four decades. One of my biggest challenges as president is to continue to innovate and experiment.

We’ve remained experimental by staying small (we have 330 students now), staying department-less and tenure-less, by demanding a flat hierarchical structure, and insisting upon continuous self-assessment.

We’ve also continued to innovate by maintaining our curricular center of gravity on the practice of Human Ecology. Human Ecology can improve upon how higher education evolves. Coming to more of a consensus around a definition and a brand will make it more powerful.

COA students, almost invariably, arrive on campus thinking about Human Ecology like this: as an area of study, like Russian or Botany, and often land on human ecology as “the relationship between humans and their environment.”

Up until this point, life for too many students has cemented the idea that you come to college and declare a major, graduate after a bucket of knowledge has been passed to you by experts in a field, and then you go off using that bucket of knowledge in a job for forty years, and then retire.

The world doesn’t work like that. So, though students find their own meaning of Human Ecology, it’s important that students first unlearn the idea of Human Ecology as a discipline. But for many reasons (including parents and donors), it’s not enough to say what Human Ecology isn’t. We’re asked to define it honestly and without dumbing it down. That process helps in branding.

We’re landing on a working definition that’s a platform for our work at COA and helps communicate our ideas to the outside world and more suspicious audiences:

“Human Ecology is a perspective that cultivates self-direction; a method of problem solving that emphasizes transdisciplinarity; a way-of-knowing that balances hands-on with minds-on learning; and an educational philosophy that inspires purpose and values.”

For this talk I’ve interviewed four COA alumni. Each one helps me flesh out one of the four elements and shows how—as artists, scientists, humanists—they are also human ecologists and highly effective practitioners of their own craft.

I’d like to start with Amy Toensing. Amy graduated in the early nineties and is now a successful photographer. Although she shies from the title, she’s a National Geographic photographer and will have a new story coming out in the magazine this June, on Australia. I’ll admit, part of why I chose Amy was because there was a time in my life where the idea of being a National Geographic photographer was about the coolest idea in the world. I also knew that if I choose Amy, I could feature her brilliant photographs.

When I interviewed her she told me that, more than anything else, at COA she learned to be a storyteller and that no matter what you do in life, storytelling will be an essential element of success. I’d go even further and agree with my colleague John Anderson and say storytelling is elemental to being human and therefore storytelling puts the human in human ecology. Here, Amy tells a story of two brothers on the isolated island of Monhegan in Maine, each with a portrait of the other hanging over their bed.

Another of Amy’s photos tells of a man from Papua New Guinea who tells his story by the flowers in his beard. Amy developed great skills as a storyteller, but for her COA was exceptional because it cultivated self-direction, even though her direction was circuitous. She was encouraged to poke and prod at her own passions and interest and develop a curriculum around those issues working with a team of advisors.

In a final photo of Amy’s, Somali refugees in Maine, tired of following hijab, escape to a department store and don dresses, never leaving the changing room.

Amy started at COA as someone who wanted to be an outdoor educator; her interests evolved into biology and then agriculture. During a class with a faculty member in biology, during a pot-luck dinner at that faculty member’s house, the two were discussing food security on an island further off the coast. Amy spoke of an image she had from that island, when the instructor said, “Go photograph it.” The real magic occurred when her biologist advisor then encouraged her and provided direction for Amy to continue her exploration of photography. There was no turf war and no typical jealousy or ego on the faculty member’s part. Amy’s story also explains that “following passion” is not a random, willy-nilly taking of this and that class, but a thoughtful, guided, example of self-direction.

A second aspect of what we’re doing when we do human ecology revolves around transdisciplinarity, and for this, I interviewed a public school teacher named Ben Macko. Ben teaches eighth grade math and here we see Ben graphing equations with a group of students. Ben works in the context of a public middle school – which is particularly challenging and inflexible. Ben will also eventually be my own daughter’s math teacher, so I thought interviewing him would be a great way to scope him out.

Ben graduated ten years ago and is quiet, smart, and very thoughtful. It may be a less sexy job, but it’s every bit as inspirational as Amy’s and he’s equally as accomplished. In Ben’s interview, he focused on how the college cultivated his passion for kids and for art. Here’s a sculpture by Ben. Where Amy followed a segmented but singular path, Ben followed two paths simultaneously and was encouraged to do so.

Ben requires his students to think of mathematics outside of the context of math. An equation for a golden spiral becomes a golden spiral from the world around us. Ben emphasized to me that there’s nothing new about using art or nature or every day life to discuss the application of mathematics. We all remember “word problems,” a painfully boring example of that.

But Ben’s approach goes beyond that: For Ben, art and mathematics are iterative. He asks students to toggle between the methodologies of math and art. He actually begins the process of acquiring mathematical concepts by cultivating student curiosity in art. You can see student projects hanging in the back where he began the year asking students to doodle; to draw; to let their mind wander.

Eventually Ben guides students to understand art through mathematics, understand mathematics through art, and discover new knowledge entirely. The importance the US gives to standardized tests makes it very difficult for other teachers to work like this and they wind up teaching to the test.

Ben’s students excel as people and excel on exams because Ben and his students discover new depth in the subject matter and new ideas through transdisciplinary thinking. There’s a lot of talk these days about the importance of STEM education—both in Ben’s classroom and at COA we want to move that acronym to include art and make it STEAM.

Third, there’s the importance of hands-on learning in human ecology. Greg Stone graduated in 1981 and is currently the executive vice president for oceans at Conservation International. Greg grew up wanting to be Jacques Cousteau, much in the same way I grew up wanting to be Indiana Jones.

Greg’s love for the ocean was spawned in the ocean and when it came time for college he was one of those kids who said, “I want to be a marine biologist” and started out at a large university known for that subject. After the first month, Greg hadn’t stepped foot in the Atlantic, was confined to the classroom, and promptly left and left frustrated.

During Greg’s first COA class he found himself in a boat designing a piece of humpback whale migration research using fluke patterns. His frustrations dissipated. Classes weren’t generally in class; there were no textbooks but sets of peer reviewed papers; faculty members weren’t talking at you, but were thinking through problemswith you. Greg said to me, “It felt like a graduate school for undergraduates because it was so problem-focused.”

But what Greg kept hammering on during my interviews was how important the “doing” was. There was a craft involved in his work, not unlike an arborist or blacksmith. Some of that craft is mental, but a lot is kinesthetic—like diving, small engine repair, building, landing a boat, storing specimens, drawing, doing what might in essence be called field work.

Greg’s success comes from his experience as a maker, a doer, a builder of tools, techniques, and thoughts for tackling the challenges that plague our oceans. But it gets lonely on the ocean floor. Greg’s good at what he does also because he recognizes that success in marine conservation depends as much on social science as marine science. He also “does” marine science as social science. Luckily he is as much at home working on the ocean floor as he is working with this man, the president of Kiribati in the Phoenix Islands—who is himself equally adept at fishing with a hand line as he is with running a small island nation. Greg’s skills as a doer and a human ecologist have helped drive the creation of the Phoenix Island Protected Area, which, with an area of 408,250 km2, is the largest marine protected area in the Pacific Ocean and the world’s first deep water, mid-ocean marine protected area.

Fourth and finally, we approach the more nebulous element of our definition, which centers on the cultivation of purpose and value. For this element I used myself as subject matter, because in addition to being COA’s president, I’m also an alumnus from the class of 1992. (I believe strongly that self-deprecation goes a long way in a presentation and if there was ever a self-deprecating photo, this is it.)

My story began as a high school student and as the first kid in my family of Irish immigrants to go to college, it begins with my dad and me making that trip of college visits. We started at Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey, and I didn’t even get out of the car. We went to Princeton – that would have made Dad very proud, but it wasn’t for me. We went to Bowdoin in Maine because we had both heard it had a great outdoors program. It was a beautiful school, but something just wasn’t right. I turned to Dad and said, “There’s this other school I’d really like to see – it’s three hours further up the coast. Can we go?”

I’ll never forget the moment he dropped me off at COA. It was magical. Almost immediately I could tell something was very different about the place. One of the most important differences was that everyone—students, faculty, staff, trustees, wanted to be there at COA; nowhere else. They had their own sense of mission, and a very definite sense of purpose.

It was obvious that students weren’t at COA as a right of passage their parents or peers coaxed them in to. Students arrive at COA predisposed to a certain kind of value- or purpose-driven way of life, but the experience itself cultivates purpose.

I came across a good example of this just before the holidays when I had the chance to take these students and drop them off on an Island 20 kilometers southeast of MDI. They wanted to understand the ecology of offshore islands in winter and were worried about the impacts of offshore wind development. The idea didn’t come from the faculty; it came from them. They were giving up Christmas and New Year’s holidays to do this, and they were excited to brave some serious conditions out there.

Here they are on drop-off day. We tried to hang around, but they were ready for us to get on and leave them to their project.

I received this letter a few days after Christmas from one of the students. It concludes with:

“The adventures we are having have been so enriching, experiential and magical. We are constantly learning new things. I just wanted to say thank you so much. You are such a supportive president and having you excited and involved with our journeys is so wonderful and helpful. It means so much to us.”

I don’t read that to pat myself on the back (although it’s been the proudest moment of my presidency so far), but I read it to demonstrate the degree of thoughtfulness and purposefulness there.

As a human ecologist and president, I’ve discovered my own purpose: first, build on what we do best at COA and second, take what we know really works and inject that human ecological thought and practice elsewhere, in other institutions.

I’ll never forget a discussion I had with a mentor when I first started the job. He asked me about goals and I immediately spoke of the quality of our graduates.

“There are over 4,000 universities in the US and I bet every single one of them has at least a handful of great graduates. Graduates are a given. What else?”

I then told him about this four-part curriculum, but ended with, “Hey, it’s not for everyone.”

He almost jumped out of the phone: “No, no, no!! Never say that. It needs to be for everyone. This curriculum is in fact what as many people as humanly possible need. ”

And he was absolutely right.

So when you look at the current situation in the US, there’s a lot of change unfolding. It’s not an easy environment, but it can be an environment that spawns innovation. We’ve seen a trend toward for-profit institutions and the flowering of massive open online courses, MOOCs. The later are being championed because they are free, not because they are great.

MOOCs may help democratize education, but we are in a heap of trouble if they or for-profit schools become the default for higher education. I feel strongly that if we do our job right here at this conference and beyond and begin to think about human ecology in light of a brand which includes these four elements, that human ecology is a far more robust, useful, and critical tool for the brave new world of higher education than MOOCs.

            How we do that is a much more difficult question. Yes, it will take policy change. And it will take new money. And it might take a completely new educational structure. But at the core it takes people and that’s why I’m at this conference.

When we think and act on one of the conference’s themes “re-inventing the future” one of the ways to re-invent must be through getting these four thematic elements of human ecology inserted into a much higher proportion of colleges and universities. Thank You.


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