The 20th Society for Human Ecology conference began last night on the College of the Atlantic campus. The conference is named “Ecological Responsibility and Human Imagination.” These were my remarks.
Good evening everyone, my name is Darron Collins. I am the president and an alumnus of the College of the Atlantic. I am incredibly proud and honored to host all of you and the Society for Human Ecology here on the COA campus. Before saying one more word, I wanted to thank Ken Hill and Rich Borden for leading from this end — I cannot believe 18 months have passed since Canberra, when we hatched this idea. Though many dozens of people pulled together to make this happen, Ken and Rich led the charge.
College of the Atlantic is one of approximately 2500 private, non-profit, four-year colleges in the country. It is an incredibly competitive landscape. When we describe ourselves in this landscape — to prospective students, parents, faculty, the media, whomever — we land on three things that define us within that great amalgam of institutions:
1) Our size. We are strategically small. We have sought to create a community of teachers and learners here. Being part of the community and helping to continually reinvent the community is key to the learning and teaching experience. You will, hopefully, feel that over the next few days. Our students — although only 350 strong — are some of the most dynamic, creative, and passionate in the world. They come from 35 different countries and carry many perspectives. They will be joining this conference over the next several days as Thursday and Friday classes were canceled. Better said, Thursday and Friday classes are this conference.
2) Our place. We are who we are as a college because of where we are as a college. Many of you have experienced this first hand in trying to get here. At least there’s a bridge to the island. Though we seek to take what we learn here and find relevance for it in the wider world, it is part of our mission as an organization to bring the focus and the power of the human ecological perspective to the humanity and ecology of the Maine coast. With our front yard in the Gulf of Maine and our back yard in Acadia National Park, we are a college that has imbibed the local.
3) Our curriculum. Our curriculum is centered on the teaching, the learning, and the practice of human ecology. Human Ecology is what we teach; it is how we teach; and it is why we teach. What: we seek to understand the broadest spectrum of relationships between human beings and their built, their social, and their physical environment. How: we teach human ecologically, by affording our students the power to design their own curriculum around what interests them; by asking students to think beyond and between the narrow confines of departments; by asking students to learn actively, using a better balance between hands and mind, to learn by doing. And, finally, why: we practice human ecology because we believe that the world could be better than we currently find it.
And it is on this last note that I would like to conclude these opening remarks and leave you with a thought that might stay with you throughout this conference. When we — and I mean the collective we of the college and the participants in this conference — look at the world, we tend to see it as a world askew or broken. We sometimes default to the position of understanding the world as a cluster of very complicated problems. Our role as human ecologists, we tell ourselves, is to fix these problems.
As human ecologists we may stretch; we my think and act from an interdisciplinary perspective; we may think holistically, long-term; we may embrace complexity. These are good things and significant advances over reductionist times.
But I lose sleep over the thought of understanding the world as a bunch of problems. It’s at the same time naïve and arrogant. I find myself, talking with prospective students, using the phrase — we take a “problem-solving” approach — to differentiate what we do from a classroom-centered, abstraction. Though it’s a metaphor that young students can get their mind around, it’s just not quite right.
As human ecologists, we’ve given short shrift to the “non problem-centered” or “non utilitarian approaches” within the sciences, the humanities, and the arts; short shrift to detailed, thoughtful observation as in natural history; short shrift to understanding the power of the written word to tell stories and to learn from such stories; and, most problematically, short shrift to the arts as a fundamentally unique way of interpreting the world. I think that’s one reason we wanted to make sure that term imagination rang loudly at this conference.
I’d ask that you keep that notion in mind during this conference. Specifically, of all the things you do here at the conference, please visit the Blum Gallery and see the work of Ashley Bryan. Ashley Bryan — an artist, storyteller, a brilliant observer — is the type specimen human ecologist. His work and the man himself are not to be missed. Ashley will be in the gallery on Thursday afternoon and will be joining us for lobster dinner. His work helps me unravel this koan of “how do we continue to reinvent and improve the world without seeing it as a cluster of problems.” I think he can do the same for all of us.
Thank you for your time. Thank you for being here. And welcome to the 20th annual Society for Human Ecology conference at College of the Atlantic.