Examining the Environment

By Marci Deshaies Woodmansee ′90
Photography by Justin Fox Burks


Jennifer Sciubba

How did Columbus’ arrival in the New World impact the native population? What happens to the environment of an area when you start building parking lots? In what ways can population, disease and technology impact war, power and sovereignty? What does "national security" mean from an environmental standpoint?

Students at Rhodes are getting the opportunity to tackle these complex issues and many more through a newly expanded Environmental Studies program—all made possible by a major grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

With the Mellon Grant providing more than $500,000 over the next three years, Rhodes has created an interdisciplinary course of study that crosses humanities, natural and social sciences and greatly enhances what began as an Environmental Science minor in the natural sciences just a few years ago. Students are now exploring aspects of ecological anthropology, environmental archaeology and the politics of pathogens, to name just a few new topics of study, under the guidance of three faculty fellows whose appointments were funded by the Mellon Grant award. The new Environmental Studies program helps position Rhodes as a leader in the national higher education conversation on the environment, and is another area of study in which the college can take full advantage of its urban location.

"Our faculty has created three postdoctoral positions emphasizing environmental policy, which adds both depth and breadth to our program, along with teaching experience in a liberal arts environment for humanities Ph.D.s," says Rhodes President William E. Troutt. "The program plays to our strengths in interdisciplinary learning that crosses traditional departmental boundaries. The timing is ideal for Rhodes as we implement several new initiatives that continue to integrate academic and experiential learning, and we are very grateful to the Mellon Foundation for this support."

According to Michael Drompp, vice president for Academic Affairs and dean of the faculty, the Rhodes faculty is due the credit for successfully winning the prestigious grant, and the newly expanded Environmental Studies program is already building bridges in terms of uniting different disciplines.

"Our History, International Studies and Anthropology/Sociology departments are hosting the new postdocs at Rhodes," explains Drompp, "but the program has the potential to impact students across an even wider variety of disciplines and courses of study. It is really exciting because it’s such a broad-based initiative. The new courses are intended to appeal to a great number of students, not just those who want to minor in Environmental Science."

Biology Department professor David Kesler, who helped develop the original Environmental Science minor and who will direct the expanded interdisciplinary program, agrees that it is an ambitious effort.

"For years, before the [Environmental Science] minor was created, we sputtered along trying to put together some sort of an environmental program," he says. "I was quite pleased when we adopted the philosophy of first building on our strength in sciences with the Environmental Science minor. I believe that successful program was an important component in our proposal to the Mellon Foundation."

While the new Environmental Studies courses have interest for students in a wide variety of disciplines at Rhodes, the History, Anthropology/Sociology and International Studies departments are particularly happy about welcoming new faculty fellows in their specific disciplines.

With a Ph.D. in history from Georgetown, faculty fellow Tait Keller is guiding students in the exploration of the development of human society and the ways in which human experience is lived in an ecological context. Jennifer Sciubba, who has her Ph.D. in international studies from the University of Maryland, is sharing the most compelling aspects of her work at the Pentagon and helping students explore what she describes as her broad, nontraditional view of international relations. And with a Ph.D. in anthropology and minor in paleoecology from the University of Minnesota, Rob Lusteck brings a distinctly archaeological perspective to students examining ecological and anthropological aspects of environmental issues.

"When we were offered the chance to apply to host one of these postdoctoral fellows, it made perfect sense to me try to bring in someone with an interest in environmental archaeology," explains Anthropology/Sociology chair Susan Kus. "Rob is teaching students about ecological anthropology, which examines how other cultures—particularly those we’d consider indigenous to their particular area—understand their environment and their place in the larger ecological scheme. He’s also an archaeologist, so he brings an understanding of how people through time lived in this area in North America—and a historical and prehistorical perspective to how humans and the environment interacted with one another here."

For History Department chair Gail Murray, the fact that the Environmental Studies courses are bridging natural sciences, social sciences and humanities fits well with Rhodes’ emphasis on a liberal arts experience that produces articulate, well-read, engaged citizens.

"Environmental historians are asking some of the most cutting-edge questions in the field of environmental studies," Murray says. "These scholars confront questions about the development of industry, the use of natural resources, the history and politics of consumption and the relationship of science and technology to society at large. They examine urban planning and suburban sprawl, and the interaction between cultural values and the setting in which we live. The histories of these pertinent areas are often absent from current debates, but to understand where we are environmentally, we need to know what political, social and ethical decisions got us here."

Like his colleagues in the History and Anthropology/Sociology departments, International Studies chair Steve Ceccoli is excited about the opportunity Rhodes has to continue offering an innovative interdisciplinary curriculum for students.

"Recruiting new faculty members in our departments has allowed us to bring together scholars from diverse fields and enable them to share their insights," he says. "I expect that this opportunity will create several excellent synergies, many of which we have not yet anticipated."

All three postdoctoral fellows point to the opportunity to teach in an intimate liberal arts environment as one of the deciding factors in accepting their appointments at Rhodes. The chance to shape a new course of study was also part of the appeal.

"Carol Ekstrom, David Kesler and others have certainly laid a solid foundation for the new Environmental Studies program, and seem to have successfully drummed up a lot of interest and support for it," says Jennifer Sciubba. "Now it’s up to us to bring our own unique perspectives and talents and see their vision through."

Sciubba plans to do just that through her ecological politics course, which challenges the notion that international relations is all about states, bombs and money. Her Pentagon research on population and nontraditional security will be equally interesting for students wishing to explore feminist and environmental perspectives on national security.

"I hope to show students that there are multiple ways of looking at the world and that there are other issues just as important as war and power," she says. "I also think it is important to connect to the local community so that students can feel that what they are learning is tangible. There are international issues in Memphis, such as refugee communities of people who were forced away from home by environmental and political issues, and there are local connections between pollution and poverty that mirror what’s going on in less industrialized countries. There are many commonalities, and by looking at what is happening right here, students can better understand what is happening abroad."

The opportunities to connect to the local community will undoubtedly have great appeal for Rhodes students, who are already well-known for putting theory into practice and testing classroom concepts in real-world settings.

"If you’re going to study the environment, you have to be out in it!" Keller says with a laugh. "I think these new courses are not only an excellent addition to the curriculum, but also a great opportunity to do work beyond the Rhodes College campus. One example is sustainable development on the Memphis riverfront and all along the Mississippi River. I think our work in Environmental Studies will have a part to play in that. There are also some pretty serious environmental justice issues here in Memphis that we can examine. One of the ways Rhodes can really set itself apart compared to similar programs is by capitalizing on our urban environment in exploring such issues. I think that will really appeal to the kinds of students who come to Rhodes."

Sciubba agrees. "Having a strong environmental program here, situated in Memphis, allows us to plug into the community and demonstrate that there are people in the area interested in green issues," she says. "That makes us a part of the movement, not a city left behind."

Lusteck echoes these sentiments in describing how Environmental Studies will make a difference at Rhodes and beyond.

"One of the reasons this program was funded was that people are becoming more aware of environmental problems," he says. "For example, in Tennessee, there are several EPA-designated Superfund sites (an uncontrolled or abandoned place where hazardous waste is located, which can possibly affect local ecosystems or people). There are all sorts of environmental changes that can happen with everything humans do, and sometimes they can be fairly catastrophic. Often you will see people in some degree of power who have stepped on little people and caused areas of environmental degradation that have negatively impacted the lifestyle of the less powerful segment.

"With society’s increased awareness of certain environmental issues, it’s a good time to examine other cultures and the ways they approach the environment," he continues. "We teach 20 students, and we hope they go out and teach 20 more. I’d like to help create a strong Environmental Studies program here by teaching young people to be aware of these issues, so they can use that knowledge in their future and try to fix these problems."

Kesler says it is critical to pull out all the stops in tackling today’s environmental problems.

"Why is this program important?" he asks. "Because it’s critical that we expose tomorrow’s business, civic and academic leaders to these issues. Solutions to today’s environmental problems demand a diverse background of experience and study, and the heart of our liberal arts and sciences tradition is the examination of questions from multiple perspectives. My long-term, blue-sky hope for this program is an Environmental Studies major that allows students to explore environmental issues from the perspectives of the natural sciences, humanities, social sciences and the fine arts. I hope that a large proportion of Rhodes courses will fold discussion and study of environmental issues into their content, and that study of the environment will become one of our mission statements."

Web Extra: Inside the Classroom

What the new Environmental Studies postdocs are teaching this semester »


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