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Environmental Studies program announces two new tracks

This article was originally published on Feb. 2, 2015.

After much discussion and reconfiguration, the Environmental Studies department unveiled its new offerings to students: two new tracks within an already interdisciplinary major.

With the new program, students choose between Environmental Communication and Arts or Environmental Justice and Citizenship. The former focuses on the arts and humanities, while the latter emphasizes social sciences.

Jo Ortel, Nystrom Professor of Art & Art History, became the new chair of the department in June 2014 when geology Professor Sue Swanson took sabbatical leave.

The new program was approved by Faculty Senate spring 2014, and became available to students fall 2014; at least a handful of students have declared one of the tracks since then. Before proposing, faculty members made sure the requirements would be feasible considering the availability of courses.

Based on growing interest in environmental studies for the College, and reflecting a broader cultural shift of values, the new program emerged from a “long process of evaluation,” Pablo Toral says, associate professor of Political Science. Each department undergoes a regular evaluation, normally every seven years.

This evaluation included “self-study conducted by faculty, staff, and students, an external review by two environmental studies professors from two different colleges, who provided their own analysis and suggestions, feedback by alumni, and recommendations and suggestions by employers and internship hosts,” Toral says. Students were also encouraged to offer input.

Toral, whose courses are often cross-listed with Environmental Studies, was heavily involved with the culmination of the two tracks. He had also helped make the former major more interdisciplinary when he first arrived at Beloit in the mid 2000s. He feels the College has more resources and expertise now. In 1996, when Biology professor Yaffa Grossman was hired, there was only an Environmental Studies minor. When the interdisciplinary major eventually emerged, it was “heavy on the natural science,” she says, and evaluators “appropriately pointed out that there were more ways to approach the environment.”

More professors in the humanities have become associated with the program, such as English professor Chris Fink and Philosophy professor Matt Tedesco.

Though interdisciplinary, the new majors are designed to give students more “clearly-defined knowledge and skill-sets,” as Ortel says. “There was a feeling among ENVS majors and faculty that the ‘old’ major was somewhat ‘fuzzy’ and lacking in focus,” she adds. “The time seemed right to ‘grow’ the program.”

Maren Schermer’17 was one of the first students to declare within the new program — she chose Environmental Justice and Citizenship. She was surprised to see so few students majoring in the program, and hopes the new tracks attract more students. While she sees the track system as granting more control over the major, Schermer hopes it can become even more specific.

Lena Wright’16, who is majoring in the old Environmental Studies degree, was also involved in the reconfiguring process. I hope the teachers can continue to experiment with effective ways to integrate the environment into a variety of fields,” she says, “especially as it becomes a more salient field because of climate change and sustainable development.”

A prime example of the merging of humanities with environmental studies is one of Ortel’s classes, Contemporary Art in an Age of Global Warming, taught every fall. Students learn about the history of environmental art movements in conjunction with a history of environmentalism, and are tasked with drafting a proposal for an environmental and art-related project in the community. Wright, who has taken a lot of science courses for her major, took the class and said she thought more about my ‘environmentalism’ in [the class] than I ever would have expected.”

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