Course Development Grants to Doctoral Students Support Deeper Sustainability Studies

Author: Natalie Ambrosio '17

Sustainability spreads across disciplines, cultures and individuals, connecting us all with a dire challenge, yet also holding different significance to each of us. Three graduate students are using sustainability course development grants to create new sustainability courses that explore the way that sustainability can be complex and elusive, yet at the same time capture elements familiar to all of us.

Carl Friesen, Ph.D. student in the Department of Theology

Carl Friesen is developing a theology course called “Creation, Ecology, and Food,” that will explore one of the fundamental elements of humanity. Putting food into our bodies is a tangible, daily act that requires a choice each time we eat, whether or not it’s intentional. Friesen notes that exploring our food systems and eating choices is important because these decisions contribute significantly to climate change, while also affecting human health. “So it raises profound questions about what it means to be human and how we relate to the rest of nature and its implications for sustainability,” Friesen says.

“My goal for this course is to help students see these connections by learning to pay attention, to texts and arguments, to each other, to the source and content of their food, to the ecological impact of what we eat, and what all of these interdependent parts of our lives tell us about our relationship to the rest of the natural world,” he continues. Friesen acknowledges that the course will tackle “under-theorized” concepts and he’s looking forward to challenging and important conversations in this new interdisciplinary course.

Nature is another ubiquitous concept that many don’t regularly pause to ponder. In Jake McGinnis’ new English course, “Literature and the Environment: the End of Nature,” students will have an opportunity to really consider what nature it is and how it’s changing. McGinnis notes that the nature he thinks about and the nature his dad grew up with are different. Human influence and climate change are reshaping the natural world, and yet nature is still all around us.

Jake McGinnis, Ph.D. student in the Department of English

Not everyone would consciously realize it, but nature is often connected to one’s sense of place, which in turn is an integral part of human identity, McGinnis says. His background in Northern Wisconsin, in the Lake Superior snow belt (without dairy farms, he clarifies), shaped McGinnis’ sense of self. “Something happens when you go to college and you’re not in your place anymore, maybe for the first time,” he says. Some students naturally take to a new area, enjoying the adventure, while others may feel unbalanced by it. Having a college course focused on exploring place and one’s connection to it gives students an opportunity to increase their understanding of both themselves and also their relationship with the world around them.

McGinnis argues that it’s hard to think about sustainability without grounding it in place.  “We’ll be thinking about the connections between local and global.” He notes that this is one of the critical challenges of sustainability. This course will acquaint students with the Great Lakes region, including Notre Dame’s campus. “We think of nature as the other,” McGinnis says. “But it’s in fact all around us and you just have to cultivate a way of seeing.” His course will include readings and fieldwork urging students to find nature in their surroundings and using this as a launching point to discuss society’s views of nature and the implications this has for sustainability.In other courses he’s taught, McGinnis was surprised by how little students know about the area surrounding campus: how South Bend got its name, how close it is to the site of the infamous 2010 oil spill in the Kalamazoo River or that the Saint Joseph River flows into Lake Michigan, for example. Yet, if students are interested in the intersection of humans and nature, McGinnis says, the Great Lakes region is the place to be. Here students can stand on pristine lakeshores 25 miles from campus and look across the water to a nuclear power plant. They can find sea lampreys and Atlantic salmon right in those same lakes. Or, even on Notre Dame’s campus they can track a deer population to find shed antlers, or explore the edges of the lakes watching the water flow through a culvert on its way to the Saint Joseph River.

Ross Jensen, Ph.D. student in the Department of Philosophy

The relationship between humans, nature and sustainability are also integral to Ross Jensen’s new philosophy course, “Climate and Culture.” Jensen asserts that when philosophy is done well it encompasses many other disciplines. This particular course will cover topics ranging from culture and history to climate change and environmental degradation.

A challenging focal point of the course will be “cultural devastation,” that stems from climate change. Few find it easy to acquaint themselves with the destruction of other cultures. “It requires a virtue of the imagination -- a sort of translational virtue -- that, like other virtues, does not come naturally to us,” Jensen explains. Students will read the works of historical figures, such as indigenous people, who have experienced this devastation themselves. This course will allow students to explore multifaceted questions around how one’s culture shapes one’s identity and how environmental degradation and cultural degradation relate to one another.

Sustainability can be scientific and technical. In fact, structural engineering, calculations around energy efficiency and understanding where resources come from often drive sustainable solutions. Yet, at the root of any sustainable choice, at the personal or policy level, there is a human being driving a change. Taking time to reflect on this truth, exploring how it’s manifested across societies and within each of us, informs a thoughtful and well-rounded approach to the multifaceted challenge of sustainability.

Want to keep reading? Read more sustainability stories here!

How are faculty members using Course Development Grants to expand sustainability-related courses on campus? Read more here.

Originally published by Natalie Ambrosio '17 at on May 13, 2020.