Spring 2010

Living Science

AS ONE OF THE ANCHORS of the CALS Department of Community and Environmental Sociology––formally Rural Sociology––Jack Kloppenburg was talking about sustainability was cool. He teaches the popular Food, Culture and Society course, as well as a large introductory lecture course in environmental studies, and his co-director of both the Program on Agricultural Technology Studies and the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems. This fall, he will help launch the GreenHouse, a new residential learning community, in Cole Hall.

So we hear you’re starting a greenhouse … What are you going to grow?

(Laughs) Well, it’s not that kind of greenhouse. What we’re doing is creating a new residential learning community here on campus, where students share a portfolio of courses and activities with other residents and faculty. GreenHouse is going to have a theme of sustainability—that will be the unifying element to our community and the programming we offer. So, in fact, I do hope that we will be growing sustainable citizens.

Was this your idea?

It emerged from work I’ve been doing with a student organization called REthink Wisconsin, which is promoting recycling and waste reduction on campus. Cal Bergman, from University Housing, asked me if I would be interested in helping get these themes into a learning community, and I surely was.

Sustainability is a pretty broad concept. What does it mean in this context?

Well, that’s an interesting question, and I think that’s something that students will be encouraged and guided to decide for themselves. For me, it means living in material comfort, peacefully with each other, within the means of nature. Now how do you achieve something like that? I think it involves both the biophysical world and the social context. It’s about creating an environment where no one is in need, where we’re mindful of our impact on our natural resources and on other people. The learning community is a small way that we can begin to model what that looks like in practice.

How do you imagine that experience might look different from life in a typical dorm?

There will be programming that brings the students together and introduces some common ideas. I’m going to lead a freshman interest group that will probably draw from the GreenHouse residents, and the hope is that because these students are living together, they’ll take some of the ideas raised in class back home, to their dorm, and discuss and debate them and maybe implement them. But we’re also creating opportunities that are unique to this community. We plan to offer a variety of one-credit course options, which will involve thinking and doing, and could be anything from planting flower bulbs on Madison’s South side, to maintaining Indian mounds in the Lakeshore Nature Preserve, to canoeing the Wisconsin River, to reading A Sand County Almanac and visiting Leopold’s shack.

But we also want to allow students to find their own way into what sustainability means to them. That’s really the idea of a learning community—that students not only assess and consider the things they are learning in class, but also find ways to enact them in the world around them. Students aren’t just consumers of information. They are citizens, and we’d like GreenHouse to give them opportunities to create some kind of change in the real world.

This will be housed in Cole Hall, which is 50 years old and probably not the greenest building on campus. Does that present a challenge for someone trying to live sustainably?

It surely is. Cole has that Soviet-style look to it, and when I first looked at it, I wondered if it was the right place to do this. But being older, it has some aspects to it that students can transform to make it greener. We’re going to be installing solar collectors on the roof, for instance. And we’re remodeling the kitchen, which was this one-stove, one-refrigerator facility in the basement that got really haphazard use. We’re working with Housing to transform that space into a place where residents can come together to create community by efficiently and pleasurably learning to cook meals for each other.

Do you see food playing a big role in this community?

Absolutely. One of the most intimate ways that we’re engaged with the world around us is through the food we eat. That’s going to be one of the central, unifying themes in GreenHouse programming. With University Housing’s food service staff, we’re planning to offer training sessions for all GreenHouse students on cooking techniques. So you could imagine students coming back with a bag of vegetables from the farmers’ market and using the knife skills they learned to make a dinner as quickly as they could get it at a fast food restaurant.

Are you getting interest from faculty and staff in offering those kinds of opportunities?

Definitely. It’s certainly not your typical pedagogy, where you stand up in front of a room of a hundred students and talk for an hour straight. This is an opportunity for faculty to get out of the classroom and engage in some innovative and concrete activities that let them learn too. It’s very kinesthetic, and I think people like that aspect.

I also want to emphasize the role of staff in this project. The staff at University Housing and facilities have been deeply involved in the planning, and they’re going to be a key to our success. An important part of this project is to show that staff can and should be a vital part of the pedagogical mission of the university and that it’s not just faculty who have things to offer our students.

One of the things that I try to get out of students’ heads is that the only place they’re going to learn is in a lecture hall. We’re all learning all of the time, and the most important teacher that you ever have will be yourself. If students aren’t aware of and open to the learning opportunities that constantly surround them, then we’re not doing what I hope a University of Wisconsin education should do.

Including each other?

That’s critical. With this first class, we’re admitting freshmen, but we’d like to see the community expand. We hope that we’ll be able to add more floors (in Cole) as sophomores and juniors stick around and new freshmen come in. Ultimately, we want a full spectrum of students living in the GreenHouse, so that seniors and juniors can act as mentors and teachers for each new class coming in.

So the community becomes sustainable.

Exactly—you took the words right out of my mouth.

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