The Nature of College by James Farrell

Campus Ecology and the Nature of College

This talk at the AASHE conference in 2011 is a condensed version of an essay on “The Moral Ecology of Everyday Life” that will appear in a volume called Higher Education for Sustainability: Cases, Challenges and Opportunities from Across the Curriculum. Edited by Lucas Johnston, it will be published by Routledge in August 2012.

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Campus Ecology and The Nature of College

In a beautiful essay called “Doing Good Work Together,” William Kittredge writes that “We live in stories. What we are is stories. We do things because of what is called character, and our character is formed by the stories we learn to live in. Late in the night we listen to our own breathing in the dark and rework our stories. We do it again the next morning, and all day long, before the looking glass of ourselves, reinventing reasons for our lives. Other than such storytelling there is no reason to things.”

Right now, Americans—and American college students—live in a set of stories that are increasingly unworkable.  We structure our lives around stories, explicit and implicit, that threaten the lives of more-than-human others who share the planet with us, and increasingly, the lives of people who are more susceptible to global weirding, climate change, rising oceans, freshwater shortages, soil depletion, deforestation, toxic pollution, and biodiversity loss.  In Environmental Studies, we often teach classes about these topics, but we don’t generally root them in the cultural patterns of college culture. St. Olaf’s Campus Ecology class does just that.

This story began in the Spring of 2001 when I taught a course called “The Culture of Nature.” In an attempt to show students a few local examples of the culture of nature, I invited Gene Bakko, our curator of natural lands, and Pete Sandberg, our facilities director, to talk about their environmental work on campus. That week, on our course website, an enthusiastic first-year student named Elise Braaten wrote about how amazing those stories were, and how you could teach a whole course on that.

Two years later, Elise declared an independent major called “Wild and Precious Life: Educating for an Ethic of Sustainability.” The title came from Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day,” which asks us all, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” In the fall of her senior year, as part of her senior project, she designed a course called Campus Ecology, and in the Spring she team-taught the course with me as an American Studies seminar.  The following year, I team-taught the course with another student, and the year after that, it moved into the Environmental Studies department and into the college catalogue. I love the idea that a course designed by a student is in the college catalogue

Because it’s a combination of American Studies and Environmental Studies, Campus Ecology is a strange amalgam of academic and personal approaches to ecology, education and sustainability. At St. Olaf, our American Studies program focuses on what I call “the moral ecology of everyday life,” the ideas and institutions that shape the common sense of our culture.  In Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah defines moral ecology as “the web of moral understandings and commitments that tie people together in community.” In its Campus Ecology variation, moral ecology also includes the web of social values that tie people and nature together. It’s the stories we live in.

The main question of the class, as far as I can figure it out, is this: What are the cultural patterns on this college campus that reflect and affect the natural patterns of this place and the planet?  We answer these questions by contemplating a day in the life of a college student—waking up and using the bathroom, surveying the stuff in a dorm room, getting dressed, eating in the cafeteria, driving a car, going to a “wild party,” hooking up sexually, and framing life in religious and political terms. Such topics allow us to consider larger issues like comfort and convenience, materialism and time poverty, work and alienation, automobility and  tele-visions, Facebook and placebooks, play and fundamentalism, sex and love and biophilia, religion and spirituality, sitizenship and public policy. They let us see the ordinary consumption and assumptions of American college students, and the extraordinary problems that flow from our everyday lives. Environmentally speaking, a college campus is an organic machine for converting natural energy to human thoughtfulness. And Campus Ecology helps us see that firsthand.

When we designed the course, Elise and I had several things in mind.  We wanted students to confront what Robert Bellah calls “the problem of invisible complexity,” the ways in which our visible lives depend so much on things we can’t see, on people and cultural patterns we don’t understand, and on natural processes that we take for granted.    Even fun, for example, is invisibly complex. We wanted students to think the unthinkable—or at least the unthought—and to confront their complicity in their culture, including its consuming culture of nature.  We wanted them to notice the tensions between the Romantic conceptions of nature that we routinely express, and the resourcist conceptions that configure so much of our lives.

From the beginning, we planned the course to create “a space where imagination can happen,” so we invited students to combine the personal and the academic.  We required journals, where students could take ideas personally and look for cultural patterns in their own idiosyncratic experiences.    We asked students to “go deep,” thinking not just analytically but introspectively about their lives and their culture.  We wanted students to ask “What are people for?”  What is education for?”  “What are my deepest values?”  “What are my operative values?”  “What’s my real relationship with nature?”  And “How can I change my life (and my institutions) so that they reflect my deepest values?”

In doing this, we hoped to break down the mental barriers between college and the so-called “real world.”  We wanted to teach students that a college campus is as real as any other place, and that environmental experiments enacted on college campuses can be models for the so-called “real world.

We also wanted to provide a space where students could act on their thinking, a place for what we came to call “practical idealism.”  We wanted to help students apply their ideas and ideals to the “real world” of college, to learn how to research problems, organize ideas, propose solutions, work collaboratively, and accomplish some good work before they graduate.

We created some unconventional assignments in this class, because we believe that education is more about what students do than about what they read or hear in class.     For example, we assigned students to audit their dorm rooms, making an inventory of all the stuff they found there, and trying to assess what it all means.  Here are a few excerpts that suggest the kind of deep learning that can happen in such an open-ended assignment:

All of the stuff in my dorm room tells a story. The story is about a group of people who call themselves Americans. By carefully reading the story that my dorm room tells, it is possible to learn who Americans are, how they live their lives, and how they feel about the world around them. So although a dorm room may be a very small space, it can and does say very big things about Americans and their values.

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Now, as I’ve listed off my possessions, I’m feeling a bit guilty, like I do indeed have lots of useless crap. In all honesty, I think more of my things collect dust than get used. 

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Whenever I pay for a piece of clothing, it sends a message to the entire commodity chain from the advertisers to the retailers to the transporters to the dyers to the factory owners to the farmers of the material (or chemists if it’s synthetic).  This message is “Keep doing exactly what you’re doing.  It works.” 

Another time, we assigned students to read a J. Crew catalogue.  We asked them to think about the catalogue as an artifact advertising not just clothes but American values, including American environmental values.  We asked them to consider the nature of consumer culture revealed in the catalogue—Romantic representations of nature in the background of photographs, the natural resources woven into the clothes, and the catalogue itself—made at that time of 100 percent virgin paper, with no recycled content.  Students generally think of themselves as savvy consumers, but I think every one of them got wiser in the course of this exercise.

For class another day, students used Mapquest to calculate the mileage of one round trip for each member of the faculty and staff listed in the college directory.  We were able to calculate mileage for 763 people.  While our calculations aren’t exact, our mileage figure offers a (very) rough estimate of our automotive environmental impact.   Each day, we discovered, the St. Olaf community is responsible for 19,788 miles of driving, almost enough to circumnavigate the earth.  It’s a small college, but that’s no small environmental impact.

Our class takes “field trips” on campus to learn how our small city works. We tour the college cafeteria with the food service director, and learn how carefully he thinks about the environmental impacts of our meals.   We tour the power plant with the Director of Facilities, who has installed a wind turbine that generates almost a third of our electricity on campus land.   We tour our LEED Platinum science building to see how architects do ecological design. We tour prairie and forest restoration projects with our curator of natural lands, who helps us understand how the college is trying to make its land more sustainable, with wetlands and prairies and forests. Off campus, we’ve toured a home remodeled by a local nonprofit to provide green living for low-income families. These trips make our readings real, and they introduce students to people who teach them about the possibilities of social change. “I love the field trips,” said one student, “because we are using and appreciating our human resources to a greater extent.”

In Campus Ecology, we try to imagine our place in the world, so we always ask students to study the place that is St. Olaf. In the first year, we asked students to write an essay about campus from the perspective of a non-human organism, which was amazing. In the last few years, we’ve done what we call plot projects instead, asking students to pay attention to a particular place over the course of the semester, and to express the place in words and images that make it come alive as a connected part of an ecological community. Students describe their plot, of course, but they also analyze it ecologically, researching inhabitants and their habits, plotting resource flows, and exploring the aesthetics of functionality. Sometimes they invite other authors into the project, with poems or quotations or songs. Sometimes they take photographs, but other times they produce sketches or paintings or color maps or collages. Usually, the projects look like scrapbooks, but sometimes they’re mobiles or sculptures or webpages. Almost always, they’re inventive and imaginative—and emotional, as students develop affection for the places they’ve come to know so well.

The main assignment for the class, though, usually involves research on resource flows at the college and explanations of the environmental impacts of our everyday lives.  Students have produced reports for the college’s Sustainability Task Force, while they learn about the environmental implications of cars, the curriculum, architecture, energy, food, purchasing (including paper), water, waste and the landscape, both on the campus proper and on our prairie and forest restorations.

During Earth Week, we share information with the college community.   The class composes and presents a chapel service, exploring the theme of caring for creation in its campus context.     On Earth Day itself, we annotate the campus, posting hundreds of small signs on walls and in halls to reveal the invisible complexity of the campus environment.   Here are a few samples of the annotations:

Going Up?  While this elevator gets you from floor to floor, it is designed to move slowly and thus encourage people to use their own energy to walk up stairs. 

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The Peace Coffee brewed in the Cage and the cafeteria makes good things happen because it’s fair-trade, shade-grown coffee, supporting workers and the environment in countries like Guatemala and Costa Rica.

The annotations have been so successful that we’ve been asked to prepare permanent plaques so that this kind of on-site and ongoing environmental education will be a regular part of our campus life.

We can’t say with absolute certainty what the outcomes of this class will finally be for students.  But we already have a pretty good idea of some of its intellectual and environmental impacts.  We know, for example, that students are enthused if not exuberant about applying ideas to their own lives and circumstances.  “In this class,” said one of our students, “I am able to study and observe what goes on around me daily and question and wonder why everything happens the way it does and for once it isn’t considered daydreaming in class.  And the ideas from this class have affected me a lot.”

We know that students enjoy the opportunity to integrate the personal and the academic. We know that students like the idea of seeing how ideas work out in real life. One of the students said, “I am learning that a class where you DO a lot is the most effective kind, and is really the only kind of sustainable education.  It seems ironic that we are sitting here, paying $40,000 to be passive, as if it will be a sustainable experience.  I am learning to demand more from life and my education, which is almost unheard of in American education.”  Another student added, “DOING something about our conversations is a great way to run this class.  In my water report, I feel like I am making changes.  I love it that this is demanded of me.”

We know that this isn’t just a classroom course.  We know that students talk about it all the time, and we’re delighted that the course isn’t merely an academic question—which is to say, a question that only a dork could care about.  “To be honest,” said one student, “I think that my friends and family are getting tired of me mentioning everything that I am learning and thinking about from this class.  Instead of saying “This one time, at band camp…”, I say, “Today, in Campus Ecology…”  Another student says that “Campus Ecology is a class that I look forward to everyday and talk about all the time outside of class. I never dread doing homework and reading for it, because it is so interesting.” Another student adds, “For me the most important part of the class is that it teaches about where we are and what we can do as a part of our environment, but it also incorporates a philosophy that requires mindfulness anywhere. You don’t have to be living on a hill on the outskirts of a small town to understand [David] Orr, but rather it calls you whoever you are, wherever you are.”

We’ve discovered how valuable a student professor can be.  Students like the idea of a student-professor, and they loved Elise’s embodiment of that role. They loved her enthusiasm and engagement, and her sense of identification with them.  And she was a wonderful role model of practical idealism, especially for the younger students.  “When she gets excited,” said one student, “I do too because I respect her hopes and dreams for the class and the school.”  The only difficulty with Elise was that she set such a high standard.  But six other students have, in successive years, also brought their own personal and academic skills to professing, showing that academic thoughtfulness isn’t restricted to older people with degrees.

We know that some of the success of Campus Ecology comes not from us, or from the syllabus, but from the students who constitute this learning community.  One of the essential things that students get from the course is the knowledge that there are other students who care—and who care deeply—about things that really matter.  As one student said, “This course has the most genuinely passionate people in it out of any class I’ve taken at St. Olaf.  The class (and my classmates) inspires me every day, and I rarely get that from my other classes.”

We also think that students are developing what I would call “carryover skills,” skills that they can take with them into the so-called “real world,” where they can be environmentally active in their own homes and businesses and communities.  By the end of the semester, we think they’ll know how to do effective research, and how to shape that research into proposals for institutional change.  We talk a lot about rhetoric, and the art of persuasion, so we think they’ll be able to advocate ideas without alienating an audience.  We think they’ll know how to look at an organization to determine who has the capacity to change things, and to find ways to work with those people to make it easier for them to move in environmental directions.  And we think they’ll have some examples of constructive failure.

In Campus Ecology, I think, students transmute knowledge into wisdom, individually and collectively. Because Campus Ecology students engage so fully in making sense of their lives, they also engage fully in making sense of the relationships in their lives, including relationships to nature.  They learn a lot about the cultural stories they live in, and how the moral ecology of their own lives affects the ecology of the planet. It’s a model that could be replicated in American Studies, Environmental Studies, sociology, anthropology, and a number of other disciplines. At St. Olaf, it fulfills a credit in the Arts and Humanities track of the Environmental Studies major, but it could be adapted to other general education requirements as well.

By combining learning and doing like this, we think we’re involved in a tradition of American education that dates back to one of its founders, Thomas Jefferson.  As he thought about the necessity of public education in the United States, Jefferson said that he wanted people educated “so much as may enable them to read and understand what is going on in the world, and to keep their part of it going on right: for nothing can keep it right but their own vigilant and distrustful superintendence.”    We’re also in the tradition of Emerson, who said in “The American Scholar” that action was the completion and fulfillment of scholarship.

Last—but definitely not least—we’re teaching students the practice of hope.  By design, this course is an exploration of hope.These days, American college culture is not generally hopeful.    These students have watched too much news and too much late-night TV to be naïve about their world.  They’ve grown up with the Simpsons and South Park and MTV and acquired the skepticism that Michael Moffat calls “Undergraduate Cynical.”  They’ve watched enough reality TV to wonder about the intelligence of the average human being.  And they’ve grown up with each other, teaching each other that bitching and cynicism are signs of maturity.

The truth is that things are in bad shape, and we need to be clear about the state of the world.  But if that’s the only truth we tell our students, things will get even worse.  We also need to tell the truth about people who have changed the world, about traditions of care and collaboration, about institutions with resources to conserve our resources, about real people engaged in the work of creating a culture of permanence on this planet.

In Campus Ecology, our reading helps us with what we might call histories of hope. The central reading of the class is David Orr’s Earth in Mind, which offers hope of re-thinking higher education for the ecological revolution of the 21st century. We read Paul Gruchow’s Grass Roots  for its Midwestern landscapes, including the landscapes of mindfulness. We read Scott Russell Sanders’ Hunting for Hope, in which he finds hope in simple, everyday virtues like wildness, embodiment, family, fidelity, skill, simplicity, beauty, and the spirit. We connect our campus hopes to the outside world by reading a book called Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things, which offers hope that we can become responsible for our consuming lives if we understand the full cost of it.  And we read a lot of poetry about nature and everyday life. In all of this reading, we’re examining how our words construct our worlds—including the world of the self.

We’ve also written a book in this class. As it turns out, even though college faculty interact with college students all the time, we don’t write much about them—or more precisely, we don’t write much that college students would want to read. Over the years, I started writing essays on the moral ecology of college culture, and The Nature of College: How a New Understanding of Campus Life Can Change the World is the result.  Exploring college culture, consumer culture and the environment by analyzing the everyday lives of college students, the book probes why college students act the way they do, and why it matters ecologically.  Even though they think they’re charting their own way in the independence of college culture, students are still subject to American culture’s powerful stories, including its consumerism and its consumer forgetfulness.   The book examines the everyday activity of Joe College and his sister Jo, focusing first on the common sense of college culture, and then on the culture of nature on campus. After considering the environmental impacts of Joe and Jo College, each chapter concludes with suggestions for students interested in exploring more sustainable college cultures.

The book itself has been a collaborative effort with my students, as they teach me about the real life of college culture. Students in the class have been teaching me about college culture and commenting on the essays for years—how else would I know anything about wild parties? They love correcting my essays as I do theirs, marking “CBS” (clever but stupid) in the margins and pointing out where the prose is obscure. One student wrote the first draft of the Facebook section, and another helped significantly with the religion chapter. A 2003 St. Olaf graduate is my editor at Milkweed Editions (At one point, I told him that the manuscript was perfect, and he said he was hoping to make it “perfecter”); a 2010 grad drew most of the illustrations; and a 2008 grad has designed the website. Together, we’ve explored the common sense of college culture and some uncommon alternatives that might lead to a new “commons sense”—a set of beliefs and practices that might accustom us to our creative and conserving role in the global commons. We think we got it right—David Orr says that “This should be the first book that any college student reads.” And Peggy Barlett says, “This lively and insightful guide raises profound issues with a light touch—and speaks to the college student in all of us. I highly recommend it.”

I have a few copies of the book you can look at here, and it’s available in the AASHE bookstore too. There’s also a website with additional materials at

In American culture, most of us learn a number of coping mechanisms to deal with the stress and the strain of daily life.  In Campus Ecology and on the St. Olaf campus, we’re trying to develop hoping mechanisms (including our class) that allow us to transform the system instead of simply conforming to it.

In Daniel Quinn’s novel Ishmael, a character contends that “you can’t just stop being in a story, you have to have another story to be in.”  Having learned the dominant stories of American culture by finding them in their own lives, Campus Ecology students know that they need to imagine another story to be in. They know that we need to start imagining it now. And because of the structure of the class, they have some experience of living in that new story. It’s ecology; it’s ethics; it’s education; it’s hope.  It’s not yet sustainable, but it’s a way to imagine new stories in a culture that desperately needs them.