Class Takes an Interdisciplinary Approach

Chris Mays and J. Scott Jordan

J. Scott Jordan and Chris Mays

“Sustainability” is an idea that seems to be everywhere, from corporate mission statements to everyday conversations. Now the idea is the subject of an Illinois State Interdisciplinary Studies (IDS) course taught this spring semester by Dr. Chris Mays, an alumnus of ISU and now a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of English. The course examines ways the concept of sustainability is used in various public, private, and academic locations, and aims to help students become more aware of how the term itself can be a powerful force in shaping their behavior and beliefs about the environment.

Collaborating with Mays in teaching the course is Dr. J. Scott Jordan, professor and chair of the Department of Psychology. Dr. Jordan, who taught weeks 10-12 of the course, introduced students to his work on the history of scientific representations of nature and the physical world. Dr. Jordan’s work helped students better grasp how scientific discourse—i.e., how “science” sees the world—can have a significant impact on students’ own view of the world, as well as on their deeply-held attitudes toward their physical environments.

The course was designed as an introduction both to the way that language and rhetoric “works”, and to the way that differing discussions of sustainability and the environment all highlight different ethical and political priorities. Student projects focused on a variety of local and campus sustainability initiatives, the details and background of which were helpfully provided by Melissa Nergard, director in the ISU Office of Sustainability.

That the class is an IDS course means that students came into it with a range of academic backgrounds, and for many this was their first exposure to such a blend of scientific and humanistic perspectives. In the first few units, the class studied the fundamentals of how discourse can shape ideas, and specifically, how language can be used and misused in service of differing conceptions of “sustainability”. The class looked at a landmark text in sustainability—Aldo Leopold’s The Sand County Almanac—as a core example of the concept, and also studied a variety of both well-known and underrepresented perspectives, including work by rhetorician Edward Schiappa and sustainability and higher education activists Arjen E.J. Wals and Peter Blaze Corcoran.

In exposing students to diverse views on nature, science, ecology, and (especially) “sustainability”, from this interdisciplinary perspective, Mays and Jordan hoped to have created a model for future interdisciplinary collaborations, especially in the College of Arts and Sciences.

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