“The Work of Improvisation”

Anne: My family and I arrive at an old hill station in West Bengal. We are staying at The Windamere Hotel, a rather astonishing, and very disturbing, remnant of what was once a boarding hall for English and Scottish tea planters. On a hill above the hotel, we are further astonished to find a cluster of shrines, where Hindu priests are chanting prayers, and hundreds of Buddhist prayer flags flutter among the trees. In the valley below, we find the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Center.

How do I locate myself, and the work I do in a small liberal arts college in the U.S., in relation to the multiple histories and current activities which give structure to this place where I am traveling?

Where is center? What marks the margins?

Anne and Jody: After several decades of teaching, we are drawn into the field of Environmental Studies. We conceptualize this as an extension of our work on identity matters and social justice, and find ourselves curious about the various ways in which identity and environment–identities in environments–shape one another.1

A program emerging across three linked colleges and multiple disciplines, Tri-Co Environmental Studies seems a space where friendship and institutional change might intersect in generative ways: still very much in a process of being carved out, it appears to us as another “crack” in the solidity of our institutions, in the disciplinary structure of the academy, in the academy’s separation from the “real world.” What new potentials might grow here?

Unlike our assessment posse, which grew out of friendship, the Environmental Studies program arises from the intersections of institutional affiliation. How we identify institutionally is not necessarily aligned with personal connections, and programmatic arrangements often involve staking out some territory. In these processes relationships can become complicated, both between faculty and students, and among faculty members themselves. It quickly becomes evident that differences will both nourish and challenge this creative vexation.

At a workshop, a Swarthmore colleague gives an account of a “pedagogical apocalypse,” the “slow unraveling of shared interests in last year’s senior seminar.” Half the students are “hard-core green fundamentalists,” who form their own class to “do politics.” The other half wants to talk about Native American spirituality, “living in harmony.” How might the split between politics and spirituality be differently understood? How might activists work with others less passionate or “learned” than they? The students who leave fail to engage others. Later, we hear a different account, from the colleague who directs the work of the students who have withdrawn: all are women, half of those women of color, who are saying “no,” in part, to the long-standing Environmental Studies tradition of guidance by white men.

We find this split especially intriguing, because it reprises a tension present throughout this book: we, too, move between forms of teaching and learning that explicitly seek political change, and those that seek something less tangible, in moments of revelation beyond what is usually visible in classrooms. We are drawn to both dimensions of change, always looking for how they are, or might be, linked.

Although “diversity” is named as one of the challenges of Environmental Studies, very little time is given, in our sharing planning sessions, to unsettling either dominant narratives or hierarchical structures.2 A large proportion of a morning’s discussion devoted to “strengthening programs” is spent talking about how to ensure job security. We are interested in working with others to build this program, but frustrated that the conversation doesn’t reflect our developing sense of risks and possibilities: an orientation toward developing and enacting a vision for change that might challenge rather than just pursue greater institutional stability, in the interests of promoting the Environmental Studies values we’ve been discussing: “holism, synthesis, fluidity, adaptability, agility, advocacy, outreach, creativity, community engagement, experiential learning, silo-busting….”

When the Environmental Studies faculty gathers for what’s billed as “the family meeting,” there is much celebration of co-teaching and other forms of critical friendship: A number of colleagues agree that they learn a lot more “than they ever do teaching alone,” that the “work of improvisation” this compels is “a huge stretch, a vertiginous experience,” a “high wire act” of “standing on the margins of our discipline looking for common discourse.” The discussion is less centered around the growth such friendships might foster, however, than deep in deliberations committed to institutional stability. We bristle at the push-back against teaching our students to be activists, to being activists ourselves. Good work is being done to move the colleges toward environmental sustainability (projects on geothermal energy, going “trayless” in the dining halls, converting our light bulbs to LEDs, reducing building operational impacts…), but there’s no calling the institutions to accountability in terms of seeking more equity within, or permeability of, structures.

It occurs to us now that Environmental Studies could include befriending among the interaction of elements it studies in any given location, read friendship as part of the environment. Following the psychological conception of “the universe in process” (as described by Daniel Palmer), with objects understood “as more or less persistent regions in an onslaught of spatio-temporal change,”3 we see movement across the permeable membrane of self and environment, organism and medium, as we re-conceptualize the shifting relationships of befriending and institutionalizing, experiencing both actions as transactional, malleable, imbricated in one another. The acts of befriending and institutionalizing are joined in what Timothy Morton calls “the ecological thought”: a “collectivity of weakness, vulnerability, and incompletion.”4

As Environmental Studies seeks both to stabilize itself within the colleges, and to have an impact on them, friendships do emerge, weaving in and out of this para-institutional context, both taking up and resisting the drive toward stability. Fed by shared fears and longings, we find ourselves in a new web of affiliation. Some of us admit frankly to one another the overwhelming challenges we face. Students are terrified by what they learn in these courses—they are the first generation “to get it,” and they get it worse as they become more knowledgeable. Can we resolve their “sense of out-of-control-ness,” offer tools and emotional strength to help them deal with what we are teaching?  We connect with Josh Moses, who snags our attention by admitting that his own “meager knowledge” is surpassed by the changes we are seeing, that he feels ill-equipped to help students adapt to changing facts. Moving outside of the “knowing tent,” opening to precarity, fragility, possibility. Trying to offer them an expansion of both moral and imaginative possibilities, Josh takes lots of risks in the classroom and outside it, offering field courses, for instance, where, as his syllabus explains, much of the time is spent in the city, “subject to contingencies that classrooms are sheltered from—weather, late trains, human and animal interference, getting lost, broken buses.” His classes require a new degree of flexibility from students, and he urges them to approach these challenges with an adventuresome spirit.

Another new friend is clear that the work of Environmental Studies calls us to institutional reform. Giovanna DiChiro refuses to separate “social” from “environmental” problems. She takes on directly the problematic structural issues in how universities operate (“from the top,” following “orthodoxies”), arguing that one of our interventions should be to change our colleges, from the corporate model of hiring, to the security of tenure, to “what counts” as research and science; if we don’t respond more effectively to what’s happening in the world, others who come after us will have nothing to study. Let’s ask every department what their motivation is for what they teach, help them reimagine this space to identify the competencies people now need. Like Josh, Giovanna envisions a robust, socially critical environmental education, one that involves lively collaborative action research.

We make dates to go on talking with Josh and Giovanna, get some generous Tri-Co funding for the four of us to have dinner together in South Philadelphia: share questions about community partnerships; pause over our differing experiences with a touted figure in the field; acknowledge our uncertain, perhaps diverging desires and trajectories.  With two of our students, we co-present a panel for the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment. The colleges support our travel expenses. The institutional structure is paying for us to develop new friendships, which we hope may open up the institutions in turn, as well as some of the larger structures beyond them.

Observing that professionalization suppresses “any attempt at passion, at stepping out of this skepticism of the known into an inadequate confrontation with what exceeds it and oneself,” Harney and Moten ask whether “the critical academic [is] then not dedicated to…the impoverishment, the immiseration, of society’s cooperative prospects.”5 It is precisely against such impoverishment that we here position ourselves, by arguing for friendship motivated by passion, destabilized by vulnerability, and steeped in the complexities of institutional engagement.It is precisely against such impoverishment that we here position ourselves, by arguing for friendship motivated by passion, destabilized by vulnerability, and steeped in the complexities of institutional engagement.  .  A non-centralized program such as Environmental Studies offers a structure for puzzling over the shifting positions and variable strengths of margins and center. It also offers a site where relationships can grow, vexing structures, creating opportunities for collective action.

  1. Changing Our Story,” Fall 2015, accessed March 30, 2016.; “Eco-Literacy,” Spring 2014, accessed March 30, 2016.
  2. cf. Zoé Samudzi, “We Need A Decolonized, Not A ‘Diverse’, Education,” March 11, 2016, accessed March 11, 2016.
  3. Daniel Palmer, “On the Organism-Environment Distinction in Psychology.” Behavior and Philosophy 32, 2 (2004). 317-347, accessed August 18, 2015, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27759490
  4. Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010), 127.
  5. Harney and Moton 39.