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A Curriculum for the “Vasudha” Living Learning Community

H&SS First Year Studies Program

Fall 2010

IHSS-1970 Nature/Society

A Perspective on Energy, Resources, Land Use, Climate Change, and Biodiversity Tue/Fri 2-4pm in Nason 130 (*Field trips on selected dates will run until 5pm)


John Gowdy (Economics Department), Sage 3404, x8094, Office hours: TuFr 11:30-1:30PM or by appointment Atsushi Akera (Dept. Sci. & Tech. Studies), Sage 5206, x2314, Office hours: Tuesdays, 12n-1pm, or by appointment

Vasudha Program Coordinator (Teaching & Learning Assistant): Robyn Marquis (Civil Engineering-Transportation)

Course Description

This course focuses on the social, biological and ecological aspects of humans in the natural world. We emphasize critical thinking about where we come from and where we are going. We will learn about how we have used the land in the past, what we do today, and what our prospects are as a species for the twenty-first century. Contemporary issues such as land use, climate change, energy use, and biodiversity loss will be explored through literature, films, and guest lectures. The course is also organized around a series of “ethnographic” exercises that involve both group and individual field work at (historic) sites such as the Erie Canal, Lake George, and elsewhere (including “virtual” trips to remote places). This will allow you to study human habitation and its relationship to nature in a variety of different ecological settings. Students are expected to participate very actively in class through critical dialogue, creative writing, group projects, and presentations.

In addition to being a core seminar for the “Vasudha” living and learning community, this course is a First Year Studies seminar designed to focus on your academic transition to college. Various academic transition topics and exercises are integrated into this course.

Learning Outcomes

Rensselaer is shifting towards a model of “learning outcomes.” Unlike idealistic statements of “pie-in-the-sky” objectives that faculty sometimes define without complete thought as to how realistic their objectives are, the following learning outcomes are things that we expect everyone in this course to strive for and achieve. This being said, we too aim high—this is not a course designed to the least common denominator. Our broader objectives include setting you on an advanced course of study, including possible preparation for research and graduate education after your time here at Rensselaer. Please revisit these intended “outcomes” several times during the semester as a guide to your studies. The grading scheme directly incorporates these intended outcomes, with the approximate weight given to each learning outcome indicated below in parenthesis:

  • Research (30%): Initial preparation for humanistic and social scientific research of academic quality on topics related to the earth, energy, and environment. This will include critical evaluation and engagement with texts, and both independent and team-based investigations into self-defined areas of inquiry.
  • A critical understanding of the course content (30%): A critical understanding of the course content, which covers topics related to environmental ethics, land use, human ecology, and current topics including global warming, energy supply, local food supply, and other topics selected by the student.
  • Technical proficiency (30%): Demonstrated progress in the basic technical proficiencies of higher education, including reading, writing, oral and visual presentation, teamwork, and seminar-style conversation.
  • Academic transition (10%): Clear evidence of thoughtful reflections about your own learning process, and of academic habits and habits of critical inquiry appropriate to a college level course.

Required & Optional Texts

The required texts for this course consist of:

  • Daniel Quinn, Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit (Bantam 1995)
  • Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (Harper Collins, 2007)
  • Other texts as announced and/or distributed in class

The optional textbook for this course is:

  • Carroll Pursell, The Machine in America: A Social History of Technology, 2nd edition only (Johns Hopkins UP, 2007)

Books are or will be available at the Rensselaer Union Bookstore. Or in the spirit of sustainability (and good economic sense) buy them used through Amazon Marketplace and other online vendors.

Principal Assignments

The principal assignments for this course consist of the following:

  • Readings & Weekly Thought Pieces

There will be an assigned reading each week. Beginning with the second week of class, you will be asked to submit a “thought piece” that reveals thoughtful reflections about the assigned readings, class conversations, ethnographic exercises, team project, and any other work you did during the past week. Each weekly writing assignment should be at least 300 words in length (1 page, typed, double spaced), and printed and handed in during class on Tuesday. We also encourage you to think of these weekly writing assignments as part of your academic journal (see below).

  • Team Project / Final Project

One of our objectives is to introduce you to basic humanistic and social scientific research skills as related to contemporary environmental issues. We will be running an interest survey on the first day of class. Based on this survey, all students, by the third week of class, should be assembled into groups (3-6 students per team) for the purpose of pursuing a semester-long research project in a specific area. The formal components for this assignment consist of the following:

    • An initial project proposal (2-5 pages)
    • A “virtual tour” (slide show + a 5-10 page report) documenting the background issues related to your project
    • An optional “ethnographic” component (see below)
    • A final paper and/or project (12-20 pages, or equivalent)

Further details related to each of these sub-assignments will be provided in separate handouts.

Academic Journal / Academic Transition

We encourage everyone to maintain an “academic journal” in order to keep a record of all of your thoughts and reflections as related to this course. This should include your weekly thought pieces, but can also include other thoughts and observations that you capture and jot down during the day. Indeed, these can serve as the basis for your thought pieces. (And consider carrying this journal around with you!).

You should also use your academic journal (and weekly thought pieces) to reflect about your own education and learning process, as related to this course and your studies at RPI at large, as this will help to document and satisfy the stated learning outcome (and requirement) related to your transition into higher education.

Ethnographic Field Work

Throughout the course, we will also integrate a series of ethnographic (literally, “culture-mapping”) assignments where you visit, observe, and write up your observations about a particular community, place, its material culture, and history. There will also be one or more larger ethnographic assignments that are integrated into the course. Depending on your team project, it may also be possible to fold this assignment into your final project. Your field notes can be fully integrated into your academic journal, although this is not required. Regardless, please make sure to purchase a notebook that you can take with you on field trips for the purpose of recording your observations. And please write legibly so we can evaluate your work!

Grading and Evaluation Criteria

As noted above, the grading criteria for this course are fully integrated with the intended learning outcomes. Each of the assignments will be weighted as follows. (See also “the fine print” below for attendance policies and other grade modifiers):

  • Weekly thought pieces 25%
  • Team Project 40%
    • Initial Project Description (5%)
    • “Virtual tour” (10%)
    • Final project (25%)
    • Ethnographic work (including for team project) 15%
  • General contributions to the class & community* 10%
  • Evidence of academic transition 10%

Please note that you will be evaluated individually on all team project components. There will also be a survey at the end asking your teammates to describe who did what work for each project. (*For those who are part of the Vasudha Living & Learning community, co-curricular and extra-curricular activities performed in relation to the course also count towards this component of your grade; however we will use two separate distribution curves to make sure that this does not serve as a handicap to those who are not formally a part of Vasudha.)

Scheduled Field Trips / Special Note for Athletes: There will be several course-related field trips (about four in total) on Fridays that will run from 2-5pm. For those of you who are student athletes, we’ve spoken with the Athletic Director. While he encourages you to make your own decision, his recommendation (and ours) is that games should take precedence over the field trips, while you’re encouraged to attend the field trips over practice. Please talk to us if you need to make special arrangements.

The Fine Print

  • Attendance: Given the nature of this course, being in class is an essential part of the experience. Although no specific penalties are associated with absences, you should consider two absences (either excused or unexcused) as a limit. Beyond this, please speak with the instructor about suitable make-up assignments to compensate for what you missed in class.
  • Class Participation: Class participation is an integral part of this course and is reflected in the grading structure. However, students who have difficulty speaking up in class (for example, ESL students) may approach the instructors early in the semester to make special arrangements.
  • Late Submissions: No late papers or projects will be accepted except through specific arrangement with the instructors.
  • Gender Fair Language: Students in this course are expected to use gender fair language in their writing. Every time you use a masculine-oriented word to refer to people in general, the implicit effect, even if unintended, is to whisper: women don’t count. Essays and other work that do not use gender fair language will not receive a passing grade until the situation is corrected. If you are unfamiliar with the practice of gender fair writing, you should read "Gender Fair Language,” written by Jenny Redfern of RPI’s Writing Center.

See [1]

  • The Center for Communicative Practice: Writing is an important component of any professional career. Once you’re on the job, you will be writing 1-2 dozen memos and emails a day, in addition to any formal report that you are required to produce. Your performance will always be evaluated based on how well you convey your ideas, and engineering professionals and executives are among those who have expressed the strongest concern about the quality of writing of many engineering school graduates.

Occasionally, we may advise you to seek the services of the Center for Communicative Practice. It is located on the first floor of Folsom Library. You may obtain further information at 276-8983, or [[2]]. If we feel it’s warranted, we may also require you to have someone at the Center go over your written assignment before you can resubmit it for consideration. If this is the case, you must obtain a stamp from the Center, and turn in all earlier versions of your paper including the version previously graded by us. Keep in mind that improving the mechanics of writing on any assignment will not be enough to receive a higher grade if the content remains inadequate.

  • ESL / LD Students: The requirements for this course will be adjusted to serve the needs and capabilities of ESL and LD students. Students who have difficulties reading or writing should feel free to notify the instructors about their particular situation. In general, the guideline we use for making adjustments will still require you to spend around eight hours each week on out-of-class activities. All students should also expect to spend a minimum of two hours per week on their writing assignments.
  • Use of Student Generated Materials: All written materials submitted in this course will be considered to be contributing to the general educational mission of Rensselaer. Your work may be posted online or compiled elsewhere as part of a student work archive or electronic portfolio, and used for purposes of educational research and assessment. However, we do respect student privacy and student rights to intellectual property. You are therefore granted the right to an exemption from the public disclosure of your work. Requests for such exemption must be submitted in writing (either a general note for the semester or a note on a specific assignment will suffice). Student generated material are not to be used for purposes beyond that specified herein without the express permission of the student(s) involved. Any scholarly work published from this material must do so without individual identifiers except when explicitly requested or granted by the student herself or himself.
  • Academic Honesty: Student-teacher relationships are built on trust. Students must trust that teachers have made appropriate decisions about the structure and content of the course, and teachers must trust that the assignments students turn in are their own. Any and all acts that violate this trust undermine the educational enterprise. They contradict our very reason for being at Rensselaer. The Rensselaer Handbook defines various forms of academic dishonesty and the procedures for responding to them.

Students should note, in particular, that academic penalties for plagiarism are harsh. Any use of another person’s work, including the use of specific ideas and interpretations previously presented by others in writing or any other mode of communication must be acknowledged through proper attribution. All direct use of another person’s words must be placed inside “quotations.” You must indicate when you draw from or paraphrase another person’s work. Though designed for a different course, you can find useful guidelines about academic citations at: In college, we expect you to know what constitutes plagiarism. If you are at all uncertain about the academic norms regarding plagiarism, a) play it safe, and b) feel free to ask us. For this course, penalties for academic dishonesty, especially in cases involving plagiarism, can vary from failure of assignment to failure of the course plus a citation in the student’s academic record. The penalty will depend both on intent and the severity of the case. As noted in the student handbook, any determination will be based on the instructors’ best judgment about what occurred.

Optional Studies for Advanced Readers

This course is very much designed around individual progress and achievement rather than a fixed standard of learning for all students. If you already have a strong background in liberal subjects (A.P. English, A.P. History, and/or a strong private school curriculum), we encourage you to maintain and develop your strengths in these areas through the use of supplemental readings.

For starters, we suggest that you pick up a copy of the optional text (Carroll Pursell’s The Machine in America), and then read the following material:

  • Week 2, Pursell, Machine in America, ch. 3. (transportation), for Friday’s field trip.
  • Week 3, Pursell, ch 4, (Expansion of American manufactures)
  • Week 4, Charles Darwin, On the Origins of Species, available [3] or at the library
  • Week 5, Pursell, ch. 10 (consumption)
  • Week 7, Pursell, Ch. 11 (great depression)
  • Week 9, Pursell, Ch. 8, “Export, Exploitation, and Empire,” or an additional selection from Adas
  • Week 13, Pursell, Ch. 12, “Wars and the American Century”

We can also recommend other additional readings at your request. Just let us know!

Weekly Readings & Assignments (This is a preliminary schedule; please check your email for updates) Week TUESDAY Readings Academic Transition Topic FRIDAY Field Trips, Assignments and Other Activities

  • 1.Introduction
    • 8/31 P. T. Carroll, “Designing Modern America”[4] (for Friday), What are your interests?(Goal setting)
    • 9/3 A Walking Tour of Troy
  • 2.Hunter-gatherer societies
    • 9/7 Quinn, Ishmael, ch.1-6 (pages 1-110) & M. Sahlins, “The original affluent society”[5]. What makes for good class discussions? (Critical dialogue)
    • 9/10 Erie Canal
  • 3.Agriculture, expansion, U.S. industrialization
    • 9/14 Diagnostic QUIZ Quinn, ch. 7-9, “Civilization’s Cost”, Science (distrib), What are some different modes of reading? (College level reading)
    • 9/17 Also discuss final projects; Explore this site: USGS Land Use History [6]
  • 4.On evolution
    • 9/21 Quinn, (finish); Diamond, “The worst mistake in… history”. What’s expected in the weekly thought pieces? (Writing)
    • 9/24 New York State Museum; Initial Project Descriptions (due)
  • 5.Social Darwinism and representations of evolution
    • 9/28 Sumner, “The forgotten Man,” [7] Web: Eugenics Archive [8] . What contributes to effective group work? (Group work)
    • 10/1 Film: Stephen J. Gould,“On Evolution”; (Also lecture: L. Thompson 4-6pm on 9/28)
  • 6.The climate change debate
    • 10/5 Films: An Inconvenient Truth // Great Global Warming Swindle, Begley, “Truth about Denial,” [9] also Skeptics [10]. How do you do social / humanistic research? (Research methods)
    • 10/8 Guest Lecture or reading: TBA
    • DFWI Field Trip (optional)*
  • 7. Natural Resources & Human Ecology
    • 10/12 NO CLASS(Monday Schedule)(NONE)
    • 10/15 Guest Lecture or reading: TBA
  • 8. Peak Oil
    • 10/19 Simmons, Twilight in the Desert (selections); Strahan, The Last Oil Shock; & ASPO Website [11]. What makes for a good presentation? (Presentation skills)
    • 10/22 Lecture: Simron Singh – Nicobar Islands, Scientist as Activist. Simron Singh Lecture 10/22/10
  • 9. Imperialism, resource use, and war
    • 10/26 Adas, Dominance by Design (selection)How do you deal with mid-semester crunch? (Time management)**
    • 10/29 Virtual tour (due)
  • 10. Economics of Biodiversity
    • 11/2 Gowdy, “The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity”; & The Long Emergency (selct)
    • 11/5 Revisit final projects
  • 11. Local / Organic Foods
    • 11/9 Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, ch. 1-4 What have we covered? What’s missing? (Reflexive learning)
    • 11/12 Discuss final ethnographic assignment
  • 12. Local Foods (cont.)
    • 11/16 Kingsolver, ch. 5-9 (Distribute & discuss ethnography exercise)
    • 11/19 Guest Lecture or reading: TBA
  • 13. Consumer culture
    • 11/23 Pursell, “It’s Fun to Live in America” (distrib); Center New Am Dream [12]. (Vasudha in the Spring semester)
  • 14. Sustainability
    • 11/30 Kingsolver, (finish) (NONE)
    • 12/3 Ethnographic field notes (due)
  • 15. Conclusion
    • 12/7 Reading, if any, TBA. What were our goals? How did we do? (Goals & reflexivity)
    • 12/10 Final Projects & Presentations (due)
  • We may schedule an optional overnight trip to the Darrin Fresh Water Institute for students with a strong interest in biology, ecology, and related subjects. Currently, we believe this trip may take place over Columbus Day weekend (October 8-9); with a day-trip option for those who wish to go just on Saturday, October 9th. Participation will be first-come, first-serve, with priority given to students enrolled in the Vasudha program.