Infusing Sustainability into Education: Brian Codding

By: Bianca Greeff, Graduate Assistant, Sustainability Office.

Knowledge commons by Ellen Forsyth. Via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

Brian Codding is an Assistant Professor in the Anthropology Department at the University of Utah.  His work combines ecological approaches in ethnography and archaeology to explain present and past human behavior, focusing on the relationship between human decisions and how those decisions impact the local environment. Codding participated in the Wasatch Experience in 2015, and last month shared his knowledge at the interdisciplinary Sustainability Faculty Learning Community as a Sustainability Teaching Scholar.

The Sustainability Faculty Learning Community is a joint initiative of the Sustainability Office and the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence. The monthly meeting provides University of Utah faculty and teaching assistants the opportunity to engage, practice, and discuss integrating the big ideas of sustainability into their own courses and academic endeavors.

At February’s learning community, Codding shared strategies and activities he uses to integrate sustainability into his courses. I sat down with him after his presentation to discuss his research, teaching strategies, and what the Wasatch Experience has to do with it. 

Some of your work is rooted in prehistoric societies. Are there sustainability lessons we can draw from these societies?

A lot of this was popularized by Jared Diamond in the book “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.” While there are a lot of problems with that book, Diamond provides lessons we could learn from past human societies. I think the biggest, and probably most important, tool prehistory provides is a long-term perspective. It allows us to see what happens over large spans of time. We see how individuals are making decisions in the landscape, such as how resources are used and intensified irrigation practices, and what the fallout of those decisions are. The mistake Diamond makes is to not really pay attention to the social dilemmas that are underlying the collapses. Just because a society collapsed does not mean that a society in a similar ecological context will inevitably collapse too. It will if we don’t solve the underlying social dilemmas that are causing the Tragedy of the Commons.

Has studying and teaching prehistory changed your ideas of sustainability?

It would actually be the other way around. Studying sustainability issues in the present helped me realize how important it is to look at these issues in prehistory. You can’t fault Diamond, for example, for not realizing collective action problems that are driving the collapse, because these problems don’t fossilize. You can’t see social dilemmas, but they are pervasive. By seeing these dilemmas in the present day, among our industrial society, the global world, and acutely in small-scale societies, you can start to trace how they probably underlie all of these sustainability issues in the past as well.

You teach a variety of classes like World Prehistory, Spatial Analysis, and multiple levels of research. How do you incorporate sustainability into these different areas of study?

In the larger introductory courses, I generally introduce sustainability concepts as underlying themes. In World Prehistory, for example, one of the major themes of the course is understanding how human’s interaction with their environment results in either sustainable or unsustainable outcomes. You can see evidence of how human evolution might be driven by unsustainable foraging practices coupled with climatic change from really early on in our lineage. You can see things like maybe the reason why we spread across the entire planet is because we were using up too many resources in place, and we were better off moving to another place that is new land. Every time humans move, you see really stark environmental consequences.

The smaller upper-division courses are where I really try to use the same general concepts, but present them through more active learning techniques. An example would be facilitating a debate about what happens when humans enter a continent for the first time. Did humans have a beneficial effect on that environment, or a negative impact? By getting more in-depth, students are able to better understand and engage with underlying social dilemmas.

In other courses, I use labs that are based on real data sets in the published literature from anthropologists.  Students might analyze time series data looking at human resource interactions. An example is looking at what happens when humans are taking deer in the Great Basin for 10,000 years. Well, it suppresses their population. Students are learning an analytical technique, but with some type of sustainability topic embedded within it.

Have you found any surprising connections to sustainability in your teaching?

I have been surprised by how different disciplines define and use sustainability for teaching. In a lot of ways, it shows a common thread across all colleges and departments at the university. On the other hand, even in very basic terms, we sometimes talk past each other because we are not defining sustainability in the same way. Realizing how different people use “sustainability” has led me to clarify how anthropologists define sustainability to other people. I have benefited from learning other definitions of sustainability, and how other things like social justice and social inequality are sitting on a foundation of sustainable or unsustainable resource use.

How can you tell when you have successfully incorporated sustainability? 

Sometimes it is as simple as seeing the expression on a student’s face change as they are going through an activity or a lecture. The extension of that is having conversations with students after class who literally say “I have never thought about this before” and that shows me that I am doing something right. It encourages me to continue to try and reach students who really don’t think about these core sustainable concepts.

If and how has your involvement with the Wasatch Experience impacted your teaching? 

The Wasatch Experience is where I started comparing definitions of sustainability with other faculty across campus. It helped me understand the university-wide pedagogical framework, and structured the way I put learning objectives together. I had already been incorporating active learning before the Wasatch Experience, but I really tried to do it more. Before, I wouldn’t spend a detailed amount of time getting into the definitions of sustainability. Now I make sure I am really clear about what I mean rather than just jumping into concepts like social dilemmas or Tragedy of the Commons.

Both on a level of sustainability but also in pedagogy, the Wasatch Experience has been very useful. It has broadened what perspectives I know are on campus and broadened the network of people that I know. Now I can go to a meeting or a talk and see someone from the Wasatch Experience who I know who is interested in the same types of questions that I am. I found it really useful. It really feels like a community.

 What advice do you have for faculty and teaching assistants who want to incorporate sustainability into their courses?

Don’t be afraid to try something new. If you get an idea from somewhere, give it a shot. If it doesn’t work – and guaranteed it won’t work perfect the first time, try to figure out what worked well and adapt it. Also, don’t be afraid to stop doing something if it is not working for your discipline. Even if it doesn’t end up working for you, it is worthwhile to try new things.

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