The Nature of Environmental Studies

Believe it or not, Environmental Studies just might save your life.

John Stilgoe, the Robert and Lois Orchard professor in the History of Landscape, and professor of Environmental Studies in the VES department, relates a little-publicized Sept. 11, 2001 survival story:

“Several of my former students who are now working in New York City contacted me after 9-11 and thanked me for saving their lives. I give a lecture each year in which I describe what happens in a major city after a natural disaster. My students who were in New York on that terrible day have told me that what they learned in that lecture helped them to comprehend the chaos around them and escape to safety.”

(UNDE)FINED ARTS

It is a lesson too few students had the opportunity to learn. Only six of the 104 VES concentrators have their focus in Environmental Studies. This is at least partially due to the insufficient promotion from the Administration.

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences “Handbook for Students” contains only one paragraph on Environmental Studies—there is no clear definition of the concentration or any hint as to what will be expected of students who join it. According to the blurb, “Students interested in focusing on Environmental Studies should consult with the Director of Undergraduate Studies to construct a Plan of Study reflecting these interests.”

Students who follow the handbook’s advice will likely be redirected once more. Paul Stopforth, the VES Director of Undergraduate Studies, recommends that prospective Environmental Studies applicants seek out Professor Stilgoe’s services as an adviser: “Professor Stilgoe, for all intents and purposes, is the only VES faculty member who teaches courses that are defined as Environmental Studies. Students interested in that focus should become acquainted with him, and they should speak with him about shaping a plan of study.”

It is clear that, ultimately, it is each applicant’s responsibility to design an appropriate plan of study. This level of autonomy is unique in the VES department. In contrast, the FAS handbook details explicit study tracks for students focusing in Studio Arts, Film/Video, and Film Studies.

Some students consider the open-endedness of the Environmental Studies track to be liberating. Charlotte B. Winthrop ’08 explains: “The freedom to make your own plan of study isn’t a burden—it’s a bonus. I’m really excited to pick and choose those courses that interest me.”

Danielle Travers ’05 concurs: “Designing my own curriculum was one of the best parts of the experience. It helped me to focus my studies on what interested me—and to critically approach those topics.”

A self-tailored concentration may be one of Environmental Studies’ selling points, but it makes it a difficult discipline to pin down. Winthrop explains: “Environmental Studies is different for everyone who does it.”



NEW MONEY SMELL

Professor Stilgoe provides the closest thing to a unifying definition for the field when he says, “Environmental Studies is the study of everything that people have created against the backdrop of natural systems and human modification of natural systems.”

He explains further that Environmental Studies is the “the basis of the VES curriculum” because, “You must learn to look at the environment critically before you can make something that is a representation of it.”

Robert P. Young ’06, a VES concentrator focusing in Film/Video, explains the relevance of Environmental Studies to his track: “I think I would really benefit as a filmmaker from Environmental Studies theory. In the Film/Video track we have assignments called ‘light journals’ in which we take a collection of shots that demonstrate how light interacts with the environment. But we don’t approach these assignments with a theoretical background in how to see the world, so the journals become exercises in camera operation rather than critical seeing.”

Professor Stilgoe believes that Environmental Studies has a general relevance that extends beyond the realm of cinema and studio art. He describes the ways in which lack of insight into the environment makes the unwary vulnerable to manipulation: “People who don’t critically engage their surroundings are easily manipulated. For instance, in casinos new money scent is pumped into the air to subconsciously reduce gamblers’ inhibitions about risking money.”

Professor Stilgoe reports that many Environmental Studies graduates are presently working in advertising, an industry in which a talent for artful manipulation is highly prized.

Architects also benefit from an understanding of how environment shapes behavior. Professor Stilgoe uses shopping mall design as an example: “If you walk through a shopping mall concourse you’ll notice large groups of people stopping and gathering in spaces with raised ceilings. Designers understand that people tend to congregate in spaces with high ceilings, and they place them strategically to encourage shoppers to slow down and buy.”



DR. STILGOE’S PRESCRIPTION

Professor Stilgoe is alarmed by what he perceives as diminishing environmental awareness among Harvard students. He states: “If you want to knock a Harvard student down to size, show them an outline map of the United States and ask him or her to fill in the state names and the five major rivers. They will not be able to do it.”

The problem is not isolated to Harvard. Professor Stilgoe says that few colleges and high schools treat geography with any seriousness. This is particularly problematic because map reading, the correlation of the three-dimensional world to a two-dimensional schematic, is a basic measure of visual intelligence.

He is disappointed that the College Board has not more proactively encouraged schools to promote this type of visual education. He states: “The SAT people refuse to include a test of visual intelligence. Few undergraduates, even Harvard undergraduates, see such tests until they are being interviewed for jobs as investment bankers and consultants.”

Unfortunately, the resources that Harvard students require to gain the visual education Professor Stilgoe prescribes are slow in coming. Plans for a Stilgoe-led Core curriculum course to treat these topics have been indefinitely postponed due to a lack of qualified graduate students TFs.

Professor Stilgoe does believe Harvard is beginning to recognize the importance of Environmental Studies, however belatedly: “Now that Duke and Stanford are developing strong programs in fields similar to mine, Harvard has gotten the idea that this stuff if important. They’re pouring resources into the department now. I just hope they understand what I need isn’t more equipment, but qualified teachers.”

Administrators should take note. Environmental Studies isn’t just another concentration—it’s a survival tool.

—Crimson staff writer Bernard L. Parham can be reached at parham@fas.harvard.edu.



(UNDE)FINED ARTS

It is a lesson too few students had the opportunity to learn. Only six of the 104 VES concentrators have their focus in Environmental Studies. This is at least partially due to the insufficient promotion.

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences “Handbook for Students” contains only one paragraph on Environmental Studies—there is no clear definition of the concentration or any hint as to what will be expected of students who join it. According to the blurb, “Students interested in focusing on Environmental Studies should consult with the Director of Undergraduate Studies to construct a Plan of Study reflecting these interests.”

Students who follow the handbook’s advice will likely be redirected once more. Paul Stopforth, the VES Director of Undergraduate Studies, recommends that prospective Environmental Studies applicants seek out Stilgoe’s services as an adviser: “Professor Stilgoe, for all intents and purposes, is the only VES faculty member who teaches courses that are defined as Environmental Studies. Students interested in that focus should become acquainted with him, and they should speak with him about shaping a plan of study.”

It is clear that, ultimately, it is each applicant’s responsibility to design an appropriate plan of study. This level of autonomy is unique in the VES department. In contrast, the FAS handbook details explicit study tracks for students focusing in Studio Arts, Film/Video, and Film Studies.

Some students consider the open-endedness of the Environmental Studies track to be liberating. Charlotte B. Winthrop ’08 explains: “The freedom to make your own plan of study isn’t a burden—it’s a bonus. I’m really excited to pick and choose those courses that interest me.”

Danielle Travers ’05 concurs: “Designing my own curriculum was one of the best parts of the experience. It helped me to focus my studies on what interested me—and to critically approach those topics.”

A self-tailored concentration may be one of Environmental Studies’ selling points, but it makes it a difficult discipline to pin down. Winthrop explains: “Environmental Studies is different for everyone who does it.”

NEW MONEY SMELL

Stilgoe provides the closest thing to a unifying definition for the field when he says, “Environmental Studies is the study of everything that people have created against the backdrop of natural systems and human modification of natural systems.”

He explains further that Environmental Studies is the “the basis of the VES curriculum” because, “You must learn to look at the environment critically before you can make something that is a representation of it.”

Robert P. Young ’06, a VES concentrator focusing in Film/Video, explains the relevance of Environmental Studies to his track: “I think I would really benefit as a filmmaker from Environmental Studies theory. In the Film/Video track we have assignments called ‘light journals’ in which we take a collection of shots that demonstrate how light interacts with the environment. But we don’t approach these assignments with a theoretical background in how to see the world, so the journals become exercises in camera operation rather than critical seeing.”

Stilgoe believes that Environmental Studies has a general relevance that extends beyond the realm of cinema and studio art. He describes the ways in which lack of insight into the environment makes the unwary vulnerable to manipulation: “People who don’t critically engage their surroundings are easily manipulated. For instance, in casinos new money scent is pumped into the air to subconsciously reduce gamblers’ inhibitions about risking money.”

Stilgoe reports that many Environmental Studies graduates are presently working in advertising, an industry in which a talent for artful manipulation is highly prized.

Architects also benefit from an understanding of how environment shapes behavior. Stilgoe uses shopping mall design as an example: “If you walk through a shopping mall concourse, you’ll notice large groups of people stopping and gathering in spaces with raised ceilings. Designers understand that people tend to congregate in spaces with high ceilings, and they place them strategically to encourage shoppers to slow down and buy.”

DR. STILGOE’S PRESCRIPTION

Stilgoe is alarmed by what he perceives as diminishing environmental awareness among Harvard students. He states: “If you want to knock a Harvard student down to size, show them an outline map of the United States and ask him or her to fill in the state names and the five major rivers. They will not be able to do it.”

The problem is not isolated to Harvard. Professor Stilgoe says that few colleges and high schools treat geography with any seriousness. This is particularly problematic because map reading, the correlation of the three-dimensional world to a two-dimensional schematic, is a basic measure of visual intelligence.

He is disappointed that the College Board has not more proactively encouraged schools to promote this type of visual education. He states: “The SAT people refuse to include a test of visual intelligence. Few undergraduates, even Harvard undergraduates, see such tests until they are being interviewed for jobs as investment bankers and consultants.”

Unfortunately, the resources that Harvard students require to gain the visual education Stilgoe prescribes are slow in coming. Plans for a Stilgoe-led Core curriculum course to treat these topics have been indefinitely postponed due to a lack of qualified graduate student TFs.

Professor Stilgoe does believe Harvard is beginning to recognize the importance of Environmental Studies, however belatedly: “Now that Duke and Stanford are developing strong programs in fields similar to mine, Harvard has gotten the idea that this stuff if important. They’re pouring resources into the department now. I just hope they understand what I need isn’t more equipment, but qualified teachers.”

Administrators should take note. Environmental Studies isn’t just another concentration—it’s a survival tool.

—Staff writer Bernard L. Parham can be reached at parham@fas.harvard.edu.