Environment and Society
(ENVS101 Spring '09 Section 2)

Back to Site Map

Introduction & Objectives

Environmental Studies is an interdisciplinary field of study that draws extensively from the natural sciences (ecology, physics, chemistry and geology), the social sciences (economics, history, government, psychology and sociology) and the humanities (religion, philosophy, English and the arts). This course is an interdisciplinary exploration of environmental issues and challenges faced by human societies in the 21st century. The course briefly reviews that scientific basis of these challenges but focuses on critically examining the social, cultural, political, and ethical issues related to the environment. It provides the foundation for upper-level courses in Environmental Studies. The concept of environmental sustainability serves as a key organizing concept for this course

The primary objective of this course is to provide you with a systems-oriented perspective on the key areas of environmental studies. Specifically, I would like you to leave this course with:
1) a solid grasp of the fundamental scientific principles governing environmental systems including the cycling of matter, the flow of energy and the role of feedback;
2) an understanding of the role of humans in the ongoing changes to the biosphere and the cultural, political and economic causes;
3) an ability to understand and evaluate environmental issues from multiple perspectives; and
4) knowledge and direct experience with the design options and strategies available for generating a more sustainable relationship between humans and the rest of the natural world.

We are at a point of time when we as a species are re-evaluating our relationship with the natural environment and I would like each of you to have the knowledge and skills to actively participate in that process in your personal, academic, and professional lives.

[Back to Site Map]

Course Organization & Requirements

Class will be a mixture of lecture, small group brainstorms, case studies, and large group discussions. I expect you to complete the assigned readings prior to each class. This is particularly critical on days devoted to case studies -- you will be letting your group members down if you arrive unprepared (see group grade). In addition to the readings, you should count on regular quizzes, cased study briefs (writing assignment), a 3-5 page paper on sustainability, a project proposal, project updates, a project presentation and final report. Due dates for these assignments are on the mini-syllabus I passed out the first day of class and also under the "Schedule/Assignmt" button in the menu to the left. Under the evaluation/grading heading below, I indicate how your performance in this course will be assessed.

There are two reasons why I have posted this syllabus instead of printing copies. First, this is a long document, and posting it on-line significantly reduces energy and material use. Second, this web site will evolve over the semester. By Saturday morning I will add questions that go with the following week's reading assignment and will also add information regarding case studies. The questions are intended to help you focus on key points in the reading. On quizzes you are responsible for material covered in readings that is not covered in lecture. Lecture overheads will be posted as downloadable PowerPoint files after each class. Check the web regularly!

[Back to Site Map]

Instructions for Readings

You are required to purchase only one book for this course, Michael Pollan. 2006. The omnivore's dilemma . Most other readings are posted under the “Readings” button on Blackboard and organize into folders for each class. Hard-copy versions of most papers are also on reserve on A-level in Mudd. A few of your readings, marked “OnTheWeb” are on websites that are directly linked in this document. To minimize your use of material resources, I encourage you to read and take notes on a computer. If you choose to print copies, the text is large enough on many readings that you may be able to print two of the PDF pages on a single side of a page (Look under print “properties” or print “options”). Readings marked with an asterisk (*) are classics in the field of environmental studies - read them with special care and attention. 

By Saturday morning I will revise questions for the subsequent week's reading that help focus your studies. If you are able to answer these questions, you will likely do well on the portion of the quizzes devoted to material from the readings and will be well prepared for case studies and discussions.


The spring '09 semester is rich with events related to the environment that occur outside of class time. A few events directly related to this class that occur outside of normal class times are noted on the class schedule. Attendence of others is optional, but highly encouraged. In many cases, these events relate directly with materials addressed in adjacent classes. You are highly encouraged to go to other events and will receive a small amount of bonus credit for each event that you attend (see grading section below).

Teaching Assistant

The primary role of our teaching assistant, Pichaya ("Poy") Winichakul, is to serve as a resource for working group projects. Poy has been engaged in environmental issues and policy at the College and in the larger community and is well prepared to help you with both brainstorming and logistics. Poy is also available to help with case studies and with your sustainability essay. She will hold office hours as indicated on the home page of this website. She's there to help you out, please take advantage of this!

Working Groups

In spite of the dominance of the individualistic model of learning in undergraduate education, there is a wealth of research documenting the advantages of more collaborative modes of learning. This research indicates that the amount of short-term factual information that can be transferred into your memory is approximately equivalent in the two modes, but that long-term retention and the development of critical thinking skills are maximized in the collaborative mode. In addition to being a more effective means of gaining knowledge and understanding, working within teams of colleagues is also a far more realistic model of how learning and tasks are most effectively accomplished in the "real world" of research, education, government and business. The team learning model is particularly applicable in the interdisciplinary field of environmental studies, where the vast majority of work is accomplished in collaborative teams. Typically groups are structured so that each member brings a different set of skills and perspectives to bear on the problem at hand and the group allocates different responsibilities to each member.

In order to take advantage of the benefits of collaboration, much of your work in this course will be accomplished in shifting pairs and in assigned working groups of four that will last for the duration of the semester. My goal in creating working groups will be to maximize the distribution of project interests and preexisting skills and knowledge among the groups (e.g. natural science, social science, years at Oberlin, leadership skills, writing skills, etc.). Your responsibility as group members is to work with each other master the material, to challenge each other's thinking, to generate new ideas, and to ensure on-time production of assignments. Your grade in this course will be based on individual performance, on group performance, and also on your individual contribution to your group as judged by fellow group members (see evaluation/grading). Some groups will work effectively from the start, and other groups will struggle initially, and may require substantial and continuous effort. Either ends of this spectrum provide valuable learning opportunities. Do NOT tolerate a "free rider" - different folks will contribute different skills and knowledge, but all should contribute equitably!

[Back to Site Map]


What I want you to achieve:

The jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker was fond of advising aspiring musicians to, "learn your instrument, learn the music, and then forget both". Most higher-level learning processes follow this model. Ultimately, I want you to develop an intuition and creativity that allow you to tackle problems confidently and directly without having to unnecessarily distract your mind with details (this is the "forget both" stage). But you absolutely can’t get to this stage without first learning the basic rules that control how the system of interest works ("learning the instrument"), or without gaining facility with the relevant facts of the matter ("learning the music"). My objective is to assign you a grade based on how well you progress in all three of these aspects of learning. To continue this analogy, the regular quizzes are designed to assess how well you master the instrument and the music. Your work in class will focus on instrument, music and creativity. Your group project will likewise emphasize all three, but will provide a unique creative opportunity to collaboratively build your own composition. In music, and in most professional situations, an individual’s performance is augmented and not depreciated by the collective performance of the ensemble; grades in this course will not be on a curve, (i.e. although unlikely, it is possible for every student in this class to simultaneously receive an A on every assignment).

Contribution to grades

20% Quizzes
20% Sustainability essay
20% Group project
20% Case studies
4% Mini-assignments
8% Class participation*
8%+ Group participation**
+5% Bonus points for participation in every possible outside event.***

*Class attendance is not optional. Be punctual. Lateness is disruptive and disrespectful to your peers and to your instructor and will affect your participation grade. If you have more than one unexcused absence you will not receive a passing grade!

**Your group participation score will be calculated as follows: each member of a working group of 4 has a total of 30 points to distribute among fellow group members based on each members contribution. For instance, if you perceive that your fellow group members contributed constructively and equally to the group, then you will give each of the other three a score of 10 points. I will know what scores you assign, your fellow group members will only be supplied the average score they receive from all their group members. I reserve the right to overrule and adjust an individual’s group grade in the unlikely event that I feel someone is being treated unfairly (FYI, I have rarely done this). If your three groupmates decide that you contributed nothing you stand to loose 10% of your final grade (this has never happened). If you are some sort of a cult figure and your three groupmates decide to allocate ALL of their points to you alone (30 points), you would actually end up improving your grade well above 10% (this has never happened).

***You will be given "points" based on the total fraction of optional events identified on the classschedule that you participate in. If you were to attend every single one of these events you would have 5% added to your total grade as a bonus. If you participate in none of the optional events you get no bonus points in the events category. You are operating under the honor code in specifying those events that you participate in.

[Back to Site Map]


How they work:

Infrequent exams tend to emphasize short-term memory over long-term information and skill acquisition. Your knowledge will therefore be assessed with regular quizzes. These will be composed largely of multiple choice questions, will be designed to take about 20 minutes, and will be taken outside of class on the web in assigned pairs. Their purpose is to 1) assess your knowledge of information presented in the readings and in class discussions, 2) assess your ability to apply this information, and 3) provide you with an opportunity to think through material with different members of the class. I will assign quiz partners the week before the quiz is due. In some cases the quiz will have a separate section that you take alone, but at a computer adjacent to your quiz partner. It is your responsibility to contact your partner, to arrange a mutually convenient time, and to show up and to complete the quiz together. In an emergency situation, if your partner is unable to join you (i.e. is hospitalized), you should take the quiz by yourself. If this happens send me an email in which you clearly state why you are taking the quiz alone. You will receive a score of zero for any quiz that you miss. Quizzes will be posted on the web by 12:00 noon on Saturday and must be completed by 9:00 PM on the following Monday evening. Content will include reading assigned for the subsequent class and for all previous classes, lectures and case studies (i.e. it is cumulative).

Honor code and online quizzes:

1) You may not gain access to the questions on the quiz beforehand. 2) Students who have taken the quiz may not discuss any aspect of the quiz with students who have not yet taken the quiz (not even to suggest that it was easy or hard). 3) Quizzes are closed-book and closed-notes - you should have nothing but the quiz open and visible on the screen when you take a quiz. 4) Do not print a copy of a quiz. 5) Complete the quiz from start to finish in one sitting without breaks or distractions. Do not try to log on to a given quiz more than once. 6) Remain with your partner throughout the duration of a quiz. Reserve immediately adjacent computers for yourselves. Take "partner" components together on one computer. Take "alone: sections at immediately adjacent computers and if you finish first wait for your partner to complete the quiz before leaving. 7) Do not log on to a quiz in another student’s name (by doing so you will invalidate the other student’s ability to take the quiz). 8) You and your partner are bound by the honor code to ensure that you are both following these rules. 9) If you become aware of others in the class who are giving or receiving unauthorized aid on a quiz then you are obliged to report them to the honor board. Make this work for us; respect your classmates by respecting Oberlin’s honor code!

Fairness of group work:

Is it fair for students take quizzes and complete assignments in groups? This is certainly a reasonable question, and the answer depends on your perspective on education. The competitive perspective is based on the premise that individual success is contingent on the failure of others. From this perspective, taking quizzes in pairs is unfair in the sense that "free riders" experience unjustified benefits when they are paired with those who are genuinely prepared and pull the weight. However, from a collaborative perspective, you have little to lose by taking the quiz in pairs - even if you are better prepared, it is likely that your partner will contribute to improving your combined score, and less likely that they will reduce your score. A student who is always well prepared will always do well, regardless of partner. A student who is poorly prepared will sometimes get lucky, but will sometimes get paired with another poorly prepared student. On balance (and from a statistical perspective), a student's cumulative average over the entire semester is likely to provide a reasonable representation of that student's individual knowledge of the material. You may periodically find that you disagree with your partner on the answer to a question. Consider this a learning opportunity. Disagreements regarding answers can usually be resolved with careful explanation, listening, discussion, debate and an open mind. But let me know when they occur.

Some of you may find this assessment scenario a bit strange and/or uncomfortable and this is understandable in the context of our current education system. However, the fact is, that although the competitive mode of learning still dominates in education, the vast majority of human endeavors in the "real world" are dependent on effective collaboration skills. Indeed, we evolved as a species to work effectively in groups. Our survival is contingent on improving and expanding our skills to collaborate at larger scales in an increasingly complex and interconnected world. Competition does play a critical and valuable role in human society, but ultimately the human species sinks or swims based on our ability to work together...

[Back to Site Map]

Turning in Assignments Electronically

Mechanism: You are required to turn all assignments in electronically; no paper assignments will be accepted in this course. You will submit assignments using Blackboard. Click on the “Assignments” button within Blackboard, click on the appropriate assignment (e.g. "Feedback&Causality"), click the “Browse” button to find your file, then click on the “Submit” button. Unfortunately Blackboard only gives you one chance to upload files. If you somehow mess up and upload the wrong file you need to email me so that I can clear it out.

Format: All written assignments should be sent in MicrosoftWord. Single space all text. I will use the "track changes" feature of word to insert my comments into your papers and will return them to you electronically. The feedback assignment and your project presentations should be sent in Microsoft Powerpoint format. In the past I have had problems with students turning in virus infected files. The college offers free virus protection software to all students who are on the college computer network -- please download, update and use this!

File naming convention: Use the following names for your files: Feedback loop diagram assignment, "FLYourFirstName.LastName" (e.g. FLJane.Doe); Group agreement, "GAYourGroupNumber" (e.g. GA6); Case studies, "CSCaseStudyNumberGYourGroupNumber" (e.g. CS1G7); Sustainability essay, "SEFirstName.LastName"; Group project ideas, "PIFirstName.LastName"; Project proposal, "PPYourGroupNumber"; Project presentation overheads, "POYourGroupNumber"; Project report, "PRYourGroupNumber"; Project materials (the project product or anything else associated with your project), "PMYourGroupNumber". Use the same first name and last name that you use in your email account. You will loose 1 point from any assignment that is not named correctly (sorting out files for a big glass is a waste of my time!).

Communicating with me and our Teaching Assistant

Feel free to make an appointment, or to stop by during my office hours. Our TA also has office hours. If you cannot meet during office hours, then we can arrange to meet at some other time. If I am not deluged, I will do my best to respond to email within 24 hours. If you email a question of general interest, I will likely send my response to the entire class list. Be sure to take full advantage of your classmates, the library, and the web as learning resources. Finding answers and solutions among yourselves by tapping into the multitude of resources available to you is generally a more gratifying and educationally valuable approach than seeking answers from a single authority. With a little notice, I'm often up for coffee, or meals in co-ops or dining halls.

There are many ways to teach environmental studies and I will continue to experiment with a number of new approaches in this course. Please give these approaches the benefit of the doubt - some will work well, some may not, and I will adjust accordingly. I encourage you to provide me with constructive feedback -- positive comments on what is working well are particularly appreciated!

[Back to Site Map]

Honor Code

Quizzes: Described above.
Case study briefs: I expect all members of your group to contribute in all cases. The member responsible for a given case should take the lead on writing and will be credited with the grade for this report, but it is acceptable and encouraged for others in the group to make significant contributions. Where you use supporting evidence, provide full literature citations for your sources.
Sustainability essay: You are encouraged to discuss your essay with others, but the work you turn in should be your own writing. Where you use supporting evidence, provide full literature citations for your sources.
Final project report: The work you turn in should be the writing of group members. Where you use supporting evidence, provide full literature citations for your sources.
Events listing: You should indicate that you attend only those events that you actually attend in full.