Section: News

Nature calls? Environmental studies major in the works

Nature calls? Environmental studies major in the works

Photo by Cora Markowitz

Kenyon is pivoting toward green, with such initiatives as a plan to sign a carbon-neutrality pledge. Meanwhile, Professor of Biology Siobhan Fennessy and Robert Alexander, visiting professor of economics and environmental studies, are hoping to shore up the environmental emphasis in Kenyon’s academic sphere. The pair is working to design a new major in environmental studies.

Alexander, who ran an environmental studies program at Sweet Briar College, is in the process of developing a curriculum for a major at Kenyon

Kenyon presently offers a handful of courses in environmental studies, as well as a concentration — officially termed an “interdisciplinary minor” — in the subject. The concentration, which has been around since the 1990s, exposes students to environmental studies through required courses in biology, chemistry and economics, as well as an introductory and a seminar course in environmental studies. A selection of classes in anthropology, physics, political science, religious studies and sociology also count toward the concentration.

Fennessy said the major would retain this interdisciplinary nature. “It’s a blessing and a curse in some ways because it’s such a broad field,” Fennessy said. “You have to make sure that a student really has the depth in something within it to be able to leave here and really have the expertise needed to take on meaningful work.”

Alexander said there is no definite timeline for when the major will be approved, but he would like it to be this year, and Fennessy said it is likely current sophomores and first years will have the opportunity to graduate as environmental studies majors.

Emma Garschagen ’19 is currently enrolled in one of Alexander’s environmental studies courses and said she would consider adding an environmental studies major to her studio art major. She also believes making environmental studies a major would give the program more weight.

“The interesting thing about Kenyon is that it’s not as sustainable as I sort of thought it would be, or I hoped it would be,” Garschagen said. She also recognizes a positive side to Kenyon’s situation. “It’s exciting,” Garschagen said. “This is something I can be involved in changing.”

Alexander and Fennessy have a lot of ground to cover. Normally, major proposals are due to the provost’s office by Nov. 1 and faculty must vote on new majors at or before their January meeting, according to the Kenyon website.

Alexander has not received an official extension from the provost and does not know if he will be able to present his proposal this academic year.

Provost Joseph Klesner, who is traveling on College business, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Samuel B. Cummings Professor of Psychology Sarah Murnen, who chairs the curricular policy committee, has not engaged in any discussions on the proposal, but said it was “not impossible” that the major would be presented and approved this year and available for students to declare in the fall of 2016. The Nov. 1 deadline, according to Murnen, is not hard and fast. Still, Murnen has yet to see a proposal and Alexander has yet to finish one.

A successful proposal would demonstrate demand for the major, and that the program would not require additional faculty, according to Murnen.

Fennessy said student and administrative interest in environmental studies as a subject, and a major, has increased over the past decade. “It’s a gap in our curriculum, and it’s something that is seen as a vital part of what colleges and universities can offer their students,” she said. Some of Kenyon’s peer institutions, including Oberlin College and Middlebury College, have adopted an environmental studies major.

“It’s a very natural addition to a liberal arts curriculum,” Fennessy said. “By nature, it’s very integrative, and it draws upon the strong traditions in liberal arts, sciences and humanities.”

Fennessy’s advice for anyone interested in pursuing the major is to take the courses currently required for the concentration, as the major’s requirements would significantly overlap with those of the concentration.

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