The pieces we have

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Author: Kate Sherren
Date: Nov. 2009
From: Environments(Vol. 37, Issue 2)
Publisher: Wilfrid Laurier University - Environments
Document Type: Article
Length: 4,088 words
Lexile Measure: 1300L

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I once worked with a man who had worked for Lego. He designed themed construction kits, like the Moon series I had played with as a child. When faced with a problem that no existing unit could fulfill, my colleague had the power to commission the design and manufacture of a new fit-for-purpose piece. We mere consumers had to make do with the standard Lego pieces, finding ways to turn them to our purposes or adapting our designs accordingly. This challenge of the medium, and the creative problem-solving it inspires, is one of the reasons that Lego is an enduring toy.

I tell you this not only to confess my envy, but to draw a comparison. The challenge of sustainability research and education in universities invites plenty of discussion about the limitations of the institutional context and intellectual materials for the purpose. It is tempting to try to create something bespoke - a custom piece that enables the ideal. But the costs of such a move may outweigh the benefits. In this essay, I argue that: (1) the complexity of universities means there are risks in tinkering with individual pieces in isolation; and, (2) our existing library of academic 'parts' (i.e. disciplines, departments, courses, even universities) serve many purposes well and can be made serviceable for sustainability too.

The trouble with tinkering

Universities fulfil many roles for many kinds of people. They are places for educating undergraduate students, mentoring research students, fostering academic scholarship to advance knowledge, and provide society with experts (Sporn 1996). The institutions we see today are likely a 'best fit' for all these roles. I become concerned when structural and philosophical changes or new incentive schemes are suggested to create a more hospitable climate in universities for one kind of literacy or academic activity. It is not the ambition of the recommendations that rankles, but how often these proposals are presented without addressing potential impacts upon other important literacies and academic activities. Oversimplification is a good way to generate protest or advertising slogans, but no way to undertake institutional change. In 2006, Australian environmental risk expert Su Wild River made an insightful comment to me in a qualitative interview setting:

  It's funny, I started off with all my environmental work as a
  real change agent, and I feel like what I've become in my maturity
  is an agent of stability Somebody says, "Let's change
  everything", and I go, "But, why? Let's just fix the funny
  little things that are broken and leave everything else as
  it is because it's working alright (Wild River, pers.
  comm. 17 Aug 2006).

This sentiment has stuck in my mind ever since because I walked a similar path during my doctorate on higher education for sustainable development (Sherren 2008a). I think Wild River describes a transition in her own career akin to the shift in universities away from 'activist' focused environmental education and towards education for sustainability. People with a nuanced understanding of environmental challenges can participate in processes to improve conditions, rather than just agitate outside the 'gates' (or security fencing). Similarly, a nuanced understanding of universities can reveal whether they are demonstrating an excessive resistance to the sustainability agenda, or a healthy resilience against social engineering, indoctrination, and intellectual faddism. A piece or two of institutional theory helps.

Institutions learn' from experience. They are the behavioural grooves where many people tread. That they facilitate some activities over others is efficient and, on balance, advantageous for the institution and its constituents, despite presenting some barriers to less common activities. Why educate your children? Why become a university-based intellectual? Why seek peer review? In risk management terms, doing so provides the opportunity for legitimacy and equity (pursuing norms) and elevation or advantage (exceeding them) (Fox 1992). It is rational to design structures that reduce the transaction costs of making the most common choices, and this renders them even easier to choose in future (North 1990). Individual choices thus dictate the institutional forms that exist for facilitating different life and career paths. The available institutional forms in turn limit the kinds of choices that can be made (Giddens 1979). Changing one means changing both, so it is not surprising it rarely happens.

Sustainability stretches the university system, but the resistance of the system is also to be valued. Lasting institutions have to balance flexibility, robustness and goodness of fit in their operating environment (Good in 1996). Increasing flexibility in institutions carries a proportionally higher risk of maladaptation (Handmer and Dovers 1996). Given the flexibility of the term 'sustainability' (Wil-banks 1994, Dobson 1996, Robinson 2004), I agree with some prominent scholars of education for sustainability (EFS) that universities must tread carefully to avoid sacrificing academic freedom for indoctrination (Foster 2001, Gough and Scott 2001, Jickling 2001, Wals and Jickling 2002). Leduc (this volume) is understandably concerned with the inconsistent messages to be found in the diversity of subject matter studied across university campuses. I am more inclined to trust the open playing field of ideas and the critical thinking skills imparted on those same campuses. I see no safe alternative.

Disciplinary knowledge forms the building blocks of problem-based integrative research (e.g. Rinia et al. 2002). It may be combined and tested in new ways but there is no getting away from that dependency. Disciplines often garner a fair bit of criticism in the environmental education literature, yet they are efficient social structures for advancing knowledge. In cohesive disciplines, everyone knows what needs to be done next and how it needs to be done. This common mental map allows research efforts to be divided efficiently among geographically dispersed individuals for collective progress (Whitley 1984). There are personal benefits, too, including clear social identity, manageable peer networks, higher citation rates and commensurate success in research grants and publication. People working in disciplinary interstices often feel pressures to become 'disciplined' to gain credibility, clarity of purpose, and a share in academic rewards (Huisman 1997, Kueffer et al. 2007). Forty years ago Campbell (1969) dreamed of a science system comprised of disciplines covering every possible combination of knowledge, overlapping like fish scales. Even he acknowledged, however, that no matter how large or how small the intellectual units, there will be attrition at the edges as members aspire to the central archetype (Hogg and Terry 2000). It is human nature.

Tinkering with the internal workings of universities has real implications for academic careers. To take an ecological perspective, universities provide core habitat for academics. They are perhaps the most 'endangered' of the university's many constituencies, because they can't survive in many other places. To be good habitat, a career path must be evident. For many, academe may be a calling or vocation, but that should not necessitate a vow of poverty or obscurity. Satisfaction is not negotiable. Satisfying career paths are not as clear cut for academics as they are for other jobs. First, academics are motivated in different ways, trading in what has been called the 'economy of esteem' rather than monetary reward (Brennan and Pettit 2004). Second, they operate under multiple expectations. Institutions encode 'career scripts' useful to them that give individuals meaning and, by enacting those scripts or not, career archetypes are modified and the institution itself is reconstituted (Barley 1989). Academics have to simultaneously negotiate the partially overlapping interests and contexts of discipline, department and the wider university sector (Kaulisch and Enders 2005). Each of these may send different messages about expectations but there is at least broad consistency within each. It is necessary for the peripatetic academic career that this be the case. I remember an interview in 2005 with a Canadian professor who was describing an innovative university in the Pacific Northwest that had decided to revolutionise its academic reward systems. He said, "If you go there, I hope you like it, because you're sure not going anywhere else afterward." There are real costs to working against norms and perhaps questionable gains to be made.

A personal perspective

I have spent a lot of time thinking about sustainability in relation to the complex university setting just described and have come to a pragmatic position. My sense is that the literature produced by the more idealistic researchers of sustainability education and pedagogy is simply not speaking to the administrators and academics who teach but who are scholars of fields other than education. Often the message seems to be that sustainability education calls for tabula rasa, or a bespoke piece, in order to work in universities. The debate is less a tug-of-war than a cold war, the two sides rarely engaging one another. Sustainability educators don't hold enough of the tactically valuable ground to take such a position. What is more, sustainability educators should be careful what they wish for: such positions may be counter-productive from a systemic view as well as being polarizing. Following are some pieces of my own thinking on the implications of sustainability for organizational structures, research, and teaching in universities.

Organizational structures

It is genuinely difficult to organize integrative topics in a sensible way on university campuses. Sustainability fits everywhere and nowhere at the same time (Sherren 2006, 2008b) and organizational decisions do impact on the day-to-day decisions that academics make about how to spend their time (Sherren et al. 2009). There are two key structural models in use: departments and networks (Sherren 2008b).

The interdisciplinary academic department has become increasingly common over the last forty years, based on the assumption that if you co-locate people, collaboration will follow. This is only partially true. My own postdoctoral fellowship was the direct result of such collegial chatting with a neighbour. Social networks suggest, however, that such departments still operate largely as an assemblage of labs', each linking outside the department and university to prominent peers. Integration within departments occurs largely in the supervision of research students (Sherren et al. 2009). This may be optimal, as the external links bring new resources, knowledge and prestige into the department to everyone's benefit, particularly the research student body for the period of their mentorship (Sherren 2010). Those same interdisciplinary students may find it difficult, however, to find permanent homes in academe, even in departments like the ones that fostered them which are often staffed by representatives from individual disciplines perceived to contribute to the problem area under study (Sherren et al. 2009).

The other dominant structural model is the network. These draw individuals from across campus in communities of interest, improving internal connectivity and information flows. Networks vary in their formality and membership rules. They serve as handy one-stop-shops for people from outside. Such networks struggle to add value for members without adding obligations, and need to avoid their existence being seen as competition or a drain on scarce resources (Sher-ren 2008b). Such networks are typically focused on research. Less common are networks, such as the College of Sustainability at Dalhousie University, which draw on faculty from across the university to deliver undergraduate programs. Ready-made collegial networks like these can support curriculum design or strategic research planning in topics like sustainability that have no other logical or comprehensive academic home. Such collaboration strengthens the network and the problem area in turn (Sherren et al. 2010b).

Interdisciplinary departments and networks each have their challenges, but these are largely intractable. They are the two pieces we have to work with and, on balance, their benefits outweigh their costs. We should be transparent about those limitations for the benefit of those at risk of being disadvantaged by them, but otherwise accept and work creatively within the models on offer. Evidence shows this can be fruitful.


Like environmental studies, sustainability is not a discipline. It is a context for integrative problem-solving that depends upon healthy disciplines. This openness to new intellectual material is actually a strength. As a comparison, there have been attempts (in which I have participated) to 'discipline' higher education for sustainable development (Wright 2007). I can understand the rationale: despite many successful curricula around the world, the sustainability education literature never seems to 'accumulate'. One cause is the diffuseness of the literature itself, but another is the difficulty of generalizing from case-based research, and the commensurate lack of citation and difficulty in establishing first principles. The differences between problem contexts can trump their similarities and thus transferrable lessons. I believe there is little to be gained by formalizing environmental studies, sustainability or sustainability education as disciplines, and thus potentially blinding them to new ideas; that is, after all, why individual disciplines are considered inadequate for addressing complex issues (Sherren et al. 2009).

One sign of a mature academic paradigm, according to Abbott (2001), is when departments hire their own graduates, or graduates of similar departments, into permanent positions. I invite you to apply this test to your own interdisciplinary department. Mine is populated mostly with representatives from each of the disciplines seen as relevant to sustainability. Our research progresses either through collaborative teams, featuring integrative-minded experts from inside or outside the department in one or more of the constituent parts of the problem, or by interdisciplinary individuals.

Individual interdisciplinarity is a tough row to hoe. It's hard to keep up to date with all the necessary literatures and carve a sensible track record that integrates them. I tried it and found it uncomfortable, not to mention lonely, but admire those who can make it work. I now prefer to work in small interdisciplinary teams, with clearly delineated tasks, responsibilities and points of overlap, integration and synergy (Sherren et al. 2010a). In such settings, one must be able to trust other team members to ensure their components meet disciplinary expectations about rigour, which lends credibility to the whole. A crucial step is identifying manageable parts of complex problems that can be tackled together While this scoping process may be seen as reductionist by some, it is essential in order to avoid becoming muddled (as intellectually stimulating and rich as that can sometimes be for the participants) and thus unable to make progress. After all, someone else tackling the same problem will include different elements and, in this way, the system as a whole will be better understood. Trying to model the world in all its complexity reminds me of Borges' (1984 [1972]) imaginary 1:1 map of the world, which was so impractical it fell quickly into disuse. It would be a non-trivial contribution if sustainability education provided opportunities for students to discover how they can make a novel contribution with their particular talents. If that contribution is to be research, sustainability education must enable informed decisions about what to study and - crucially - what not to.


Curriculum building is another situation where we are forced to be creative with a limited suite of building blocks. I have indentified seven basic program types (Sherren 2008b, 7): rigid programs, foundation years (traditional and block offerings), longitudinal themes, capstones, and majors or specializations with high or low prerequisite structures. All but the first can be used in combination to balance student demands for degree customization with the practicalities of administrative workloads, while presenting students with a logical path through complex material. During my 2005 interview with the then-head of the York University Bachelor of Environmental Studies, for instance, administering unique programs of study for each student was described as an enormous task. I would argue whether it should be necessary.

By contrast with Australia, in which three-year, 24-course undergraduate degrees are the norm, the four-year, 40-course standard in Canada leaves lots of room for the complex demands of sustainability. Even so, there may be limitations to what is able to be addressed in the formal curriculum. Extracurricular activities may be the place where students really start to put things together. Some truly innovative Canadian programs have used these building blocks to create communities of learners where students want to put in extra time, sometimes even their study breaks (e.g. the Simon Fraser University Undergraduate Semester in Dialogue, the UBC Global Resource Systems degree, the St. Thomas University Aquinas Program and the University of New Brunswick Renaissance College) (Sherren 2008b). My belief is that these programs impart a sustainability education - one focused on critical thinking, broad foundations, integrative scholarship, active citizenship and cosmopolitanism (Sherren 2008c) - even if the word is never mentioned.

I support a strong basis in disciplines for any scholars or students of sustainability, and agree that this could be achieved through the kind of "re-visioning of the liberal arts tradition" for which Leduc (p. 22) calls. Liberal study is not the same as flexible study. I feel that hyper-flexible programs simply communicate a vague notion of sustainability. It also feels like a cop-out, like telling students, "You figure it out". Scholars charged with curriculum design related to their shared subject matter should be able to develop a set of fundamentals (Sherren 2006, Sherren et al 2010b). A small expert survey in 2005 showed strong agreement on a sustainability canon. Core content was identified as ecology, policy, economics and ethics, but studies about society were relegated to elective status (Sherren 2007). By contrast, I have seen programs where the only thing the curriculum committee could agree upon is methods (one qualitative, one quantitative, maybe one on integrating them) and 'issues' (e.g. Sherren et al. 2010b).

I agree with Leduc that ethics and the humanities remain under-represented in programs tackling environment and sustainability. I see untapped potential for good literature to plunge readers into other lives and help them develop the empathy necessary for intra-generational equity (Sherren 2006). I see roles for history and philosophy to confront the key values of modern consumer societies and help set new trajectories (Fischer et al. 2007). A rebalancing towards the human sphere and away from the sciences would be needed, for example, to align the Australian undergraduate programs in environment and sustainability audited in late 2004 with the expert-derived sustainability canon mentioned above (Sherren 2005). Interestingly, programs targeting sustainability came closer to that ideal than those targeting environment alone. The primary difference was the inclusion in sustainability courses of policy and philosophy/ethics (Sherren 2008d). This is a promising trend.

None of this is meant to encourage a single model of sustainability curriculum. I believe that it is fundamentally good that everyone will do it a little differently based on local abilities and issues. Each resulting course will appeal to different students and produce different skill sets with which to tackle an uncertain future. Such heterogeneity is surely to be valued and will contribute to our resilience, socially and environmentally (Folke et al. 2002, Fazey et al. 2007).

In summary

Like the undertaking of sustainability itself, it is easier to generate a compass bearing for sustainability education than a clear picture of the eventual goal. During the trip, the pressures that cause drift are rooted in human nature itself: the desire for prestige, to belong, to be unique, to be part of a team, to survive. If we can recognize that we made the barriers to sustainability education ourselves, and that we made them for good reasons, we can mindfully tackle any necessary changes. Such nuanced understanding will help us to adapt our beloved institutions without destroying them and to see their resilience to change as an asset rather than a burden.


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Kate Sherren is an Atlantic Canadian and a geographer with a background in natural resource management. This commentary is based on her 2008 doctorate on sustainability in university teaching and research undertaken at the Australian National University. She has since returned to Canada to take up a professorship at the School for Resource and Environmental Studies at Dalhousie University. She can be reached at

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