Category Archives: Honors Seminar

Changes in the Land

One of the early messages I wanted to convey to the students in my Honors Seminar last fall was how much influence humans have and have had on our environment.  The assigned reading for this class was from Changes in the Land by environmental historian William Cronon.  This book was one of the first I read as I started becoming interested in the environment, so it is an old friend.

As Cronan explains, when the European colonists arrived in New England, they described the land as being like a park, and they assumed that they were observing a baseline of the natural world.  What they didn’t consider was that the Native Americans were already shaping the environment to their advantage.  For example, the colonists were impressed that there was little undergrowth in the forests, which contributed to the park-like perspective.  The Native Americans found that hunting was much easier without a jumble of undergrowth, so they regularly set small fires to remove the entangling brush without damaging the older and more established trees.

The Native Americans also moved around several times a year spending time with a few families farming in one area, hunting in another, and then gathering in larger groups to shelter over the winter.  When growing crops, they planted several different species intermixed in a single field.  They would begin by making mounds of earth, and in each mound, they would plant two beans and two kernels of corn so that the corn stalks provided the vertical support for the beans.  Between the hills, squash was planted to hold down both the soil and the weeds. Because the beans had the ability to nitrogen to the soil, and because of the mixture of plants, a single field could produce well for eight to ten years before the fertility was depleted and the families would move to a different field, allowing the original area to lie fallow and recover.

All of those habits stand in stark contrast to the European tradition of owning land and staying in a fixed location, which meant that a single field would be used for decades.  Usually farms are also planted as monocultures; a single plant occupying a given area, rather than the polyculture mixtures of the natives.  Thus soil fertility was much more of an issue for a farm.  These practices continue today and are why fertilizer and pesticides are such a large part of farming.

Reports from the colonies tended to focus on abundance, particularly of commodities that were rare in Europe.  Whether fish or animals, berries or trees, the colonists painted a rosy picture of the resources available in the New World, and the assumption was that these resources were present in endless amounts.  That abundance had actually been nurtured by the Native Americans who never used all of a given resource, and who used what they needed locally.  When the colonists not only feasted on the abundance but also harvested the entirety of the resource for export, the illusion of plenty dissipated rapidly.

Just one example of this illusion of abundance was trees.  In Europe, trees were a finite commodity, and people made do with modestly-sized fireplaces and small fires to cook and heat.  With an apparently endless supply of lumber, the new settlers indulged in large fireplaces to keep their houses toasty warm.  Even by the late 1600’s this practice took its toll as the area around Boston, including all of the harbor islands, had been completely logged of trees.  Eventually in the entire distance between Boston and New York City, there were fewer than 12 miles of trees.

On a pretty fall day, I like to take my students on a walk around campus to observe how their immediate environment has been influenced by human activity.  The University of Hartford was built on a farm, and it used to be that the lines of tress used to separate the fields could still be observed.  On the perimeter of the land, we can see the trees that grew up from the farm after it was no longer worked along with the undergrowth that developed rapidly in the absence of fire or clearing.  Most of New England has been logged or farmed so completely that the only small areas of old growth forest are sequestered in the most remote parts of Maine.  The lack of old trees on our campus is entirely due to centuries of human interaction with the environment.

As part of our walk, I also like to identify some of the non-native trees that have been planted on campus as ornamental species.  It’s really a question of whether or not I can name the tree and do I have a good story to tell about it.  For example, there is a sweetgum tree by the door to my building that drops “gumballs” as seedpods each year.  I remember ornaments on my mother’s Christmas tree made from gumballs glued together and spray painted, so the annual arrival of the gumballs on the ground always makes me smile.  Sycamore trees are one of the few species that I can identify by the bark as well as by the huge leaves.  Unlike the bark of most trees, which is elastic and stretchy, sycamore bark does not expand as the tree grows, so the result is a mottled appearance, which looks a bit like tree eczema.  Sycamore trees are excellent at filtering out air pollution, so they are a favorite of urban city planners.

Image of sweet gum tree with cute fruit sycamore bark

I also point out the line of six oak trees lining one of the sidewalks of campus.  They were planted in honor of the six graduates of the University of Hartford who died in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.  Oaks symbolize strength and long life, so these trees were well-chosen to remember our alumni for the long term.

The central idea of this honors seminar was the interaction between natural resources and public policy.  By starting with a familiar environment, my students now get a daily reminder of just how the behaviors and habits of people influence the shape of the world around them.

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Mapping the Federal Government

As I was designing my honors seminar for this past fall, I had to keep in mind that information that I now take for granted is not all that common outside of Washington DC, especially for undergraduates who may or may not keep up with the national news.  My class was divided into about half science majors and the other half a mixture of history, politics, and psychology, so I decided that a good starting place would be to map out the government to provide a common foundation of information.

My props for this unstructured exercise were a large blank whiteboard and several markers.  The rules of the game were that I would go around the table, and each student needed to add something to the map.  I think I prompted that perhaps we should start with the names of the three branches of government:

                       mapping the government 1

The President, Vice President, Congress, Senate, House of Representatives, and Supreme Court were filled in reasonably easily next.

mapping the government 2

Somehow the Secretary of State crops up early in the game, so that led us to the Cabinet and trying to name all of the Cabinet-level agencies who are headed by Secretaries.  Trivia:  Can you identify the agency whose leader is not “Secretary of X?”

Mapping the Government 3

(Answer:  The Department of Justice is led by the Attorney General)

Tackling Congress is a bit more of a challenge, but this component was one of the most important to me since we would be referring to the leadership structure throughout the course.  Starting with the Senate, I asked who is the leader of the Senate?  “The Vice President!” was the response.  OK, good.  Now the Vice President generally has better things to do with his time, so who leads when he’s not around?  I explained that the President Pro Tempore , who is the longest serving member of the majority party, has the authority in the Vice President’s absence.  (OK, so I don’t think I knew that before my year in Washington.)

We then discussed that the President Pro Tempore does not set policy.  Instead that is the Senate Majority Leader, whose counterpart is the Senate Minority Leader, who were Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell respectively when we started, although they have now reversed roles.  Second in command to the leaders are the Whips.  We had a lively discussion about what Whips do.  I explained that they counted votes on various issues so that the party leaders would have an idea of whether or not a vote would be successful before it was brought to the floor.  “And if people are going to vote the wrong way, then the Whips whip them into shape?”  Well, pretty much, yes.  It actually comes from the “whippers-in” in hunting, but it amounts to the same thing.

mapping the government 4

note the party colors reflect the 113th Congress from September 2014. The Senate has since “flipped” and the Republicans are in the majority

My favorite trivia question involves the Presidential succession.

Me:  So, if the President dies, who takes over?

Students: The Vice President

Me: Good!  What if the Vice President then dies?

Students: The Secretary of State?

Me: Nope

Students: That President Pro Something guy?

Me: Not quite

Students: Senate Majority Leader?

Me: Nope, getting colder.

One brave soul:  Speaker of the House?

Me:  Yes!  Who’s the Speaker of the House these days?

Students:  Nancy Pelosi?

Me:  Nice try.  She was speaker until the Republicans gained the majority.  She’s now the Majority Leader.  The current speaker is actually John Boehner.  So who is after Boehner?

Students:  Now the President Pro Tempore?

Me:  Yes!  Then the Cabinet secretaries in order of the creation of their departments.  So if we got all the way down to Energy, we could have a physicist as President!

Students, mumbling:  She’s such a nerd.

I went on to explain that this succession is the reason that for any major events which assemble all three branches of the government, there’s always one Cabinet secretary who stays away.  That way if some catastrophe happens and the rest of the government is destroyed, there’s still someone who Constitutionally has the authority to pick up the pieces.

Although I’m presenting the game to you in a linear fashion, the students jumped around quite a bit in adding to the map.  I was quite impressed when someone offered that John Roberts is currently the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.  With help from various classmates, they did manage to assemble a complete list of all nine justices.  It’s one of my own personal trivia tests, but I usually get shaky around seven or eight.

mapping the government 5

We also mentioned Circuit Courts, Appeals Courts, etc. but I’m definitely weakest on the Judicial branch.

We followed with a brief discussion that the state and local governments have similar structures, which allows for the dispersion of power and helps with the checks and balances we learned about in eighth grade.

The final map here looks very straightforward, but our map on the board showed all the signs of being generated more spontaneously and randomly.  Still, it was a good review of how all the pieces fit together, and I’ve always loved trivia, so it was fun for me as well.

One of the science majors was privately a bit dismayed by the exercise and said that the amount of politics was unexpected.  Well, yes, that’s the “Public Policy” part of the title.

mapping the government 6

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The One Page Briefing Memo

As part of my Honors Seminar on natural resources and public policy, I decided that the students would write nothing but the types of documents a Senate staffer would write.  When I mentioned to a colleague who teaches writing that these assignments would generally be restricted to a single page, he announced that I was diabolical.  We both agreed that although writing a single page appears to be an easy task, it is actually a significant challenge.

One of the joys of grading a single page of writing is that I can take 10-15 minutes on just that page and provide extremely detailed feedback on style, grammar, spelling, proof-reading, and content.  On longer documents, I still provide extensive feedback, but it is distributed throughout the document, and I do not necessarily pick up every detail worthy of comment.  The one page briefing memos allowed me to focus on many different aspects of writing all in a single document.  I also hoped that the length would encourage the students to do multiple drafts, but I wasn’t so idealistic that I assumed it would happen.  I did have a number of meetings with students to discuss their first drafts, which were then revised in time for class, so I did meet with some success on getting the students to submit edited documents rather than first drafts.

It took just one assignment for the students to learn that writing a single page is not as easy as it seems.  In contrast with their normal assignments of 5-10 pages, in which the students pontificate and wax poetic, a single page summary requires that only the most essential information be included.  The skills required to filter and prioritize information are not usually the focus of college classes, so the students struggled a little before they acquired the knack.

I’ve found that in the process of teaching writing, I also learn a great deal about what characterizes good writing.  My first discovery was that the prevalence of PowerPoint has rewarded students for presenting a list of bullet points without any surrounding text to provide context.  That was the first habit that had to go, since a one page summary needs to be easily digestible and should lead the reader smoothly through a topic.  A smooth flow requires complete sentences.  Following swiftly on the heels of banning the bullet point format, I also found it necessary to restrict lists.  Oh did the students love to make lists!  “My Senator is interested in the environment, education, technology, armed forces, children, little green apples, and stuffed animals.”  I always lost focus long before I reached the little green apples, so I restricted the lists or series to a maximum of three items.  I was impressed at how readable the resulting documents became.

Once the lists and bullets had been abolished, I found that I developed other pet peeves, which became the focus of periodic grammar mini-lectures of 5-10 minutes at the start of class.  We discussed parallel structure in series in which all the starting words are in the same form, such as, “I enjoy running in the rain, swimming in the ocean, and sleeping in the grass.”  I also enforced that cause and effect links must indeed be cause and effect, rather than what I refer to as “reasoning by proximity,” in which two facts are placed adjacent to each other, implying a connection that is not correct.  For example, “Many women get breast cancer.  All of these women wear deodorant.”  Both facts may be true, but one does not necessarily cause the other.

I was pleased that the students reported that they enjoyed the short grammar lessons, and certainly the quality of their writing improved dramatically over the semester.  My goal for teaching writing is to take each student at his or her current writing level and raise the level up a notch or two.  It was a pleasure to watch the students rise to each new challenge; that is one of my favorite parts of teaching.

After I left the Senate, I expected that my biggest challenge of returning to reading student papers was going to be that I couldn’t tolerate people who could not make deadlines.  I was wrong.  It turned out that I had difficulty reading responses that were not concise.  Thus it was much to my amusement that my Honors students rapidly developed the same bias.  By partway through the semester, they were complaining about readings in our class or others that took far too many words to get the point across.  I always smiled benignly upon their complaints, agreed with their annoyance, and knew that I was teaching a valuable lesson.

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