Across three classes and three disciplines, 122 students are split into thirteen groups, breaking down a highly complex environmental issue from distinctly different perspectives. Or are they so different? Dr. Jodie Asselin, environmental anthropologist and associate professor at the University of Lethbridge, might disagree. With a career focused on the cultural perspectives, assumptions, languages and values that lay behind some of our most pressing environmental issues, Asselin believes interdisciplinarity might be our only hope. "No single discipline can ever deal with these issues. They are value-laden, culturally complex, and are economic and political as much as environmental. There is not a single environmental problem that is not a people problem−So long as we understand knowledge systems to be distinct from each other and culture as distinct from nature, we will never get to the root of the things that inspire people or to the solutions we need."
If we want to question that, push those boundaries and think of other solutions and ways of knowing, we have to start with how we teach.
After speaking with a colleague from the philosophy department and learning that an environmental philosophy class tackled many of the same issues Asselin teaches, a boundary-pushing idea was born, the Tri-Disciplinary Consortium. "I've always had a tremendous interest in interdisciplinarity, particularly between departments and faculties. The disciplinary boundaries created and reflected in our universities today represent a particular way of understanding the human-environment relationship. If we want to question that, push those boundaries and think of other solutions and ways of knowing, we have to start with how we teach."
Unfortunately, her original collaborator was unable to participate. Still, in realizing she was teaching a similar topic, only from a different perspective to other classes, Asselin approached other professors with the hope of bringing different views together. Both philosophy professor Dr. Kent Peacock and biology professor Dr. Jenny McCune were keen on the idea. "My second and first-year students, Jenny McCune's fourth-year conservation biology students and Dr. Peacock's environmental philosophy students, met three times throughout the year, and read material on three contemporary environmental problems," Asselin explains. All three professors adjusted their syllabuses so that the consortium approach would fit. After ensuring all three classes were clustered together in the same time slot, classes could meet throughout the semester. The original plan was to have consortium discussions within one large classroom. Unfortunately, COVID restrictions forced learning to go online. Undeterred, these three professors worked to smooth over the transition to an online consortium, complete with Zoom breakout rooms. "The technical components were a challenge, but once we found solutions, they were quick to fix," recalls Asselin.
Their first topic focused on Woodland Caribou management, a local conservation problem relevant to Alberta. Asselin's students read about Indigenous relationships with the land, traditional ecological knowledge, colonial histories and how the caribou became threatened. Peacock's class read primarily about philosophical colonial obligations and values, while McCune's class did a biological examination of this species. Finally, the classes met together and split into groups, with representation from all three academic backgrounds. Though discussion, each group filled out a google document collaboratively, breaking down the issue into its key conservation concerns from all three perspectives. Students looked at points where they could and could not find common ground. Professors moved between all the groups, and Asselin was impressed with the discussion. “The students are amazing. They spoke across each other and challenged each other on their own assumptions." In the end, students come away from the exercise with new perspectives. Second-year anthropology student Amy Cran describes, "Our task was to unpack the complexity of these issues and the perspectives of the different actors involved from a biological, philosophical, and anthropological perspective. As the anthropology student in my group, I had the chance to provide this perspective." This exercise was more than a conversation. Asselin stated that "student’s area of expertise is very particular. This consortium is an example of teaching innovation to uphold further the liberal education philosophy of the U of L. Our first topic was great, but students were able to find common ground fairly easily. We needed to find more debatable topics.” Students tasked with finding tangible solutions and tracking their progress dove deeper each time. Asselin adds, “For me, it’s shaking up our learning and putting communication, openness, sharing and just quirky ideas at the forefront of how we talk about a problem.”
The second consortium topic, the Mi'kmaq lobster fishery dispute that occurred recently on the east coast, made many news headlines, and all three classes read articles in preparation. “When they came together, it was a rich conversation,” notes Asselin. Nicko Linares is a third-year archaeology and geography student who found his perspectives changing and broadening due to the exercise. “I do think my opinion regarding this issue changed as a result of our discussion. I did not realize how little was known about the lobster from a biological standpoint and lack of research in this area. Furthermore, thanks to the perspective of one of my group members who was Indigenous, I saw how traditional knowledge not only would have helped in this situation but also how the Mi’kmaq’s traditional knowledge was not even considered.”
This experience can be a big challenge, especially if you grow up in a very western culture like Canada. Anthropology is about learning from other perspectives and being reflexive about examining your own biases. Reconstructing your own worldview is not an easy thing to do.
Fourth-year anthropology student Saren Moore agrees. “The most interesting moment was our second meeting, where we discussed the ongoing issue of lobster fishing in the Maritimes for indigenous and non-indigenous fishers. Our group had vigorous disagreements on the roots of the issue and the possible solutions.” What Saren learned was how complex environmental issues can be, with no easy or direct solutions. Saren acknowledges that every unique world perspective can influence the understanding of an issue, and a person’s culture and background may have a significant impact on an opinion. “This experience can be a big challenge, especially if you grow up in a very western culture like Canada. Anthropology is about learning from other perspectives and being reflexive about examining your own biases. Reconstructing your own worldview is not an easy thing to do. One of the biggest challenges I found was in getting my groupmates in the consortium to consider angles and viewpoints they were not typically subject to in their disciplines. It really pushes you to know your stuff and find ways of expressing things to help others understand where you are coming from.”
The last consortium took a form closer to an official debate rather than a conversation. Students discussed oil sands and the future of energy in Alberta. “We asked students to play the devil's advocate, to stick to their academic background and perspective. We asked them to be conservation biologists, or philosophers, or anthropologists. We premised this as what a consultation might look like, especially for the conservation biologists who, as early as next year, might be using this knowledge in their professional lives,” says Asselin. Throughout all three discussions, students learned about environmental issues with a more profound complexity. Amy adds, “The discussions we had during the consortium challenged my original framing of these debates from a purely anthropological perspective and made me think about how other forms of knowledge could, and should, be integrated. I took this course expecting to learn about environmental issues, but my biggest takeaway was actually the importance of considering the value ascribed to different knowledge systems and how different disciplines should work together to solve problems.”
I think the Tri-Disciplinary Consortium is the perfect model for what liberal education should be and has helped better me as a student.
While there were a couple of technological hiccups, Asselin would definitely continue the consortium, either online or in person. “One issue is that while this medium allows for many things, it hinders the human element. If one of your key components is the human element, that can be tricky,” Asselin says. While she hopes to one day see this consortium take place in-person, without a screen-medium filter to take away some emotionally charged elements, students were still able to grow because of this experience. Saren acknowledges that while there are some hindrances, having an online medium opens doors as well. “This experience definitely changed my perspective towards online learning. It was a fantastic model for interdisciplinary discussions because it showed how easy it could be to speak with many different scholars from anywhere in the world. Anthropology is a discipline that requires looking at issues from broad and diverse perspectives, and this exercise showed us how accessible these perspectives can be,” explains Saren. For Asselin, the Tri-Disciplinary Consortium is only a small piece in her grand vision.
While students take many different classes, Asselin would like to see even more integration of disciplines. “With all three professors collaborating, even we were learning,” Asselin adds. Saren was grateful for the eye-opening experience. He says, “I had a great overall experience. I find all too often we get shut in our niches when it comes to what we’ve chosen to study and forget how important other perspectives are. I like the University of Lethbridge for its attention to liberal education, and I think this consortium reflects the spirit of that.” Asselin hopes to expand this consortium in the future in terms of size, disciplines, and building more guest lectures into the curriculum, especially in the environmental sciences. A few steps toward a big dream of interdisciplinary environmental studies.
Nikko also hopes for a future with more crossover between subjects. “Overall, I think this experience has had a big impact on my perspective of university. This is the first time I have worked on an issue requiring more than one discipline’s perspective. In a discipline like anthropology, multidisciplinary discussions should happen more often as they help make well-rounded students. It has also expanded my opinion on anthropology as a whole and has shown me how anthropology can make real impacts in promoting change. I think the Tri-Disciplinary Consortium is the perfect model for what liberal education should be and has helped better me as a student.” Thanks to Asselin’s passion and vision and her innovative collaborators, three classes experienced interdisciplinary learning even during a pandemic.