Lessons From a Dirty Coast

Brian Taylor

June 29, 2010

This is the story of two new assistant professors, from two distinct disciplines, teaching one new course, ending in one large disaster.

On April 28, the two of us met, as usual, to finalize our plans for the next class session. It was the last meeting of our pilot interdisciplinary, team-taught course, "Foundations in Environmental Studies." Eight days earlier, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig had exploded, sinking on April 22 into the Gulf of Mexico, 50 miles off Louisiana's coast.

Within days, we could smell the hydrocarbon vapors in New Orleans. The odor of lighter fluid was merely an advance warning of the oil gushing from three and a half miles below the seabed, working its way up a mile through the seawater column, and speeding along with the help of ocean currents and fickle winds to our fragile marshlands.

Needless to say, we were distracted as we perused our final notes—in other words, stalling—until one of us declared what we were both thinking: "We need to throw out the whole lesson plan." (A tough choice for two meticulous planners.)

We had met nearly two years earlier at a faculty meeting, where we naïvely volunteered to design, develop, and teach a much-needed introductory course for the environmental-studies program on our campus. One of us (Joelle) was entering her second year at Loyola as an assistant professor of chemistry, and the other (Janelle) was starting her first as an assistant professor of English.

Our senior colleagues probably had some serious doubts about our course proposal—perhaps because we introduced ourselves to one another for the first time after that faculty meeting. Or perhaps the idea of an atmospheric chemist and a Romanticist teaching a single course together struck some as an odd combination.

For us, however, the combination not only felt natural; it was necessary. It shaped our vision of a course whose ultimate goal was to model the intrinsic interdisciplinary nature of environmental studies itself.

To organize the course, we chose five case studies, including one on the ivory-billed woodpecker and another on New Orleans food. Each case study was designed to introduce students to the major questions and concepts of environmental studies by first presenting them with practical illustrations.

Back to April 28: After the Deepwater Horizon explosion, we witnessed two of our major case studies—one on Louisiana wetlands and another on the Alaskan wilderness—coalesce into a single working example. We could not have orchestrated a "better" final lesson. The oil leak was a case study par excellence for our course. How we taught the course was suddenly triangulated with where we were teaching it and when. A sad coincidence, but one that, nevertheless, threw an entire semester's worth of teachings into stark relief.

The "BP mess," as one student dubbed it, surfaced like an impromptu final exam, a test that could reveal to us and to the students all that they had learned in the semester. "What exactly happened?" was the first question thrown at us, followed rapidly by "How much oil is leaking out of the damaged well head?" "Why didn't the blow-out preventer work?" "Where is the oil now and where is it heading?" "What damage will it do to the wetlands? The wildlife? The fishing industry?" And "How do we stop it?"

One of our most straightforward goals in teaching the course was to demystify environmental issues, break them down into accessible parts so that each student could feel that his or her informed choices can and do make a difference—that environmental awareness is more than a definition from a textbook, a "green" label on a household cleaning product, or even an exercise in futility.

So we projected what little data we could find from national and local news sources, like CNN and The Times-Picayune, and government agencies, like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Coast Guard. We also collected data on the Exxon-Valdez spill for comparison. We displayed as many charts, graphs, and images as we could find. We quoted aloud relevant passages from the assigned readings of Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, and others.

But while the students asked the tough questions, insisting on careful discussion and credible data, we were sinking under the weight of a live disaster—a catastrophe both unmanageable and unmanaged. We didn't have the benefit of distance. We had no hindsight, no peer-reviewed source material, no hard data, and no poems, novels, or spiritual writings through which we could hunt for meaning.

What we had were estimates and hypotheses, sensational images and hearsay. In many ways, we wrote this essay as a way to try to come to terms with our own sense of hopelessness, with the overwhelming feeling that the Gulf and all that it feeds has been lost.

This column, then, is not about our students, not really. It is about us, as teachers, scholars, and residents of South Louisiana. In the end, we learned that the lessons we teach, the theories we strive to illustrate, and the practical examples we help our students to realize are the same lessons we must now revisit and take comfort in ourselves. The BP accident became a kind of equalizing factor between our students and ourselves.

On that last day of class, we simply had to say that "we only know as much as you do." It was at that moment that we saw the collapse between lived and learned experience happen for the students. And we experienced for ourselves the collapse between our personal and professional lives.

At the close of our last class session we offered no final words of wisdom, no concluding remarks. We had, in short, no answers. One of our very first lessons for the students was to teach them that a conclusion is not synonymous with an end. It is the signal of new questions, new problems, new possibilities.

So this story continues to be about how two new assistant professors, from two distinct disciplines, teaching one new course, confront one large disaster with the strength of their own teachings.

Janelle A. Schwartz is an assistant professor of English and environmental studies at Loyola University New Orleans, and Joelle S. Underwood is an assistant professor of chemistry and environmental studies at the university.