The MSc module Sustainability in Practice originally evolved, I think Im right in thinking from Richard’s Netherlands field trip. When this was taken off roster a few years ago, the module developed into a loose coalition of guest speaker and practitioner slots based on research and other practice regarding the title of the module. I gave one of the sessions in this module based on my research into ecological identity work at the Centre for Alternative Technology (which was one of the calendared day trips organised as part of the schedule, and this trip still remains in the new version of the course).
This year however, Sustainability in Practice has taken a different turn. Growing out of the session I had given in previous years, Richard and I saw the opportunity to develop the module with sustainable practice at the individual level the focus of the lecture and practical series. As the module outline has it:
Perhaps most interesting for the subject of this away day are the different pedagogical and assessment aspects integrated into the module. As the outline goes on:
So, the new Sustainability in Practice sought to transfer the focus of attention to the individual, and did this through adopting a new methodological variation on the traditional ethnographical research methodology. As you all know: Ethnography normally involves placing the researcher in an ‘other’ social group to find out about that different cultural amalgam – perhaps a group of bikers, or protesters or African tribe. However, ethnography can be far less exotic and far more everyday. Going out into ‘the field’ doesn’t need to involve getting on plane to far away places, the field can be closer to home than you think (see expanded field (Expanded field: Katz, 1994, Clifford, 1997; lifeworld Buttimer, Relph, Merleau-Ponty)Amit, V. (ed.) 2000 Constructing the Field. European Association of Social Anthropologists. Routledge. London & New York.). Ethnography therefore does not have to be about other social groups in far away places, it can be about our own groups in our own backyards, indeed, it can also be about ourselves in our own lives. This is when ethnography becomes autoethnography. This module required the students themselves to become an auto-ethnographer, an autobiographer, to write their story of their approach to environmentalism and sustainable development, reflecting on their own positionality, philosophy and action in relation to these issues.
This interest in autoethnography was reflected in how we taught the module, and how the students learned on it: Small blocks of traditional lecturing Issue readings or other items for you to look at between sessions; e.g. Carbon Gym software, readings, etc Use of focus groups All the students, for example, initially undertook a session in the Carbon Gym to work out their carbon footprints, critique these software packages, and evaluate how their own lifestyle choices or impacted on the environment. They then participated in two focus groups. These focus groups were also filmed, and the discussions subsequently transcribed. The transcriptions have been placed on Blackboard, and the films digitised and will be made available for student loan.
Reflective diaries, 75% of assessment.
Students can include supplementary illustrative material if it supports a point made in the journal – this might include photographs, items on TV or in the print media – which reflect the issues arising with individual environmental action. Standard academic referencing conventions should be followed. To check that students are on the right lines, please submit to the module leader drafts of the first two entries for some initial feedback by Monday 3rd of March 2008.
Film and transcription of focus group material made available to current students through bb, and through digitised cds. So in this way our teaching can be both a resource for current and future students, but also a resource from which empirical material can be generated to fuel peer reviewed publications. One example of teaching-led research.
What motivated them to act in a sustainable way, to bring the ideas encountered in this SPEP course into practice, why do you do what you do (either in a green or non-green way), what obstacles are in your path, what makes it difficult (in terms of lifestyle, money, relationships, broader culture etc)? Important ethical issues: i) Important to note a number of issues at this stage. Although the students were assessed on these reflective diary pieces, they were not marked on how green you are. It is possible for them to be really unsustainable in their actions – that is not way to get a good or bad grade in this module, how green you are is up to the individual – what is important is how they reflect, critique, identify problems that are encountered, or solutions arrived at. Indeed, one of the things we want students to engage with are the tensions that are perhaps inevitable between trying to be green and the structures that impede this in the society we live in. ii) All this premised on informed consent. Ask them for permission to be filmed, and for the material to be used in this way. Reflective diary entries to be anonymised.
“ This module is centrally concerned with individual, personal action to promote sustainable development, and how appropriate behavioural change might be encouraged – an important policy agenda in fields as diverse as transport, energy use, consumption and democratic politics.
“ It begins by placing the current emphasis on individual responsibility for sustainable development in its wider theoretical, political and historical context, and introduces a range of debates that illuminate different aspects of society-environment relations. These include environmental ethics, rational choice theory, identity, citizenship and the role of the mass media.
“ Running through the module is a concern for novel, qualitative research methods in the social sciences, focused on individual and group reflection about environmental behaviour. This reflection is informed by the use of carbon footprint calculating devices. It is supported by methodological training in the use of reflective field diaries, and students will be able to participate in – and run - focus groups. This research will contribute to students’ own learning and build up a corpus of data for analysis by subsequent cohorts of students.
“ Students must produce a journal which reflects on their experiences, thoughts, attitudes and feelings about environmentally sustainable behaviour. It should include reflections on actual decisions (or indecision) you have faced, and respond to ideas from the taught sessions, the use of the carbon footprint counter (whether the thoughts taken are positive or negative), the background reading, and feelings about the methodologies used to explore these issues (such as the focus groups).
“ In structure, the journal should be no more than 3000 words. It should consist of six entries, each of approximately 500 words, with each entry having a coherent theme or subject. Thus students need not pen a response for every week. Moreover, we would expect students to use the journal to communicate how their understanding or and response to issues has changed over the semester.
The key to this task is not description – what you did, what you heard – but reflection . This means thinking about the issues you have encountered, the factors that might explain or interpret your behaviour or response, those elements of taught material that are relevant, and where your feelings about an issue, or propensity to take action, may have changed, or be firmly resistant to change.
Students not marked on how green they are. It is possible for them to be really unsustainable in their actions – that is not way to get a good or bad grade in this module, how green you are is up to the individual – what is important is how they reflect, critique, identify problems that are encountered, or solutions arrived at
All this premised on informed consent. Ask them for permission to be filmed, and for the material to be used in this way. Reflective diary entries to be anonymised.
“ some kind of record to how the research progresses, day by day, and to chart how the researcher comes to certain (mis)understandings. Diaries should represent the doubts, fears, concerns, feelings, and so on that the researcher has at all stages of her/his work” (from Cook & Crang, 1995:29).
“ What have you ‘learned’ from reading it [my auto-ethnographic diary]? Not much about ‘me’, I hope. Its not a me-me-me-me-me-me-me-type narrative. Is it? I think it’s an it-me-them-you-here-me-that-you-there-her-us-then-so- … narrative. It’s an ‘expanded field’ thing. And you’re in it too. Aren’t you?” (Cook, in Moss, 2001:120)
“ It's amazingly difficult. It's certainly not something that most people can do well. Social scientists usually don't write well enough. Or they are not sufficiently introspective about their feelings or motives, or the contradictions they experience. Ironically, many are not observant enough of the world around them. The self questioning autoethnography demands is extremely difficult. Often you confront things about yourself that are less than flattering” (Ellis, 2004:XVIII)