Environmental Studies
Bytes & Books, Fall 2017 (Volume 31, no. 2)

Q: What motivated you to apply for an IL grant for EVST 215 Environmental Policy?

A: I had heard from other faculty that the grant was a great way to help design an effective class. In fall 2016, I attended the panel presentation by professors Jessica Carr and Tamara Carley. I also read all the past IL interviews. I was inspired. Given the current political fervor over environmental regulations and environmental actions taken by federal agencies it is all the more important for students to engage with information critically.

Q: What was it like to teach EVST 215 in the current political climate?

A: In some ways students saw policy as a way to protect the environment and conserve resources in the current political climate so they were motivated. I anticipate that this motivation will grow especially with the Paris Agreement withdrawal that happened over the summer. I also saw a level of discouragement coming through in students and I think engaging with information in a scholarly way helped them better understand the quality and types of arguments and overcome some of the angst or disappointment that they might have felt.

Q: How does your past work experience for the Bush administration relate to your teaching at Lafayette?

A: It is hard to have a class about environment policy and not talk about politics. Unlike the bipartisan politics in the Nixon era when the United States passed major pieces of legislation, environment policy is now highly contested and politicized. Because of my experience working within a Republican Administration, I am able to speak to some of the politics and the many sides of political perspectives.

Q: When you were an undergraduate, did you have classes that focused on engaging with information critically?

A: In some ways I did but I wish I had more. I took a class in which for the month of January we stayed in D.C. and conducted interviews of organization leaders, policy makers, Congressional staff on an environmental topic.  It added a new dimension to how I thought about environmental policy. However, it did not offer me a chance to analyze in a scholarly way the perspectives and foundation of policy arguments.

Q: How did you structure the environmental policy analysis assignment (EPAA)?

A: Because EVST 215 covered many different topics, there was not enough time to really dive into one particular branch of environmental policy. The EPAA was a chance for students to do that in a structured learning format. There were four components:  a brief proposal, position analysis, policy history, and policy strategy analysis. For the proposal, students conducted some very preliminary research on an environmental policy topic of their choosing. The topic must be tied to a piece of federal legislation that has been proposed with some reasonable action taken on it in the last ten years or so.  The position analysis requires students to research on what different types of policy actors say about that legislation or that environmental problem. Students could use, for example, policy analysis briefs that the congressional research service puts out or more think tank like reports on policy proposals.

Students then traced the actions that Congress took on that piece of legislation and explain why Congress did that, why a bill becomes a law, why did a piece of legislation die, why was a piece of legislation successful, or why was it vetoed by the President? They had to build their own argument using reputable policy sources. For the policy strategy analysis, students applied the different types of strategies that we had studied in class to the text of their legislation. They could also draw on research that they had done throughout the semester to strengthen their analysis. For example, one student was able to make the connection between the types of strategies that were articulated in the coal energy bill with the policy perspectives of the bill’s sponsor based on her research of that bill sponsor’s website and materials.

Q: How did the research log fit with the EPAA assignment?

A: Part of my motivation for assigning the log was that students had one central place, a shared Google Doc in this case, where they could turn to for the information they had gathered. I assigned five questions for students to reflect on their EPAA research process, including why certain information, such as a direct comment by an organization on a bill, could be missing. I will include an addendum to the EPAA assignment in the future rather than have a log since it seemed like an extra step to some students.

Q: You asked students to conduct a mock U.S. congressional hearing at the end of the semester. Why?

A: Rather than ask for a 15-page paper, I wanted to give students a different way to construct an argument and then articulate it. The mock hearing was a chance for students to embody the argument of a senator or a policy professional. Students wrote a brief memo and then prepared a statement which they read at the hearing. Students had to prepare for questions and ask each other questions. I assigned students their roles, the state or organization that they represented. These were not representations of actual senators but a mixture of attributes of political actors that we discussed all semester. Students did additional research and wrote their own position statement with the persona of a senator or of an organization. Next year I will introduce the mock hearing earlier in the semester and integrate the mock hearing with the policy making process more seamlessly. I will have students watch and analyze more congressional hearing videos.

Q: Both the EPAA and the mock hearing emphasized analyzing and understanding the different perspectives of the policy players. What was your motivation?

A: I wanted students to take a more nuanced approach to credibility versus perspective versus bias. Students often have very straightforward take on bias. They think a personal blog is biased and believe government sources are totally neutral. I try to teach students that individuals as well as organizations present information in ways that reflect their background, experiences, and purposes. Understanding why they are including or omitting certain types of information is really important. This is another area that I want to expand the next time when I teach the course.

Q: Could you talk about your collaboration with Ana Luhrs and the advantages of such collaboration?

A: Students had library sessions early on about how to locate congressional environmental policy and policy positions. Ana’s expertise in locating and evaluating policy information was essential to the success of the EPAA project. She also provided another contact point for students to reach out to and talk about their specific problem. Having a close relationship with a librarian, talking through assignments, and even the IL grant proposal writing process were really useful for me. The integration of IL helped strengthen the class as a whole. The best part about the partnership with Ana is that we continue to talk about the class and how to improve it even now that it is over.

Q: Would you continue to incorporate IL into future versions of this course or other courses?

A: Information literacy will continue to be a core component of EVST 215. We cannot ask students to be critical thinkers about environmental policy if they are not thoughtful about where information comes from. I do not see that challenge changing in the near future. Information literacy is a lifelong skill. I have incorporated information literacy in my other classes. For example, in EVST 230 Water Problems, Water Solutions, students look for data and analyze it with the support of scholarly sources. Since there tends to be a lot of student overlap in my classes, I try to use different information literacy assignments.

Q: What do you think professors and librarians can do to help students with their critical thinking and information literacy skills?

A: Students are sometimes troubled by answering questions that begin with ‘why’ because we do not always know the answers to those questions. So the more students are challenged to answer “why” the more they will need additional information to help formulate their explanations and arguments.

Q: Do you have any advice for professors who are interested in integrating information literacy into their courses?

A: Chat with a librarian. They will take your seed of an idea and grow it into something useful for your class. Librarians have expertise in accessing and evaluating information that professors might have for their own fields but not for fields that are on the edges of their discipline. Librarians’ expertise can fill in these gaps, especially if you are in an interdisciplinary program.