Sarah Lawrence Integrates Environmental Studies in Sciences and Social Sciences with the Arts; Pedagogy Promotes Interdisciplinary Work

Sarah Lawrence College is developing an environmental studies program with an eye to turning out graduates prepared to contribute to the public conversation about a sustainable environmental future as writers, artists, advocates, and practitioners. Supported by a planning grant from the Mellon Foundation, the College is pursuing an agenda to build upon its interdisciplinary pedagogy to create a cadre of creative thinkers, analysts, and interpreters of the compelling environmental issues of the day.

“Sarah Lawrence’s historic strengths are in the arts,” says Charles Zerner, Barbara B. and Bertram Cohn Professor of Environmental Studies, who has focused many of his courses and a lecture series on environmental imagery and its consequences. “Our plan is to build a program that draws on these strengths in filmmaking, visual and performing arts, art and architectural history, and design, and integrates them with curricular offerings in the sciences and social sciences.

“There is a tremendous need for analytic and investigative environmental writing and artistic expression on contemporary problems, and there is need for writing and art that envision varied, sustainable, alternative environmental futures,” says Zerner. “The role of the arts in creating new visions of environmental value and new ways of imagining sustainable approaches to environmental problems cannot be underestimated.”

2010-2011 courses will span the social sciences, the sciences, literature, history, the arts and include such titles as Cultures of Nature: Environmental Representations and their Consequences, Picturing Nature: Poetics and Politics of Environmental Imagery, Green Romanticism, Green Chemistry, Investigating the Environment: The Indian Point Project and Hunger and Excess: Histories, Politics and Cultures of Food.

The environmental studies program has also created a speakers series that brings cutting edge architects, anthropologists, filmmakers, visual artists, photographers, activists, and writers on the environment to the campus. In the coming year the College will host, among others, Joel Towers, Associate Professor of Architecture at Parsons The New School for Design and Claire Pentecost, Associate Professor of Photography at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, an artist who engages a variety of media to interrogate the imaginative and institutional structures mediating relations with the natural world. “These lectures provide a richly provocative source of perspectives on environmental issues, complementing coursework” says Zerner.

The interdisciplinary foundation of this new, invigorated environmental studies program relies on the College’s unique pedagogy, which enables students to create their own educational programs and to pursue independent research, often at the level of graduate studies. Sarah Lawrence has long been recognized for the excellence of its creative writing and arts programs and writing across the disciplines. In 2000, for example, the College was named Liberal Arts College of the Year by TIME magazine/Princeton Review for excellence in writing across the curriculum. Over the last decade SLC has expanded its curricular offerings in the sciences, and environmental studies have become an important component of nearly all areas of study.