What was a particularly difficult project in your field work or in your teaching experience?
Recently Hope for Creation communications assistant Tanai Dawson sat down with Cybelle Shattuck, WMU faculty and author of Faith, Hope, and Sustainability: The Greening of US Faith Communities, to learn more about her story. Cybelle is an Associate Professor with a joint position in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and the Department of Comparative Religion at Western Michigan University. We'll share segments of her interview over the next few days, in anticipation of her talk on February 18.
I visited 15 different congregations, got 15 stories from 15 really different communities. How do I organize this diverse data so that I can see meanings in it and I can share it with people? The kind of field research I do, the easiest way to present data is to have each chapter of a book describe a different community and then at the end of the book, you'd have an analysis explaining what gets learned by comparing all of them. But 15 is too many to do that. I could have taken representative samples and only written in detail about some of them, but instead what I did was actually compare all of them and then try to figure out what the patterns were and then organize the presentation of that information around the patterns. I think that allowed for deeper analysis, so it's easier to see the factors that helped people do work, and the factors that hindered efforts and made some of the initiatives weaker and less durable. But the downside of this approach is that there's a certain amount of repetition in the book. Another feature of the way I present the analysis is that it includes lots of examples of the research data. For example, one of the characteristics of the people who are really effective at organizing these green movements is that they're embedded in their faith communities. So, I give examples of the interviewees’ past activities and social networks because it’s important to include the data so other people can read the book and do their own analysis as well. But that also means that it's a long book with a lot crammed into it. And some cases were especially good sources of information so details from them show up in multiple places, which can make parts of the book a little repetitive. In the first analytic section, I talk about who the leaders are, who are the champions that effectively lead congregational sustainability initiatives. The second analytic section focuses on the role of clergy and what they can do to foster a sustainability social norm within the faith community. The third section examines the congregations and how they became engaged (or not) in the initiatives. Then, for the last section, I talk about organizational structures and how they help or hinder the way sustainability initiatives get implemented in faith communities.
Figuring out how to take 15 stories of 15 communities and all the details of them and put it into a format that could really help people understand what factors facilitate development of environmental programs within faith communities was incredibly complicated. There's not a right or wrong way to present the data, but there are trade-offs. If I had done it with chapters that were focused on single case studies, it would have been more like a collection of stories and maybe more fun to read, but I don't think the analysis would have been as deep or as helpful.
With teaching, the biggest challenge is there's an enormous generation gap between me and the students. You work on a class and you get it to where it works really well. That lasts for maybe 3 years, then you've got a new generation of students, and they're coming in having grown up with different technology and in a different social context. I don't know what they're doing in high school now, but it's not what they did when I was in high school. I don't say that to be a codger, but just that I literally don't know what they're doing in high school. The training the students go through is so different now than it was for me. And the cultural touchstones are so different than they were for me that I have to regularly listen and ask questions and figure out, how do I revise this course? Also, the environmental field is one where knowledge is constantly changing so I read all year long. For the Eco-Justice course, I use some older texts because they present ideas really clearly, but then we jump forward and look into recent case studies. When I get to the climate stuff, I'm always looking for new materials. We now have the Justice 40 initiative from the Biden administration. When I started teaching this class six years ago that didn't exist. We didn't have an environmental justice activist as the head of the EPA six years ago, but now we do. It’s important to keep the courses updated, especially with information about how political attention to environmental justice and climate action is increasing.
I'm always having to update and that’s just a lot of work. Figuring out how do I work with each new generation of students and then also collecting new information and then trying to figure out how do I add that into the course without just making the course fatter? What do I take out? What do I streamline? Can I replace something so that it continues to be manageable? Because one of the real challenges of working here at Western is that I have to figure out how to design a course that works for the student who's living in a dorm and can be a full time student with lots of time and energy for class work as well as the student who is living off campus and working 30 hours a week. That's an incredible challenge, the big teaching challenge. Where do I adapt and accommodate and where do I draw boundaries? Which of the comments or reactions to the course are individual to that student? Which are indicating there's something that really needs to be changed? Course design is a creative process, which I mostly enjoy, but it's also time consuming.
Find out more from Cybelle Shattuck in her compelling interview on faith and sustainability daily in anticipation for her event on February 18th!