'COVER Stories': A Q&A with ENVS Professor Terry Osborne

by Skyler Kuczaboski | 10/4/17 2:15am

Environmental studies professor Terry Osborne focuses on the spiritual connections between Americans and the natural world as well as Earth’s current environmental degradation. He teaches the first-year seminar, “COVER Stories: Community Building & the Environment.” The community-based course explores the construction of community as we know it through storytelling and writing. Students work with a local organization called COVER, which gives urgent home repair for members of the Upper Valley.

Tell me about the first time you saw a connection between activism and community.

TO: To me, the connection is about environmental activism. So, is it possible to be able to work on behalf of what we call the environment by doing work with human communities? Normally with environmental activism, you think about working with non-human communities, either on behalf of land or formations of land or ecosystems or on behalf of other creatures.  I think that what Americans have often done is divide environmental concern into the thought that all you can do to be an environmentalist is to work on behalf of non-human communities. I think the purpose of the course to begin with was to get all of us to understand that actually there’s a way to work on behalf of the environment that is also simultaneously working with human communities and to see humans as part of the environment as well. To be able to see how communities are formed and to be able to participate in that formation in sustaining that community is also an act of environmental action. 

This course is a way to enact that, to have students ask the question when you work with COVER home repair when you’re replacing a roof on someone’s house, building an accessibility ramp or doing a weatherization project. Can you imagine yourself actually working on behalf of the environment? I think that’s the toughest question that students have to face. It’s also often very hard for them to see the social utility of participating in the activities that we participate in and working with homeowners. But my contention is philosophically that they are all part of the same effort. And the only thing that has made it not a part of the same effort is how we’ve construed the environment to mean having not to do with humans, and I think that’s a very problematic assumption. So that’s the connection that the course raises: Can you be an environmental actor by working on behalf of human communities?

How did this course idea come to you?

TO: About a decade ago, I realized that I could no longer teach about environmental issues in the way that I have been teaching before. And I realized that Dartmouth students are amazing thinkers, and you all can think about the environment in incredible ways. You can think your way through environmental issues in incredibly sophisticated ways. 

But what it seemed to me was missing was the intuitive, the instinctive, the emotional and the psychological intimacy with those issues. You could have intellectual intimacy, but you couldn’t have those other intimacies; couldn’t know them that well. So, I made a commitment to myself and ultimately to the students I would teach that I would try to at least introduce them to those different kinds of learning, that different kind of knowledge intimacy by getting students out into the community. So that’s how it started — trying to build courses that had that interaction between environmental work and community work. Sometimes they’re one in the same. 

COVER home repair would not identify itself as an environmental organization. They’re not opposed to [the content], but that’s just not how they conceive of themselves. However, they’re absolutely involved in their mission, which is about building community. So I just put together different courses in which there were different ways for students to go out into the community and worked to not study the community but to work on behalf and offer a service to the community and to the organizations. That’s how the study got across: being a student and being a community servant, working on behalf of those organizations, seeing what that was like and how that helped you understand or make more confusing the ideas that were introduced in class. That’s how we got started, to try to make more to give students a better understanding of the issues through the physical embodiment in the activities that the ideas were involved in. 

SK: What are some memorable experiences you have involving preparing for the class or watching students out in the community?

TO: This won’t seem quite as dramatic now because these kinds of classes have existed here for quite a long time. Now there are many that are doing this, but the first time that I offered COVER stories, we went out to work on a COVER work site. Sometimes it’s not that far away from Hanover or campus, yet sometimes people’s living conditions are dramatically different than what students had ever known and certainly different from what students see around here within walking distance of campus. The first time students came back from a work site, they were so enthusiastic and fired up. They said, “We have to tell them about what we’ve seen; we have to tell them about how people are living, we all have to get involved, we have to do something!” I’ve seen variations of that throughout the years, and I’ve seen all sorts of things. I’ve seen disillusionment, I’ve seen excitement, I’ve seen disappointment, I’ve seen curiosity, I’ve seen confusion. I’ve seen all those things, which is great, but that initial response the first year they offered it, I thought to myself, “Oh, this is really interesting, this is great.” There was this collective response, “We have to tell you what’s outside of Dartmouth because you don’t know! And we’ve just seen it, and we all have to get involved and become members of this community and participate and help everyone live more productive lives!” All of that. 

I’ll never forget that moment because I thought to myself, “This is exactly the kind of response that education should have.” There was this visceral, deep, emotional response to what they had just experienced. We call that experiential-learning now, or community based learning, but that’s part of the hope of what experiential learning will do. That was certainly a memorable occasion from our first trip on the first work site in the first year of the class. Other memorable experiences for me personally have been working with all these organizations. I spent a lot of time with the organizations beyond from what the students spend. The other months out of the year outside the course, I’m working with those organizations to plan the following year’s projects and to debrief with them on how the projects from previous years went and to make sure they’re getting what they want. That’s the most important thing to me, that the organizations get something from the interactions with the students.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.