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How academic efforts to boycott Israel harm our students July 4, 2015

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Uncategorized.
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My  opinion piece in the Washington Post. July 2015.Washington Post op-ed picture

In March 2014, I and my co-teacher stood with 27 Vassar College students at the sparkling Auja Spring in the parched West Bank of the Palestinian territories. We listened attentively as environmental educators from the Auja Eco Center and a Palestinian graduate student from Al-Quds Universityexplained the Auja village’s dependency on this sole water source. Sadly, this learning experience almost didn’t happen. My colleague and I were nearly prevented from embarking on the trip by opposition from a surprising source: the faculty and students of our own academic institution.

I am a tenured geology professor at Vassar , an elite liberal-arts school . I research, teach and write about the complex and intimate connections between land and water resources and social justice. For the study trip I led to Israel and the Palestinian territories, I created a syllabus designed to explore difficult issues and engage diverse perspectives that was vetted by Vassar’s faculty and administration. I have successfully led numerous similar trips to locations such as the Appalachian Mountains and the Mojave Desert. My modest goals for such trips are to impart knowledge and share experiences with my students that can be realized only by traveling to the regions we are examining. In studying arid regions without seeing the situation with their own eyes, it is difficult for students from places where water is relatively abundant to think about solutions to the problems that occur when local residents must share a meager supply.

Several months before my trip, the American Studies Association voted to support an academic boycott of Israel, a position that several faculty members at my college also held. Apparently, my course and the study trip associated with it were subject to the boycott, and the trip became a flash point for theboycott, divestment and sanctions — BDS, for short — debate on campus. Protesters bearing anti-Israel signs stood chanting outside my classroom; students were pressured by their peers to drop the course. My integrity was attacked in a standing-room-only forum at Vassar’s campus center led by pro-BDS faculty members. The stress affected my health, and my faith in longtime colleagues and the college administration was shaken. If not for the support of my family and reluctance to yield to such tactics, I very well might have backed out of the trip. And I and my students would have missed out on an educational opportunity of a lifetime.

What are the implications for education when students are pressured to avoid unique and difficult educational opportunities? Is it responsible for educators to support an academic boycott — essentially, a boycott of ideas? Isn’t our mission to teach students to engage with ideas that are different from their own? Vassar’s mission statement asserts that the college “nurtures intellectual curiosity” and “respectful debate.” Is it consistent with this mission to restrict study trips to regions of the world where the political landscape is similar to our own (which many would argue has its own share of overlooked injustices)? We are in dangerous territory if our ability to even travel for study’s sake to a politically charged region can be blocked by political agendas.

This is not to say that protest does not have its place; of course students should protest and argue about positions with which they disagree. I would have liked for the students holding placards and chanting slogans outside my classroom to come inside and debate in full sentences with a fuller command of the issues at hand. Had they done so, I am sure we would have had some challenging and uncomfortable discussions. But we would have all grown from the exchange, and we would have come closer to fulfilling the mission of my college and educators everywhere. By fostering narrow perspectives, bullying stymies learning and is anti-intellectual.

I understand from national reports that what happened at Vassar is happening in some form or another at academic institutions across the country. Instead of working to engage debate and refute contentious ideas, students and faculty are shutting down avenues of inquiry and blocking the attempts of others to examine difficult issues. Though it came at great personal cost, I decided to stick to my educational principles, and I’m glad I did. By learning on the ground from Palestinians, Israelis and Jordanians instead of just from texts, my students and I came to appreciate why water issues are central to the conflict in the region. We also learned lessons about principled stances and forms of protest that I never would have thought to put on my syllabus. This is something I would teach again — field trip included — in a heartbeat.

Campus Activism: Views of a Teacher and a Student June 30, 2015

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Uncategorized.
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In today’s New York Times:

To the Editor:

The Campus Crusaders,” by David Brooks (column, June 2), reflected my experience as a geology professor. I was nearly prevented from embarking on a study trip with students to Israel and the West Bank in 2014.

I designed the course to engage hydropolitics from a geoscientist’s perspective. It was approved by the college’s curriculum committee. I intended to learn alongside students what could be realized only through travel to regions we explored in our texts. After all, it’s difficult for students from water-rich places to appreciate the reality of villagers sharing meager water supplies from springs or to imagine solutions to these problems without seeing the situation.

Owing to the American Studies Association’s vote to support the academic boycott of Israel, my course became a flash point for campus debate. Protesters held placards and heckled my students outside the classroom, urging them to drop the course. I would have liked protesters to enroll in the course and, as Mr. Brooks says, face the “hard truths.” Instead, they tried to shut down avenues of inquiry and block others’ attempt to examine tough issues.

Still, I stuck to my educational principles: I support protest but won’t boycott ideas. During travel we learned directly from Palestinians, Israelis and Jordanians why water issues are central to the conflict. We also learned lessons about principled stances that I didn’t set out to teach but that I am very thankful I learned. I would teach the course again — field trip included — in a heartbeat.­

JILL S. SCHNEIDERMAN­

Poughkeepsie, N.Y.­

The writer is a professor of earth science and geography at Vassar College.

Not Standing Still: A Solstice-time Reflection from a “Geologian” December 21, 2012

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in contemplative practice, Ecozoic, environmentalism, geologian, meditation, mindfulness practice, science, Thomas Berry.
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This piece appears on the Shambhala SunSpace blog.

Among my favorite cartoons is one my mom gave me by the cartoonist and author of The Soul Support Book, Deb Koffman. Entitled “Sitting with Awareness,” in each of sixteen small square frames Koffman depicts a person sitting in lotus position wearing, what we call in my house “at–homes”– in other words sweatpants. (Click here to visit Koffman’s site — you’ll find the image under “Mindfulness Prints.”) Phrases beneath each frame taken together constitute the following poem. I sure can relate to it, and maybe you can too:

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I’m aware of my posture, I’m aware of my knees, I’m aware of my hands, I’m aware of a breeze.
I’m aware of my breath, I’m aware I feel cold, I’ve got a pain in my side, I’m getting old.
The clock is ticking, my eye has a twitch, my stomach is grumbling, my back has an itch.
My foot fell asleep, my pants are too tight, someone is coughing, am I doing this right?

Why do I relate to this poem? Because as I pursue my work as a geoscientist–educator at a liberal arts college — reading, teaching, and striving at the intersections of earth science, gender studies, environmental studies, and history of science — I often wonder, “Am I doing this right?”

In answer to that question, I’m encouraged by news that The University of Virginia received a multimillion dollar gift this year to establish a Contemplative Sciences Center. One purpose of the center will be to promote awareness about the potential benefits of training one’s mind and body. David Germano, a professor of religious studies in the College of Arts and Sciences who will help lead the center commented, ”Hopefully, like drops in the ocean, this training can lead people to greater reflexivity, greater understanding, greater caring, greater efficiency and greater insight.” Huzzah to that.

This means greater validation for the kind of work I try to do as a contemplative educator in my science classes. Not that I doubt the benefits of contemplative practices in higher education. Students continue to write to me post-graduation, amidst real-life struggles about how the contemplative approaches I’ve taught them while they were in college have been among the most sustaining practices they’ve used to deal with everyday living. It’s just that professional scientific societies offer much advice about the fact that geoscientists — as educators and Eaarthlings — must involve ourselves in addressing “critical needs for the 21st century.”

For example, we are urged to prioritize efforts to ensure reliable energy supplies in an increasingly carbon-constrained world; provide sufficient supplies of water; sustain oceans, atmosphere, and space resources; manage waste to maintain a healthy environment; mitigate risk and build resilience from natural and human-made hazards; improve and build needed infrastructure that couples with and uses Earth resources while integrating new technologies; ensure reliable supplies of raw materials; inform the public and train the geosciences workforce to understand Earth processes and address these critical needs. It’s a long and lofty list.

But critically absent from the “critical needs” list are endeavors equally critical to achieving this balance on Earth. For example, for my personal list of critical needs as a science educator, I’ve added the following imperatives:

  • Tell a scientific story of the universe that has a mythic, narrative dimension that elevates the story from a prosaic study of data to an inspiring spiritual vision;
  • Articulate our dream of the future Ecozoic era, defined as that time when humans will be present to the Earth in a mutually enhancing manner;
  • Circumvent the problem of anthropocentrism that is at the center of the devastation we are experiencing;
  • Allow acknowledgment that currently, human beings are a devastating presence on the planet; supposedly acting for our own benefit, truthfully we are ruining the conditions for our health and survival as well as that of other living beings;
  • Promote hope through contemplation of how tragic moments of disintegration over the past centuries were followed by hugely creative moments of regeneration;
  • Recover the capacity for subjective communion with the Earth and identification with the cosmic-Earth-human process as a new mode of interdependence;
  • Nourish awareness for a vision of Earth-human development that will allow a sustainable dynamic of the modern world;
  • Foster development of intimacy with the natural world.

I developed this list as a result of reading the work of Thomas Berry (1914-2009), a leading scholar, cultural historian, and Catholic priest who spent fifty years writing about our relationship with the Earth. “The universe,” he said, “is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.” Berry, had a doctorate in history from The Catholic University of America, studied Chinese language and Chinese culture in China and learned Sanskrit for the study of India and the traditions of religion in India. One of his earliest books was a history of Buddhism.  Having established the History of Religions program at Fordham University Berry published numerous prophetic books including The Dream of the Earth, The Great Work, and his last work The Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality, and Religion in the Twenty-First Century. This last writing especially fuels my conviction that science done well is also a spritual discipline. Berry called himself a “geologian” and wrote:

Our new acquaintance with the universe as an irreversible developmental process can be considered the most significant religious, spiritual, and scientific event since the emergence of the more complex civilizations some five thousand years ago…. if interpreted properly, the scientific venture could even be one of the most significant spiritual disciplines of these times. This task is particularly urgent, since our new mode of understanding is so powerful in its consequences for the very structure of the planet Earth. We must respond to its deepest spiritual content or else submit to the devastation that is before us (The Sacred Universe  119-120).

The notion that that my geology may be at once both scientific and spiritual has me also adopting the moniker, “geologian.” And that the University of Virginia is moving forward with its Contemplative Sciences Center fuels my hope that engaging science as a spiritual discipline in order to encourage embodied paths to wisdom and social transformation is in itself a worthwhile practice.

We’ve almost arrived at the winter solstice here in the northern hemisphere.  On the year’s shortest day, the sun appears to halt in its progressive journey across the sky. From Earth it seems that the sun hardly changes its position on this day, hence the name solstice meaning ”sun stands still.” But despite appearances, the sun is changing its position relative to the Earth inasmuch as, speaking scientifically, the Earth circles the sun each year while it rotates on a tilted axis and creates the changing seasons (the hemisphere that faces the sun receives longer and more powerful exposure to sunlight). For half of each year the North Pole is tilted away from the sun and on the winter solstice the tilt makes the sun seem most faraway. This astronomical event announces the onset of winter in the northern hemisphere.

Speaking as a “geologian” I observe that these are indeed the darkest days of the year. But as I pause, as the sun seems to, at this point in my yearly journey around the sun, I note that in the darkness is the promise of the gradual return of more light. As you circle the sun and participate in the turning of the wheel of the year, what do you notice and to what do you bow?