Unconventional Solutions

Originally published in the Scotsman.

There aren’t many masters courses that inspire graduates to return and help mentor new students, and even fewer where they volunteer for the unglamorous tasks of fundraising, advertising, and course development. But I’ve just spent a weekend with more than a dozen graduates and teachers from the Centre for Human Ecology, organizing exactly that. I finished the course in 2005, and am now a member of the Board of Directors.

The CHE’s main focus is helping people develop the practical, intellectual, and emotional skills to pursue social justice and ecological sustainability – to “be the change” in a challenging world. We offer short courses, educational events, and networking, and the masters course is our largest ongoing project. Although delivered through a mainstream university, the course challenges conventional ideas about learning. An interdisciplinary focus on experiential learning, personal development, and group process encourages students to ask difficult questions and find creative solutions.

Now the CHE itself is exploring creative solutions for issues that are affecting all of higher education. With increasing student numbers and shrinking budgets, Scottish universities are scrambling to cut costs, often sacrificing educational quality for financial expedience. Typical approaches include cutting contact hours, increasing class sizes, and techno fixes – all of which have a negative impact on student experience. There have been some positive developments as well, like the increase of cross-disciplinary courses, but these don’t remove the growing pressure on lecturers and tutors to do more with less.

All courses that lack outside sponsorship are struggling, and the masters in Human Ecology is more resource-intensive than most. Teaching takes place in workshops that last two to seven days. Class size is limited to the number of students that can reasonably have a group discussion, and there is a strong emphasis on building an effective “learning community.” The course is team-led, team-taught, and heavily reliant on guest speakers, many of whom contribute their time for free – but an enormous amount of energy goes into crafting a coherent educational experience from diverse perspectives. It’s a course that changes and evolves each year, requiring intensive preparation and development work, but there is a fifteen-year track record proving the effectiveness of the approach.

This year, a group of graduates from the past six years was invited on an intensive working weekend to reflect on their experience of the course, and contribute to its ongoing evolution. Where many courses are being forced to cut corners in order to survive, we’re hoping to draw on the enthusiasm and dedication of graduates to bridge the gap between student needs and university funds. The weekend followed a similar approach to the course itself, moving freely between “head, heart, and hand.” We discussed emotional issues, engaged in heavy intellectual work, and took collective responsibility for the practical side of things. Of course, it wasn’t all work – we also made music together, walked in the sunshine, and chatted with friends old and new. Somehow, the different elements clicked into place, and we finished the weekend with clear plans for action.

There is a lot of work ahead to implement those plans, but the weekend has reaffirmed that it’s possible. As we were reminded at one point, the Centre for Human Ecology does not represent the whole solution, either to the problems facing universities or those facing the world at large – but it does represent one small part of the solution, and I’m glad to be involved.

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