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Featured Faculty: Matt Dennis, Bitty Roy & Josh Roering

ENVS faculty Bitty Roy, Josh Roering, and Matt Dennis – of biology, geology and history – believe that we have a responsibility to understand the nature and history of our own environment. Last spring, they launched a course to help students better understand Oregon: “Oregon Abroad: a physical, natural and cultural history.” They set up four interlocking courses to be taken simultaneously, and planned seventeen days of fieldwork throughout the state: in the Willamette Valley, the Coast Range mountains, the coast, and the Basin and Range.

Photo credit: Matt Dennis

“Bitty was the major inspiration,” Matt Dennis says, referring to her familiarity with the landscape of eastern Oregon. But another inspiration came from the humanities: Walden. Thoreau writes, “It is not worth the while to go round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar… be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought.”  For Dennis, this meant “our new channels of inquiry would be in our home terrain – in Oregon – in some cases scrambling to construct new expertise that built on our research and teaching but often went well beyond it.”

There were challenges to teaching such a thoroughly interdisciplinary course. “As a historian I usually work inside – we’re an archive-based, bookish, relatively individualistic (non-collaborative) clan. It was a challenge to teach history outdoors, using landscapes and built environments as evidence and text, and to integrate historical knowledge with geological and biological observation and interpretation.”

But as the term went on, their academic training and the students’ enthusiasm transformed three disciplines into a cohesive learning community.

Josh Roering agrees. “I often found myself asking the biology or history students to educate me on something Bitty or Matt had said and this type of initially casual inquiry builds into more profound ideas over the course of a term. It’s really an organic process that begins with just hanging out together. In the university structure, we don’t have enough incentive to do this and we were delighted to have this opportunity.”

And how was the experience for the students? “One student, toward the end of the course, reflecting on all we had done lamented, ‘I can’t believe we have to go back to regular college.’  I think their regular college is better for their participation in Oregon Abroad.  My regular college certainly is,” Dennis reflects.

The team of professors hope to offer the course every other spring, but until it comes into rotation again, they will have to be satisfied with memories such as this, from Matt Dennis:

The class bonded in the slick mud of the Alvord Desert Playa in the midst of our Malheur trip. It was completely unexpected as a few students gingerly skated with bare feet out into the playa, covered by about half an inch of water for miles in every direction, atop a hard, flat layer of mud. Usually that expanse was dry, baked a grayish white color, but this year inordinate amounts of snow and rain had left it slathered in liquid.  Suddenly someone decided to run and slide, someone fell, someone decided to bellywhomp, and soon nearly everyone was slip-sliding across the playa, covered in mud, and filled with joy.  To say they were one with nature at that moment would not be an exaggeration.  Later the mud dried, coating bodies, hair, and clothes with a white layer of silt that adhered tenaciously, though it also spread to everything it touched, like the state vans.  Eventually everything was cleaned (days later playa dust could still be detected), but I still remember Ben’s pants, drying in the sun the next day, standing up on their own.

Photo credit: Matt Dennis

Read about other Environmental Studies Program students and faculty members here.