Bringing a Critical Lens to Restoration Ecology

Union Slough, on the University of Washington campus, is the outlet of Ravenna Creek.
Union Slough, on the UW campus, is the outlet of Ravenna Creek. This field site was selected by Sarah Montgomery (graduate student, School of Marine and Environmental Affairs), for the speculative project. Photo courtesy of Sarah Montgomery.

Drawing on the study of anthropology, geomorphology, political ecology, and speculative fiction, undergraduates and graduate students alike are enjoying a brand-new autumn quarter course taught by geography graduate student Rob Anderson in collaboration with Professor Cleo Woelfle-Erskine. "Imaginative and Critical Restoration Ecologies," launched through the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs (SMEA) and Comparative History of Ideas (CHID), aims to examine ecological restoration from an interdisciplinary range of perspectives, offering students who work in this field (on either the academic or the practitioner side of things) some new critical tools with which to examine the scientific, political-economic, and social implications of the work, and some speculative inspiration for the process of repairing the planet we live on. Roya Banan, a current geography major who is taking the class, says that the class has allowed exploration of "the technical aspects of restoration ecology through the lens of SMEA, as well as more conceptual sides from CHID." Here, Anderson shares about the experience of developing the course and its impacts. Geography, of course, provides Anderson's "constant commitment to integration across the realms of 'nature' and 'society' – that is, a commitment to questioning the idea these are actually two distinct categories that should (or even can) be studied in isolation from one another."

On the initial idea for the course: "Cleo and I got to know each other in the spring quarter and were talking about a number of shared interests, including restoration ecology and speculative fiction... The early idea of the course was to read ecological science against science fiction, and look at how the two fields differently imagine ecological futures: restoration ecology with a hopeful, even redemptive aspiration to create healthier, more resilient systems, in contrast to science fiction that (often, though certainly not always) takes a more dystopian approach, based in environmental apocalypse (for example, post-climate-change societal collapse). As we developed the syllabus, we also included quite a bit of social science, including political ecologists and STS scholars (many in geography) who've done critical examinations of the field of restoration ecology."

Professor Woelfle-Erskine adds that as plans for the course developed, "the critical elements came to eclipse the scientific ones somewhat. I think this is a good thing, as many students are exposed to restoration ecology concepts in ecology, hydrology, landscape architecture, or forestry classes. As it turned out, most of the students this quarter have some professional or volunteer background in ecological restoration, so Rob has been able to focus more on the geography and political ecology texts, many of which are newer and pointing to current areas of debate."

On the wide range of students' background knowledge: "[W]e have students from, I believe, eight different departments represented. I’m trying to take advantage of that disciplinary diversity by asking students to bring their own perspectives – each of the graduate students in the class has facilitated a class activity on a relevant topic of their choice, and everyone has contributed to in-class discussions. Some students know the natural science really well and can speak to their specific expertise in ecology, biology, etc, while others contribute more in terms of analyzing power dynamics, economic structures, etc that constrain the possibilities of restoration in practice. The readings are widely varied and include everything from technical environmental science to critical theory to poetry to sci-fi, so everyone (including me!) is sometimes out of their comfort zone, but we work together to help one another understand the range of ideas on the table and how they can be in conversation with one another."

Banan also noted that "[t]he small class size encouraged students to share perspectives from their own disciplines and to self reflect on the limitations of our thinking." And hearing "from several guest speakers directly about their research ... made the assigned readings much richer." 

On diverse instructional strategies in the classroom: "We’ve had a series of guest speakers from different departments (SMEA, Environmental Studies, Fisheries Sciences, etc) come in and offer their expertise on various topics that relate to restoration, which has been really exciting, and allows us to address topics that no single instructor could cover nearly as well. Between that, and the various perspectives offered by students themselves, we have a very wide array of knowledge available to us. With that in mind, my classroom strategy has been to decenter myself as instructor, making my role more of a facilitator, guiding seminar conversations toward what I see as essential questions raised by the text, and offering tools to explore those questions collaboratively, rather than “teaching” in a more traditional, lecture-based sense. I think this approach has been really empowering for students, who are highly engaged and bringing a lot of creative and critical thinking to the classroom and assignments for the course."

Anderson says that "several students who have lots of experience doing restoration in the field told me [that learning about restoring  ecological processes rather than local habitat features] really changed the way they are thinking about the work – asking, how can they aim to restore ecological processes at a broad scale rather than just engineering site conditions in the particular place they are working? How does that apply to forests, to wetlands, to urban streams, to agroecological systems, or to armored shorelines along the downtown Seattle waterfront?" Professor Woelfle-Erskine is "excited by how the course has pushed [SMEA graduate students] to think critically and speculatively about social and political dimensions of their theses projects. Many of the elements of the course will remain the same next year - visiting lecturers in geography, ecology, anthropology, and art; a final critical and speculative project on a local restoration site, weekly critical and reflective writing - [and] I plan to emphasize the speculative reading and writing more, by devoting a week to speculative / science fiction early on, and by having students produce a midterm creative project."

"Overall," says Banan, "the class pushed us to think outside of dominant western epistemologies regarding restoration ecology, while practicing our reading and writing skills, from the technical to the poetic."