by Grace Lim and Jay Vickery
scaling mt. trashmore
On this day, James Feldman and his students will climb atop Winnebago County’s tallest peak. It isn’t too windy; it’s also not too hot. The students may not appreciate those weather details yet, but Feldman knows, they soon will.
On this day, Feldman is teaching his students a lesson that cannot be replicated in the classroom. He has taken his Campus Sustainability class to the Winnebago County Landfill. “There is no more tangible way to understand the problems that we have with waste management, and the problems that we have with over-consumption than by standing at the top of highest point of Winnebago County,” says Feldman, an associate professor of Environmental Studies and History at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. “This is the tangible place to experience what it means to consume like an American.”
Dr. James Feldman with students at the base of the Winnebago County Landfill.
At the base of the landfill, the students pile into two vans to follow a waste management worker in a pickup truck up and up the mountain of trash, which measures about 135 feet high or as tall as a 12-story building. When they get to the peak, the students, usually a chatty bunch, stand silent, taking in the sight before them—trash and more trash. The lunar-like landscape made up of monochromatic specks of brown stretches across the horizon. Flocks of seagulls search for food among giant bulldozers compressing the ever-growing amount of waste.
Students’ reactions vary from those who turn green, repulsed and unable to stand the stench to those who are excited to how trash is converted into methane gas. But the overall message is clear: The residents of Winnebago County produce a lot of trash.
“Standing on a mountain of trash and seeing all the junk that’s there and smelling the junk, it’s such a powerful experience,” Feldman says. “It’s really an instructive way to spend a class period.”
Since 2004, Feldman has been teaching students to think critically about complex problems that face the world. He is a charter member of the Campus Sustainability Council and co-author of the Campus Sustainability Plan, a comprehensive plan to guide the University’s sustainability initiatives. He is also a 2011 Edward M. Penson Distinguished Teaching Award winner and the author of A Storied Wilderness: The Rewilding the Apostle Islands, which was released in spring of 2011. For the school year 2011-2012, Feldman is on sabbatical, conducting research on his next project—the history and sustainability of radioactive waste management.
History and the Great Outdoors
Born to an attorney and a social worker, Feldman always had an affinity for history and nature. He never lacked ideas for grade school essays because he could always find something to write about relating to either topic. His love for the good earth and all her stories was further cemented when he went to Camp Nebagamon in Northern Wisconsin as a youth. “We would go canoeing and hiking,” he recalls. “I just loved those kinds of trips.”
While majoring in history at Amherst College in Massachusetts, Feldman returned to Camp Nebagamon every summer as a wilderness trip leader. It was that point he realized he could turn his passion for nature and history into a career. Feldman went to graduate school and earned his master’s degree in history at Utah State. After being awarded a Fulbright Scholarship in 1996, he spent 15 months in New Zealand studying environmental history and politics of the island country in the southwestern Pacific Ocean. His work not only dealt with environmental policy but historical questions as to how a treaty from1840 (Treaty of Waitangi) still affects New Zealand’s indigenous people today. It was in New Zealand that Feldman discovered how he could turn his interest in nature and history into social action. “The work that I did there really convinced me that there was a way to make historical research applicable to modern issues,” says Feldman, who earned his doctorate in American history from UW-Madison.
Lessons from the Past
Students, Feldman says, must study what has transpired to understand what is happening now to the environment. “Students come into the classroom assuming that history is history and doesn’t matter today,” he says.
The students soon learn how wrong their perceptions are. “We are today still wrestling with the same kinds of issues that people wrestled with 20, 50, 80 or 100 or 200 years ago,” Feldman says, adding that in his Environmental History class he challenges his students to look at landscape and cities from a historical perspective. “Why are cities set up the way that they are? Why are streets laid out the way they are?”
Critical examination on the students’ part may lead them to think about how to address current environmental issues. Kaci Worth, an environmental studies major with a minor in history, credits Feldman for making her aware about how the way she lives her life could have great consequences. “Jim stresses the importance of being an involved citizen and makes you think about how your actions impact the world in ways more complex and far-reaching than one would originally imagine,” she says.
Student Kyle Sandmire was so taken by Feldman’s History of the American Wilderness class that he plans to attend graduate school to further his environmental studies. “From Dr. Feldman’s class I learned how to critically analyze historical texts as well as finding connections between wilderness conservation efforts in the past as well present,” he says. “Dr. Feldman inspired me to always take a deeper look into any written claim to best develop my own opinion.”
Going Green: Dr. James Feldman has helped UW Oshkosh become a leader in sustainability.
Feldman thrives on that kind of student feedback. “One of the most exciting things about being a teacher is when you can see that your students are having that kind of A-ha! moment where they are getting it, where they are starting to look at things in a new way because of the things they are learning,” he says. “When I think about what I want my students to take out of my classes, it’s less about specific names and dates and places and much more about the big picture. There are huge problems out there that need to be solved—global warming, industrial agriculture, over-consumption and so on.”
Quite simply, Feldman would like his students to think critically, to see relationships among complicated issues. “If we can teach our students to think about how their own behavior and the behavior of their communities, their states, and their countries are fitting into the bigger picture, then we have started down the path toward change, change that will really make a difference,” he says. “We have started down the path toward sustainability.”
More than Being Green
For Feldman, sustainability means a lot more than simply being green or caring about nature. “Being sustainable means recognizing the interconnections between our environmental, social, and economic systems,” he says. “You don’t go to college to learn prescriptive behavior like ‘you should recycle more’ or ‘you should buy organic food.’ Sustainability needs to mean something more. To be sustainable, we need to learn to act in ways that are not just environmental responsible, but also in ways that make our communities socially just and economically secure.”
Trash and More Trashl: Dr. James Feldman near a pile of trash that will soon be put into the landfill.
To that end, Feldman has been a driving force in helping the University be as sustainable as possible. Since 2008, he has co-led three Winnebago Sustainability Projects, which are faculty development workshops to coach colleagues on infusing the concept of sustainability in their courses.
In April 2011, The Princeton Review listed
UW Oshkosh, for the second year in a row, in its “Guide to 311 Green Colleges,” a spotlight of colleges and universities in the United States and Canada “that demonstrate a strong commitment to sustainability in their academic offerings, campus infrastructure, activities, and career preparation.”
“I think there is no question we are the leader in the UW System,” Feldman says of the University’s sustainability initiatives. “I think we are one of the leaders in the country in the sense of the kind of school that we are.”
Though Feldman is passionate about sustainability, he is quick to point out his own shortcomings. “It’s easy to walk around and see examples of unsustainable behavior and bad behavior relative to the environment,” he says, adding, “but I have too many things that I have to change about myself for me to start getting judgmental about anybody else.”
One thing Feldman has to contend with is his commute to Oshkosh from his home in Madison where he lives with his wife Chris Taylor, who is an Assemblywoman for the 48th district, and their two young sons, Sam and Ben. “I have a long drive to work and emit carbon to go teach about global warming,” he says wryly. “Until I become perfect, I’m going to keep my soapbox pretty small.”
Feldman knows he risks leaving his students feeling powerless when confronted with society’s environmental ills. “These are stories about how we have taken this beautiful natural world and just driven it into the ground,” he says. “That’s a bear to teach, and it’s a bear to learn and you can see the students sometimes just getting beaten down.”
Feldman, however, helps his students combat that bleakness with ideas for social action. “I always like to end my classes with at least some discussion about what you can do or what needs to change,” he says.
Feldman, too, is doing his part to make the world a better sustainable place every time he steps into a classroom. “I have a chance to make a difference and the most direct way that I feel like I can do that is through my teaching.”
Student reporters Hannah Becker and Nate Cate also contributed to this report.
In this video, Professor Feldman discusses his work in environmental studies and his students share their experiences in his class. Produced by Hannah Becker and Nate Cate.