9. Transforming Awareness into Activism: Teaching Systems and Social Justice in an Interdisciplinary Water Course
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162 9 Transforming Awareness into Activism: Teaching Systems and Social Justice in an Interdisciplinary Water Course Cathy Willermet, Anja Mueller, and David Alm If situations cannot be created that enable the young to deal with feelings of being manipulated by outside forces, there will be far too little sense of agency among them. Without a sense of agency, young people are unlikely to pose significant questions, the existentially rooted questions in which learning begins. —Maxine Greene The Dialectics of Freedom, 1988 I believe that an education bereft of a systematic study of key social issues (local, regional, national, and international) and how they can be addressed by individuals, alone or in cooperation with others, is sorely incomplete. —Samuel Totten The Importance of Teaching Social Issues: Our Pedagogical Creeds, 2014 Most real-world problems have fuzzy boundaries and require complex solutions. The more disciplines integrate their efforts at solving these problems, the more successful they will be at finding solutions (Begg & Vaughan, 2011; Holley, 2015; Lawrence, 2010). “Wicked” problems are a special class of problem arising from extreme degrees of uncertainty, risk, and social complexity (Brown, Deane, Harris, & Russell, 2010). Examples of wicked problems include inequities in health, global poverty, campus violence , racial genocide, and so on (Rittel & Webber, 1973). We define global access to affordable, clean water as a wicked problem. Wicked problems are particularly difficult to solve because there is no “right” solution that solves it completely (unlike, say, a math problem); rather, there are better and Transforming Awareness into Activism | 163 worse solutions, depending on the context of both the problem and its solution (Brown et al., 2010; Lawrence, 2010; Rittel & Webber, 1973). For our students to be empowered to effect change, they must learn to collaborate with others, particularly across disciplines , since, as Freeman (2000) suggests, “our educated capacity in one discipline (or more realistically in one sub-discipline) tends to be associated with trained incapacity in other fields of relevant knowledge” (p. 484). Water insecurity and water pollution are major issues in the world (Freeman, 2000; Pawar, 2013). Water is necessary for healthy ecosystems and human health and society but is controlled and regulated by economic and political forces (Pawar, 2013). Fair water sharing in terms of distribution and allocation to all stakeholders is complex ; everyone, including the poor, need access to enough safe drinking water, but there are often high, often unevenly shared costs of accessing this water. Freeman (2000) argues that water resources policy problems are wicked then because they challenge us to confront water policy problems on four fronts simultaneously: (1) we must transcend our disciplinary camps and face the uncertainties that ride with combining our sciences; (2) we must integrate two types of knowledge (i.e., our scientifically processed traditions of knowledge must be adapted to site-specific circumstance with the assistance of people who know important, but different things than scientists know); (3) water resource issues simultaneously affect conflicting stakeholders and biotic complexity across multiple levels; and (4) individual rationality of particular actors must be constrained by local organizations in ways that empower people to provide themselves and wider society with sustainable common property regimes that can manage the interdependence of people, water, and biota in resource acquisition , allocation, and maintenance. All of this requires effective local organizations that can provide the social and organizational capacity for work that cannot be accomplished by individual citizens as resource appropriators or environmentalists , by central bureaucratic managers, or by scientists. (p. 487) Interdisciplinary courses focused on wicked problems are one way to help students develop these skills. Interdisciplinary thinking integrates ideas from several fields or perspectives, including across scientific disciplines (Lawrence, 2010; Spelt, Biemans, Tobi, Luning, & Mulder, 2009). An interdisciplinary approach is essential to solving wicked problems, where both the problem and solution are unknown (Barisonzi & Thorn, 2003; Eisen, Hall, Lee, & Zupko, 2009; Freeman, 2000; Willermet, Mueller, Juris, Drake, Upadhaya, & Chhetri, 2013). A solid foundation in a discipline increases students’ ability to bridge disciplines. Interdisciplinary understanding, then, integrates knowledge from two or more disciplines to produce cognitive enhancement (Boix-Mansilla & Duraisingh, 2007). Interdisciplinary education encourages students to analyze problems from multiple perspectives. Students are taught to contextualize both problems and solutions within a larger world context, to empathize and compromise with multiple stakeholders, and to tolerate ambiguity and complexity in solutions 164 | Willermet, Mueller, and Alm (DeZure, 2010; Willermet et al., 2013). It is often the integration of disciplines and the resulting synthesis of knowledge that provide the context for appropriate solutions (Brewer, 1999). Critical pedagogy...