By Kevin Francis, MES Director.
Last week thirty-five students gathered for the first thesis workshop of winter quarter. We began with a presentation by Sandy Yannone, director of Evergreen’s Writing Center, who discussed the process of completing a major writing project. She encouraged students to share their anxieties and challenges, then offered strategies and techniques for addressing them.
As a new director teaching this class for the first time, I was working through my own anxieties. Each student is developing and researching a unique research question, with its own constellation of existing scholarship, methods for data collection and analysis, and practical challenges. At the end of class, each student turned in a prospectus. As I read through this stack over the following week, I was amazed at the range of topics. Consider the research questions of my own thesis students: Can you use remote sensing to locate potential sites of historic logging camps in Capitol Forest? What is the relationship between views of evolution and environmental attitudes among Christian clergy? How do so-called “use it or lose it” water policies effect irrigation practices? What motivates volunteers to participate in citizen science research? What was the environmental impact of the Olympia Brewing Company during its formative years? Of course, this diversity makes for rich conversations. But it also presents a teaching challenge: How do I create assignments and activities that are truly meaningful and useful across such a broad range of topics, data, and methods?
Fortunately, the first class went well. Sandy’s presentation seemed to calm and energize students for the hard work ahead; they asked many follow-up questions. Later they shared their own thesis research in small groups via an “elevator story”; several mentioned the value of feedback from their peers. Afterward, many of them joined first-year students for the weekly “late night seminar” at the Eastside Club Tavern. As I chatted with students over beer, I had a new appreciation for the importance of making thesis work, which at certain times is inevitably and painfully solitary, a communal enterprise. Hopefully, each student will gain perspective and strength by working alongside others in this common journey.
In six months, this cohort will be the 30th class of MES graduates. Last summer a small group of MES alumni, faculty, and students began talking about how to celebrate this anniversary. We wanted a festive day that allowed alumni to reconnect with old friends and build new connections with alumni—and soon-to-be alumni—across the decades. We also wanted to commemorate the legacy of MES graduates who are making valuable contributions on diverse environmental and social issues through a more focused event.
As it turns out, creating a program for the 30th anniversary celebration poses a similar kind of challenge as teaching the thesis workshop. Our “common” history is also many individual stories. Under the general theme of “Telling the MES Story” we hope to capture both unique individual stories and common experiences and themes. Fortunately, Evergreen undergraduates have been working hard during the past year to collect some of these stories. During the past year, Karen Gaul (MES faculty 06/07) has taught two academic programs—Living Well: Anthropology and Sustainability (Summer 2014) and Spaceship Earth: An Owner’s Manual (Fall 2014, Winter 2015) where students interviewed many MES alumni that are documented in audio and video recordings. They transcribed the interviews and created posters for each alumnus. As a whole, their work offers a slice of the experiences of students, the career paths of alumni, and the broader impact of our graduates at the local, regional, national, and international level. As part of the 30th anniversary celebration, these students will share their work. We will also have a panel of MES directors and alumni discuss the major environmental and social challenges that, over the past 30 years, have attracted students to the program and motivated their studies. We will also hear stories that reflect how the experience of being an MES student has changed over the years.
This program is just one event that will take place over the long weekend of activities. We start on Thursday, April 23, with the 25th Rachel Carson Forum, which is organized by current MES students and—I suspect—the traditional “late night seminar.” Friday evening is the Olympia Arts Walk and the Luminary Procession. Between the on-campus and off-campus events on Saturday is the 21st Procession of the Species. This annual event, developed by Eli Sterling (MES 1991), weaves together art, conservation, and community. You should not miss this chance to watch towering giraffes, dancing mandrills, floating jellyfish, and many more species parade through downtown Olympia.
Since I began teaching in the MES program, I’ve been impressed by the number of alumni who are doing important work on environmental and social issues in our state. Most express deep appreciation for their MES education and many stay involved by sponsoring internships and mentoring recent graduates. We hope you’ll join us in April to celebrate this collective accomplishment.