Headwaters Conference / “Relative Wild” Writer’s Retreat

Western State CO Univ

Western State CO Univ

Today I’m en route to Gunnison CO, home of Western State Colorado University, to participate in the 25th annual Headwaters Conference sponsored by the university’s Center for Environment and Sustainability. This year’s conference focuses on the notion of “The Relative Wild,” and features a keynote address by acclaimed poet Gary Snyder as well as a full day of presentations and discussions on various aspect of wildness. I’m speaking tomorrow as part of a panel discussing the “urban wild” — in particular, the experience of urban nature and its relation to kids and environmental education.

Crested Butte, CO

Crested Butte, CO

On Sunday, I join a group of writers convened by Gavin Van Horn (Center for Humans and Nature in Chicago) and John Hausdoerffer (WSCU Headwaters Project) for a long-anticipated writer’s retreat in nearby Crested Butte. We’ll be sharing ideas, outlines, and initial jottings to kick off a new book project to be co-edited by Gavin and John that’s tentatively titled The Relative Wild — a collection of stories and essays that, as the editors describe it,

will explore how human and ecological communities co-create the wild. The ‘myth of the pristine’ — that nature is most valuable when liberated from human presence — is quickly being supplanted by ‘the myth of the humanized,’ the assertion that nothing is untouched by human influence, and therefore one may embrace ecosystem change, even extreme changes, as ‘natural.’ We suggest that both of these myths deserve equal scrutiny, and that one way to do so is by celebrating the common ground of the relative wild: the degrees and integration of wildness and human influence in any place.

Having participated in a previous CHN writer’s retreat at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore for the forthcoming book City Creatures (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2015), I know firsthand how extraordinary an opportunity it is to take time out from the busy schedules and harried demands of ordinary life to mingle with talented and creative writers all focused on a common project. The fact that this is happening in a beautiful mountain setting at the autumnal equinox is even better!

Posted in Arts, Conferences, Humanities, Literature, Sustainability, Urban nature | Comments Off

RU Offers “Four Freedoms” Student Fellowships for 2014-15

The Four Freedoms Fellowship offers Roosevelt University students a unique opportunity to develop leadership, public speaking, and advocacy skills to effect change on critical issues. Throughout the academic year, selected Fellows will participate in a series of interactive trainings to deepen their knowledge of the political landscape, learn effective strategies to influence decision-makers, and be able to powerfully articulate their personal stories as a tool for change. Trainings will take place on Friday mornings at the Chicago Campus starting on Sept. 26th.

Four Freedoms Fellows will be awarded $750 in the form of financial aid that will be divided between the Fall and Spring semesters. Both undergraduate and graduate students from all academic disciplines are encouraged to apply. Fellows will have the opportunity to take a leadership role in advocacy efforts at Roosevelt and have occasion to represent the University at press conferences or events with elected officials.

Interested students may apply here. The deadline for submitting online applications is Sept. 10th, 2014. For questions about the Fellowship, please contact Jennifer Tani, Assistant Vice President for Community Engagement at RU, at jtani@roosevelt.edu or 312-341-2375.

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Delta Institute Internship Opportunity for Fall 2014 or Spring 2015

The Delta Institute has posted an opportunity for a Development Intern for either the Fall 2014 or the Spring 2015 semester this coming academic year. Check out its website and the detailed description below for position details and application deadlines.

DELTA Inst Development_Internship_Description_April-2014

Posted in Education, Great Lakes, Internships, Students, Sustainability | Comments Off

Water, Climate Change, Science, & Literature

This month one of Chicago’s public radio stations, WBEZ (91.5 FM), has kicked off a fascinating and timely series about water, science, and the humanities. It’s called After Water, and according to the series’ website, the project asks “writers to peer into the future—100 years or more—and imagine the region around the Great Lakes, when water scarcity is a dominant social issue. It’s a cosmic blend of art and science . . . [that will feature] stories, research, photos and more.”

Professor Gary Wolfe

Professor Gary Wolfe

Kicking off the series this week was a Morning Shift conversation on WBEZ with my longtime Roosevelt colleague, Dr. Gary Wolfe (the guy who hired me, by the way), one of the world’s foremost authorities on the literature of sci-fi and fantasy. Gary was in the house to talk about the emergent genre of “cli-fi,” or fiction about climate change, and its relation to water issues. Not only was Gary completely at home in this milieu due to his many years’ experience doing his own radio show in Chicago, “Interface,” but this gig was an apt follow-up to his teaching of a Special Topics SUST 390 seminar this past spring entitled “Sustainability in Film and Fiction.”

I look forward to following the stories and images within this unfolding After Water series, as it’s a great example of the need to integrate science and the humanities in constructing compelling narratives about the crisis of climate change, a subject I addressed briefly in this short essay from last summer.

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June 2014 Guest Talks and Conference Presentations

The first part of June has been exceptionally chatty, academically speaking, as I think I’ve had my busiest week ever in my 20-year academic career giving presentations and hobnobbing with colleagues at other institutions. Thus far I’ve been right here in the Chicago area, though a nice little trip to New York City awaits later this week — which is exciting, since I haven’t been to New York since the fall of 2006 (for the SLSA Conference at NYU).

JJC greenhouse (photo: Steinkamp Photography /  Legat Architects)

The LEED-certified greenhouse at JJC (photo: Steinkamp Photography / Legat Architects)

Last Sunday, as we flipped the home calendars to June, I drove out to Joliet Junior College, the nation’s oldest community college, to give a guest lecture entitled “Sustainability and the Future of Cities: Connecting Curriculum to Community” (pdf), as part of JJC’s three-day faculty retreat for the Grand Prairie Project — an effort to encourage the integration of sustainability across JJC’s curriculum led by my colleague, friend, and fellow Joliet public school alum Maria Rafac, an architectural technology prof at the college.

Institute for Environmental Sustainability at Loyola University Chicago

Institute for Environmental Sustainability at Loyola University Chicago

Then on Wednesday, June 4th, I collaborated with an RU professor, Aaron Shoults-Wilson, on a presentation (pdf) about sustainability/environmental science education at Roosevelt for a “Research and Education towards Sustainability Symposium” sponsored by the Institute for Environmental Sustainability at Loyola University in Chicago. This small gathering was especially interesting, since the IES was hosting a group of Vietnamese environmental scientists and educators from Vietnam National University. Learning about their work in Ho Chih Min City and other locations throughout Vietnam was utterly fascinating, and they in turn were extremely excited by the chance to explore Chicago and meet like-minded colleagues here in the US. I also got my first tour of Loyola’s new IES facility in my old neighborhood of East Rogers Park, opened in Fall 2013, which is quite impressive indeed.

Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago IL

Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago IL

Finally, on Thursday, June 5th, I gave my first talk at the Field Museum of Natural History along the downtown Chicago lakefront, as part of the museum’s Interchange monthly lecture series sponsored by the Dept. of Science and Education. These gatherings are internal to the museum, and provide a chance for researchers to present data and report on works in progress from all the various disciplines of the museum in a friendly setting that encourages active discussion and cross-disciplinary connections. My talk, “Reading the Book of Nature: May Theilgaard Watts’ Art of Ecology,” (pdf), reflected on how the arts and humanities complement scientific discourse, in this case within the context of urban ecosystems wherein live over 80% of Americans and more than 50% of people worldwide.

Pace University, New York City (GraduateGuide.com)

Pace University, New York City (GraduateGuide.com)

Later this week, I fly to New York City for the annual conference of the Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences, one of the academic tribes of which I’m an enthusiastic member. Hosted this year by Pace University in lower Manhattan, near the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, the conference theme is “Welcome to the Anthropocene: From Global Challenge to Plantery Stewardship.” This smallish conference of 500-600 attendees is always notable for its friendly and informal atmosphere, great spirit of convivial networking among colleagues from many different areas of academia (from the sciences to the social sciences to the humanities), and fun field excursions. My talk about my teaching experiences in a service-learning course at the Chicago Lights Urban Farm is part of a panel entitled “Innovative Pedagogies for Environmental Justice and Community Engagement.” I’m eager to hear what my fellow panelists have in store for our session!

Posted in Conferences, Education, Faculty, Joliet, Literature, Research, Roosevelt, Science, Sustainability, Urban nature | Comments Off

Leonard Dubkin, Chicago’s Urban Nature Writer: A Short Biography

Leonard Dubkin (1905-1972) was a businessman, journalist, naturalist, and nature writer who lived and worked in Chicago.A contemporary of the much more well-known Nelson Algren and Studs Terkel, Dubkin is a long-neglected urban nature writer of the 20th century whose journalism and books provide a unique and fascinating window into Chicago’s environmental history and urban landscape during a period of immense social and biological change in America’s cities.

Dubkin’s life was both humble and extraordinary, rife with early obstacles and replete with fascinating episodes worthy of a melodramatic up-from-his-bootstraps narrative. His early years were marked by poverty and a dogged determination to make something of himself. Dubkin was born in Odessa, Russia, in 1905; his family emigrated soon thereafter to the United States and in 1907 they settled on the near West Side of Chicago, an area of the city that served as a portal for Jewish immigrants, particularly those of Eastern-European ancestry. One of seven children and the oldest boy of the family, young Leonard cultivated an interest in the natural world from the time he was nine years old, and spent a great deal of time exploring various neighborhoods in the city in search of birds, insects, and other wild creatures in the scraps of natural areas within the urban environment he would later recall as some of his “secret places.”[i]

An alley in a Chicago slum, c. 1908 (source: Chicago Historical Society)

An alley in a Chicago slum, c. 1908 (source: Chicago Historical Society)

Dubkin’s family knew poverty on a daily basis during his early years in Chicago, as did many in their tenement neighborhood characterized by overcrowding and economic hardship. Dubkin’s father was chronically ill with lead poisoning from his work as a housepainter in Russia, and was unable to work during his time in Chicago; his mother kept the family going by taking in sewing work and accepting the help of local Jewish charities. Though he left school before finishing eighth grade so he could work to help support his family, Dubkin nevertheless kept collecting animal specimens, exploring out-of-the-way pockets of urban nature, writing down his observations in a journal, and cultivating an ambition to become a naturalist. He also fought his own battle with a debilitating illness: around the age of 15, he contracted encephalitis and lapsed into a coma that lasted almost a year during which he resided at a sanitarium in nearby Winfield, Illinois. Awakening suddenly to the surprise of doctors and delight of his family, Dubkin built up his strength during a long recovery period by playing tennis — and such was his athleticism that he soon became a ranked player in the city public leagues.

From childhood onward, Dubkin worked a variety of jobs — from cleaning out taverns to driving a cab to starting his own businesses — to support himself and his family, and though a modest and relatively unassuming person in general, he possessed an undeniably entrepreneurial spirit. As a young man and aspiring author determined, in rather romantic fashion, to cultivate the attitude and garner the life experiences he felt were necessary to a writer, he left Chicago and traveled around the country by riding the rails, hobo-style. When he ran short of money, he would stop at a city of some size and drum up work as a reporter for one of the local papers for awhile, before catching another freight train for different pastures. In this way over a period of perhaps two years or so, he wrote briefly for papers such as the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and the Sacramento Bee, honing his journalism skills and soaking up impressions of different places and people. After his return to Chicago, he made the city his home the remainder of his life, despite the fact that his mother and six siblings all relocated to Los Angeles.

Dubkin once lost a job as Chicago Daily News reporter after blowing an assignment to cover a murder story (itself a fascinating and humorous anecdote he would later recount as the “Racine Case” in his two of his books) by watching squirrels in the attic of the primary suspect’s home while the latter returned to the scene of the crime and was caught by police. Ironically, he claimed to be grateful for being set free, as writing about human affairs bored him in comparison to his passion for chronicling the activities of the natural world. Yet the demands of paying the rent kept him hustling after work even as he nurtured his artistic inclinations and fascination with nature. After several months of fruitlessly searching for newspaper work, he started a one-man public relations firm which lasted a few years, and it was through his publicity work for a local radio station that he met actress and his future wife, Muriel Schwartz, at a radio industry party. During the early years of the Great Depression, he capitalized on (and further cemented) his intimate knowledge of Chicago’s streets and neighborhoods by working as a cab driver. In the 1930s, he started yet another business enterprise: a talent directory of Chicago stage and radio actors, which he updated and published yearly up through the mid-1950s.

Undated photo of Dubkin in his office at Lerner Newspapers in Chicago (source: P. Dubkin Yearwood)

Undated photo of Dubkin in his office at Lerner Newspapers in Chicago (source: P. Dubkin Yearwood)

Finally, from the late ’50s onward, he worked full-time as a reporter and columnist for Lerner Newspapers, which produced a diverse offering of neighborhood weeklies for various Chicago neighborhoods. This great variety of experiences and jobs exemplifies not just his industriousness and entrepreneurship, but also the scope and depth of his creative energies. While his day jobs limited his natural history and creative writing activities to being after-hours pursuits rather than his primary focus, they provided him a measure of middle-class economic stability and even supplied him with a narrative theme he would explore in several books — the ongoing tension between the impulse to observe and commune with urban nature and the demands of earning a living in modern America.

As his keeping of a childhood nature journal indicates, Dubkin carved out an early identity as a naturalist-writer, and his facility with language earned him a journalism gig as a young teenager when he started writing a weekly nature column in the Saturday children’s page of the Chicago Daily News. Not only did this employment eventually lead to life-long work in journalism as a reporter, columnist, and urban naturalist, it provided the occasion for a transformative meeting between young Dubkin and one of Chicago’s greatest historical figures. As Dubkin recounts, he would take his handwritten drafts to nearby Hull House to type them up, for the staff allowed him to use their office equipment. When one of these times the “head lady” asked him what he was working on, he stunned her by replying he was typing up his articles for the Daily News and showed her a copy of his latest column which he happened to have in his pocket for just such an auspicious occasion.

She read my article, which was about migratory instinct in birds. “Do you always write about nature?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said, “I’m going to be a naturalist when I grow up.”

“Don’t you think you need a typewriter to be a naturalist?”

“Sure I do. And some day I’m going to be able to afford to buy one.”

She asked me where I lived, and after I told her she walked away. A few days later a man delivered a package to our house, addressed to me. Inside was a brand new typewriter from the kind lady at Hull House. Her name was Jane Addams. (My Secret Places 17)

Because his formal education was cut short, Dubkin never became a professional scientist as he once fantasized; instead of fretting over this missed opportunity, though, he transformed it into a narrative theme. His writings are peppered with amusing encounters between himself, as the amateur naturalist/narrator, and professional scientists from Chicago-area institutions. The contrasts he drew between the two perspectives illustrate not just his respect for (and, to some degree, insecurity about) the authority of science as arbiter of knowledge, but also his view that institutionalized science could be cold and detached.

Nevertheless, Dubkin was as much enthralled by science as he was by nature itself, and from an early age steeped himself in the writings of naturalists from Darwin to Ernest Thompson Seton. He also held scientists such as Darwin, Mendel, and Einstein in the highest regard — not just for their technical acumen and writing ability, but for their ability to think critically and experimentally, to “come to . . . [nature] with a question, with just the right question, and who have the kind of minds that know how to go about getting an answer” (Natural History of a Yard 55). Consequently, Dubkin always grounded his observations of the natural world in his extensive reading of both popular and technical scientific literature, which he accessed not through formal training but in the diverse collections of Chicago’s public libraries — his substitute for a university experience.

Dubkin Wolf PointIn contrast to his experiences with science, Dubkin’s literary ambitions were much more fully realized and he carved out a singular niche as an urban naturalist-writer. His early dreams of becoming a naturalist and a writer were fulfilled most resoundingly by his string of urban nature writing books, published between 1944 and 1972, which creatively fused autobiography and natural history. These works included The Murmur of Wings (1944), Enchanted Streets (1947), The White Lady (1952), Wolf Point (1953), The Natural History of a Yard (1955), and My Secret Places (1972). Dubkin was a dedicated and prolific writer who kept a daily journal throughout his life; wrote hundreds of letters to family and friends, most notably to his wife, Muriel, who was both his muse and sounding-board; published hundreds of newspaper columns and scores of book reviews; and developed a variety of creative projects that never saw the light of day, including novels and a natural history from the viewpoint of the family dog amusingly entitled “Letters from Pepsi.”

As a journalist, Dubkin worked for several papers penning nature columns over the course of his life, including that youthful gig the Chicago Daily News and a brief stint at the Chicago Tribune that ended abruptly when he offended the Tribune’s publisher, Robert R. McCormick, by impugning the character and motives of life-list-constructing “bird lovers” — one of whom was McCormick’s wife. Later on, from the late 1950s until his death in 1972, he maintained a long-standing position at Lerner Newspapers in Chicago as a news reporter and nature writer; his popular “Birds and Bees” column containing his folksy yet scientifically informed observations on urban nature ran for nearly 30 years, and enjoyed a wide and dedicated readership throughout the city.

Carbon copy of the dust-jacket blurb by Loren Eiseley, c. 1972 (source: P. Dubkin Yearwood)

Carbon copy of the dust-jacket blurb by Loren Eiseley, c. 1972 (source: P. Dubkin Yearwood)

Once established as an accomplished naturalist-writer, Dubkin was in demand to pen reviews of books by his contemporary nature writers for such venues as the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times. He also maintained friendships and regular correspondence with important writers, naturalists, and scientists of his day, from legendary Chicago writer Nelson Algren to biologist and environmental writer Rachel Carson to anthropologist and essayist Loren Eiseley. In fact, it is Eiseley who penned what might be the most eloquent tribute to Dubkin’s skill and craftsmanship as a naturalist-writer. In a 1972 letter to Dubkin he included a carbon copy of a dust jacket blurb for Dubkin’s final book, My Secret Places:

Mr. Dubkin has no parallel as the naturalist of the city and its environs. An able and expert journalist, he has the heart and eye of a child. It is this which convinces those of us lost in adult affairs that there is still truly a hidden place between the last billboard and the viaduct, a place as worthy of preservation as a forest. In such spots a rare human gentleness can sometimes be nurtured. Leonard Dubkin is a graduate of that kind of innocent back lot school which Americans are close to losing forever. His work is not only readable, it is utterly sincere.[ii]

Eiseley concisely and poetically captures here several salient qualities of Dubkin’s perspective on nature and his literary voice. An esteemed member of the scientific establishment (an establishment that both inspired and intimidated Dubkin) and a writer who produced hard-to-categorize yet utterly compelling works that blended natural history, evolutionary theory, philosophy of science, and autobiography, Eiseley recognized not just the singularity of Dubkin’s unique perspective and literary ability but also the value of Dubkin’s lifelong efforts to bring the neglected yet fascinating manifestations of urban nature to light.

Notes

[i] The biographical information in this essay on Dubkin is culled from the author’s interviews with Dubkin’s daughter, Pauline Dubkin Yearwood, as well as from Yearwood’s short essay “Family Memoir: The Urban Nature Lover.”

[ii] This letter is part of the extensive manuscript collection of Dubkin’s writings and correspondence — including letters, journals, newspaper columns, book reviews, book manuscripts, fiction, poetry, and unpublished manuscripts — maintained by Pauline Dubkin Yearwood.

Works Cited

Dubkin, Leonard. Enchanted Streets: The Unlikely Adventures of an Urban Nature Lover. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1947.

—. The Murmur of Wings. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1944.

—. My Secret Places: One Man’s Love Affair with Nature in the City. New York: David McKay, Inc., 1972.

—. The Natural History of a Yard. Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1955.

—. Personal papers. Pauline Dubkin Yearwood, Chicago, IL.

—. The White Lady. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1952.

—. Wolf Point: An Adventure in History. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1953.

Eiseley, Loren. Letter to Leonard Dubkin. 12 February 1972.

Yearwood, Pauline Dubkin. “Family Memoir: The Urban Nature Lover.” Chicago Jewish History (Fall 2005): 4-5.

—. Personal interview. 15 March and 18 April 2007.

*  *  *

This essay was written in August of 2008. It is an expanded version of the biographical information contained within my scholarly essay, “Empty Lots and Secret Places: Leonard Dubkin’s Exploration of Urban Nature in Chicago.” ISLE 18.1 (Winter 2011): 1-20.

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Assessing Sustainability Literacy at RU

Yesterday I took part in an event at Roosevelt sponsored by its Office of Institutional Research, Assessment, and Reaccreditation on academic program assessment. Faculty and staff from over a dozen academic departments across the six colleges of the university presented data and conclusions from the 2013-14 academic assessment work that was supported by a “microgrant” program for the Spring 2014 semester.

I gave a short presentation (see this pdf of the slideshow) on the assessment work we did in the Sustainability Studies Program in 2013-14: the Sustainability Literacy Survey that was administered to all Fall 2013 SUST classes as well as to a sub-sample of other CPS undergraduate courses in Criminal Justice and Professional & Liberal Studies gen ed seminars.

This preliminary survey was a key part of the SUST Program’s Assessment Plan for 2013-14, and was based on the “Assessment of Sustainability Knowledge” survey instrument developed in July 2013 by The Environmental & Social Sustainability Lab, The Ohio State University. This survey was endorsed as assessment tool by AASHE and has been promoted on the AASHE blog to other universities wishing to gather comparable data about the general level of sustainability literacy among US undergraduates.

Goals of the Sustainability Literacy (SL) Survey

  • Determine baseline SL of RU undergrads in 2013
  • Compare groups of students (by class, age, major, etc.)
  • Facilitate program assessment in relation to SL at other US universities
  • Provide one means of assessing the current SUST curriculum

Results

Despite the rather small sample size (173 surveys will returned) of this pilot study, some useful data resulted from the effort. The graph below displays how different majors performed on the survey in terms of overall % of correct answers out of 28 questions that covered environmental, economic, and social topics related to sustainability. SUST majors outperformed all other groups by a wide margin here.

SUST Literacy Assmt 2014-05-09 Avg Score by Major

Another useful way to view the data is to convert the % correct scores of each respondent to a letter grade, using the traditional scale of 90% = A, etc. This provides a more nuanced look at how students in different groups do on the assessment beyond the mean score. Notably, almost two-thirds of SUST majors scored a B or higher on the survey, while only 6% failed. In contrast, 87% of non-SUST majors scored a C or lower on the survey.

SUST Literacy Assmt 2014-05-09 SUST vs non-SUST Grades Conclusions

  • Sustainability Studies majors as a group score significantly higher on this sustainability literacy survey than non-SUST students at RU as a whole, or any other sub-group of undergraduate majors.
  • RU students as a whole score slightly lower than undergrads at the Ohio State University (64% vs. 69%, respectively), but their performance is comparable.
  • Overall, undergraduate students at RU are relatively illiterate about basic sustainability facts and issues, as their average score is a “D” when converted to a letter grade.
  • SUST majors scores potentially indicate the value of the curriculum at improving basic sustainability literacy at the undergraduate level, though some such students may enter RU with a higher baseline level of SL.
  • There is a real need for sustainability education across the board for all undergraduate students, regardless of major.

Next Steps for SUST Program Assessment

  • Continue analyzing results of SL Survey and share with SUST part-time faculty.
  • Explore feasibility of administering the student to a representative sample of all RU undergrads in 2014-15.
  • Contribute assessment data to RU’s Environmental Sustainability Committee and discuss relevance STARS 2.0 reporting for overall university sustainability efforts.
  • Follow up with other assessment activities: curriculum review, alumni survey, writing/communication/critical analysis skills, etc.

Special Acknowledgment: The “Rogers Factor”

Key contributions to this survey assessment and analysis were made by two invaluable people at RU, who together constitute the “Rogers Factor”:

Ester Rogers, RU’s Office of Institutional Research: helped with survey design & implementation, suggestions for modes of analysis, and Microgrant funding support during the Spring 2014 semester.

Scott Rogers, junior SUST major in the College of Professional Studies: performed key data entry work and contributed a wide range of preliminary analysis of survey results.

 Resources on Sustainability Assessment

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Joliet Kid Makes Good: John C. Houbolt (1919-2014), Space Flight Engineer for Moon Missions

Houbolt being honored at Joliet Memorial Stadium in 1969 soon ofter the successful first moon landing (Herald-News)

Houbolt being honored at Joliet Memorial Stadium in 1969 soon ofter the successful first moon landing (Herald-News)

Last week a local legend passed away at the ripe old age of 95. A former NASA engineer who played a key role in developing the technology and mission strategy for the Apollo moon landing missions, John C. Houbolt was one of Joliet’s favorite sons — an Iowa-born farm boy who grew up working the land west of Joliet when it was a much smaller city than today; attended Joliet Junior College and the University of Illinois to become a civil engineer; and bucked the NASA bureaucracy in the early ’60s when he knew he possessed a superior approach for the incredibly difficult task of landing a manned spacecraft on the moon.

Houbolt’s A.P. obituary ran in the Joliet Herald-News last week, along with this feature article; yesterday (27 April 2014) the NY Times ran this excellent obituary, which is reprinted below. The Joliet Area Historical Museum in downtown Joliet features an outstanding exhibit on Houbolt’s work and legacy, The Soaring Achievements of John C. Houbolt.

Houbolt explaining his moon landing concept in 1962 (NASA)

Houbolt explaining his moon landing concept in 1962 (NASA)

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy told Congress that the United States should commit to landing a man on the moon before the end of the decade.

The goal caught some top officials at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration off guard. There was no firm plan for carrying out such a mission. Should they blast straight from Earth in a mammoth rocket? Should they launch a spacecraft into orbit around Earth, then deploy a module to travel from there to the moon?

Debate was intense. The celebrated NASA rocket scientist Wernher von Braun supported the big blast — an idea known as Nova. Others liked the Earth-orbiting option. For both, costs and complications seemed overwhelming.

Then a relatively obscure NASA engineer named John C. Houbolt committed a bold act of insubordination. In November of 1961, in a clear breach of protocol, Dr. Houbolt, a self-described “voice in the wilderness” whose ideas had been rejected by von Braun and others, wrote directly to Robert C. Seamans Jr., the associate administrator of NASA.

“Do we want to go to the moon or not?” asked Dr. Houbolt.

Houbolt at the Univ of IL in Urbana in 2003 (Herald-News)

Houbolt at the Univ of IL in Urbana in 2003 (Herald-News)

Since the 1950s, Dr. Houbolt, who was 95 when he died on April 15 in Scarborough, Me., had been arguing for a smaller, lighter and less expensive option — a Chevrolet, not a Cadillac, he liked to say — that was called lunar orbit rendezvous. According to this method, a rocket launched from Earth would send a spacecraft into orbit around the moon that would then deploy another vehicle, known as a “bug” or lunar module, to the lunar surface.

The module would carry two men who, after exploring the moon, would travel in the module back to the orbiting spacecraft and then return to Earth. It, too, was complicated, but it did not require the kind of massive rocketry the other approaches did — technology that did not yet exist.

“Why is Nova, with its ponderous ideas, whether in size, manufacturing, erection, site location, etc., simply just accepted, and why is a much less grandiose scheme involving rendezvous ostracized or put on the defensive?” Dr. Houbolt wrote to Dr. Seamans. “I fully realize that contacting you in this manner is somewhat unorthodox, but the issues at stake are crucial enough to us all that an unusual course is warranted.”

Until then, lunar orbit rendezvous had been dismissed as far-fetched. In 1961, no American had even orbited Earth — John Glenn would do so the next year — and there were broad concerns that the proposed sequence of events posed too many risks. It required multiple vehicles and complicated maneuvers high above the moon’s surface.

“Do not be afraid of this,” Dr. Houbolt urged Dr. Seamans, assuring him that he was not “dealing with a crank.”

Dr. Seamans surprised Dr. Houbolt by listening — and he made sure others at NASA did, too. In early 1962, Joseph F. Shea, a newcomer working as a top assistant to Brainerd Holmes, the head of manned spaceflight at NASA, began looking closely at Dr. Houbolt’s arguments. Dr. Shea soon became an advocate as well. In time, even von Braun came around, and in July 1962 NASA formally adopted lunar orbit rendezvous as its preferred method.

Seven years later, on July 20, 1969, the United States became the first and so far only country to put men on the moon. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins deftly carried out the lunar orbit rendezvous. Armstrong and Aldrin entered the lunar module from the main spacecraft through a hatch so that they could travel the rest of the way to the moon — and back.

“Houston,” Armstrong said as the module landed on the lunar surface, “Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

John Cornelius Houbolt was born on April 10, 1919, in Altoona, Iowa, and grew up in Joliet, Ill. His parents were farmers who had emigrated from the Netherlands. He attended Joliet Junior College before transferring to what is now the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he received a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in 1940 and a master’s in the same subject in 1942. In 1958, while at NASA, he received a doctorate in technical sciences from ETH Zurich, in Switzerland.

He died of complications of Parkinson’s disease, his son-in-law P. Tucker Withington said.

Dr. Houbolt is survived by his wife of 65 years, the former Mary Morris; three daughters, Neil Withington, Joanna Hayes and Julie Winter; a sister, Irene Coonan; and four grandchildren.

In 1942, Dr. Houbolt joined NASA, then called NACA, for the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, as an engineer in the structures research division. He went on to hold numerous positions, including chief of the theoretical mechanics division. In 1963, after the lunar orbit rendezvous was adopted, he left NASA to become a senior executive with Aeronautical Research Associates of Princeton Inc.

He returned to NASA in 1976 as chief aeronautical scientist, retiring in 1985.

Although Dr. Houbolt was not at NASA in 1969, he was invited to witness the moon landing with other agency officials at Mission Control in Houston.

“John,” von Braun told him, “it worked beautifully.”

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Attending the Sustainable City Year Program Conference at Univ of OR

Yesterday afternoon I arrived in Eugene, Oregon, for the Sustainable City Year Program conference — the 3rd such gathering held annually at the University Of Oregon. I’m on a fact-finding mission to learn how the five-year-old SCYP got started at U of O, get insights from other colleges and universities who have started their own versions of the program at their institutions, and bring back good ideas to potentially implement at Roosevelt in Chicago.

13th Street at the Univ of Oregon in Eugene OR

13th Street at the Univ of Oregon in Eugene OR

I’ve already met some fantastic and interesting people here in Eugene, where we’re comfortably appointed at the downtown Eugene Hilton, and greatly anticipating today’s workshops and discussions. This gathering is rather small — more like a workshop than a conference — so I expect to get to know almost everyone in the group fairly easily in what will be three days of vigorous discussion and socializing. There are folks here from all across the US and even abroad (the Centre Transnational de Recherche Gabon), and it’s a nice mix of academics like myself as well as city professionals and officials — since the point of this program is connecting academic service learning to urban sustainable development in particular communities. But as far as I can tell, the only other folks from IL are a group from Augustana College in Rock Island; so I’m the sole participant from the Chicago Region. (That makes me rather happy, actually.)

According to By Nicole Ginley-Hidinger writing for the SCI blog, here’s an overview of the three-day conference:

A lot of student work goes to waste. After brilliant plans, layouts, and other assignments are turned in for a final grade, the reports, essays, and drawings are crammed into the back of a closet and forgotten about. SCYP changes that by creating a partnership between the University and a nearby city. Students get the chance to pitch ideas on real-world projects while cities get a wide array of proposals that they can incorporate into the development and growth of sites and programs. 

Institutions in over ten states have now implemented SCYP, adopting the program and crafting their own innovative approach. During April 16-18, many of these schools will converge in Eugene to share ideas and teach other universities interested in developing their own program during the SCYP conference.

The three-day conference includes SCI faculty who will discuss the Oregon model, panels made up of cities Oregon has worked with, cities other universities have worked with, and panels of program coordinators and faculty who will address how the format can be adapted and utilized in different locations.  

During the 2014 SCYP Conference, scheduled for April 15-18, the University of Oregon, will share tactics to creating a successful program centered on sustainability with the help of SCYP-like programs across the nation.

“The conference is huge,” says SCI co-director, Marc Schlossberg. “The conference will give new programs all of the context, and the nut and bolts, of how a program like this is organized, how it can be effective, and how to navigate through the system of cities and universities to get something done and organized.”

The SCI staff will share everything, from inspiring moments like the support they receive from the city staff and community to the more difficult aspects, such as not being able to find a city last year.

The three-day conference includes the SCI “program how-to”, where the Oregon model is broken down into city, student, and institutional engagement. The model is explained through presentations and discussions with cities Oregon has worked with, cities other universities have worked with, and panels of program coordinators and faculty who will address how the format can be adapted and utilized in different locations.  

“There’s been schools around the country that have been interested in this type of work and to this scale,” says SCI co-director, Nico Larco. “They have an interest in developing programs that are similar. We have all these different adaptations of this model.”

SCI wants to share that their model is versatile and can be implemented at any school, no matter the size or the type.

“The basic idea is that it takes advantage of classes that are already being taught in the university and leverages them in a different way,” says Schlossberg. “It can work anywhere there’s students, courses, and faculties.”

The main goal of the conference is to help schools build programs that take advantage of the resources that they already have to help the communities around them. In SCYP programs, classes help address vital community issues, such as climate change, minority outreach, and how to handle limited fiscal resources in conjunction with a community need for fresh ideas that are from a neutral source.

“Students are demanding applied learning opportunities and to make an impact in the world now, while they are students,” says Schlossberg. “We have idea-generating machines in students, classes and faculty, so if we’re going to make any progress at all on these big vexing multi-disciplinary problems in a community, the university should be active in addressing them.”

The first day of the conference will focus on schools that are interested in developing a program of their own. The University of Oregon is the sole presenter and will teach curious schools the ins-and-outs.  

“[It’s on] everything from how you structure within the university, like the faculty, to how you structure things within the city, like contracts, the schedule throughout the year, and the breath and depth of the projects” says Larco.

The second day is focused both on schools who already have programs and schools who want to build them. The discussions will center on engaging faculty, students, budgeting issues, funding issues and different ways to work with cities.

It will feature schools who have adopted the program and implemented it in unique and innovative ways, from the Oregon model where all thirty classes focus on one community to other campuses who engage with several communities at one time.

The third day is focused on developing a national network of SCYP programs and how universities can go after funding and develop together.

“We are interested in changing the way higher education is delivered in this country,” says Schlossberg. “The more people that are engaged in that endeavor, the stronger the message is.”

This is the third year the University of Oregon will put on the SCYP conference. The 2014 SCYP conference strives to share how to create an effective program while building a peer to peer network of institutions who are ready to improve the higher education model.

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Teaching Climate Change through Literature

A somewhat interesting article from yesterday’s NY Times about literature-and-environment courses that are beginning to address issues of climate change. Unfortunately, the author didn’t know about Prof. Gary Wolfe’s groundbreaking seminar here at Roosevelt this spring, “Sustainability in Film and Fiction,” as that would’ve been a great example to profile here. Here’s the full text of the article:

EUGENE, Ore. — University courses on global warming have become common, and Prof. Stephanie LeMenager’s new class here at the University of Oregon has all the expected, alarming elements: rising oceans, displaced populations, political conflict, endangered animals.

The goal of this class, however, is not to marshal evidence for climate change as a human-caused crisis, or to measure its effects — the reality and severity of it are taken as given — but how to think about it, prepare for it and respond to it. Instead of scientific texts, the class, “The Cultures of Climate Change,” focuses on films, poetry, photography, essays and a heavy dose of the mushrooming subgenre of speculative fiction known as climate fiction, or cli-fi, novels like “Odds Against Tomorrow,” by Nathaniel Rich, and “Solar,” by Ian McEwan.

“Speculative fiction allows a kind of scenario-imagining, not only about the unfolding crisis but also about adaptations and survival strategies,” Professor LeMenager said. “The time isn’t to reflect on the end of the world, but on how to meet it. We want to apply our humanities skills pragmatically to this problem.”

The class reflects a push by universities to meld traditionally separate disciplines; Professor LeMenager joined the university last year to teach both literature and environmental studies.

Her course also shows how broadly most of academia and a younger generation have moved beyond debating global warming to accepting it as one of society’s central challenges. That is especially true in places like Eugene, a verdant and damp city, friendly to the cyclist and inconvenient to the motorist, where ordering coffee in a disposable cup can elicit disapproving looks. Oregon was a pioneer of environmental studies, and Professor LeMenager’s students tend to share her activist bent, eagerly discussing in a recent session the role that the arts and education can play in galvanizing people around an issue.

To some extent, the course is feeding off a larger literary trend. Novels set against a backdrop of ruinous climate change have rapidly gained in number, popularity and critical acclaim over the last few years, works like “The Windup Girl,” by Paolo Bacigalupi; “Finitude,” by Hamish MacDonald; “From Here,” by Daniel Kramb; and “The Carbon Diaries 2015,” by Saci Lloyd. Well-known writers have joined the trend, including Barbara Kingsolver, with “Flight Behavior,” and Mr. McEwan.

And with remarkable speed — Ms. Kingsolver’s and Mr. Rich’s books were published less than a year ago — those works have landed on syllabuses at colleges. They have turned up in courses on literature and on environmental issues, like the one here, or in a similar but broader class, “The Political Ecology of Imagination,” part of a master’s degree program in liberal studies at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.

For now, Professor LeMenager’s class is open only to graduate students, with some working on degrees in environmental studies, others in English and one in geography, and it can have the rarefied feel of a literature seminar. Fueled by readings from Susan Sontag and Jacques Derrida, the students discuss the meaning of terms like “spectacle” and “witness,” and debate the drawbacks of cultural media that approach climate change from the developed world’s perspective.

Climate novels fit into a long tradition of speculative fiction that pictures the future after assorted catastrophes. First came external forces like aliens or geological upheaval, and then, in the postwar period, came disasters of our own making.

Novels like “On the Beach,” by Nevil Shute, and “A Canticle for Leibowitz,” by Walter M. Miller Jr., and films like “The Book of Eli,” offered a world after nuclear war. Stephen King’s “The Stand,” Margaret Atwood’s “Oryx and Crake” and “The Year of the Flood,” and films like “12 Monkeys” and “I Am Legend” imagined the aftermath of biological tampering gone horribly wrong.

“You can argue that that is a dominant theme of postwar fiction, trying to grapple with the fragility of our existence, where the world can end at any time,” Mr. Rich said. Before long, most colleges will “have a course on the contemporary novel and the environment,” he said. “It surprises me that even more writers aren’t engaging with it.”

The climate-change canon dates back at least as far as “The Drowned World,” a 1962 novel by J. G. Ballard with a small but ardent following. “The Population Bomb,” Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 nonfiction best seller, mentions the potential dangers of the greenhouse effect, and the 1973 film “Soylent Green,” best remembered for its grisly vision of a world with too many people and too little food, is set in a hotter future.

The recent climate fiction has characters whose concerns extend well beyond the climate, some of it is set in a present or near future when disaster still seems remote, and it can be deeply satirical in tone. In other words, if the authors are aiming for political consciousness-raising, the effort is more veiled than in novels of earlier times like “The Jungle” or “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

Professor LeMenager’s syllabus includes extensive nonfiction writing and film, alongside the fiction, and she said she had little interest in truly apocalyptic scenarios or those that are scientifically dubious. She does not, for example, show her students “The Day After Tomorrow,” the 2004 film about an ice age caused by global warming that was a huge hit despite being panned by critics and scientists alike, though she says everyone asks her about it.

Stephen Siperstein, one of her students, recalled showing the documentary “Chasing Ice,” about disappearing glaciers, to a class of undergraduates, leaving several of them in tears. Em Jackson talked of leading groups on glacier tours, and the profound effect they had on people. Another student, Shane Hall, noted that people experience the weather, while the notion of climate is a more abstract concept that can often be communicated only through media — from photography to sober scientific articles to futuristic fiction.

“In this sense,” he said, “climate change itself is a form of story we have to tell.”

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