WALLA WALLA, Wash.-- Whitman College's organic garden is providing fertile soil for the tangible kind of learning experience that assistant professor Reid Helford wants to provide.
As holder of Whitman's new sociology and environmental studies professorship, Helford is aware that he's already in a potentially controversial position. "There can be real tension between natural scientists who do environmental studies and social scientists who do environmental studies. It helps that I have a background in science (a bachelor's degree in animal science from the University of Kentucky to go along with his doctoral degree in sociology from Loyola University Chicago) so I can talk to and understand both sides."
Helford, in his first semester at Whitman, has found a gold mine in the college's organic garden. He has given his Human Communities (Soc. 307) class the assignment of documenting, through observation and interviews, the interactions between the Whitman students who presently maintain the garden and the Walla Walla community members they hope to get involved in it. The Organic Garden Club, said Helford, has worked hard and created a strong garden. Now the club members would like the non-Whitman part of the neighborhood to participate in it.
"The situation seems real straightforward, but it becomes really complex. We're going to go around and interview community members, some of whom may dislike or not understand the garden" with its compost and "fuzzy-bearded, bare-footed students," said Helford, who hopes that his class members truly understand the meaning of community by the end of the semester. Toward that end, he has created a grading system that makes the class a community unto itself. Each student's final grade is largely dependent on the success of the class's final project, an audio documentary drawn from the organic garden interviews. Some students find this system intriguing, others find it irritating, but Helford remains unflappable. "To make people uncomfortable as students in a way can help them learn," he recently told a reporter from the student newspaper. "It can really be a strong learning experience."
Helford, who says environmental conflict is a big concern of his, has been educating himself to the Northwest's conflicts. "All my research and experience has been in the Midwest," said the Chicago native. "There are similar kinds of issues, but not logging and dams and salmon. The first thing I did here was take my son and go look at dams on the Snake River." It's fascinating, said Helford, to see such a large amount of work going into such a time-consuming plan to save the salmon that apparently isn't working very well.
"It's amazing to see what's involved--the people, the technological infrastructure, the amount of money spent. It might seem ridiculous from an outsider's point of view, but in reality it's a very complicated social and technical issue," said Helford. Since he doesn't see the issue of the dams and salmon being resolved any time soon, Helford is looking forward to being around to watch, document and, perhaps, contribute to the resolution of this and other other conflicts in the Northwest.
In the meantime, he'll continue editing the video documentary he filmed over the last three years in Chicago, which details the controversy surrounding ecological restoration in the Chicago metropolitan area. Parts of the area's environment are being returned to pre- European settlement conditions (around 1830). This restoration has stirred up some emotions, because in order to return to the conditions of the 1830s, "you might have to do some strange things," said Helford, "like go into the forest preserves that may have once been prairies and cut down some trees."
The situation is not unlike the salmon issue, he says. "You have to deal with scientific, economic and emotional appeals on both sides. I think it's unfortunate that our society doesn't encourage the type of collaboration that these complex problems require. I hope that in some small way I can help to change that."