As chair of the newly renamed Department of Community and Environmental Sociology, I’m glad to welcome you to the department’s equally new newsletter! And let me take this opportunity to explain why we’ve made this name change.
A couple of years back, the faculty in the Department of Rural Sociology began a discussion about what we call ourselves. Was the term “rural” still meaningful? Did “rural sociology” adequately reflect the content of our research and our teaching? We held a retreat, we talked in the halls, we debated the meaning of the rural in a departmental seminar, and we continued our intellectually lively and institutionally consequential discussion over wine late one fall Friday afternoon.
As many of you will know better than I, the roots of rural sociology as a discipline can be found in early twentieth century efforts of the federal government to understand and improve the quality of rural life. The UW hired its first rural sociologist in 1911. In that year, Charles Galpin took up an appointment in Agricultural Economics. Our department was created in 1930 and so we’ve been a presence on the UW campus for nearly eighty years.
Still, our collective sense in faculty discussion was that as we approach the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the term “rural” is confusing to many students, scholars, and citizens. Rather than lead undergraduates to seek out our rich array of course offerings in areas from “Food, Culture, and Society” to “International Development, Environment, and Sustainability”, too many undergraduate have tended to overlook us. Indeed, when students do find their way into our department, they often express frustration that they didn’t come across the department sooner and blame our name for missing us.
Our university colleagues too have indicated a lack of understanding of the work we do. When we talk about community supported agriculture, the politics of water, or rural industry, they get a sense of the breadth of our work, but “rural” doesn’t seem to them to encompass what we actually do. Finally, many citizens of the state who might find our expertise helpful would not likely find us as long as we held on to the label of “rural” sociology.
Given all of this, we decided to pursue university approval to change our name to the Department of Community and Environmental Sociology. In the spring, the University Academic Planning Council gave us the go-ahead to change our name, and we are moving methodically to complete all of the tasks, large and small, required to fully establish our new departmental identity.
Our change comes at a challenging time. In the midst of an economic downturn, universities across the country face severe fiscal pressures. Staff at the UW, including faculty, are confronting eight days of required furlough over each of the next two years. I would be lying if I said that this cut in pay hasn’t hurt morale, but in the midst of this crisis there are promising signs of revitalization on our campus.
A number of initiatives are underway to promote interdisciplinary research and dialog of various sorts. Departments and centers across campus are taking up crucial issues, including sustainability, renewable energy, and climate change. Our new Chancellor, Biddy Martin, has initiated a program to bring the campus together around the reading of a single book. Members of the Department of Community and Environmental Sociology are playing central roles in many of these interdisciplinary initiatives, and the “Big Read” book, Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food promises to highlight the vitality of our department. Some of us will be using the book in our classes this autumn, and we will have a departmental panel discussion on the topic in the fall too.
Beyond all of this, our new name positions us perfectly to draw the growing number of undergraduate students interested environmental issues, the politics of food, and community and social change into our major.
Thank you for checking us out. We’ll look forward to working with you.