Meet the New Faculty: Aaron Strong, Environmental Studies
This year Hamilton welcomed six new tenure-track faculty members. Communications Office student writer Majestic Terhune ’21 spent hours interviewing these newest members of the faculty to find out why they chose Hamilton and what they think so far. Here’s her interview with Aaron Strong, assistant professor of environmental studies (some answers edited for clarity and brevity).
Why did you start teaching?
I’ve always loved teaching. In high school, I was a debater and really liked being on stage and giving speeches. I think we think about teaching as this imparting of knowledge or transfer of knowledge, but so much of teaching is an orchestrated performance. With that background, when I got to graduate school and started having opportunities for teaching, it just clicked with me. I loved it. I realized that I could make jokes and they helped people’s learning, which is great. I realized that I had a lot to share.
In graduate school, my first opportunities to TA or actually lead session (were) the first time I got totally hooked on teaching. I went to Swarthmore College and it was an amazing experience for me. I truly believe in a liberal arts education, and so I always thought that I wanted to end up at a liberal arts college. I love that style. You get to know your students, and you get to have these close relationships, and you get to pursue all your different interests. The freedom of the liberal arts faculty lifestyle, in terms of being able to pursue things that are genuinely, intellectually interesting to you, and the ability to make a difference in students’ lives was there.
In 2011, when I graduated from Tufts, I wanted a Ph.D. program (where I could) develop the skills in teaching that would allow me to pursue a career at a liberal arts college. So, I went to Stanford University, and I got my Ph.D. in an Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies program. Within that program — because there were so many undergraduates interested in studying the environment at Stanford — there was a huge need for new courses. So, I just said “hey, I’m going to design a course. I’m going to design another course. I’m going to design another course.”
I designed eight courses as a Ph.D. student, which is kind of unheard of. I was teaching four courses a year at Stanford while I was a Ph.D. student, and it just took off from there. So, a combination of a desire to be at a liberal arts college, a natural aptitude for wanting to use allocution, and leadership abilities that are required for being in front of a classroom and designing a course, coupled with the desire to actually try to impart knowledge...
Why did you choose Hamilton?
First, it’s a top-level liberal arts college, and I knew since I was at Swarthmore that I wanted to be at one. The second is I grew up on a liberal arts campus — Bates College.
I was actually (tenure-track) faculty at the University of Maine … and I was satisfied with it, but it wasn’t a liberal arts teaching environment. My colleagues didn’t really understand, asking, ‘Why are you wasting your time teaching? Why are you spending all your time on your classes? You shouldn’t be doing that, just write more grants and get more money.’ I knew I wanted out of that.
I applied to Williams, Amherst, and Hamilton, and I got interviews at all of them. And I went in very conscious that I was not going to interview in a way where I tried to fit what I thought the job ad wanted.
I was going to present my research and scholarship teaching as who I was, as this whirlwind of combination of natural sciences and social sciences, as someone who breaks down disciplinary walls and has a topical focus on climate change and all that they do, whether it’s engaging with critical theory about emissions accounting in the political ecology literature all the way to putting carbon dioxide sensors to measure gas fluxes in and out of the environment. And I do all of that.
And I think most of the other places I went to were like, ‘Whoa. We want someone who is a defined thing, like an atmospheric chemist or someone who is a scholar of these particular theories,’ and I dabble in those things, but that’s not who I am.
At Hamilton, and the Environmental Studies program — and I was told this by the search committee — they want someone who is a true interdisciplinarian. They want someone who can work with their students on climate justice and with their students who are interested in climate modeling and measuring carbon dioxide fluxes and doing field work … someone who can speak to the faculty in Environmental Studies across all sides of the College, and that’s necessary for an Environmental Studies and interdisciplinary program to succeed.
Hamilton was looking for who I am, and that makes me really happy.
How has your time here been so far?
The experience has been fantastic. The students are amazing. Teaching at a large state school, if you have a class of 45 people (there are) probably three or four students who will ever raise their hand. And here, you’re blown away because everyone does. Everyone’s bringing themselves to the table, and that’s so fascinating. It’s incredible to work with students who are so eager to learn and engage, and that keeps you on your toes. It’s wonderful, and it’s challenging as a professor, because you want to up the ante, to bring even more to the table.
The other thing that’s been amazing is the diversity of interest among students. Being able to teach and mentor thesis students who bring their ideas to the table is so different from the classic model of academia outside (the) liberal arts, where the idea is the professor will go out and write the grant to get the work and then hires someone to execute the work. And there’s no creativity, no intellectual curiosity, no research design on the part of the student. At Hamilton, there’s a conversation over what you’re interested in, how I connect with the resources I bring to connecting (them) to what the student is passionate about.
In all my teaching, one thing that’s been important to me is that I don’t want to get a final paper where I’m the only audience for it. I don’t want to assign a project that’s written for me, and I frantically grade it at the end of the semester, and that’s the sort of end-all-be-all of all that work.
So, in both my Climate Change and my Climate Risk and Resilience seminar, the final works of all my students were in some way public-facing. They’re in some way going out into the world and interacting with the world in a variety of ways, and I think that’s really important. It’s a part of experiential learning and it ups the ante. I think it’s really important to bring scholarship to real-world problems and bring creativity to bear on real-world problems.
Do you have any stories from Hamilton that stick out to you?
I think there are a bunch of little stories. One thing that struck me was before I started here, I emailed all the environmental studies majors and said that I was planning on going to this UN negotiation in New York on ocean management, and I asked if anyone wanted to come. The trick was that we needed to get the access passes by Monday and it was Friday night and the students had never met me before. They had no idea who I was. And I got a tremendous amount of interest, and that struck me immediately, thinking that these students are plugged in and willing to dive in. They’re excited to pursue opportunities they have before them.
Another thing that’s jumped out to me is (that) the cross-fertilization at a small college is really impressive. I’ve been meeting with the director of sustainability, and within a month of being here, we’re already talking about 15 different initiatives and have already interacted with 10 different students who are launching and moving those initiatives forward. It’s not really a story, but it’s a feeling that exists.
But I think the most poignant story to me has been the pathway through which one little action you take opens up a whole world of possibilities. Here’s a concrete example: I begin my courses with a land acknowledgment. A land acknowledgment is a practice that recognizes the traditional and ancestral peoples whose traditional lands we are now on.
In this case, it’s the Oneida People, the Haudenosaunee. And it’s not any more political than that; it’s simply an acknowledgment of the history of the land. And its practice is very common in other cultures. Land acknowledgments are something that I’ve been doing for a couple years and something that I really care about. I did one during my interview at Hamilton.
And a few weeks later, a student came up to me in my class and said, “I remember you did a land acknowledgment. I work with a student group and we’re planning on doing a land acknowledgment on Indigenous Peoples’ Day (Columbus Day), and we proceeded then to have a series of back-and-forth meetings and Skype calls with other professors. We arranged to have representatives of the Oneida Nation present and had a really warm and open event.
I was invited to meet with an alum who came to speak on indigenous issues, and we had dinner together, and now there’s work going on in my class related to the intersection of indigenous peoples and climate change, and it all aligns with folks at the Wellin Museum about the Jeffrey Gibson exhibit (2018).
All of those conversations happened because I did one thing in class. But they also happened because a student paid attention and followed up. And now there are these new initiatives and ideas and (we're) changing (the) course of discussion on campus, and that’s really powerful to me about what happens on a liberal arts campus. They meant a lot to me. I was in tears when I gave the talk on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, thinking about the history of land and the history of climate change.
What’s one of your favorite places on campus?
The immediate answer is probably the (Root) Glen. But there have been a couple spots. One is Roger’s Glen. It isn’t as built up in structure as the Root Glen, but I’ve really enjoyed going there. The Glen House itself. I took my son to play out there and we can watch a movie on a movie night with all these other families.
To be honest, the place that brings me the most joy, and maybe it’s for its symbolism, is the new golf course. I think the symbolism behind planting trees on a golf course for an environmental studies professor is pretty powerful. It’s like nature taking back manicured land and having it be purposeful around carbon sequestration, and now there’s a conversation about how to improve it over time. That is sort of the place that brings me joy.
And then I’m a kind of water fiend, so the little pond right in front of the arts center. It’s really pretty and everyone loves that, but the lawn right there is a pretty unique and special place.
Inside, my favorite place is the KJ Atrium. As a professor in the science center who can spend whole days here, on most Thursdays I try to just sit and work in the KJ Atrium. And I’ve had a half dozen impromptu meetings with students because they see me over there. And, as someone in a program that really spans the entire campus in terms of students, it’s actually really important for me to be over there and working with professors in sociology, anthropology, and government as well.