Madhav G. Badami
School of Urban Planning, Faculty of Engineering
McGill School of Environment (MSE)
What are some of the strategies that you use in your courses to engage students?
I think good teaching is like good storytelling. Instead of starting off with a theoretical concept, I start with a story or a case, in order to ground our discussions in the lived reality of contexts. I then use the case to show the usefulness of the theoretical concept or of applying different analytical approaches to evaluate situations exemplified by the case.
Take something very dry like cost-benefit analysis. Rather than starting with its underlying theory and mechanics, I talk about an environmental problem like pesticide pollution. Of course, no one wants pesticide pollution, but think of what happens if you don’t use pesticides—there may be serious health effects due to a massive loss of food. To arrive at the optimal level of control, you need to trade off those and other impacts against the effects of pesticide pollution. I introduce cost-benefit analysis as one way of analysing this situation. When you apply analytical approaches to a real life problem, it becomes much easier to demonstrate their usefulness but also their limitations.
How do you evaluate your students’ learning? What kind of assessment strategies/techniques do you use?
In my smaller classes like Environmental Policy and Planning, I use multiple evaluation techniques such as presentations and a term paper on a topic of students’ choice. I also grade students on their class participation, which includes critical discussions of assigned readings in class.
Another assignment, which students find to be a great learning experience, involves preparing a 4-5 page policy brief, in which they get to pretend they’re advising Canada’s Minister of the Environment, or some other official responsible for addressing an environmental issue of their choosing. Among other things, they need to discuss desired policy objectives, the pros and cons of two to three viable policy options in terms of these objectives, their recommended course of action based on this evaluation, and implementation issues critical to policy success.
What is the most important thing students in your discipline learn when taking a course with you? How about students from outside your discipline?
Because of my joint appointment, I have students from a range of disciplines from across the university in my classes; especially in smaller classes like my Environmental Policy and Planning class, they have, I believe, interesting opportunities for mutual learning, both because of the inter-disciplinary nature of the subject matter, as well as the perspectives they themselves bring from their different disciplines.
Hopefully, they come away with a sophisticated and nuanced understanding of environmental issues that reflects their complexity but also gives them reason to hope that these issues can be resolved. When studying environmental problems, it can sometimes get depressing, so it’s important for them to learn that positive change is both possible and is in fact happening, in small but significant ways.
How do you help your students understand what research/scholarship is in your discipline (including findings, methodologies, etc.)? Please provide an example.
First, Urban Planning and Environment are interdisciplinary fields, not disciplines. Environmental issues involve scientific-technological, but also socio-economic, political-institutional, human behavioural, and ethical dimensions. I explain that to better understand and address these issues, they need to investigate them along these multiple dimensions, drawing on perspectives from multiple disciplines. Also, because environmental problems and policies are characterized by a range of impacts that affect different groups differentially, effective policy making requires the evaluation and reconciliation of trade-offs and conflicts between these impacts from the perspective of various groups.
What we choose to look at or leave out of our analysis is crucially important and has profound implications for policy choices and outcomes, and for who pays and who benefits. In any case, we cannot possibly address an impact that we do not consider in our analysis. Therefore, problem formulation is critical—in terms of what dimensions and which impacts for which groups we consider, and over what spatial and temporal scales. Research isn’t just about mechanically applying some off-the-shelf analytical approach—it is about making some very important, often moral, choices in terms of defining the problem.
So, if students are researching bio-fuels in transport, for example, they might only be concerned with vehicular air pollutant emissions; or they might even consider emissions and fossil energy consumption associated with crop production, and fuel production and distribution, and issues such as engine reliability and durability, and vehicle operating costs. But there are other important environmental and socio-economic impacts, including soil degradation, water use and pollution, land use, biodiversity loss, and climate change; food prices and food security; and dispossession and poverty, many of which might be induced in distant lands. I use this case to show the implications of analytical choices as to the impacts for different groups, and the spatial and temporal scales over which impacts are considered.
What are your recommendations to new faculty members to help them develop in their teaching role?
I think it’s important for faculty to get students excited about the subject and wanting to learn more. Start by making your teaching really interesting but don’t dumb it down. While that’s not easy, it can be done. In relation to the environment, for example, if your approach is all “doom and gloom,” you will switch your students off. As I said, you have to show them that while there are problems, there are also possibilities for positive change. Case studies can allow you to do this effectively. They help you engage students by asking them: “What did people do in this case? How did they do it? What were the challenges? How did they overcome them? What lessons can we learn that might be transferable?”
What advice do you have for undergraduate students about how to get the most out of your courses?
I would ask them, plain and simple, to pay attention. As teachers, we have to be totally engaged in our work and committed to good-quality teaching, so students need to be committed, too, in order to get the most out of their courses. Learning can be hard work, so students need to be focused and avoid distractions, such as those accessible via laptops, during class time. As well, I encourage them to contribute to class discussions because when everyone contributes, everyone benefits.
Why do you teach?
First, I love teaching because it’s a wonderful way of learning—such as when we get into new materials. As well, there’s joy in helping students gain a nuanced understanding of complex issues and showing them that there are real possibilities. Knowledge, as someone said, should not be a substitute for action, but an aid to it. Also, teaching allows me to be with young people, which keeps me young in mind and spirit. When students ask questions that have never occurred to me, it makes teaching worthwhile because they make me look at issues in a totally different light. It’s great to be surrounded by these keen, committed, earnest, idealistic people.