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David J. Voelker Posts

Human Rights, Climate Disruption, and the Living Planet

Spider on Web
Spider on Web, Prairiewoods, Hiawatha, IA, September 14, 2019 (photo by David Voelker)

I spoke on climate disruption at the Common CAHSS conference on human rights at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay on December 10, 2019. The sources and links below are listed roughly in the order in which I refer to them or draw on them in the talk. I’d like to thank my colleagues Ryan Martin and Alise Coen for their leadership in organizing this event. Early in the talk, I neglected to mention the Forest County Potawatomi when I was naming First Nations in Wisconsin. I apologize for this oversight!

David Voelker, “Human Rights, Climate Disruption, and the Living Planet,” Common CAHSS, Dec. 10, 2019, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay

Sources and Links:

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Climate Change as a Human Problem: A Report from the Climate Change Talks

Note: This article was originally published at CAHSS and Effect (from the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay) on Oct. 22, 2019.

The call of young people around the world to support the Global Climate Strike inspired me to organize the “Climate Change Talks” event on the UW–Green Bay campus on September 20, 2019. I was moved by the frustration expressed by these young activists: “We feel a lot of adults haven’t quite understood that we young people won’t hold off the climate crisis ourselves. Sorry if this is inconvenient for you. But this is not a single-generation job. It’s humanity’s job.”

The climate change rally in Downtown Green Bay on Sept. 20, 2019. (Photo by David Voelker.)
The climate change rally in Downtown Green Bay on Sept. 20, 2019. (Photo by David Voelker.)

When I put out the call for presenters, I encouraged colleagues to consider how the problem of climate change connected with a number of issues relevant to the humanities and social sciences, such as:

  • How has the fossil fuel industry funded climate change denialism?
  • How will addressing climate change require social, cultural, political, and economic transformation–not just new technologies? 
  • How is climate change related to social justice issues, such as racism, colonialism, and immigration? 
  • How have film, literature, and the arts helped us understand and envision climate change and how to confront it? 
  • What are the barriers to action in the face of climate change? 

As you can see from the talks (which are available on YouTube), the result was an outpouring of presentations that addressed many of these issues in compelling ways. A dozen speakers explored a wide range of issues, encouraging the substantial audience to ponder the climate crisis in light of speculative fiction, ethics, big data, economics, architecture, history, and poetry–among other perspectives.

Even as I strongly support the call of the Global Climate Strike movement for national and world leaders to take climate science seriously, which means taking major actions now to limit the scale of climate change, I also agree with the idea that this is “humanity’s job”—and it’s especially the responsibility of wealthy, industrialized countries like the United States, who have emitted most of the climate-changing gases, and whose fossil-fueled economy continues this trend.

In my own comments, however, I emphasized that addressing climate change is not only a job for scientists and engineers. Climate change is not simply an environmental problem that’s “out there.” It is a human problem, deeply rooted in the history and habits of the global, industrial economy–a system that has already done tremendous harm to the web of life on Earth. In order to transform this system, we will need to understand it deeply, and the arts, humanities and social sciences have a critical role to play.

The humanities have traditionally asked, “What does it mean to be human?” At the time when the humanities disciplines were emerging in American and European universities, the answers to this question usually focused on perspectives from the Western world, mostly on cultures with a long history of dominating both other cultures and the natural world. Today, knowing what we know about the impact of human activity–not only on the climate, but also on all of the systems that support life on Earth–we need to understand this history.

At the same time, we need to continue to ask that question anew, “What does it mean to be human?”—right here and right now (as opposed to focusing exclusively on how people in the past lived out answers to this question). We must do so with awareness of many enduring cultures outside of the West. Indigenous knowledge keepers from around the world supported the April 2017 March for Science, but they also asserted that “Indigenous science provides a wealth of knowledge and a powerful alternative paradigm by which we understand the natural world and our relation to it.”

Mitigating climate change and coping with global climate disruption will surely demand that we go beyond technical adjustments; we will have to address systemic problems in the modern human relationship with the living planet, as well as social injustices. To protect the web of life, we need to untangle the webs of domination—not only of humans over nature, but of humans over other humans.

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Interview with Humanities+ digital and public humanities podcast

Pop-Up Student Showcase, May 6, 2019, UWGB

During the May 6, 2019, Pop-up Student Showcase at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, Kate Farley interviewed me for Rachel Scray’s Humanities+ podcast. Students in my “Craft of History” course were presenting on their research, which they shared via the Encyclopedia of Wisconsin Environmental History. I’m excited to say that two of the students in the Craft of History course spoke about their research projects, which were based on archival collections at the Cofrin Library Archives. The whole episode is well worth listening to. The segment on my class runs from 11’50” to 20’10”.

“Craft of History” Presentations
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OPID 2018 Faculty College

The schedule for the 2018 OPID (UW System) Faculty College is a bit different this year, and I’ve changed up my workshop offering. Instead of doing a multi-day workshop on the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL), I’m offering a more focused 75-minute workshop called “Doing Research on Your Students’ Learning: An Introduction to Scholarship of Teaching and Learning” on both Wednesday and Thursday afternoon. I’m in my sixth and final year of co-directing the Wisconsin Teaching Fellows & Scholars program, and I’m very excited to be working with one last cohort of UW instructors. This year also marks my seventh year as a presenter at Faculty College. I expect it to be my final year, at least for the time being!

It has been a good run, and I have learned from so many people along the way. I would like to thank the following people for sharing ideas that helped me develop my SoTL workshops over the past seven years: Angela Bauer, Lendol Calder, Bill Cerbin, Nancy Chick, Anthony Ciccone, La Vonne Cornell-Swanson, David Hastings, Aeron Haynie, Jennifer Heinert, Cyndi Kernahan, Regan Gurung, and Ryan Martin, and Alison Staudinger. I also benefited from feedback from participants in the 2012–2017 OPID Faculty Colleges, including five cohorts of Wisconsin Teaching Fellows & Scholars. I have enjoyed working with the new OPID Director, Fay Akindes. My favorite thing about OPID-style SoTL is the way that it brings together educators from all across the academy!

I have shared updated versions of my workshop handouts on the SoTL Resources page.

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OPID 2017 Faculty College

On May 30 to June 2, 2017, I will be facilitating two workshops at the UW-System OPID Faculty College:

  • Going Behind the Scenes of the Learning Process: The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) — I will lead the beginner workshop which focuses on defining a research question.
  • Reflective Dialogue and Transformational Learning

I have shared many of the handouts from my SoTL workshop using Creative Commons licensing.  See the SoTL Resources page on this site.

I am also sharing my workshop resources on reflective dialogue.

This will be my sixth visit to Faculty College as a workshop facilitator, and I am very much looking forward to working with my colleagues from all around Wisconsin!

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Rethinking Content Coverage

I am excited to be leading a workshop on this topic at the 2017 UWGB Faculty Development Institute, which will take place on the UWGB campus on January 19, 2017. An abstract follows.

As experts in our disciplines and professions, we sometimes forget that we developed our mastery of content knowledge in tandem with—not prior to—understanding, judgment-making abilities, and disciplinary skills.  While it might be possible for students who are inundated with a large volume of content to retain some factual and conceptual information, a pedagogy driven primarily by the imperative to cover content leaves many students holding a bag of disconnected pieces—and the bag probably has a hole in it.  Even “active learning” strategies focused on content mastery (isolated from application of content) can only go so far in helping students develop the deep understanding and disciplined modes of thinking that would allow them to apply what they know.  Participants in this workshop will learn about and discuss several concrete strategies for moving beyond coverage in a way that will allow students to practice applying “content” as they learn it deeply. This workshop will challenge participants to consider what their students might be able to accomplish if content is conceived of as a raw material that students must transform into knowledge, rather than as a finished product that they receive.  Participants will review the “backward design” strategy of course development, which draws attention to what students will be able to do as a result of completing a class.  Additionally, participants will consider a strategy for bringing the highest learning goals for a class into alignment with the assignments, assessments, and pedagogical techniques used in the course.

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OPID 2016 Faculty College

I’m excited to be leading two workshops at the 2016 OPID Faculty College:

  • Going Behind the Scenes of the Learning Process: The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) (co-led with Regan Gurung; my break-out sessions focus on developing a SoTL research question)
  • Reflective Discussion and Transformational Learning

I have shared many of the handouts from my SoTL workshop using Creative Commons licensing.  See the SoTL Resources page on this site.

I am also sharing my workshop resources on reflective discussion.

I think it really speaks to the quality of the teaching faculty and staff of the UW System that this group of about 100 participants are diving into a week of professional development almost immediately after completing the Spring semester.



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The Plan for this Site

I’ve just created this new site with Reclaim Hosting to bring together content from my SoTL site ( and my history resources site (, as well as to have a site to post new material.

The primary documents and other resources from (2003-2015) can now be accessed here.

A legacy blog site will be available here:

The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning resources from The Gray Box will be posted here and here and can be accessed using the page links at the top of this page.


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Studying the Impact of Course Design on Student Learning

Note: This post originally appeared on my (discontinued) Gray Box blog on Aug 30, 2012.

Wherein I report preliminary results of my inquiry into student learning in my argument-based introductory history course. (Updated at bottom with some statistical details.)

It just makes sense that my inaugural post here addresses my own work in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) in history. I’ve carried out several SoTL projects over the years — collecting and analyzing evidence of my own students’ learning — but I have for the first time collected data from a comparison group of students, and it is really interesting for me to see how my own students measure up against students in a similar course.

More specifically, I asked students in my introductory (early) American history course and in a colleague’s introductory (modern) American history course to explain, in their own words, “what historians do” and to give specific examples if possible.

It’s important to note that these were not questions that any of the students intentionally prepared to answer. Rather, students received a small amount of extra credit simply for responding briefly to these prompts after they completed their in-class final exams. (There was no added incentive to be especially thoughtful or complete.) In sum, I collected a set of over 150 quickly penned responses from students who were probably pretty tired of answering questions for professors.

I will have more to say about the data that I collected in due time, but I want to explain here that despite the limitations noted above, I was able to see marked differences between the responses of my students, who had just completed a question-driven, argument-based introductory history course, and responses of students who had taken a more standard history survey course (taught by an excellent teacher, by the way).

While the evidence that I collected was textual, and I will pay close attention to the language students’ used, I also analyzed the responses using a rubric, marking each one with a series of codes based upon the content of the response. (I have shared my rubric here.) I then entered the codes for each response into a spreadsheet for collective, quantitative analysis.


responseSnippet from a coded response.

Here, perhaps, is the most striking number that emerges from the first 100 responses that I have analyzed. In the comparison class (44 responses), not one student (0%) mentioned a specific historian or scholar by name. In my class (56 responses), over 20% of students mentioned a specific historian by name, without being prompted to do so. (Yes, I realize that 20% is not a stunning number, but compared to 0% it looks pretty good!)

Why do I care if students mention specific historians when asked to give examples of what historians do? I don’t actually expect introductory-level students to have memorized historians’ names that they will remember over the long term. That’s not my goal. I do, however, want them to develop a deep and lasting awareness that to study history is to enter into an evidence-based discussion or debate. Those students who mentioned historians by name showed that they understood that history is not a simple description of the past produced by anonymous experts who are simply reporting indisputable facts. (By the way, I also coded for mentions of analysis and interpretation.) Here’s another area where my students out-performed the comparison group: about 37% of my students mentioned the idea of debate or discussion among historians, while only 14% of the comparison group referred to this aspect of studying history.

Again, I’ve just begun to analyze my data, and I will want to refine this study and collect additional evidence over subsequent semesters. But what I am seeing here is that my course design is making a difference in student learning. Having carried out this inquiry, I now have a more complex understanding of how my students think about history.

UPDATE (9/8/12): I have processed the remainder of my data from my spring 2012 students. Although the percentages changed a bit when I added in the second section of students, the basic trend is the same. With the help of my generous colleague Ryan Martin (Assoc. Professor of Human Development and Psychology at UW-Green Bay), I ran my data through SPSS and found that the major differences that I noted above between my students and the comparison students were statistically significant. For those of you who speak the language of statistics, the t-test when I compared the means for the total scores of my students versus the comparison students yielded a p-value of 0.001. (This means that assuming my data are good and the samples are representative, etc., the odds that this difference is the result of random chance, rather than a result of the differences between my course and the comparison course, is about one in one thousand.)

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