Class Profile: Honors course explores sustainability through visuals

Claire Prunier (pictured above) is a student presenting a project for HONR 204: Political Sustainability through Art. The class is offered for students in the Edgar Fellows program at Geneseo. The course is taught by professor of political science Karleen West and Director of Sustainability Dan DeZarn and serves to educate students about sustainability issues through artistic mediums (Malachy Dempsey/Managing Editor).

If the environment was once a blank canvas for humanity to paint on as it wanted, pollution and other unsustainable practices have created a somewhat dismal picture. In a section of HONR 204, co-taught by associate professor of political science Karleen West and Director of Sustainability Dan DeZarn, students employ art and activism to better understand that picture. 

The course, which is subtitled “Political Sustainability through Art,” is a semester-style class for students in the Edgar Fellows program. West felt the experimental nature of the course allowed both professors to more fully address a larger issue. 

“Sustainability is an interdisciplinary topic and it doesn’t really belong in any single department,” West said. “Dan is an artist and I’m a political scientist and we thought it’d be cool to have a class that brought together our two interests to help contribute to the curriculum on sustainability at Geneseo.” 

The course is structured around four separate creative projects, according to West. After lectures on topics in sustainability, such as political efforts to address climate change or the United Nations’s Sustainable Development Goals, students are asked to reflect artistically on the discussed concepts. 

Some students create videos, while others create paintings or sculpture. DeZarn, a former Geneseo sculpture professor, emphasized the value of using art to understand. 

“As opposed to talking about those issues and then writing papers about it, we have them make expressive artwork about it. The reflection comes from actually making a statement about their opinions on these sorts of ideas,” DeZarn said. “We want there to be a lot of opportunity for them to take an idea and run with it.”

Biochemistry major senior Sara Feinland, who is taking the course currently, has found the course’s creative elements useful in connecting the other elements of politics and sustainability. 

“I think it’s a lot to mix together for just one course especially since a lot of us don’t have a background, but I definitely learned a lot about how art can be used to connect those two things,” Feinland said. “Obviously politics and sustainability are connected in pretty clear ways. I wouldn’t have taken the class if it had just been sustainability or just the politics—the art really ties things together.”  

Feinland specifically spoke about one speaker the professors brought into the class named Darien Lamen. Lamen’s documentary on Amazonia, Brazil illuminated some of the ways the three course’s concepts connect to each other, according to Feinland. 

Beyond the lectures, Feinland also appreciated the role of the different projects students are asked to complete over the semester. 

“It’s very creative. I like that they give us a lot of freedom for all of the different projects to do what we think is best.” 

West highlighted the happiness that comes with student’s who find their way through complicated topics using creativity. 

“There have been these key moments where, because students are representing these issues visually, they start to think about the issue from a different perspective,” West said. “It’s really been cool to see these moments.”

Overall, DeZarn believes that the course’s interdisciplinary nature may speak to a larger concept behind Geneseo’s liberal arts tradition. 

“It reinforces the idea that a liberal arts education is more than just learning about things and then proving you know about them through writing about it,” DeZarn said. “It’s about thinking in complex ways and creative problem-solving, being faced with things that don’t have a right and a wrong answer and trying to work through that.”