Potash Hill

Understanding the world around you: An interview with Todd Smith

 In July, Claire O’Pray ’20 sat down with chemistry professor Todd Smith in the community greenhouse, where they discussed the chemistry of fog, community governance, and sustainability projects on campus.    

Claire:When did you come to Marlboro? 

Todd: I came to Marlboro in the fall of '99. I was doing a postdoc at the University of Rhode Island and the National Marine Fisheries Service, and was looking for my next job. Postdocs are term-limited: they hire you and they say your job is going to end on this date. And so I was nervous about finding a job, and saw an ad for Marlboro College, maybe in the Chronicle of Higher Education, I'm not really sure. And I sent off a letter and resumé, and didn't hear anything back, didn't hear anything back, was getting more anxious.  

Claire: Classic. 

T: I came home one day and my wife Jennifer had scrawled on one of our cookbooks a phone number—and I can picture it clearly—in red pen. She said, “You got a call from this guy at Marlboro College and he wants you to call him back.” So I came up here and interviewed and, a short time after that I got an offer and started six or eight weeks later. It was pretty quick. 

C: Was the hiring process similar then to how it is now, the student involvement and everything?

T: This was different because when I was hired it was as a visiting professor. So the interview process for those kinds of things is not as involved. It's not as formal. There was not a big search committee that had faculty and students. And I think it was because it was behind schedule, like the semester was going to start. So I just talked to John Hayes (the dean of faculty) and Jenny Ramstetter, and whoever we ran into when we walked around the campus. 

C: What do you like about teaching here? 

T: I think the number one appeal is the flexibility. I have really come to appreciate the interplay of student and faculty flexibility. There's a lot room for students to negotiate and construct their course of study, and for faculty construct their curriculum. So there's this flexibility, but then the other side of that is this tremendous responsibility. For example, I can simply offer a new course, but then it’s up to me to make sure the content and skill development are appropriate, and that it’s working well as part of my overall curriculum. 

C: I get that, in terms of tutorials and Plan in general. Professors are just like, “You to decide what's important”—feels like a big task. 

T: That flexibility is huge. Part of that is the small size of the college, being able to talk to colleagues and saying, “What are you doing? Maybe we could do something together?” More recently for me a big change has been the confidence to think about non-traditional, project-based courses. Courses that aren't a topic that's taught traditionally, with a single textbook, and the material in the textbook is the content that students are supposed to get. If you can free yourself from textbooks and what others consider a “standard curriculum” in chemistry, for example, there's a lot more you can do. There was a recent tutorial I did with a student to think about redesigning the compost shed and the whole area around the farm for example. Maybe the first example was a tutorial I did with two students who wanted to build a root cellar. And I said, I don't see it - what's the academic content? I don't know if you can do that. But as I started thinking about the students' enthusiasm for the project, I realized we could design the tutorial around historical context for root cellars, data collection and analysis of temperature and humidity, and construction of a new root cellar in the greenhouse. That interplay of flexibility and responsibility is something that is one of my favorite things about Marlboro. 

C: How has Marlboro changed since you got here? It's like the year after I was born, if that makes you feel old. 

T: I'm getting that feeling a lot these days. Many aspects of teaching at Marlboro are the same. I think what we've done in the academic sphere, is develop more support structures. There is still the flexibility for students to design their own curriculum. But I feel like we've made more effort to support students in that process. We offer more guidance for students from enrollment through completion of their Plan. We've also worked to connect community governance and the academic program, and now the Marlboro Promise will lead to some additional changes. In thinking about how we deliver the Marlboro Promise, I will change in how I structure my courses to make sure that students develop those skills as they progress through the curriculum. But all of these changes feel like natural evolution, and are the result of a lot of dialogue—a lot of process 

C: Do you think community governance has stayed the same or does that change?  

T: I think the big change has been the smaller number of students, a result of the declining enrollment. When I came to Marlboro there was a lot of discussion about whether we had too many students. We had around 300 my first year, and then it went up to 325, or something like that, and people were saying it was too many. Particularly the writing faculty. There were faculty whose job it was to deliver all the writing courses, and they were having courses with huge enrollment. They were saying that we can't keep doing this. There're too many students. And then and then enrollment started to slowly decline since then. 

C: So do you think that's led to less committee involvement? 

T: Yes. I think you were more likely with that bigger pool of students to find people who care deeply about each of the things that needed to happen. And that they care about it, and their friends may not have cared quite as much, but they would support that student. So you have this kind of nucleus and then you had enough students to have people who were interested in the farm, and people who were interested in the soccer team, and people who were interested in the Citizen—all these different activities on campus. And it's been harder to find those students to be the nucleus to kind of step up and say "I want to do this," and I want to be part of making this happen. For all of the Town Meeting committees we have, you need people who were willing to do commit and be part of that, and it has been harder to fill those committees. 

C: Yeah, I think especially this this last round of the selectboard we spent so much of our time just trying to fill committee. Everyone on selectboard was on at least one other committee, in addition to selectboard. I mean, our head selectperson was on two other committees. And I think that meant we didn't have the time to dedicate. 

T: Right. So we still have people who are committed to community governance, but they're doing more. There are fewer people trying to do the same amount of work, essentially. 

C: Yes. Those who are committed say I'm going to do four committees instead of being really committed to the one I care about most.

T: I should just mention that that was another big change—in the academic sphere—to have writing be taught by a wider group of faculty, instead of these dedicated writing teachers. So that's been a big shift, too. 

C: I don't take very many STEM classes—I have taken some math—but a lot of my friends do STEM classes, and they were all really happy freshman year to be able to take a writing seminar that was Jenny's biology class. Because they felt like they didn't have to sacrifice a class they were interested in to do the writing requirement. 

T: Part of that shift has been having faculty that haven't been teaching writing feeling comfortable incorporating more writing into their classes, so...

C: Have they been starting to feel more comfortable with that because there's been more training for them? Or is it just like an idea that they weren't used to?

T: I think both. I think support—writing faculty saying if you teach a writing seminar they will support you with giving students feedback or thinking about the exercises that we use, the assignments we give. So that's been definitely both. And then once someone like Jenny does it then maybe someone else feels like, well I could probably do that too. I talked to Jenny and she had a good experience, and it was a challenge but a rewarding one. 

C: You did a chemistry writing seminar, right? 

T: Typically I do one on genetic engineering. And it's definitely for non-specialists, people without background in say biochemistry and molecular biology. It's kind of the current issues. When I first started doing it, there was a lot of excitement about stem cells for example, so we would read about that. We read books and news articles about stem cells but also about the question—and the title of the class—Who's Driving the Train? What's behind this? Where's the money that's paying for this coming from? Who's making money off of this? That kind of focus. Another subject was genetically engineered food crops. You know, who's advocating for that, who's making money off of those products. So I have done multiple versions of that, the first one with Laura Stevenson, who taught writing here for a long time.  

C: My mom took a lot of classes with her. 

T: Oh, cool! Working with Laura was both kind of intimidating, because she was such an expert, but also—I did that at least two times, maybe three times with her—an experience that gave me some more confidence that I could start teaching a class with a big writing component myself once she retired.  

C: Do you think everyone should take chemistry?  

T: I don't want say chemistry is so important that everyone should take it in college, but I think it's incredibly valuable for people. But on second thought, yes, I do think everyone should take it. The reason I say that is because chemistry gives you the ability to enrich your understanding of the world around you, to make this connection between what's happening at the atomic and molecular scale and your everyday experiences. Why it's foggy outside, or why some materials are good electrical conductors—you can explain those processes in detail—or even how a solar panel works, your view all these kinds of phenomena becomes deeper and richer. 

C: Didn't you have a class in cooking, even?

T: I called it Chemistry in the Kitchen, because it was really supposed to be about chemistry and then the context for that is something that we're familiar with—and most people aren't intimidated by cooking. But you know, I think that's something that we talk about more with students: the way that the different disciplines approach their material is way more similar than not. So in all the different disciplines there's some effort to understand what came before, how we got to this point where we think about the discipline in a particular way, whether it's ceramics or painting or dance or history: what's the history of that discipline; what are the big central organizing ideas in that discipline; and then how do we use those big central organizing ideas to make sense of the world around us. And that's totally the same thing in chemistry. Even if you never took a chemistry class but you had this idea of, okay it's probably built on the ideas of people who came before, and I could read a little bit about that history. And if I want to know more about chemistry there are probably some central organizing ideas, and I could find out what those are. And then I could look for examples of how people use those to make sense of the world. You could do that—we're trying to teach students to learn how to learn. So, yes, people should take chemistry, but even if they don't, it's accessible in a way, and you can use the tools from other disciplines to then explore how ideas in chemistry are related. 

C: This is this sort of tangential, but on the Smoky Mountains spring break trip, we were like, what makes the Smoky Mountains smoky? And we looked it up and Charles, who's taken a lot of chemistry, was on the trip and we were like, “Charles, explain.” We just made him decode all of it and explain it.

T: So did you have someone from each discipline on the trip who could make sense of things? You had naturalists, biologists... 

C: We had a biologist with Lydia, we had Charles for chemistry. I had history and psychology, Sage does sociology. Flynn does outdoor education, sort of experiential learning stuff. 

T: Did Daniel go on the trip? 

C: No, he was a senior two. But we had Adam and they have basically similar backgrounds. 

T: That's like mini college. 

C: What made you involved in the farm? Because I feel like every time I'm here you're here. 

T: You know it happened sort of slowly. There was no one moment where I said I have to go and be part of that. I think it was the students who first wanted to build a greenhouse here. And it was not this solid wood frame structure we have now. They were trying to build a hoop house. I really like building, like rough carpentry kind of stuff, and they were looking for help building the wooden frame for this greenhouse. They showed a consistent commitment to it. There are a lot of times when students say “let's do this,” and then that enthusiasm evaporates. But these students had a core group that kept going, and kept working at it. And so I think that's when I first got involved. And then over time it's become clear that the current of environmental studies runs from chemistry through things that people do on the farm. I also started to understand better the idea that if you want to make something happen at Marlboro you probably can, but you have to show a real enduring commitment to it. And then once other students—or particularly one student—said I think we should build a more permanent greenhouse at the farm, I also got interested in that effort—that vision that he had for building a greenhouse and what it could do for the farm. And then once I was a part of that and he was graduating, I think people were looking around, particularly Plant and Operations people, and saying we have another building that we're going to be responsible for. We can't just keep adding buildings. And so I said I'll do what I can to help be responsible for that building. So that's kind of where we are now. 

C: So has it been like that sense of responsibility that's kept you involved? Because I feel like student interest in the farm has waxed and waned over time. We're sort of on an uptick now but when I got here there definitely wasn't the same interest that there is now. 

T: I mean it's partly that commitment. But also, as I said, I've gotten more comfortable doing project-based classes and tutorials. And the opportunity that this farm and greenhouse presents, to be a kind of classroom for those experiences as a kind of ongoing experiment, seems really fantastic. It's just an incredible resource to have. And so I also get excited about saying, let's try and use it in some way for project based classes and tutorials. I also really like the idea of trying to illustrate for students, for actually the whole campus community, what a resource this greenhouse is. Whether it's trying to grow greens year around, store food in the root cellar, or assess the performance of the solar panels, it provides the potential for so many class and Plan projects. So yeah, it's kind of a two-fold commitment to it. 

C: What about the sustainability project coordinator that used to be Tanner, sort of, but now is you. What's your involvement in that and what does it look like? 

T: The president in the past few years has secured funding for the Environmental Advisory Committee, and that committee has had a lot of flexibility in how to allocate those funds. And so last year with that big chunk of money the president and the EAC decided to try funding a sustainability project manager position which I agreed to do, with a course release. So it came from Kevin and the EAC, which has the larger goal of advising the president on environmental policy and environmental and sustainability goals, and advancing these goals on campus. This is a topic I've been very interested in, so when the president said “would you be willing to do this” I thought, well, I can't say no. I've already been trying to do a lot of these things. And so it was the intersection of my involvement with the EAC, this opportunity for funding, and my past work, for examle on the farm and greenhouse. I think it was a good way to advance projects, but it's also kind of an eye-opener how much work it still takes to get things done. 

C: What projects have you had a hand in? 

T: Well, when I look back I think about coordinating and getting in place the summer farm intern and the ecological reserve intern. Those seem really big to me. The other one is that I spent a lot of time on an electric vehicle charging station. The college got a grant from the state to support the installation of EV charging station. Working with colleagues to prepare that grant, soliciting bids for the work, and now organizing the actual installation, the whole project has taken a lot of time. The installation is  probably going to happen at end of the summer. So the interns—farm and ecological reserve—and the electric vehicle charging station, I think are the two biggest things. One of the things students in the past asked for was Wi-Fi in the greenhouse. So we spent a lot of time trying to wrangle or advocate for buying the equipment, getting that installed, and that still took something like a year and a half or two years. That's kind of a minor thing. I've also spent more time on the Real Food Challenge, and trying to maintain the composting dining hall waste during the academic year. 

C: Do you know how that's going to change with regard to new composting laws that are going into effect soon? 

T: I don't know if anything's really going to change. What I hear is there's really no enforcement for that. There's the law, but no one's going to be coming around with a clipboard saying “show me how you're doing this.” It could be as simple as the company that does our trash hauling offers compost dumpsters, and they'll haul that separately. We could hire them to add that onto our waste contract. But then there's a local farmer who raises pigs and he's been asking certain times of the year for the food scraps to feed to his pigs, which seems fine—we don't have to pay for it, he hauls it away—but then it shuts down at times of the year. And we generate a fair amount of pre-consumer food waste, and we don't have any place for that to go. So I don't know if you can stop and start the compost dumpster the way the farmer stops and starts his pickup for the pigs. Another big sustainability project coordinator effort was the tutorial to reimagine the whole area between the greenhouse and the parking lot, and to inspire some change. Because the way it looks right now is sort of this accidental, an unplanned progression of steps instead of a holistic idea. We want to rebuild the compost shed as part of that project, and the president has committed funds for that rebuilding. So that's exciting, and this effort connects to your question about what happens to our food waste. The idea is to build a system that would be able to handle much more waste. It wouldn't necessarily be sized to take all of it. The big problem is turning a pile of compost, doing that by hand is difficult. But if we can use the college tractor a couple of times a month to turn it, and then shift it, we could compost more food waste. 

C: I've been much more positive about the compost after talking to Jacob, the summer farm intern. Because I was bemoaning how hard compost has been since I've been here. He said, Oh it's much better than a lot of other places I know. And I was like, sweet! He said it actually gets hot enough to decompose things.