Faculty PROFile: Jordan P. Howell, Environmental & Sustainability Studies

Professor Jordan Howell outside the Student Center

Jordan P. Howell, Ph.D., Assistant Professor
doctor jordan howell, archives data in the campbell library

Program Coordinator: Environmental & Sustainability Studies

Department/College: Geography, Planning & Sustainability; in the School of Earth & Environment

His website: users.rowan.edu/~howellj

His Degrees:
Ph.D., Geography – Michigan State University, 2013

M.S., Geography – Michigan State University, 2010

B.A., Anthropology – College of William & Mary, 2008

What is your area of expertise? I study human-environment relationships. In particular, I study environmental policy and governance, and think about ways environmental policy could be improved, especially as it relates to infrastructure. Different environmental infrastructures make modern life possible, but most people in the US do not fully appreciate the importance of the systems that deliver energy, water, and waste management services until there is a problem. Too often these systems are left for ‘government’ or ‘companies” to deal with. In reality we ought to be concerned about their development, operation, and upkeep even at the scales of our own homes and communities.

My research has two tracks: first, historical studies of ‘how we got here’ with a particular project or system; and second, developing ideas for improving policy processes that incorporate ideas like ecological identity and bioregionalism. There’s no one right way to solve environmental problems, though there are lots of wrong ways to do it. It all depends on the problem you are trying solve and the stakeholders you are working with. One problem lately is that policymaking around the environment has become too extreme and rigid; there’s far too many all-or-nothing solutions being proposed. I don’t think either society or researchers should limit themselves to a particular approach to environmental policymaking, as regulations, educational & behavioral initiatives, and market-based solutions all play a role in effective governance.  

Outdoor photo of tree with researchers
800-year-old trees outside of Copenhagen, Denmark

At the moment I’m in the middle of my new project, called Garbage in the Garden State, which examines the history of waste management in New Jersey. I’m not from New Jersey originally but I’ve come to love it. As readers know, New Jersey faces endless solid waste stereotypes, and a lot of folks would have you believe that Jersey’s main value is as a dumping site for New York, Philadelphia, and shore tourists.  But this project builds on historical archives and interviews with key figures in waste management during the past 50 years to reveal a more profound truth: New Jersey towns, counties, courts, and companies have been leaders shaping waste management processes across the US for decades. I’m also really proud to say that this project was selected for funding by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Not to brag, but nowadays NSF doesn’t pay for too much historical or policy research, and my project emphasizes both. So, I think that’s an indicator that I’m on to something important here.

What is your favorite class to teach, and why? I love all the classes I teach – you can’t choose a favorite child. So I will tell you about what I like about them all. To my students’ frustration sometimes, I never tell them what to think or what my opinion is on a particular environmental issue. My goal is always to help people develop and articulate their own positions on environmental issues. And, no matter what that position might be – I feel that no perspectives should be barred from the development of environmental policy.  In my classes students have to confront ideas about the environment and management of the human-environment relationship that they may find challenging or surprising. My classes are not aimed at converting people to my way of thinking but rather at developing critically-thinking, articulate, and active citizens.

I teach a few courses regularly: Environmental Studies – Social Perspectives (an introductory environmental studies course); History & Methods of Professor Howell stands outside the student centerModern Geography (a research design course); Technology & the Environment (a course examining environmental infrastructures); Natural Resources, Capitalism & Society (a course about natural resources and the economy); and the senior seminar in environmental studies (where students complete their own independent research projects). Sometimes I am able to hold independent study type of courses with students who are really interested in exploring a particular topic or idea.

There’s a lot of writing, and a lot of discussion about problems that don’t really have a clear answer. You’ve got to be able to clearly articulate your perspective on an environmental issue in order to be heard, and you have to communicate effectively in order to get folks over to your way of thinking. I also focus projects where students advocate for a particular course of action regarding some environmental problem. That’s what a lot of the work students might do in their careers would consist of — pressing for some particular type of solution. As a matter of fact that’s one of my favorite things about environmental studies (as opposed to environmental science and other STEM fields): science, technology, and engineering work has led to amazing tools for ‘fixing’ many of the environmental problems we currently face, but the fact remains that these solutions are not always put into place. In other words, we already know how to solve many of the technical aspects of environmental problems we face; it is the human part that remains most challenging. Communication is essential and it will take you very far in your career.

Share with us one aspect of student engagement that you enjoy the most, and why: Helping students design a research project isimmensely satisfying. Seeing students’ ideas evolve from a vague interest in a topic or problem to a fully-fledged inquiry is fascinating, and when students do it well, I think they are really proud of themselves, too. It’s hard to put together a quality research project: you have to come up with a clear and compelling question, contextualize your work with what everyone else is doing, figure out what types of data to collect and how to analyze it, and then write clearly enough so anyone reading your project understands what you did. So when students succeed in all those areas, I love it.

Fall foliage on a river
Beautiful nature in South Jersey that is worth preserving

What is one thing you wish people knew about your academic discipline or your research focus? A lot of people are surprised when I tell them I study trash and waste management. But just think for a second how unpleasant life would be if we didn’t have a reliable, (reasonably) efficient system of waste disposal; you only have to look to recent waste management worker strikes in Italy and Mexico to see the results. A lot of people wouldn’t think that a topic like garbage, or sewage, or electricity networks, or the other infrastructure systems that make modern life possible could be the focus of research — but really, it’s a major concern for folks in environmental & sustainability studies and related fields like urban planning, geography, and geographic information systems. There are so many questions still to answer about these infrastructures, how to design them, operate them, and pay for them…we’re only just getting started!

Do you have a favorite Rowan memory? My favorite Rowan memories are with my department colleagues. Most students and people outside of the department might not know it, but actually we are quite close. Our department meetings are funny, there’s food, good and bad ideas, sometimes shouting. But it’s because we all care about what we’re doing…I think each of us feels like we can and should contribute to solving the ‘problems’ of sustainability both in our own research and through the classes and programs we offer to students. So, I’d say my favorite memories (so far) are of my department colleagues. I’d add (and I know this is cheesy, but whatever) that I think our best memories are yet to be made…I have a sense that Rowan is very much a university ‘on the rise’ and I’m looking forward to bigger and better things in the coming years.

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