Students Contribute to Textbook That Will Also Benefit Ohio Communities


How do the environment and religion connect? That’s exactly what Professor Greg Hitzhusen is trying to explain to his students in his Religion and Environmental Values in America course through the School of Environment and Natural Resources. “This is the type of class that asks big questions like ‘Why are we here?’ It addresses important issues and concerns that are relevant to all communities.” In order to attract students to this emerging and complex field, he’s using an Affordable Learning Exchange grant to create a digital textbook with Pressbooks that will save students over $9,000 annually.

This online textbook has been shaped by students as they contributed during the editing and writing process. Once it’s published for the spring 2019 semester, Hitzhusen can extend the resource to community members in order to educate and continue the discussion outside the classroom. Learn more about Professor Hitzhusen’s work and why he believes this is “exactly the work [he] should be doing” in his interview below.

Q: Why did you decide to pursue this project?

I teach about religion and the environment in America, a very complex topic to teach about. Much of the literature related to this topic falls in the field of Religion and Ecology, which includes the work of scholars from many different backgrounds and theory bases. But I can only cover a small portion of this topic – it’s a challenge, but it’s so exciting because I get to choose where I take it. It was hard to find a fitting textbook for the course that matches the specific aspects I cover of this very diverse subject. Plus, the few textbooks that come close are expensive, so I’ve relied on my lectures to synthesize the material with supporting articles. I finally decided it was time to write my own materials, and after hearing a speaker talk about Pressbooks, I knew that using an online platform would solve this problem of selecting material. I also wanted something that would be appealing to community members outside the students in my class. This is a new and emerging topic, so it’s a bit like a moving target as the field is constantly evolving. An online textbook allows me to keep the material fresh and on the cutting edge.

Q: How will your course materials impact a wider audience?

Writing this digital textbook is perfect because 35% of my teaching appointment is focused on outreach to faith communities related to sustainability and the environment. Every community has their own reasons for why they’re passionate about food, energy and climate issues, etc. Engaging these concerns on their own terms helps a community figure out what can be done to solve these issues, and the online textbook will provide multiple links to a wide range of sources. I also have an outreach website where we are building a religion and sustainability search engine to link material from the textbook to the needs and interests of local faith communities. The textbook will stay updated because of ongoing updates to the website.

Q: Will others contribute to updating the resource?

I supervise three student interns who have helped organize material for the book, the website and the search engine. Additionally, several other students are contributing subchapters to the book adapted from the term papers they wrote for the course. I will continue to invite my future students to write their term papers as a possible sub-chapter of the textbook, especially to add an interesting angle or fill a gap with the many unique topics that are relevant to the field. Moving forward, I envision adding several subchapters each year from the best of these student subchapters. Then I see a Phase 2 where specialists, such as a clergy member or a religion-environment professional, could publish or add links to contribute to the textbook. I also imagine inviting my network of colleagues to collaborate in revising or coauthoring a chapter to reflect their deep expertise. In this way, the book will be a vehicle for me to collaborate and enrich a wider dialogue.

Q: How have students directly impacted your experience?

I’ve always tried to work very closely with students, asking for feedback and using that feedback to improve or sharpen my lecture materials. But I also want student input on what’s in the textbook since that will directly impact lectures. Last year we set up drafts of each chapter on Perusal where students could respond to each chapter with comments and suggestions. About a third of my students participated last spring, and I’ll continue listening as the chapters are finalized in spring 2019.

Q: Why should your peers apply for an ALX grant, and what advice do you have for others thinking about reimagining their textbooks and course materials?

Having the chance to put together a book totally rejuvenates the way you think about and shape your course. It’s helping me in every domain of my work and keeps me continuously responding to what will be interesting to my audience. It’s been incredible to have this burst of energy; it feels like a bonus. Instructors can get stuck in their ways after many years, so participating in the ALX program is a great way to freshen up what you’re doing. I was also excited to apply because of the cohort. I work better as a team member. It’s so rich and rewarding to collaborate, write and get better with others. ALX has also provided good training to address some of the challenges I’m facing with making changes to my lectures, since much of what was once lecture material is now highlighted in the book. Mike Shiflet, ALX’s Digital Publishing Coordinator, is also a great resource and has been very encouraging.

Curious about what other faculty are up to with ALX? Check out these case studies for more information: