Professor Stuart Livingstone talks about the power of diverse voices in tackling environmental issues

Prof. Stuart Livingstone

In his rec room, visible during a Zoom interview, Prof. Stuart Livingstone is surrounded by a musician’s hardware: two Epiphone guitars hang from the wall, and a case for his guitar-effects pedals is perched on an amp. A songwriter and guitarist who toured with his band in a “past life,” he now centres his passion on environmental issues as an invasion ecologist. He researches methods of curbing dog-strangling vine – the aggressive plant that snakes its way around young trees and other greenery, stifling forest regeneration. Livingstone, an assistant professor, teaching stream, in UTSC’s Department of Physical and Environmental Sciences, loves to take his students out to Rouge National Urban Park to delve into hands-on projects. He also brings diverse voices into the classroom to discuss respectful ways of dealing with complicated environmental issues. For his work, Livingstone received a 2020 UTSC Teaching Award in the Unit 3 Sessional Lecturers category.
You currently teach a professional scientific literacy class and a conservation policy class in environmental science. How do you maintain positivity in the face of complex, often dispiriting, environmental issues?
In past years, I’ve taken students out to locations where there is positive action happening on the ground. We’re lucky at UTSC to have Rouge National Urban Park right at our doorstep. That’s where I’ve done the bulk of my research and I’ve had the opportunity to bring my classes there to engage in ecological restoration. I think that’s a great way to maintain positivity. Students can get their hands dirty and in 10 years time they can go back to these places and see the positive impact that they’ve had.
I also love to bring in guest speakers who are on the land or behind their desks working on the policy that’s having an impact on the environment broadly. You really have to take extra time to identify these positive actions. It can be tough: Twitter, for one, can be a dumpster fire of negativity.
One of our past guest speakers was UTSC professor Nicole Latulippe, who provided a deep historical perspective on Indigenous issues in Canada as it’s being carried forward into efforts in reconciliation. And this term, I’m lucky to be able to bring in somebody from the Indigenous Guardians, an Environment Canada pilot program where funding is being made available to Indigenous groups to engage in conservation action.
We’re sometimes deeply entrenched in looking at an economic perspective on how society’s moving forward and bringing in Indigenous voices and alternative perspectives on human relations with the environment provides essential, diverse voices and is a great foundation for positive action.
During remote learning, how do you help mitigate the loss of these hands-on opportunities and in-person speakers?
I picked up a GoPro video camera and I’m going out – socially distanced and masked – to meet guest speakers in relevant locations. We have a live Q&A session during class time and a supplementary video. I recently went out with Colin Cassin, an analyst with the Invasive Species Centre, in his boat on Lake Scugog near Port Perry where that ecosystem is faced with several problematic invasive species. Colin was able to speak to specific examples in that ecosystem and some emergent policy.
I think it’s important to create diverse experiences for the students where they’re not just looking at streamed PowerPoints each week; to get out into the field and show them video of the places that I’m talking about.
How did you become interested in environmental science and in teaching?
I came back to school as a mature student to finish my undergrad at the downtown campus. I took a couple of conservation biology classes and they sparked my drive to move forward with that subject matter for a PhD.
My PhD supervisor Marc Cadotte saw potential in me to be an instructor. My mom is a teacher, but it wasn’t something that I envisioned myself doing when I was younger. At first, I was fairly terrified to do so. But once I stepped into it and realized that I was able to articulate complicated environmental issues and how we understand them scientifically, I gained more confidence. It took a couple years for me to settle in to teaching, and since then it’s become a great passion.
What projects you are working on?
Prof. Marc Cadotte and I recently had a paper accepted on evidence-based conservation, where those who are teaching this material are compiling an open-access database. This speaks to the broader trend of transparency in science and the accessibility of material.
I’m also working as a postdoctoral researcher with U of T professor Marie-Josée Fortin. Our project is investigating protected-area network connectivity but from an invasion ecology perspective. Typically, across the landscape, we think about improving habitat connectivity for migration – but that connectivity can also facilitate the movement of undesirable elements of biodiversity. We’re looking at various forms of connectivity – including habitats across the landscape and human land use, such as transportation networks or energy networks – which can facilitate hyperabundance of native species and invasive species.
I also have a podcast, called Emerging Environments, launching soon. It is co-hosted by Karen Smith, assistant professor, teaching stream, Department of Physical and Environmental Sciences. We have already interviewed two U of T profs and will also be talking to people from other universities and environmental organizations. It will be available on your favourite podcast app on April 22.
What do you love most about teaching?
The discussions are what I like the most. Each year, I pick out some emergent topics and studies from environmental-science literature and give these to the class as readings. I’m really delving into this material at the same time that the students are. Many of the students come from different backgrounds or have different perspectives on a topic. The discussion sections of class are fascinating, and I’m often enlightened by others’ experiences.
I also like developing assignments for students – and especially during remote learning. I think alternative ways of engaging with students’ knowledge and alternative evaluation methods are vital now. Writing an exam at home with somebody looking at you through your Webcam not an ideal way to be evaluated, so I’ve tried to develop, for instance, essay assignments that require students to delve into the literature and understand complex policy interactions.   – Stacey Gibson