John Francis: Silent no more

December 22, 2011

Visiting professor John Francis' journey to the front of the classroom has been filled with twists and turns. Spurred by a 1971 oil spill in California, he took a vow of silence for 17 years and eschewed motor vehicles for 22 years, walking across North and South America and spreading inspiration and environmental awareness.

Along the way, Francis earned three degrees, including a Ph.D. at UW-Madison, and worked with groups ranging from the U.S. military to the United Nations. He is now a National Geographic Education Fellow and runs the non-profit Planetwalk, dedicated to environmental education.

Francis is spending the 2011-12 academic year teaching in the UW-Madison Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. Inside UW-Madison, the university's electronic employee newsletter, caught up with him between sections of his current course, Redefining the Environmental Movement.

Inside UW-Madison: What first brought you to Madison?

Francis: I came here in '87. I had walked from California, stopping in Port Townsend, Washington, where I built a boat; Missoula, Montana, where I went to graduate school; Watertown, South Dakota, where I worked as a printer and made application to UW to study environmental studies at the Nelson Institute... I was kind of a different graduate student - I didn't ride in cars and I didn't speak - so I fit right in, in the sense that there were a lot of people who cared about the environment and expressed that in a lot of different ways...

And, it was on the way.

iUW: How does one go about getting a doctorate without speaking?

Francis: You have to listen. That's probably the most important thing, because a lot of the things you're going to learn you learn by listening. And of course you have to study, and write papers, and make presentations. They didn't allow me to not make presentations. But I think listening is key...

I didn't know how I was going to defend... I had imagined we might use satellite television and I would be miming and acting things out and writing on the board. But that didn't happen. When I got to the east coast, it was the 20th anniversary of Earth Day, and I started speaking. When I called [my adviser] John Steinhart he cried on the phone. I hadn't been speaking for 17 years and no one at this university had heard me speak. Then I defended over the telephone.

iUW: Had you taught courses before?

Francis: The only organized course I taught was in Montana when I was a graduate student, and I didn't speak. The first day people started looking at their schedules to see if they could take this class at another time. But after the first week, students from the other sections were trying to get into our section.

iUW: How did you come up with the idea for your current class?

Francis: Redefining the Environmental Movement. It's something I think has to happen all the time. No matter when we get into the movement, we're always having to redefine it because otherwise it's not moving. It's just a state of being for me that I'm always redefining my place in it.

iUW: How have things changed over the past several decades?

Francis: When I started walking, I guess people considered me as an environmentalist although I'm not sure I would have considered myself one. If I had mentioned environment to someone, they would have looked at me like, "What are you talking about? What is that?" By the time I reached the east coast, everyone was talking about environment. The consciousness of the United States had risen, people were talking about it, and what to do about it was becoming part of the conversation. A lot of technology is now going into addressing environmental issues. It's now reaching every aspect of our society.

iUW: What do students need to know to understand environmentalism now?

Francis: They need to know that we're all connected in this, no matter what we do, who we are, or what disciplines we're involved in. We need to listen to each other, particularly at a university with so many disciplines and it's so easy to be separated. We need to come together and think holistically, to see how it all fits together. It's important to remember that we're all human, we're all part of this family, we all have to live here, and we all have to be part of the solution.

A longer story about Francis appeared in the fall 2008 issue of On Wisconsin.

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