Why I continue teaching at the International Summer School

When asked why I return to teach the International Summer School at the University of Oslo, every summer for so many years, I thought of three different reasons why one might stay in the same job for a long period time: you might be lazy, you might be stupid, or there might be something to it.

Chris Butters is course leader for the course, Energy, Environment and Social Change. 

Maybe all three apply to me, but the most important reason is that there is something to it; that is why I’ve stayed at the International Summer School for 38 summers. This job is incredibly enriching and inspiring.

Each of us course leaders get around 25 people from all over the world with different backgrounds, from different cultures, disciplines and age groups, attending our courses. The students in my course, Energy, Environment and Social Change, are always enthusiastic people and, with their unique insights and experiences, they bring the whole world to me. I also get some of the same lecturers coming back from year to year and they bring the latest research to me as well. The lecturers and I have got to know each other well over the years. Moreover, during my course we often visit the same industries in Norway, summer after summer, and I’ve seen such industries go through transitions; I know their whole story, and this is invaluable for me as well as the students. For instance, years back, Odda in Hardanger was maybe the most polluted fjord in the world, and now it has become a very clean and beautiful one. The industry workers that we began visiting long ago are still there, though they are constantly challenged to become environmentally cleaner and threatened by financial ups and downs. The point is, because of my continued work with the course, places such as Odda are a part of me now, and that is very much because the Summer School is a part of me.

As mentioned, the Summer School has become a part of me partly because of the people who come here every year. With so many applicants for the different courses, we have a surfeit of choice. I return to the Summer School also in part because of the staff. I always come to a cheerful place with welcoming people, some who have been here for many years, some new faces, and there have been other welcoming people who worked here before. The Summer School is, simply put, a nice place to work. When I am not at the Summer School, some of my work involves talking about sustainability with technocrats and bureaucracies which can be tiresome and frustrating. There is a heart in some places and there is less of a heart in others. I think it is lovely when we can spend at least some of our working life in a place where there is a heart, which for me means every summer at the International Summer School.

My first meeting with the International Summer School was as a student when the first director Philip Boardman was still here. I was a student from a university in Montpellier, which was where Boardman was educated by Patrick Geddes, who had already founded an international teaching establishment in 1924 in Montpellier, the College des Ecossais. Geddes was Scottish, and a famous biologist who had a very different view about evolution than Darwin. Darwin talked about how competition is important for evolution. Geddes, however, said “the last law of nature is love”. In other words he was interested in networks and cooperation in natural systems – and in human society. That is why he thought that international summer schools, which would bring people together, were really important; for tolerance, for understanding, and for peace.

And I can see why. I get engineers, biologists, climate scientists, and many others in my classroom. In my course and at the Summer School in general, they learn to understand and respect each other, the expertise of other disciplines, different academic languages. They also get confronted with their own preconceptions about what works and what does not work. We know from Nordic cooperation that something that is going to work in Norway will not necessarily work even in nearby Sweden and the Danes might really hate it, let alone what people in Kenya or Brazil will think. Such conversations will go on between these students, and they might say “Well, what’s going to work in Kenya is not going to work in my place”. This makes them rethink their own situation and that of others, and thus they learn from each other. Such sharing of perspectives and discussions that shake up preconceptions are incredibly valuable. Through learning in this way, I think that for a lot of the students the Summer School becomes a life-changing experience.

This, I believe, is why many return to teach at the International Summer School. You get to see students learn and grow, you get to have incredible colleagues and a working environment with a heart, and slowly but steadily the Summer School becomes a part of who you are. For me, this work definitively has something to it.


Chris Butters is a researcher at the Centre for Development and the Environment, UiO, and teaches the course ISSUM4180 – Energy, Environment and Social Change at ISS.

By Chris Butters
Published July 30, 2018 3:14 PM - Last modified July 30, 2018 4:11 PM