Teaching Environmental Inequality: Class research project

This is the fourth post in a series about the Environmental Inequality class I finished teaching in December. The first post shared the syllabus and class project, the second described how I’ve used the documentary Come Hell or High Water: The Battle for Turkey Creek, and the third described the first of two field trips we took – a boat tour of the Anacostia River. This post describes our class research project, undertaken in collaboration with the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, Empower DC, and ANC 6D commissioner Rhonda Hamilton. Here is the project overview from the course syllabus:

This semester we will work on a collaborative research project with the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, Empower DC, and ANC commissioner Rhonda Hamilton from the neighborhood directly adjacent to Buzzard Point in Washington, D.C. Buzzard Point is an industrial neighborhood that is currently being redeveloped. It will be the site of the new DC United Soccer Stadium and many other new construction projects. Our work will involve conducting oral history interviews with residents living near Buzzard Point to document their family history in the neighborhood, relationship to the community and to the adjacent Anacostia River, and experiences with pollution and gentrification. We will host guest speakers as well as go on field trips and conduct off-campus research activities as part of this project. The Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum will then add the transcripts to their archives and create a booklet based on your interviews to distribute to research participants after the class ends. When the booklet is ready (early 2017), there will be an optional reception at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum to which you will be invited. This effort is a pilot project to upon which I hope to build a longer-term research relationship with our off-campus partners.

After working with the various groups involved to plan the project, I scheduled a number of “Class Project Days” in my syllabus to move the project forward. Here’s what we used them for.

Preparatory assignment: Research Ethics and the Institutional Review Board

Howard University requires all research plans, including research conducted by students as part of their coursework, to be approved by the campus Institutional Review Board (IRB). This process is designed to protect “human subjects,” or people that are the target of academic research, from potential harm. Accordingly, the students’ first assignment was to complete the IRB’s two required online short-courses on research ethics. They then submitted their certification of passing grades, along with their resume, to me. See the assignment prompt here. I submitted their certifications and resumes along with the rest of the paperwork for the proposed study to the IRB early in the semester. This was stressful as there was no guarantee that the campus IRB would approve the project in time for us to start and finish our work within the limits of a single semester. It worked out in the end, but I would recommend others submit and complete the IRB paperwork in the semester or summer before the class whenever possible. Then at the beginning of the class in which the research will be conducted, merely do the necessary paperwork to add students to the project as extra research personnel. I recommend this process even if your university does not require IRB approval for research conducted by students as part of their coursework. Going through the IRB approval process is educational for the students, reinforces the importance of taking seriously their interactions with the public as researchers, and enables the faculty member or students to publish out of the research they conduct.

Preparatory assignment: Practice interview

After covering the fundamentals of oral history interviewing, students were assigned a practice interview. They divided into pairs and interviewed each other outside of class, using modified versions of the same questions we intended to use with our real interviews later. Students had to record the interviews, write short papers about the interview (its form and content), and turn both in. See the assignment prompt here. In class we then discussed what worked well and what they would have done differently in order to improve their interviewing skills. After they conducted the practice interviews with sample questions I gave them, we also had a class discussion about what other questions ought to be added before we conducted our “real” interviews and I edited the list accordingly.

Guest speakers

On two different class days, I hosted guest speakers from our collaborating organizations to come tell us about their work and describe what they hoped to get out of the class project. Kari Fulton, Empower DC’s environmental justice organizer, spoke on the same day the students did a reading on the concept of cumulative environmental impacts – or the way multiple pollution sources add up to a cumulative health burden that is poorly understood by science and poorly addressed by regulation. Katrina Lashley, the Urban Waterways project coordinator at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, spoke to the students on the same day they read about oral history interviewing.

Field Trip

We also took a field-trip designed to help students better understand the local environment by taking a boat tour of the Anacostia River. See photos and a description here. Although many of the people living near Buzzard Point that we interviewed later in the semester had little contact with the nearby Anacostia and Potomac rivers, the field-trip still helped the students locate themselves and the project within Washington DC environmental concerns. If I teach this class again with the same research project, I hope to schedule a field-trip to the Buzzard Point neighborhood in place of, or in addition to, the river tour.

Readings

The topical readings of the course were relevant to the research we conducted. In addition, we read things designed to educate the students on the research process. These included the following:

  • Hunt, Marjorie. 2012. Smithsonian Folklife and Oral History Interview Guide. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved August 21, 2016 (http://www.museumonmainstreet.org/education/Oral_History_Guide_Final.pdf)
  • Cable, Sherry, Tamara Mix, and Donald Hastings. 2005. “Mission Impossible Environmental Justice Activists’ Collaborations with Professional Environmentalists and with Academics.” Pp. 55-75 in Power, Justice and the Environment: A Critical Appraisal of the Environmental Justice Movement, edited by D. Pellow, D. Naguib and R. J. Brulle. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

In addition, two other “Class Project Days” featured readings specific to our local research topic. One on the Anacostia River and was assigned the day before our river tour. The others included press coverage of the redevelopment efforts at Buzzard Point, neighborhood that was the target of our research. See the syllabus for details.

Outcome

By the time we got to conducting the actual interviews, the students were well prepared to do so professionally, though of course they still have room to improve their interviewing skills, as does any novice researcher. Our class traveled together to the Syphax Gardens public housing units to conduct the interviews after a meeting of the residents’ council. Some of the people there had been notified by our host, Rhonda Hamilton, that the interviews would be taking place, and others learned of our project for the first time that evening. Eight residents stayed after the meeting to be interviewed. The students individually reviewed the consent forms required by Howard and the Anacostia Museum with the residents before proceeding with the interviews. I floated through the two rooms in which the interviews were taking place to make myself available if any of the residents had questions the students could not answer.

In our next class, we discussed the following questions as a group to prompt the students to reflect on the interviewing experience and began to analyze the interviews themselves:

  • What went well?
  • What could be improved?
  • What did you learn in your interview?
  • What new questions did the interview leave you with?

After discussing these topics, I then linked the above questions to the methods, findings, and future research sections of the final papers that they would write.  But before writing their final papers, the students had several other assignments. They wrote and sent thank-you notes to the people they interviewed, uploaded the audio files of the interviews to our course management system, and transcribed the interviews. Then they wrote final papers in which they analyzed not only their own interviews, but the interviews conducted by the entire group.

Overall, I’m pleased with how the project went. It was a good opportunity to learn more about ongoing environmental justice work in Washington D.C. for both myself and my students. The fact that many of the residents brought up similar issues that the students had read about during the course made everything more real to them. The students also seemed to enjoy the opportunity to take their learning outside of the university walls. For their part, the residents we interviewed seemed appreciative of the students’ interest and professionalism.

This semester, I continue to work on the project with one of my graduate student research assistants (Jesse Card), and one of the undergraduates from that class who has stayed on as a spring research assistant (Amanda Bonam). They did quality control on the student transcriptions by listening to the interview recordings and correcting the transcriptions as necessary, and then sending the corrected transcripts to the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum to place in their archives. Jesse is also sending copies of the transcripts and signed consent forms to all the participants. We are also conducting more interviews with other Syphax Gardens residents that were suggested during our first round of interviews. As a group, we will be reading through all the transcripts and recommending excerpts to feature in the booklet that the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum is making. My undergraduate research assistant is also communicating with the project partners about organizing a spring event to launch the booklet, and establishing a review process for the creation of the booklet. Between the three of us we have been attending ongoing public hearings about the development of Buzzard Point and its impact on neighboring residents. Amanda has adopted the project for her senior honors thesis, and Jesse will lead us in writing one or several academic articles out of the interview data, which parallels his own master’s thesis research. After this spring, we will revisit the project with all partners to discuss to potential of continuing or expanding it with my next batch of Environmental Inequality students in the fall.

See photos of our interview outing, and links to the class syllabus and assignment prompts ,below.

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My students waiting for the residents’ council meeting to end and interviewing to begin.

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Project partners Kari Fulton (Empower DC) and Rhonda Hamilton (ANC 6D).

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Student Brittany Danzy interviews Ms. Mildred Young.

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Students Tyla Swinton and Joseph Dillard are having a good time interviewing Ms. Michelle Young.

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Students Ravelle Matthews and Romie Michel interview Ms. Mary Wilson.

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Students Angelyna Seldon and Amanda Bonam interview Ms. Gloria Hamilton.

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Kari Fulton’s son kept the students entertained when they weren’t otherwise occupied.

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The view from Syphax Gardens public housing.

Class syllabus and assignment prompts:

Creating Multimedia Class Research Projects with Google Sites and YouTube

Last spring I posted briefly about a new multimedia assignment in which students create their own websites that I used with my students in “The Making of California” at UC Santa Cruz. This fall, I tried it again with my “Environmental Inequality” students here at Howard University. I was, for the second time, happy with how the assignment turned out. Since several people have asked for details, I’m posting my assignment prompts and other reflections here. I will also be presenting this assignment at Howard’s first “Teaching With Technology” conference this Friday.

First, let me acknowledge how important it is to have colleagues with whom to discuss these kinds of projects! Rachel Deblinger joined UC Santa Cruz last year as a Postdoctoral Fellow through the Council on Library and Information Resources. Her presence on campus brought those of us doing work in the digital humanities and digital social sciences together for a rich exchange of ideas that prompted me to create this assignment. Rachel also made herself available for one-on-one brainstorming sessions. As a result, I abandoned an overly ambitious assignment idea that used a different website platform and ended up with this one instead, which sets students up for a successful first experience creating a website on which to post their own original research and writing. So, thank you, Rachel!

Here’s the gist of it. The assignment asks students to research and write a multimedia essay on a subject of their choice that is featured on a website of their own design. The purpose is to improve students’ content knowledge, research and writing skills while also teaching the following: 1) how to write for a public audience, 2) media literacy, and 3) basic web design. Students do not need any prior technical skills in order to successfully complete the assignment, and are given detailed prompts for small assignments throughout the semester that support step-by-step development of their projects. They also complete in-class activities designed to help them think about how to write for different audiences.

By the end of the course, the students each create a website that includes the following:

  • An original essay informed by their research that incorporates relevant YouTube videos
  • A curator’s statement that describes why the student chose the YouTube videos that they chose
  • An annotated bibliography
  • An author’s biography
  • A copyright statement
  • One other section of content of their own choice

Here are some of my supporting documents that you may find useful as you adapt this assignment to your own purposes:

 

FAQ’s

  1. Why did you use Google Sites? I used Google Sites because it was the easiest website creation tool that I could find, and because at both institutions where I tried this assignment, Google already provides the student’s campus e-mail service. So, they all already have Google accounts. For my own websites, I use WordPress. It is free, open-source, and more sophisticated. However, I quickly decided that WordPress was too technically complex for what I had in mind for my students. The point of the assignment isn’t to teach technical skills so much as it is to have students practice all the usual stuff (research and writing), while also having a successful first experience sharing their writing in a website of their own creation. For those who take a liking to the experience, it may serve as a gateway into more complex website creation tools. After conversation with my tech mentor Allen Gunn at Aspiration, I also plan to incorporate a conversation with my students about the risks of relying on for-profit web infrastructure such as Google Sites next time I do this assignment, even while I plan to still use Google Sites.
  2. This sounds like a lot of work. How many students did you have? I used this assignment for one class of 30 and one class of 6. Though to be fair, when I taught the class of 30 I was teaching a new course for the first time, on the academic job market for the first time, and finishing my dissertation (for the first time). I taught the class of 6 was while teaching two classes (one for the first time), and getting oriented at a new academic institution. If my class size went much over 30, I would probably start requiring this project be done in pairs or small groups to cut down on the time spent grading. You could also try cutting some of the mini-assignments, such as the list of sources or the draft website with written content, though the final projects would be of lesser quality as a result.
  3. I don’t know anything about creating websites. Can I still use this assignment with my students? Yes, Google Sites are fairly straightforward to create, and my assignment prompts provide step-by-step instructions for how to create them. Literally, the prompts say things like “click the button shaped like a pencil in the upper-right corner of your screen.” However, you do need to be able to do the assignment yourself before you give it to your students, and to be willing to help them with any technical problems they may encounter (in my experience so far, they haven’t had many). It is also worth asking the tech support at your institution if they provide technical support to students with Google Sites, in which case you can hand off all technical questions to someone else. This has not been an option at either of the campuses where I have done the assignment.
  4. How do you make sure this assignment still works even as Google Sites changes? You need to set aside a half hour to an hour to do the assignment again yourself before the semester starts every time you teach the class, especially when you are teaching it in a new institution. This ensures that the instructions on your assignment prompt are up-to-date even as the technological infrastructure inevitably changes over time (think of all of Facebook’s changes on how to manage your privacy settings). Do not just take my assignment prompts and use them without test-driving them yourself and making corrections! I did almost all of the assignment with my Howard e-mail address before classes began this fall. I found out later that I had neglected one of the steps, the copyright statement, which includes directions for how to import the symbol representing the level of copyright protection the student chooses for their work. It turns out that doing this task through Howard’s Google-provided student e-mail accounts was mysteriously complicated in ways that my UC Santa Cruz students did not experience. If I had known, I would have told them to skip importing the symbol, and just to use the appropriate language without the visual cue. Oh well. I also learned through this process that Howard automatically adds the campus name and logo to Google Sites created by students with their campus e-mail addresses, whereas UC Santa Cruz did not.
  5. Can I see your students’ final websites? An important part of the assignment, to me, is that it prompts students to set their websites to “private” at the beginning of the class. Some of you may wonder why I do this. After all, isn’t the purpose to get students to practice writing for a public audience, and not just writing for their professor? Well, yes and no. That is the ultimate goal, but the key is that students are practicing this skill, in many cases for the first time. Setting the website visibility to “private” at the beginning of the course means that they can practice this new skill safely in private without any potential negative ramifications from the (sometimes nasty) blogosphere. It also means that you don’t have to worry about whether or not you are running afoul of the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act. All that said, an important part of the assignment is that it is, or at least can be, “real” beyond the classroom. So, I tell students that while the class is in session their websites need to be “private” for all the reasons above, and then after the class ends, it is their decision whether or not to change their work’s status to fully “public” or to limit access to people of their choice. Of the 36 students who have done this assignment with me to date, to my knowledge only one student has made his or her website public. You can see it here. Thanks, Jesse!
  6. What would you do differently next time? I’ll likely increase the length of the essay that forms the core content of each student’s site. I made it short to begin with, since I was thinking of it as a blog post. But now I might reframe it into something in between a blog post and a digital “long-form essay” instead. Will need to think about that. I also notice that students have a hard time integrating their YouTube videos into their essays – many simply plunk them in the middle of their text with no introduction or analysis. So, I might introduce a lesson in class that addresses this problem, while emphasizing the ability to segway between ideas and content as a transferable skill important to many different kinds of writing. Also, Google Sites makes formatting the annotated bibliographies and citations list difficult, so I’d like to spend some time figuring out how to make them look better and then add those directions to the relevant assignment prompt. Also, I’ll probably have students switch from using parenthetical citations in their essays (standard in my field) to endnotes (visually cleaner for public-facing work).

That’s all for now. I will undoubtedly think of more things that belong here over the next few days, as well as after Friday’s presentation at Howard’s “Teaching With Technology” Conference. I may cheat and add these things to this post later, so check back next week.

 

 

 

“25 Stories” grows up!

This month I proudly released an expanded, updated version of the 25 Stories from the Central Valley website.  Please meet…. Voices from the Valley!  In addition to the original photo exhibit and teaching aides, it includes these new features:

  • An interactive photo and oral history collage
  • San Joaquin Valley environmental justice news coverage
  • Slideshow of our playback theater events with Kairos Theater Ensemble
  • Environmental justice syllabus collection
  • A map of the San Joaquin Valley towns where we’ve taken photos and collected stories
  • An expanded list of groups working toward environmental justice in the San Joaquin Valley, and links to their social media
  • Suggestions for how you can volunteer

Lots of people helped make this relaunch happen, but the project is especially indebted to tech wizards Tyler LaGue (formerly of the John Muir Institute of the Environment at UC Davis), Allen Gunn and the rest of the team at Aspiration, and Grant Kinney of GMK Design. See a full list of the people and organizations involved with this project throughout its history here and here. I continue to be honored to know the environmental justice activists who have so generously shared their stories with me over the 6 years since this project began.

Read on for some of the thinking behind the changes…

Cumulative impacts: One of the concepts that environmental justice advocates regularly invoke is ‘cumulative impacts.’ People are exposed to multiple pollution sources as they go about their daily lives, not just one at a time.  However, our regulatory structure is largely inattentive to this reality, and often grants permits for new pollution sources by assessing them individually rather than assessing their contribution to the cumulative burden of pollution already felt in that area. Needless to say, poor people and people of color bear a higher cumulative burden of pollution than the rest of us.  The new Voices from the Valley website has several features intended to support this framing.

  • News feed/archive: By collecting news sources about all environmental justice issues in the Valley in the same place, the news feed underscores the multiple, intersecting pollution problems in the region.  This comes across particularly well when you navigate to the archive view and look at a long list of headlines from the year. I could using a screenshot of this page in a classroom setting when teaching cumulative impacts.
  • Collage: The collage features photos and first-person quotes/stories.  They can be sorted and viewed by theme (ie ‘water,’ ‘air,’ ‘pesticides’ etc), but the default view is to have all of the categories show at once.  (However, I think this feature still needs a little work to be more user friendly – suggestions welcome!).
  • Map: The map provides a way to visualize where all of the communities featured in the project are in relation to eachother.  Clicking on many of the town names opens up a pop-up window with photos from the photo exhibit. In the future, I’d love to enhance this feature to include data on the various pollutants felt at each of these locations.

Multiple learning styles: The new site is designed to work with as many different learning styles as possible.  It features slideshows, interactive collages, oral history, activity and lecture ideas for the classroom, and a searchable news archive that includes articles, videos, radio, television and digital multimedia projects. (When the first version of Voices from the Valley launched 5 years ago, we also did several interactive theater shows with Kairos Theater Ensemble. See this post for a description).

Social media: Advocacy groups are increasingly using social media channels to get their message out. The new site’s list of relevant organizations in the San Joaquin Valley now includes links to their twitter and facebook channels, as well as a way for viewers to subscribe to all of their twitter channels at once. We also now have our own Voices from the Valley twitter and facebook accounts. The folks at Aspiration have been a big help in thinking through how these accounts can promote the project’s goals.  I’m having a lot of fun experimenting with how to use them to engage in public conversations and connect to like-minded organizations.

New name: ’25 Stories from the Central Valley’ was a great name, but inaccurate in a lot of ways. The original name was built around the 25 interviews I did with women environmental justice leaders in the Central Valley. The idea was that I would edit each of their interviews into stand-alone stories for the website… hence ’25 Stories.’ Only thing is, that was a much bigger project than I realized when I picked the name, and I never made it happen.  So then I decided that if the photo exhibit was made up of 25 photos, that was close enough for the name to still work. But it got tiring explaining that to people, and eventually I also wanted more flexibility in the number of photos I could include in the  exhibit. Also, when I started the project I thought it would cover the entire Central Valley, but the environmental justice movement is at its strongest in the southern half of the Central Valley (the San Joaquin Valley), and all the women I interviewed lived there or got started there. The more familiar I got with the area, the more I realized how distinct the San Joaquin Valley is from the Sacramento Valley (together they make up the Central Valley), and how the project name needed to reflect that.  ‘Voices from the Valley’ got around the problems associated with the last name, and is a broader platform for growth in the future.  Talking all of this through with the folks at smartMeme was a big help!