Nora McDowell speaking about women’s environmental leadership at the Smithsonian Castle

This spring I was honored to host Nora McDowell as the inaugural speaker at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum’s first “Dinner and Discussion” series, which is part of their Women’s Environmental Leadership programming.

I met Nora through my research on California environmental justice activism, and in particular through a project to document the 1990s-era fight against the construction of a nuclear waste landfill in the Mojave Desert’s Ward Valley, on the traditional lands of the Mojave people. Nora grew up in Needles, California and currently lives on the Fort Mojave reservation in Mojave Valley, Arizona. She was elected as chairperson of the Fort Mojave Tribe at age 24, a position she held from 1985 to 2007. During that time she helped lead a decade-long campaign to block the construction of a nuclear waste landfill in the Mojave Desert’s Ward Valley nearby. Additionally, she was part of forming the Ten Tribes partnership to represent Colorado River tribal water rights to the Colorado River Water Users Authority. She also started the water and sewer company as well as the electrical company owned and operated by the Fort Mojave Tribe.

Now, Nora is the Project Manager of the Topock remediation project at the AhaMakav Cultural Society of the Fort Mojave Tribe. Topock is the name of the place that is the passageway to the spirit world for the Mojave people. PG&E built a natural gas compression station there in 1950, which leaked chromium six into the groundwater for over 40 years. Nora focuses much of her time on the cleanup of this site, and in particular trying to minimize the impact on the remediation process on Mojave landforms and artifacts. She also serves in an advisory capacity in a number of other settings, including on the Tribal Advisory Committee to the California EPA. She also serves on the Colorado River Basin-wide tribal advisory board, which advises a consortium of federal agencies, tribes and NGOs active on the Colorado River. She is also on the Fort Mojave telecommunications board and is a founding board member of WEWIN – Women Empowering Women for Indian Nations.

The Anacostia Museum hosted the evening in the Smithsonian Castle on the National Mall. It was an intimate event. I asked Nora questions about her leadership experiences in front of 40 or so attendees, and then we all discussed the themes she raised and shared a meal together. You can find the audio recording below, as well as photos taken by Susana Raab. Audio, photographs and captions are provided by the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum.

The next “Dinner and Discussion” event will take place in September, this time featuring Dr. Adrienne Hollis, hosted by Vernice Miller-Travis.

 

Tracy Perkins and Nora McDowell Thumbnail

Dr. Tracy Perkins (left) and Ms. Nora McDowell (right).

Ms. Katrina Lashley Introduces Special Guests Thumbnail

Ms. Katrina Lashley introduces Dr. Tracy Perkins and Ms. Nora McDowell.

Nora McDowell and Alexis Dickerson Thumbnail

Ms. Alexis Dickerson and Ms. Nora McDowell.

Tracy, Nora, Lisa, Katrina

Dr. Tracy Perkins, Ms. Nora McDowell, Ms. Lisa Sasaki, and Ms. Katrina Lashley.

Dr. Elgloria Harrison Thumbnail

Dr. Elgloria Harrison thanks special guests.

 

New(ish) journal article on public engagement in the environmental humanities

2018 zoomed by without me stopping to share a co-authored journal article to which I contributed on public engagement in the environmental humanities. Without further ado, here it is!

The article describes our varied experiences doing publically engaged work in the environmental humanities and nearby disciplines. My contribution focuses on the practicalities of producing scholarship on independently built, multi-media websites. I enjoyed the opportunity to give a shout-out to my tech-mentor Allen Gun and the other good people at Aspiration.

The article takes a question and answer format in which Julie Sze poses questions and the rest of us answer them. We wrote the first draft together in one sitting (via Skype’s chat feature, if I remember correctly). Basically, we all logged on remotely, Julie wrote questions, and we all typed in our answers simultaneously. Sometimes we would see each other’s responses and then respond to them in our responses as well. At the end of the extended “chat,” Julie pulled the conversation into a word-processing document and that became our first draft. We edited to flesh out ideas from there. One drawback is that because we were writing simultaneously our answers in the finished piece don’t engage with each other as much as they might. Nonetheless, it was a fun way to quickly get a lot of content down to work from. I’ve continued to experiment with simultaneous writing since. This semester I am working on a co-authored piece with three Howard undergraduates who took my Sociology of Food and Agriculture class last semester. We are regularly meeting to have co-writing sessions in which we simultaneously contribute to our draft on Google Docs. We first built a general outline and then each selected sub-sections to work on. So far, it has been working well.

Enjoy the article!

Teaching students to contribute to Wikipedia

This week I crossed the threshold in which summer no longer seems to stretch out endlessly before me and I start to think about updating my fall classes. I’ll be teaching two, a graduate seminar on the Sociology of Environmental Health, and an upper-division undergraduate class on the Sociology of Food and Agriculture. Last year was my first time teaching the latter class. I have a few tweaks in mind for the readings compared to last year’s syllabus, and I intend to once again center the class project around teaching students how to contribute new content to Wikipedia.

I was pleased with how the Wikipedia assignment worked out last year. The good people at Wiki Education helped me set it up before the class began by walking me through the various assignment modules they have available for instructors to adapt to their own purposes. Some are short assignments that teach students how to add images or citations to existing articles. I chose the most extensive model, in which students spend the entire semester learning how to, 1) evaluate existing Wikipedia content, 2) identify areas that need improvement, 3) read the existing scholarly literature on their chosen topic, 4) summarize that scholarship on Wikipedia, and, 5) respond to other Wikipedia contributors who may alter, delete, or add to their work. These are all transferable skills for traditional academic research, as well as for critical thinking, writing and collaborative work in general.

The assignment also gave us an opportunity to discuss the social construction and politics of knowledge. Wikipedia contributors skew heavily white and male, and this impacts the kinds of content available on the site (articles on military history and video games are apparently particularly well-developed). This leaves a number of topics wide open for student contribution. Accordingly, one of my students created an article on Black Land Loss in the United States. Others added content to existing articles: one student added a description of the Freedom Farm Cooperative that Fannie Lou Hamer organized as part of her civil rights work; another added content on the challenges faced by female farmworkers to the Agriculture in the United States article. Another researched labor conditions on organic farms to add to the article on Organic Food, though her content was ultimately never added to Wikipedia.

This assignment generated more student interest in assessing the credibility of what they read and supporting their own work with strong citations than I have seen in other assignments. Some of this is likely due to the fact that real people all around the world will read their work. Indeed, Wikipedia has become a massive online encyclopedia with global reach. The dashboard available to instructors tracks how many “views” there are of the articles that students create or edit. Less than one year later, the articles to which my students contributed have been viewed 661,000 times (actually, I suspect the number is higher – students sometimes added their contributions without remembering to sign in to their user profile first).

While the Wikipedia protocols for adding content and interacting with other users are a bit cumbersome to learn, I was impressed by how much support Wiki Education offers. Beyond the adaptable assignment modules and training videos they have created, they also assigned my class two staff helpers. The helpers were on hand throughout the semester to answer my questions and to interact directly with my students, they even provided direct feedback on their writing.

This semester I’ll make an effort to streamline my assignment somewhat, which ended up confusing myself and the students with a few too many due dates for editing and revising. Beyond that, I plan to stick with last year’s winning formula. If you teach with Wikipedia, I’d be interested to hear about your experiences. And if you teach Food and Agriculture, send your students over to my students’ work to continue to improve upon it.

 

New course: Sociology of Food and Agriculture

Today was the first day of the fall semester here at Howard University, and also the first day of my new class: Sociology of Food and Agriculture. Check it out below! Students, if you are still looking for a class to take, I have room in this one so come on by. We’ll be applying our sociological imaginations to something we all do every day but don’t always think that much about: eating. To do so we’ll read about the origins of the US food system, labor organizing, the industrialization of the food system, land ownership and loss, shopping, eating, and hunger. We’ll also be using what we learn in class to contribute to Wikipedia with the help of the good people at Wiki Education.

Instructors, if you are interested in incorporating a Wikipedia assignment into one of your courses, Wiki Education has a lot of tools to help you do so – everything from sample assignments to training videos and semester-long timelines. They also offer individualized class support to you and your students.

As usual, thank you to everyone who helped me think through what to assign in this course. Friends, colleagues, the Food and Agriculture Specialty Group of the American Association of Geographers, and the Critical Race Theory and Food Studies list run by Breeze Harper all contributed.

Overcoming Corporate Threats to Academic & Community Research on Industrial Animal Production

I chaired a panel discussion on “Overcoming Corporate Threats to Academic and Community Research on Industrial Animal Production” earlier this month at the annual meeting of the Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences. The panel was organized by Zoe Ackerman at the the Rachel Carson Council. It focused on the experiences of people whose health is impacted by the North Carolina hog industry. More specifically, panelists discussed industry intimidation and legal tactics designed to suppress research on the health impacts of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) on their nearby human neighbors. Steve Wing, the leading scholar on this topic, was part of the panel design, but in the end was unable to join. However, the following panelists gave a great overview of the issue and how it relates to broader threats to research in the public interest.

Keep an eye out for more work to come on this subject coordinated by the Rachel Carson Council. Also look out for announcements about the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network’s annual summit. In the meantime, the video below provides a short overview of our conversation. See also the following pinterest board where I collected articles I used to inform my framing remarks, which are not included in the video. I linked Steve Wing to Ignacio Chapela, William Cronon, Tyrone Hayes, and Anita Sarkeesian, who have all experienced serious push-back from the industries and social groups threatened by their research. Like many of the other panelists, I emphasized how industry relation against scholars has a chilling effect on the kinds of questions that we ask.

 

Film Screening and Discussion

This Thursday I’m hosting a screening of Come Hell or High Water: The Battle for Turkey Creek at Howard University. The event is open to the community so please join us if you live in the area!

Here’s the film description:  “Come Hell or High Water: The Battle for Turkey Creek  follows the painful but inspiring journey of Derrick Evans, a Boston teacher who moves home to coastal Mississippi when the graves of his ancestors are bulldozed to make way for the sprawling city of Gulfport. Over the course of a decade, Derrick and his neighbors stand up to powerful corporate interests and politicians and face Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil disaster in their struggle for self-determination and environmental justice.”

After the screening, the following speakers will help us discuss the film:

  • Leslie Fields: Director of the Environmental Justice Program, Sierra Club
  • Brentin Mock: Staff writer, The City Lab
  • Terri Adams-Fuller: Department of Sociology and Anthropology, NOAA Center for Atmospheric Sciences, Associate Dean of College of Arts and Sciences, Howard University.

The screening is timed to honor Earth Day (the next day), and also to promote Howard’s new Environmental Studies undergraduate major, which begins in the fall of 2016. Please join us!

When: Thursday April 21st, 6-8pm

Where: Screening Room West, CB Powell Building, School of Communications, Howard University

Co-sponsors: Department of Sociology and Anthropology, NOAA Center for Atmospheric Sciences, School of Communications, Environmental Studies Program

 

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.