This post is the first of several about the the Environmental Inequality class that I finished teaching at Howard earlier this month. It was my third time teaching the class. I wrote about its first incarnation at UC Santa Cruz in 2012 here, and shared my Howard University syllabus from 2015 here. Here’s what I did this time around:
The first time I taught the class, I kept the assignments simple with pop-quizzes and take-home essay exams. The second around, I had students do research and writing on websites they built themselves. You can find an overview of that assignment and all of the prompts I gave the students to complete it here.
This year we did a community-based research project. I’ve wanted to do a class project like this for a long time but the timing has never been right. The first time I taught Environmental Inequality at UC Santa Cruz I was filling in for my advisor for one semester only. It didn’t seem to make sense to do an intricate community-based project when I couldn’t design the project to last over multiple semesters. Also, it was my first time teaching my own college-level class as a graduate student. Also, my dad was ill. The second time I taught the class, last fall, I was brand new to Washington D.C. and didn’t yet have local contacts with whom to collaborate. This fall the timing was finally right. I had put some time into getting to know local organizations, and thought I could use the project to continue to get my bearings on the world of Washington D.C. environmental justice activism. Here’s the project overview from the syllabus above:
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 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 development. We will host guest speakers as well as go on field trips and conduct off-campus research activities as part of this project. The Anacostia Community Museum will then add the transcripts to their archives and create a booklet based on your interviews to distribute to research participants in the winter of 2017. 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. You will be provided with detailed assignment prompts to guide each stage of your work as the course progresses.
In the next few posts, I’ll share reflections on the boat tour we took as a class on the Anacostia River, the interviews the students conducted, and some of our in-class activities. Some of the posts will also have slideshows. Stay tuned!
Although the weather continues to be hot here in Washington D.C., summer has come to an end for the students and workers of Howard University. I attended the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting just as school was beginning. This conference is spectacularly ill-timed to take place right before or during many schools’ first week of classes every year. I cancelled my first day of classes and taught two days later after getting off a red-eye from the West Coast at 6am.
Regardless of how you spend the last few days of summer, you may feel overwhelmed by the administrative details associated with resuming classes and committee work each fall. Because I think there are few life-problems that a good list can’t help address, I created a Back to School Checklist this year to help me remember some of the details that need to get taken care of for a smooth start. Feel free to adapt it for your own purposes as you like, I know I’ll be adding things as I remember them. And if you’re really list-crazy, take a look at the fun ones available at Knock-Knock (I find their “Pack This!” list particularly helpful). Or check out Atul Gawande’s book The Checklist Manifesto – if nothing else, it’ll make you glad you don’t have to worry about whether you left a pair of scissors inside the last person you did surgery on before sewing them up.
Back to School Checklist
- Confirm class time and space
- Check audio-visual supplies: screen, projector, speakers
- Finalize Syllabus
- Update readings
- Add new dates for each class meeting that correspond to this calendar year
- Look at campus academic calendar and add dates to syllabus as needed (campus closed, last day to drop, etc)
- Update assignments
- Schedule guest-speakers
- Schedule office-hours
- Create course website (Blackboard, etc)
- Make sure that enrolled students are in the system
- Add syllabus
- Upload readings
- Set up places for students to turn in work for each assignment
- Set up gradebook
- “Publish” site so it is visible to students
- Create attendance sheet
- Create sign-up sheets (for example, if students will each facilitate a day of classroom discussion)
- Order required books at campus bookstore
- Put required books on reserve at campus library
- Add chalk, eraser, or whiteboard pens to teaching bag as needed
- Add paper and pens for big nametags on desk as needed
- Prepare lesson plan and slides for first day of class. Make time to:
- Do names and/or ice-breaker
- Introduce self
- Introduce class – with hook!
- Review syllabus – use screenshots of book covers when possible
- Sign up for assignments that are date-specific
- Take attendance
- Collect information of students hoping to get in to class
- Get students signed up for independent study classes as appropriate
- Create proxy library accounts that let students check out books to my library account
- Schedule first team meeting with students
- Reserve room for team meeting
- Prepare for first meeting
- Review and organize prior student work
- Prepare list of projects and tasks to be divvied up amongst group. Decide how many people are needed for each project
- Create agenda
- Create sharable to-do lists and timesheets
- Update IRB “how to” document that details what students need to give me in order to be approved by the IRB as research assistants
- Update all other “how-to” documents as needed to support student tasks
- Select and upload introductory readings to help frame research tasks
- Add students to Google Drive folder that houses group files
- At first meeting
- Background on research projects and descriptions of tasks
- Divide up tasks
- Describe optional events happening this semester that students can participate in as part of their weekly hours to supplement their learning
- Share contact information
- Assign background reading
- Give overview of the IRB and the describe the documents students need to provide to be approved by IRB as research assistants
- Get familiar with the documents in the shared folder on Google Drive
- Review project communications and tracking (to-do list, hours sheet)
- Schedule training for students with librarian on how to find scholarly articles
- Pick weekly meeting time
- Schedule meeting between each project group and myself to provide training about how to get started with their task
- Add campus calendar dates to personal calendar (due dates for grades, last day of classes, etc)
- Add dates on department calendar to personal calendar (faculty meetings, report due dates, etc)
- Make work plan for year/semester
- Post office hours on door
- Return or renew library books
- Clean office!
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.
Last fall Mike Ewall and Dante Swinton of Energy Justice Network led my students and me on a “toxic tour” of Baltimore. Toxic tours are one way that environmental justice activists do political education. They involve bringing politicians, environmental agency staff and others into the communities where activists live and/or work to build awareness of the problems there and find ways to support local activists in trying to solve them. In our case, Mike and Dante led the students in my fall Environmental Inequality classes to see some of the contested sites where they work. This gave the students a better way to visualize the things we had been reading about, and to learn about their local applications.
We started at the Wheelabrator Baltimore trash incinerator. We were immediately reminded of the environmental justice slogan that defines the environment as “the places we work, live and play” by the sight of families picnicking at the park directly adjacent to the incinerator. We moved on to the site of a proposed new incinerator (for trash, tires, shredded cars and wood waste), a coal and steam-fired electrical generating station, a closed hazardous waste landfill, the port (piled high with coal), the nation’s largest medical waste incinerator and a municipal waste landfill, among other industrial sites.
Since our visit, the proposed new incinerator that we learned about has been defeated, at least for now. Baltimore resident Destiny Watford, co-founder of the student group Free Your Voice, became the 2016 recipient for North American of the international Goldman Prize for her leadership role in the campaign.
My students got a lot out of the trip. They had read about the problems of industrial pollution and the people who live right next to polluting industries, but walking those landscapes seemed to make the issues much more real for them. For my part, I was saddened to see again in Baltimore many of the same problems I am familiar with from my research in California. It’s one thing to know about national trends, and another to see for oneself that they are, indeed, national.
The photos below show some of the places we went. They depict Mike Ewall and Dante Swinton from Energy Justice Network, as well as my students from Howard University – Olivia Byrd, Jesse Card, and Gerlene Toussaint. Sign up for the Energy Justice newsletter or “like” the Free Your Voice Facebook page to find out how you can plug in.
I assigned Ta-Nehisi Coates’s award-winning book Between the World and Me to my Introduction to Sociology students during both the fall and spring semesters of this last academic year. In both classes it was the last assigned reading. The book gave me an opportunity to do a number of things:
- Build on the conceptual work we had already done by training students how to identify sociological concepts when they are presented in different language than what they are learning in the classroom
- Show how ideas we are learning about in the classroom circulate in the real world
- Provide space to reflect on racial inequality as experienced by Coates’s life story and his efforts to pass on his knowledge to his son, for whom the book is written.
- Learn a bit more about Howard’s history and help students get excited about using their time there to learn and grow (Coates attended Howard University and writes glowingly about his time there in this book)
The first time I taught the course, I had students practice identifying concepts we had learned about in the as they appeared in the book. I used a variation of this worksheet to do so. After they worked on this task in small groups, I had students read the passages aloud and describe which sociological concepts they thought each illustrated. (This led to one of my favorite moments in that class when the students broke into spontaneous applause at the conclusion of a particularly impassioned reading).
Here are the concepts they worked with:
- essentialism and anti-essentialism
- structural racism
- structure and agency
- race as neither “essence nor illusion” (from Omi and Winant)
- race vs. class
Here is one of the excerpts they analyzed (from p. 103):
It is not necessary that you believe that the officer who choked Eric Garner set out that day to destroy a body. All you need to understand is that the officer carries with him the power of the American state and the weight of an American legacy, and they necessitate that of the bodies destroyed every year, some wild and disproportionate number of them will be black.
The students discussed how this excerpt illustrates the concept of structural racism because of the way that the disproportionate death of black Americans at the hands of the police is not dependent on individual racist intent of any single police officer.
In the second version of the class, which was much larger, I read the excerpts aloud myself and we discussed them as a large group without the benefit of small group work first. I also showed this video of Coates speaking about his book. I thought the video would help bring the text alive and underscore that authors are real people, just like them.
Next time I teach a small version of the class, I’ll return to having the students fill out the worksheet I provide in small group, followed by large group discussions. This approach gave them the best chance to really work through the ideas and learn from how others did the same. Then I’ll consider skipping the video and instead have students read and discuss reviews of the book from a wide variety of political perspectives. I would assign at least one from the left that criticizes the book for not going far enough, perhaps written from a feminist perspective, and one from the right that sees the book as racially inflammatory in a world that is now “post-race.” This would broaden the students’ thinking about the book itself, and could also be used as an opportunity to learn about intellectual and political discourse.
Last Saturday Howard University hosted its 148th graduation ceremony. I donned my (borrowed) academic robes to celebrate our graduates and hear President Obama, our commencement speaker. I’ve shared my snapshots below to convey what it was like to attend and participate. They show: workers setting up for graduation during the last week of the semester, getting through security and onto campus on the day of the ceremony, faculty waiting for the event to begin and then processing into the the yard together, President Obama being “hooded” while he receives his honorary Ph.D., and the commencement ceremony. The last photo is of Sociology graduate Diamond Crumby showing off her awesome cap. Congratulations Diamond and the Howard class of 2016!
For the full text of President Obama’s commencement address, click here. For video, click here. And for summary and analysis, try the following:
- “President Obama Embodies Blackness, Confidence, Hope at Howard University’s 148th Commencement,” by Paul Holston, The Hilltop.
- “President Obama’s Commencement Speech, Howard University,” by Clarence B. Jones, Huffington Post.
- “Obama Gets All In His Blackness at Howard“, by Leah Donnella at Code Switch, NPR
- “Sheriff Clarke Blasts Obama’s ‘Insulting’ Commencement Speech,” Fox News Insider.
- “This Young Woman Is the Reason President Obama Stays Optimistic About America,” by Lauren Duca, Teen Vogue.
- “Obama Proves, Yet Again, That He Is Our Most Black, Feminist President to Date,” Melissa Harris-Perry, Elle.
- “Seven days, three speeches: one week in the life of having a black president,” by Steven W. Thrasher, The Guardian.
- “President Obama Calls Out Safe Space Culture. Weakly,” by Mollie Hemmingway, The Federalist.
- “Tucker Carlson Slams Obama Blackness Riff: What If Romney Said ‘Be Confident in Your Whiteness’?” by Tommy Christopher, Mediaite.
Classes are over now, but next year I plan to show the President’s commencement speech toward the end of my Introduction to Sociology class. I’ll ask the students to analyze it according to sociological concepts we’ve been learning (structure, agency, social stratification, intersectionality, theories of change, American individualism, etc.). Then I’ll have them chew on a few of the wide array of responses to his speech listed above. I like doing these sorts of activities to underscore how the concepts we are learning in the classroom get used in the political world, even if they are not always referenced by the same names. If any of you do something similar with the speech, let me know how it goes. I won’t be teaching Intro to Sociology again until next spring, so there’s plenty of time to build on your experience.
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