Describe how your career has developed and how your work impacts society?
My career path is very circuitous. I attended Kenyon College, certain that I would be an English major. I ended up with a double-major in English and art history, fascinated by the Medieval era in Northern Europe and the extraordinary relationship among ways of seeing, daily life, politics, and styles of art and literature. After college, I spent several years as an archaeologist in England and was an intern at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, dating early Medieval Saxon jewelry. I went back to England to begin doctoral work in the Faculty of Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge University. It was there that the focus of my current work gelled and I became interested in the relationship among material culture, daily life, social change, and policy and discriminatory practices. As a post-doctoral visiting scholar in urban planning at UCLA, I began fieldwork in Mexico and L.A. on the use of domestic space, social policy and immigration, applying my research to the Fair Housing Act, and Civil Rights more generally. I’ve continued along this path at UMass.
Sometimes the unexpected guides new directions. I was doing fieldwork in L.A. and Mexico on the sociopolitical meaning and use of domestic space and how migration and immigration affected changes in both the use and meaning of that space and, in turn, local worldviews. A Latina friend in L.A. told me that she had heard on late-night TV that more homes were needed for Latino/a children, and that they all needed their own bedroom. This was not exactly correct, although close. Researching this and connecting it to my ethnographic interpretation of domestic space use led to my continuing interest in rethinking parts of the Fair Housing Act related to occupancy standards (number and relation of people legally permitted to share a rental or owned home). Some of the cultural theory I’ve developed from this seeming throw-away line has had the wonderful, and unexpected, result of Civil Rights attorneys being able to help families stay in their homes – families who otherwise would have been evicted for being too crowded by dominant standards. What could be a better result of research than helping families stay together in housing they can afford?
Research/teaching/real-life applications are seamless for me. Incorporating community engagement theory and/or practice is part of my general pedagogical approach.
What is your favorite class to teach?
I enjoy all the classes I teach; which is my favorite varies. For the last several years I’ve been teaching a graduate seminar, Interpreting Qualitative Research, which draws together students from across SBS and other colleges. Students work collaboratively while learning inductive methods for analyzing their own research. At some point, everyone reaches an “aha” moment when they get new insight into their data.
At the moment, I’m particularly enjoying Urban Policies. It has a service-learning component working with the Massachusetts Fair Housing Center in Holyoke, Massachusetts. In the Spring 2014 semester students started a new RSO, Students for Fair Housing.
I’m excited about a new 100-level class I’m designing for the Spring 2015 semester, Transforming Your World: Introduction to Community Engagement.
What does a typical week look like for you?
My days/weeks vary during the semester. Of course there’s teaching, as well as meeting with undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and committee meetings, class prep, co-facilitating the Faculty Fellows’ Program through the Office of Civil Engagement and Service Learning, reading, writing, answering emails, off-campus meetings related to my research interests, and class service-learning projects with the Massachusetts Fair Housing Center in Holyoke (I’m also the president of their board of directors). It all depends on the day and the week.
Do you have any advice for SBS students?
It saddens me when students drop their passions for what seems at the moment to be a more pragmatic major. Of course they have to think about their future and earning a living. However, many would be surprised by the available opportunities to turn their passions into a profession, which is where SBS and departmental advising can be very helpful. One of the great advantages of UMass is the ability to explore areas of knowledge you didn’t even know existed. As much as students complain about Gen Ed classes or taking a class they’ve not selected, I’ve seen students light up when a new idea strikes a chord and they reconsider their college direction.
Video and story by Jamie Robinson, communication intern