4 Words, Words, Words: Informal Conversations as a Mode of Scholarly Discourse

Clement Loo

Please enjoy an audio collage of clips from the first season of Just Sustainability!

  1. Just Sustainability Intro
  2. loo - sustainability
  3. jacobs - inviting perspectives
  4. werkheiser epistemic evaluation
  5. loo - access
  6. shafner - get explicit
  7. ortiz - connections


Several years ago my spouse and I felt an uncharacteristic longing for big-city life. The longing was uncharacteristic for several reasons. First, though we both grew up in small rural towns, we had each spent a significant chunk of our adult lives living in, and very much hating, large cities—and the crowds, noise, and traffic that one finds within them. The longing was also uncharacteristic because both of us still tend to want to spend our leisure time in wild spaces that are largely devoid of people. If pressed to name something we’d want to do for fun, our answers would most likely include some combination of fishing, hiking, camping, bird-watching, gardening, taking pictures of nature, or just spending a weekend doing jigsaw puzzles in an isolated hunting cabin.

But while my spouse and I are very much rural folk who usually roll our eyes a little when our friends and colleagues complain about small-town life, we had lived in West Central Minnesota for six years and hadn’t really traveled except for work or family visits. We were feeling the lack of art, food diversity, and—though it shames me a little to admit—the hustle-and-bustle and anonymity that comes with being in a major urban center. Though the little town of Morris, Minnesota (population around 5000) is in many ways our (or at least my) ideal place to live, there’s no place to get dim sum on Saturday mornings. You can’t just decide to go to the theatre (though Morris does have a remarkably quaint cooperatively run cinema that I love to pieces) and actually make such a thing happen without a great deal of planning. If you want Pad Thai (and don’t feel like cooking or visiting the chemistry professor who I believe could have been a Thai chef if his life had gone on a slightly different path), you need to drive 45 minutes to get what I believe is linguini cooked in peanut butter and Sriracha. So though I don’t think we’ll ever move away from Morris, for a while we desperately needed to spend some time in a place with more restaurants, theaters, and art galleries.

To scratch our itch for urban life, we decided to take a few days of vacation, rent an Airbnb in downtown Minneapolis, and spend a few days reliving the period of our lives when we were city dwellers as graduate students and young professionals. If everything went according to plan, we would aimlessly walk around downtown, find exciting new hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and discover an avant garde indy theatre or music venue.

What also ended up happening was that we noticed that the tattoo parlor down the street from our Airbnb took walk-ins on Mondays. Upon making that discovery my spouse remarked that when we were younger (and urban sophisticates) we would definitely have gotten impulsive tattoos. Being in denial—as I often am—about being a middle-aged professional, getting an impulsive tattoo struck me as a brilliant idea.

I will comfortably assert, with absolutely no evidence, that there’s something particularly romantic (if that’s the right word) and oddly liberating or exhilarating about getting a spontaneous tattoo. That is particularly the case when you get it with the person that you love most in the world. And so I decided to go with the first idea that popped into my head, and have it tattooed on the inside of my left arm, in the open space—which had always irritated the more compulsive parts of my brain—between two existing tattoos.

Having made that carefully considered decision, I now have a tattoo that says “Words words words words. Words words words, words! Words words words words, words…. Words words. Words words words. Words!” written in my spouse’s handwriting.

You might be a little confused at this moment, asking yourself, “I thought that this e-book was about teaching sustainability. What does getting a rash and, arguably, remarkably stupid—albeit perhaps romantic—tattoo have to do with sustainability?”

Stupid impulsive tattoos, being unreflective actions that have long-lasting consequences that would be quite painful to undo, might actually be a terrific metaphor for many of the problems we encounter in regards to sustainability. But that’s not where I’m going with my story.

I don’t think my tattoo is a mistake at all. And a team of wild horses couldn’t force me to have that tattoo removed.  I quite like my ridiculous impulsive tattoo, and its only consequence seems to be the many brief moments of mirth that follow each instance in which I look down at my arm. I have more than a dozen additional tattoos, with many being intricate and carefully planned pieces, but my impulsive “words” tattoo is by far my favorite.

Back to the point of my story. My tattoo isn’t a metaphor. It is the manifestation of some of the ideas that I’ve been wrestling with as an educator, researcher, and professional working to promote sustainability. Though I got the tattoo as a bit of a joke to remind myself not to take things too seriously (being impromptu, designed in the moment, and silly), I think it also captures a particularly self-aware and honest moment and distills various thoughts that have been knocking around in my head for at least the past decade.

To be less cryptic, it strikes me that one of the most important aspects of sustainability is good communication. I believe the most important task required to transition to a more sustainable paradigm for our society involves effectively using words so that we can, as a community, collectively reflect about the important questions we need to examine to be more reflective, conscious, and conscientious about our values and how we prioritize them.

My view, perhaps because I’m a philosopher by training, is that discourse about sustainability is essentially the contemporary manifestation of Ancient Greek philosophy’s obsessive debating about the nature of the good life and about how the polis should be structured to best promote the living of good lives.

I contend that, when we’re thinking and talking about sustainability, we’re talking about what it means to flourish and thrive. Sustainability, as I understand it, is essentially a category of discourse and work concerned primarily with the ongoing wellbeing of all living things and the communities (both social and ecological) in which they live. Folks concerned about sustainability are folks concerned with identifying how our societies can be restructured to encourage and support such thriving.

It feels (in an ineffable way) to me that we, as humans living in the early 21st century, are very much at a precipice. We have two paths in front of us. Both involve significant change, and both will be difficult to walk and will require sacrifice. Both will lead to inevitable change but will offer us opportunity. The key difference between the two is this: along one path we get to choose what we sacrifice and how the change happens, to decide what opportunities are available to us and how we pursue them. The other path is one where we are passively swept away like a leaf floating on a stream, dragged to a future that is beyond our control and our design.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I prefer a future that is self-directed, a future where we get to collectively decide what happens to us (both good and bad). But to take that path we need to think—and talk—about things like what’s important to each of us, and our visions of and aspirations for the future.

It seems to me that a sustainable society (or a society pursuing greater sustainability) must be a society that is good at talking about what it values and how it pursues those values. To become more sustainable, a community must be able to effectively engage in discourse to consider how its institutions, practices, and relationships (both internal and external) affect its capacity to promote the ongoing flourishing of all its members. It must collectively understand and reflect on what it means to each of its members to flourish, and think about how the community should be governed so that everyone can pursue those things constitutive of their own (and one another’s) flourishing. We all need to be good at listening to one another. And we all need to be good at communicating so that we can teach one another. We need to understand and communicate perspectives across multiple interacting dimensions of difference. We also need public forums that are accessible, inclusive, and welcoming, and that celebrate all the ways in which we each communicate. We all need to be able to share, and to learn from one another in ways that we each find joyful (if sometimes difficult) and nourishing of the soul.

To explain what I mean, I’ll refer to examples drawn from my academic work. Much of what I do day-to-day, both as a theorist and as an educator, revolves around the notion of participative or participatory environmental justice. In particular, I spend a great deal of time thinking, writing, and speaking about food justice.

Put (perhaps overly) simply, food justice is a field of research and practical work that aims to provide folks (particularly marginalized folks) with fair access to healthy, delicious, and culturally appropriate foods.

What this means specifically is often the subject of debate, but I feel comfortable asserting that there are at least two broad elements to how folks generally think about food justice. The first is what I tend to call the distributive justice part of food justice, and the second is what I usually refer to as the participative justice part.

The distributive justice part is about outcomes related to how material goods and costs are shared across the population. Folks who care about the distributive part of food justice care about the presence of full-service grocery stores in neighborhoods, food pricing structures that don’t make it difficult for lower-income folks to purchase fresh foods, and reducing the disproportionately high rates of diabetes, metabolic disorder, heart disease, and other adverse health outcomes associated with diet in BIPOC and lower-income communities.

The participative justice part—the one more relevant to this chapter and the one I pay more attention to in my work—relates to the capacity of folks to influence decisions and governance that have effects on their wellbeing or interests. Folks who promote participative justice are trying to help marginalized communities empower themselves and be better able to dictate their own conditions and their role in their relationships with other communities. Growing a more participatively just food system is about helping folks self-advocate, amplify their values and narratives, develop or recover skills for growing or cooking food, gain influence in government, have better control of land and seeds, and so forth.

I noted that the participative part of food justice is the part that’s most relevant to this chapter. That’s because fair participation in governance requires that we have public forums and systems of governance in which conversations and decision-making are accessible. Justice requires good and open communication. Everyone needs to be able to speak and everyone needs to be able to listen with open hearts and open minds. Much of my research, then, is fundamentally concerned with how we change practices and institutions so that we become better at attending to one another and, in particular, attending to those of us who have found ourselves marginalized and excluded.

This being the case, it seems to me that one of the foundational steps of growing a more sustainable community is to critically examine how we engage in public discourse. We are like a great big multi-generational blended family; we have each grown up with different expectations about how best to communicate, but find ourselves in the same home navigating complex and often uncomfortable household decisions. One of us might be a sibling raised to be comfortable with bluntness. Another might have become accustomed to passive-aggressive hints. Yet another might be a parent with a tendency to yell and tantrum when things don’t go his way. But despite all this, we can’t avoid having to eventually figure out how to have a productive family meeting, talk things through, and make decisions together in healthier ways. At least, we can’t if we want to have agency within our lives and live together in mutually affirming ways.

I find myself thinking with increasing frequency about how we can get along in healthy and supportive ways despite the fact that we find ourselves in a big, messy, dysfunctional, and perhaps slightly abusive family. Sometimes my musings concern questions about climate, environmental, and, as described above, food justice. I think about how governance might change to ensure that marginalized persons and communities can more effectively participate in policy- and decision-making. At other times, when I think about healthier communication, I think about the context in which I often find myself: higher education.

It strikes me that those of us in higher education have an oversized influence in the direction of public conversations. Those of us who work in the academy provide data, offer theoretical and conceptual frameworks, shape the views of millions of students in our classrooms, and—despite a troubling trend towards anti-intellectualism—still have our opinions often valued more highly (relative to the average person) by those with the power to make change.

But it also seems to me that the conventions within higher education (at least in the English-speaking parts of the world that I am most familiar with) are narrow and exclusionary both in regards to who is invited to participate and in terms of the allowed content and ways of communication. For example: think about how difficult it is to access articles from professional journals if you don’t have an academic affiliation. Think about the specialized language that those of us within higher-ed tend to use. Think about how faculty are assessed for tenure and promotion. Think about APA format and how you might have your ideas discounted if you’re not  adequately familiar with strange, and arguably arbitrary, conventions regarding how to format a running head.

I have become increasingly doubtful that the current conventions of higher education allow for the sorts of discourse we need to engage in the communal reflection required for us to become more sustainable. I’ve come to believe that these conventions serve as barriers to administrators, educators, professionals, and researchers engaging with the broader community, at least within our formal roles. Those barriers then interfere with the academy’s capacity to frame sustainability problems in terms of objectives that represent the values, interests, and needs of the persons and communities outside our institutions. They also act as a wedge, increasing distrust of expertise and experts.

Conventions about the appropriate ways to communicate within higher education also interfere with the discourse among professionals within the academy. Formal rules as well as informal expectations and customs about publication, lectures, workshops, and other media again limit how we might communicate with one another and the topics that we can speak about. Ideas about academic rigor and the need to demonstrate contributions to the field often (at least for me) mean that we must constrain our imaginations or focus on subjects that are more easily quantifiable. While it’s important to be data driven and to be able to clearly identify and articulate when there’s good evidence and when there’s not, we also need room to speculate, to brainstorm, and to informally chat about our cockamamie ideas that may turn out to be brilliant in the end. More importantly, we need room to listen to and learn from the narratives of those who are marginalized and often excluded from academic discourse.

It was these thoughts about the relationship between communication and sustainability, as well as my concerns about barriers to communication within higher education, that motivated my project with the Educators program at the Institute on the Environment. I wanted to think more about how folks such as myself, who are professionals and educators within the academy, might better communicate and learn from one another. I also wanted to think about how academics might better engage with topics and perspectives that have historically been excluded from formal academic scholarship.

I started my IonE project by reviewing my own learning journey. I thought about how I learned about sustainability, about the moments that seemed most important in shaping how my views and understanding of sustainability grew. Upon such reflection, it became obvious that while I have learned a great deal through the formal parts of my education and work, the most impactful moments have been accidental, organic, and informal. I’ve learned more at random social, networking, and community-building events than I have in the classroom, at lectures, or during workshops. The questions and ideas that have resonated most deeply within me are those that were brought to my attention while I was shooting the shit (so to speak) with a friend or acquaintance, or drinking tepid coffee or tea out of a fancy cup waiting for a keynote lecture to start. I’ve usually learned more after ducking out of a particularly boring set of conference sessions to meet a few friends and colleagues at a bar than I have from actually attending a conference talk.

I suspect that this is the case for several reasons. First, as I’ve noted earlier, I think the conventions of academia limit the sorts of conversations that can be had within professional forums. Because of this, it seems to me that at some point within your education and development as a professional, you reach that point where you’re familiar with enough of the academic literature that you rarely run into anything really novel, at least not in formal scholarly and professional discourse. The really interesting and exciting ideas that are most likely to inspire change and growth are the half-baked ones that no one has written up or feels comfortable presenting. Such being the case, one rarely, if ever, finds the most exciting ideas in a scholarly journal or academic publication.

Second, formal discourse within higher ed also limits how well folks can bounce ideas off one another. At the risk of mixing metaphors, I contend that the best ideas grow organically, nurtured by the accretion of bits tossed randomly into a pot by individual interlocutors. This process does not happen easily in the formal structure of academic scholarship. Peer review, paywalls, jargon,  conventions about citations, and references to particular theories within given fields—these all serve as barriers that interfere with just riffing. If a good brainstorming session at the bar between conference talks is like a jam session full of jazz musicians, academic discourse is like an orchestra where each musician is constrained by the part they are expected to play.

Third, we are by nature social creatures. Even those of us who are, like myself, inclined to introversion are creatures evolved to live in community. I find wild-type conversations much more compelling than the domesticated conversations one might have in a more professional environment. Being compelled and, thus, engaged helps ideas stick in my head in ways that have me revisiting them at 3 a.m. when I wake up and run to my desk to write down a stray insight so that it doesn’t get lost. We need those sticky ideas if we are to think about the radical departures to the status quo we must take if we are to build a sustainable and just society.

I came to the conclusion that what I wanted to do for my IonE Educators project was capture the incidental conversations I’ve found so helpful in my personal growth and professional development, and share those incidental conversations more broadly with others also working at the intersections between sustainability and equity. The question that I struggled with was how to capture and share what I referred to earlier as a wild-type conversation? How can one make public things that are essentially private and personal?

The answer occurred to me during a conversation with Beth Mercer-Taylor and Peter Levin about podcasts and what seemed to us to be a boom in podcast listening during the quarantine resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic. During this conversation, someone noted that many podcasts regularly include a part in which the hosts are simply chatting (often not about the topic of the podcast), and that such banter tricks the audience into feeling like they are participants in a real conversation rather than listening to something artificial and intentionally created to be consumed. In a time when folks were feeling isolated, that sense of being party to a conversation (outside of a Zoom meeting) was something people craved. Hearing this made me realize that I wanted to create a podcast in which the banter consisted of conversations with various folks from whom I’ve learned the most.

This led to the creation of Just Sustainability: Curious Conversations About Sustainability and Equity.

 

 

 

 

I spent roughly a year recording conversations with friends I thought were doing great work, collaborators who had shaped the way I think about sustainability and equity, and folks who have been my personal academic and advocacy heroes. Among my interlocutors have been academics, activists, actors, artists, chefs, dancers, educators, higher-ed professionals, poets, and even a college president. Though I’ve known some of these folks for nearly a decade (and some of the folks I’m planning on recording, I’ve known even longer), I learned new things during each conversation.

I’ve learned about the importance of humility when it comes to building relationships with community partners, and strategies to keep oneself humble. I’ve learned a little bit about growing up as an indigenous person and realizing the extent of the alienation from one’s own culture and traditions. I learned about how artists, who I believe are the collective subconscious for society, are systematically exploited by the institutions tasked with promoting the arts. I learned from a new friend what it was like growing up in a place routinely hit by natural disasters and seeing firsthand how much social hierarchies determine outcomes. I learned a lot about how folks have tried to become better listeners. And I learned other things too numerous to list.

The topic of this chapter is how I think those of us in the academy need to resist the conventions of academic discourse to be better engaged with the full range of perspectives and topics that we need to understand and address if we want to be effective in building a more sustainable society. Given this, I did the opposite of what I normally do (and what I implore my students to do), and wrote without a plan or an outline. Instead, I just wrote from the hip, so to speak. And as often happens when I converse from the hip, I have no idea how to stop without it being awkward. So I’ll just make a note of that and finish by saying that I hope the folks who listen to my podcast also find that they learn something from each episode.

 

Epilogue

Though the first draft of this chapter was written approximately one week prior to the debut of Just Sustainability, the publication of the e-book containing this chapter coincides roughly with the end of the podcast’s first season. That being the case, while I originally wrote this chapter from the perspective of someone about to release a podcast, I can now have the advantage of being informed by hindsight. And hindsight has offered me at least two sorts of lessons: (1) lessons about the process of podcasting, and (2) lessons that have changed the ways that I think about equity and sustainability within the academy.

In regards to the first sort of lesson (those about podcasting), while Just Sustainability had a strong debut, there are things that I might have done differently with the experience that I have now. I would have consulted more with folks with established podcasts. I hadn’t realized it, but I didn’t have the appropriate equipment for how I recorded. For example, I learned that you shouldn’t use a condenser microphone if you’re not recording in a studio and can’t eliminate background noise. A cardioid microphone works much better in such a context. The conversations I recorded with my fancy (and expensive) condenser microphone required hours of post-production clean-up to be usable. The ones I recorded with my cheap cardioid microphone required next to no clean-up and sound as good, if not better. There are also a ton of free tools online that automate some of the most onerous parts of audio editing (such as matching levels of different recordings so that they can be seamlessly cut together).

I’ve also learned that less is, as the old adage suggests, more when it comes to editing. Natural conversation is far more engaging than cleanly produced audio. In my first few episodes, I worked very hard to try to emulate the format of a show you might hear on NPR. But, responding to comments from friends who listened to the show, by the end of the season I only edited the recorded conversations to ensure that what was being said was clearly audible.

In regards to the second sort of lessons I’ve learned (those that have changed how I understand equity and sustainability as it relates to academia), several things stand out to me. Most striking is the amount of interesting and exciting work being done at the intersection of equity and sustainability. While I suspect that many of us who work at universities and colleges and who are concerned about equity often get a bit down about how regressive higher ed can sometimes be (I certainly do), there are many folks who are working to make it more representative, equitable, and inclusive of the perspectives of marginalized folks. It’s important that we recognize when and where folks are doing good work so that we can engage, reward, and amplify that work—particularly those of us who are established within our respective fields.

I’ve also learned that there is a hunger for scholarship that integrates equity and sustainability. The initial episodes of the podcast all, at this writing, have around 1,000 downloads. The later episodes are slowly catching up to this number with a constant stream of new downloads. This suggests to me that there are many folks interested in learning about equity and sustainability. That’s something that we should feel good about, a sign of cultural change and progress.

Finally, I’ve learned that my beliefs in the importance of conversation, and in the need for higher education to rethink our conventions and practices when it comes to discourse and engagement with the non-academic world, are not my beliefs alone. Reviewing the conversations I’ve recorded for Just Sustainability revealed that concern about higher ed’s tendency to exclude the perspectives of Black and brown folks has been a common theme of my guests. Similarly, nearly every guest on the show mentioned the need for the academy—and society more broadly—to engage in reflection to identify how we might become better at listening to the voices of marginalized communities and helping marginalized communities more effectively have their voices heard.

Again, because I opted to write more organically and have no plan, I’m not quite sure how to end this epilogue. So I will take my leave by asking you again to give my podcast a listen and, more importantly, think about how you might help change the institutions that you can affect so they become better at listening to the voices that have tended to be ignored or under-appreciated by those with power.


About the Author

After spending the first few decades of my life trying to avoid frostbite growing up in the Canadian north, I now teach Environmental Studies and work in Equity, Diversity, and Intercultural Programs at UMN Morris. My teaching and scholarship focuses on food justice, the intersection of sustainability and equity, and identifying how academics can be better partners with communities. I spend my free time fishing, riding scooters, or aimlessly wandering around outside.

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