Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Expanding My Horizons

Our students this year asked us to reflect on what we get out of working with the LAKES REU and what we have learned from our students. On several levels, it’s actually surprising that I’m involved in the LAKES project at all. Anthropologists tend to do our research independently and are most comfortable working as individuals embedding ourselves in communities over long periods of time. Although we all realize that multidisciplinary teams are extremely important and that many types of research are necessary, we tend to carve out our niches solo and are drawn to conducting long-term ethnographic research. Research projects conducted over 8 weeks with an amazingly diverse set of disciplinary experts and students is very different from the work I was used to. I’ve learned an enormous amount from all my co-mentors and have a richer understanding of the world (and not just of the Red Cedar Watershed) for working with them. I feel very lucky to have been given the opportunity.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

New Place, New Challenges

This year is my first in Wisconsin, my first at UW Stout, and my first as a REU adviser. The opportunity to participate in the REU was a no brainier for me. Participating provides opportunities for me on so many levels.

Central to the pollution dynamics in the Red Cedar basin is the land management practices of farmers and rural land owners. The motivations of rural land owners and their interest in conservation is central to my ongoing research interests. Agriculture in Wisconsin is experiencing disturbing  transitions as small family dairy farms are replaced by the large CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) needed to compete on the global market. Low milk prices have prompted another year of belt tightening among Wisconsin dairy farmers. Each time prices fluctuate, farmers are prompted to diversify and innovate or be subsumed. At the same time, after several years of high prices, corn prices are at a ten year low, potentially prompting increased enrollment in conservation programs such as CRP, which removes sensitive land from crop production, decreasing potential erosion and water pollution.

I grew up the child of a farm worker, embedded in farming communities and yet deeply aware of the trade-offs involved in farming. This dynamic makes a commitment to conservation challenging. How family farms balance these challenges and maintain their commitment to the land and their communities is of deep interest to me.

At the same time, as a new professor, I teach mostly entry level courses, in which I need to argue for the importance of geography and convince students that what we are studying together is worth paying attention to. The REU is a completely different experience. REU students arrive in Menomonie with an interest in and commitment to the problem and searching for solutions. Working closely with students individually or in small groups is my favorite teaching method. Working closely with the REU students has challenged me and inspired me in a way that goes way beyond other teaching experiences.

Additionally, the challenge of engaged research in the community posed by the LAKES REU is something I'm very committed to. Working with the LAKES REU has allowed me to meet new people and understand the community in new ways. As a new professor, my time is limited and I am balancing multiple commitments and challenges. Working with the other REU mentors and the various community members involved with the project has expanded my understanding of the local community and the challenges facing us together.

More than anything, my students have reminded me of the importance of persistence in the research process. The Geography Team experienced more than our fair share of setbacks in our research, through no fault of the students. I have been amazed and impressed at how Rene and Gunther have persevered despite numerous setbacks and disappointments. Geography is a discipline whose center is field research in place, yet we have been call this summer to spend most of our time focused on data analysis rather than direct experience in the region. Despite this challenge, the team continued to maintain a positive attitude and commitment to the work that has inspired me. Each student also contributed to the overall project in their own unique ways. Gunther, a local UW Stout student, has been a leader for the entire student group, helping students from around the country get oriented to Wisconsin and understand local dynamics. Rene, arriving from San Diego, a place with very little in common with Menomonie, lent his GIS skills to the rest of the teams with a generous spirit and a focus on problem solving.

I can only hope that future LAKES Geography Teams can live up to the example they have set.

Monday, August 1, 2016

What I got out of this summer...

We were asked by the students to write about what the LAKES REU means to us, as mentors.  The short answer is that it's the only way I'll get the research I want to do, done.  That's not the whole story.  In fact, it's become a minor part of the story, ironically.  The LAKES REU has become an avenue to both train just amazing undergraduate students in research and to connect my research to the community in consequential ways.  Both of these things I could go on and on about, but it comes across like a resume perhaps.  Instead, I want to dedicate this blog post to what I've received from my research interns this year, Alexis Econie and Clare Salerno.  From this post I hope you can all appreciate where this year's sociological work has come from.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Backseat Driver

What I get out of the REU depends on my role.

As an educator I get to work with hard-working students who are creative and willing to tackle ill-posed problems with messy data sets and complex dynamics. These students are a rare breed and it is a privilege spending eight weeks with them tackling a difficult problem. They need to learn a lot of mathematics that normally does not get covered until graduate school and they need to learn how to become a mathematical researcher in a very short timeframe. Furthermore, they need to take this newly attained skill set and assimilate it into their problem-solving abilities to address the REU problem they have selected. It is gratifying, as an educator, to work with students through this process and witness their development from inchoate to adept researcher in a compressed time interval. I am proud to be an instrumental part of their education.