Alex C. Moore, “Following Lizards: An Interview with Chessa Adsit-Morris,” (January 15, 2017)
Chessa Adsit-Morris is a curriculum theorist and member of the Center for Creative Ecologies. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Visual Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Chessa’s first book, Restorying Environmental Education: Figurations, Fictions, Feral Subjectivities (2017), developed from her MA thesis which she completed at the University of British Columbia, has just been published with Palgrave Macmillan.
Alex Moore is a Visual Studies PhD student at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her areas of study include contemporary art in the global field, colonial visual production, and feminist studies. She is a member of the Digital Humanities Research Cluster and the Center for Creative Ecologies.
In the following interview we discuss the educational approach Adsit-Morris advocates in her book, the theorists and multi-species networks that have contributed to her thinking, and where she may take these ideas while at UC Santa Cruz.
Alex Moore: I found the book really playful in its use of language, art, and theorists to discuss ways for thinking about the environment. What intervention is the book making in the field of environmental education?
Chessa Adsit-Moris: The book is grappling with a couple of issues. First, what is ecological thought? I was unhappy with approaches in environmental studies (often stuck in static systems theory) that, in my opinion, were not messy enough. In Donna Haraway’s book When Species Meet (2008) she has an image of “Jim’s dog,” which is a digital image of a tree stump that Jim Clifford came across on a walk and sent her via email. She then unpacks the image by talking about its multispecies assemblage, the history of the place, the environmental movement(s) that saved the forest that allowed the tree to be there, the technologies of the camera and email that enabled the photo to be taken and transmitted—she is seeing all the complexity of its temporary coming-into-being at once. For me, that is ecological thought: looking at all the collective ecological, political, social, historical, technological aspects of something and seeing them all at the same time, together, in a messy complexity.
Second, there is a push in the field of environmental education (and the environmental movement in general) to think more ecologically—a shift in focus from organism-environment to more complex networks of relations—but what does that actually look like within the Western Metaphysical tradition? I was trying to stay with the trouble of the education system that we have. What can ecological thinking look like in a school setting?
AM: In the opening of the book you mention your experiences growing up with a multispecies creative community. I’m curious to hear more about this. What were your childhood experiences with other species and how have they informed your scholarship?
CAM: Throughout the book I draw heavily from my autobiography and it comes from my training in education with curriculum scholar Dr. Bill Pinar at the University of British Columbia (Pinar 2015). He re-conceptualized curriculum as a verb, currerre, “to run the course.” In my book I re-imagined and expanded it as: to run a course of your life, to run the course of a metamorphosis—imagining education as a life-long process and as a biological/physical process. His term currerre is about connecting rigorous academic study to autobiographical experiences to then build subjectivity.
So using that approach, I had been trying to work out: why (and how) do I think ecologically; why did I have trouble with the western education system; and how did I figure out how to survive within that system? And for me, it was the experience growing up on a five-acre avocado grove in Temecula, California. My household was multispecies. We were the place everyone left their unwanted or injured animals, so we had horses, turtles, tarantulas, rats, mice and five cats and two dogs and chickens and ... It was a large multispecies community that I needed to get along in and learn in.
I use Deleuze and Guattari’s (1987) concept of striated spaces and smooth spaces to understand my migrations between school and the grove. At school I was in a striated space with bells, schedules, and requirements, and then my weekends I would spend in a smooth space, wandering the grove, very unstructured. In the book, I’m trying to work out how we can find space within the striated spaces of school to really flourish. This really didn’t happen for me until middle school when finally the teacher let us use creative ways of demonstrating our “comprehension” like collages and paintings.
AM: Your book uses complex theoretical paradigms (particularly New Materialism through the writings of Karen Barad, Rosi Brandotti, and Donna Haraway) to discuss and propose new methods for thinking about environmental education, and your key case study is a project undertaken with students in grades 4-6. How does your theory become praxis?
CAM: The question of praxis is difficult in education. As a teacher, I think you express your theoretical underpinnings through how you interact with what you are learning and how you react to the students. You enact your personal pedagogy. I learned my environmental ethic towards the non-human/more-than-human world (my EE pedagogy) from my grandmother, watching her with all the animals that she had and loved. Drawing from her, I wanted to model for my students other ways of interacting with the world. Some people would call this “slow pedagogy.” For instance we took the students to tidal pools and they are all running around all over the place, I pointed out to them, “hey you are stomping on all these critters. Let’s take a minute and look down here and imagine how they feel.” Making the students slow down and be attentive to the tide pools through my own attentiveness to it, as an ethical performative praxis.
Instead of doing everything in a linear way I was trying to have theory and practice be fluid and inform each other. I think the translation is different depending on the field. Education is about experimenting with and relating to students. There is a big push for making models and guidelines but in my experience working with teachers, it’s more about trying things with students and then discussing and sharing experiences with your peers and then trying something else out. Teaching is an art and a science.
I am most interested in curriculum studies. That’s where educational philosophy (including the history of thought and consciousness) really hits the ground in schools (at all levels), it’s where teachers and students attempt to learn within political, cultural, environmental and social contexts, negotiating institutional and economic limitations/factors (including capitalism). That’s the praxis. I’m interested in those spaces. It’s a frustrating space but also hopeful. The whole time I worked with teachers in Vancouver, they were on strike. They would get locked out of their buildings and have no time to prep, but they focused on teaching and doing the work they cared about. This is a messy and difficult time, but that commitment was really inspiring. Despite all the problems, teachers still find a way to teach, still find a way to connect to their students.
AM: Tell me more about the kind of pedagogical process that you are advocating.
CAM: I worked with one class every Wednesday for the full day. This was at a Montessori school, which takes a very multi-disciplinary approach. Each week we would start the day by talking about an environmental artist and then work outwards from the issues raised by the artwork to talking about the students’ own experiences, and then to performing a science/art experiment. Sometimes we were troubling the scientific method, by running experiments that were artistic but could be scientific. And then at the end of the day they would write about it, which was really good because we learned that the students write so much better when they are writing about something that they actually experienced.
As an example, the first project we did was we went to the VanDusen Botanical Gardens in Vancouver, BC which at the time was hosting a sculpture exhibit of 5 or 6 different artists. There was one called the Little Green Dress Projekt by Nicole Dextras, in which the artist was making dresses out of natural materials, one per week. She would make one and put it in the garden, then make another and put it in the garden and they were all using local materials and all tailored to a specific person. Because they are made a week apart you could see the deterioration/decomposition they underwent as they sat in the garden. For the students, that was something tangible that they could connect to. It was an opportunity to learn about earth cycles, material cycles, consumption and production. Once back at school we had the students make their own earth art on the school grounds. This involved us teaching them that they were making something impermanent that could be destroyed. It involved thinking ethically and acknowledging that they don’t own the creation but are putting something out into the world. And the neat thing was that for a couple of months after that, other students in the school would come out at recess and make their own earth art. It rippled out, it grew.
AM: It sounds like art is a central part of your approach to environmental education. Why?
CAM: My background is in art so it was a logical starting point, and I think I didn’t even realize what I was trying to do with ecological art until about halfway through the project. I was trying to get the students to think about things in a complex, messy way. I want them to be able to move between disciplines. Going back to Jim’s dog, I wanted them to be able to see all the different sides of something at once, which I think art enables. I think the use of art has huge potential in disrupting scientific practices of representation (the “one true story” ).
AM: “Why do you think we need to disrupt scientific practices of representation? Why is that important for education in general and environmental education in particular?”
CAM: The main challenge that I was trying to get at in thinking about how we teach environmental education, and which is also applicable to teaching about non-Western cultures and epistemologies, was that we are always teaching about. I don’t want to teach about nature, about non-Western ways of knowing and being. That reifies the nature/culture binary. I want to find space to engage with nature as a living co-evolving relation. I don’t want to teach about ecology as a system that is external to us (i.e. humans) but as something we are collectively a part of. Because that’s how I learned: by following different lizards around; by noticing patterns and learning from everything. It requires getting off our high (humanist) horse and learning with and from the world around us. I took away the importance of “epistemological humility” from Rosi Brandotti (2006)—acknowledging that we can’t know everything, there are limits to what we as humans can do and understand. Most of the time I don’t think I know anything, I am in awe of others, particularly the creativity and generativity of the world. But it’s not about knowing, and that’s not what I want my students to get out of it. I want students to learn patterns of doing and relating. Think about what is knowing. Elizabeth Ellsworth (2005) is another theorist I use a lot and she talks about how once you know something and grasp it—use it as a thing made, traded and taught—it is dead. It is in the past, it becomes a decomposed byproduct of what it was when it was a thing-in-the-making.
Thinking ecologically requires not only learning patterns but being attentive to practices of organization, boundary creation, and policing practices. For example, reductionism is not necessarily / inherently bad, its just one system which may be useful for some situations/problems. Issues arise (that have cumulated into what is now being called the Anthropocene) when a single system of thought becomes the only system. It’s all about understanding that there are (and needs to be) multiple ways of thinking and doing something. We need to make cuts (as Katherine Hayles (1995) would describe) between subject and object to define systems, in order to relate and understand them, but then we need to allow mental movements between models and acknowledge what is being cut out and why. Of course we need to do science, but we need to be ethical and aware. Acknowledge and taking responsibility for the decisions (the cuts) we are making and why.
I think the best book chapter that has come out dealing with New Materialism (or feminist social science) and New Empiricism was by Elisabeth St Pierre (2016). I really enjoyed it because it mirrors my own experience. She explains that, once you start dealing with ecological thought, its like opening this can of worms, and you realize you need to do research into the philosophy of science which has shaped so much of our thinking. I need to understand the epistemological underpinnings of what it is that I’m arguing against. In the educational field they don’t teach the philosophy of science, but you need to know it well enough to critique it.
AM: We have talked about what the pedagogical model you brought into the school with you, but what did you bring out? How did the students inform your ideas on environmental education?
CAM: I learned, from observing and interacting with the students, how schooling affects our thinking. A lot of the students didn’t think in a simple, linear and rational way. These kids have not yet been schooled out of thinking certain ways because they haven’t been put through certain types of standardized practices (i.e. test and test preparation). They can still think other ways and otherwise.
Which was hopeful and fun.
AM: Have you experienced pushback in the approaches that you advocate?
CAM: One of the teachers was really uncomfortable with art projects because she wasn’t comfortable with the mess and lack of structure. Particularly around what the students produced, there was always a wide variation in the students’ artistic pieces (some which may be considered “bad”), but the students don’t actually care … it’s the creative process that gave them joy, not whether they produced what they were “suppose to.” By the end of the school year the teacher was totally fine with chaos in the classroom and trusted in the process. I’ve also worked in environmental education in the context of gardens and seen teachers not want to take their kids into a garden because they don’t know how to garden. There is an idea that as the teacher we should be the “expert” (this is also true in academia) and you think you should know everything, so you don’t venture into unfamiliar areas. Sometimes your students know more than you do and that’s okay. If you can step back and handle not being the expert, it becomes a better teaching environment.
Another pushback is that incorporating environmental education activities takes extra time and extra money. It takes creative problem solving by the school and the teachers. There were economic and political issues around where funding was allocated—i.e. new technology versus arts or the environment. We had to do a significant amount of fundraising to make these activities happen.
And lastly, how do you teach the Anthropocene? What are the ethics? Think about the struggle to get evolution in school textbooks. How do you teach something to students who may not be ready to have their own opinions, because they are hearing something different from their parents, or in the media, or from friends? That was a big learning of this process: education is political and it is manipulated by the political parties in power. Of course, it has always been manipulated by politics. Kennedy was the first one to realize that tapping into the education system was a powerful political move. And then think of Nixon’s “Back to the Basics” and Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” which did so much damage by focusing on outcomes via standardized testing. I’m scared to see what could be done under the next administration.
AM: What’s next? How is your PhD research going to build upon or diverge from this project?
CAM: Leaving this project and moving into my PhD, I want to dig deeper into the messiness of what happens within the educational process(es). I want to think through/with/about education more broadly—we never stop learning and educating.
I’m interested in working within complex educational sites where research is being taught and done. The Seymour Marine Discovery Center in Santa Cruz is a great example. It’s a multi-species site with scientists and all different marine life learning together. There are graduate students learning how to do research, school groups coming to learn, the public learning through exhibits. Science research is being translated in multiple ways through processes of transduction from the microscopic to the meta/universal. I’m interest in thinking about how things get transcribed between different modes of thinking, modes of pedagogy, and modes of practice.
Specifically, I’m interested in doing something around the UC Santa Cruz Satellite Reef. How do people react to it? How is it being integrated into the Seymour Center and the educational programs they deliver? Is it getting people to pause and think? Is it disruptive? What narratives is the Coral Reef allowing and not allowing? With anything, there are narratives that monopolize (for instance with the Anthropocene we talk about climate change, waste, pollution, and the bleaching of coral reefs). What other narratives are being allowed via this art project? Once the project is installed I’d love to do focus groups with the volunteer educators at the Center to learn how they are teaching with it and what kind of feedback they get.
And then I also want to bring in SF. I want to write around and through the intersections of feminist sci-fi and feminist social science. For my methodology in this book I assembled Ursula Le Guin’s Carrier Bag of Fiction (1989), Haraway’s Carrier Bag Theory of Storytelling (2016) used the play, The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe, the main character of which is a schizophrenic bag lady who talks to aliens (with a nod to Haraway and Ursula LeGuin). It was so fun once I found it. It playfully but seriously engages scientific ideas. I’ve also been working collaboratively and generatively with a curriculum scholar in Australia, Dr. Noel Gough who has been exploring the potential of SF in science education for many years.
We are interested in exploring SF “thought experiments” which feminist science fiction writers have been doing for years, and are now being similarly explored in feminist science studies (as we push the boundaries of the Western metaphysics). For example, we (Dr. Gough and I) recently co-wrote an article titled “It Takes More than Two to (Multispecies) Tango: Queering Gender Texts in Environmental Education” (2017) which has just been published in a special issues of the Journal of Environmental Education, in which we play with Naomi Mitchison (1962) Memoires of a Space Woman. The main character in the novel is a woman who travels to other planets learning to communicate with the species she encounters, and she starts realizing that by learning to communicate with them she starts understanding how they think. One example is when she starts communicating with an exoderm (a star fish-like being) and realizes that they have a five logic system rather than a two logic system, which then I compared to Karen Barad’s essay in Queering the Non/Human (2008) in which she explores the visual system of exoderms, which is dispersed over their entire body. Barad utilizes this visualizing system to break down the ontological/epistemological divide, challenging the geometry and optics of separation by exploring a dispersed viewing apparatus. How can we use sci-fi in education to be more speculative, creative and playful? So much of the (feminist social) science coming out of UCSC is brilliant, but how is that being translated into pedagogy here? I’d love to teach a speculative evolution class that brings together science and arts students. Students would come up with a speculative creature while they are learning the history and theory of evolution. What would emerge through these different modes of creation and speculation in relation to the science being taught?
CAM: I think the Center is attempting to create what Rosi Brandotti calls a “collective revival of agency.” That is, trying to find the stories and practices that allow us to gather people with different ideas, beliefs, epistemologies, and ontologies to collectively create a livable future. Not a utopia … but a fluid, evolving, exciting future full of im/possibilities. Tj Demos talks about “creative ecologies of practice” that will allow us to creatively work together—practices of living and making refuge. For me, it’s about making refuge spaces to allow people to think otherwise within academia, and I think you do this through experimental and artistic practices. The project in the book is an example. I am trying to build spaces that give people a way, intellectually and creatively, to actually make a difference in the world.
Adsit-Morris, Chessa A. 2017. Restorying Environmental Education: Figurations, Fictions, Feral Subjectivity. Gewerbestrasse, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.
Adsit-Morris, Chessa A, and Noel Gough. 2017. "It Takes More than Two to (Multispecies) Tango: Queering Gender Texts in Environmental Education." The Journal Of Environmental Education 48 (1):67-78. doi: 10.1080/00958964.2016.1249330.
Braidotti, Rosi. 2006. Transpositions: On Nomadic Ethics. Cambridge, UK; Malden, MA: Polity Press.
Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. 1987. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Ellsworth, Elizabeth A. 2005. Places of Learning: Media, Architecture, Pedagogy. New York, NY: Routledge.
Haraway, Donna J. 2008. When Species Meet. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Hayles, Katherine N. 1995. "Making the Cut: The Interplay of Narrative and System, or What Systems Theory Can’t See." Cultural Critique 30 (30):71-100. doi: 10.2307/1354433.
Le Guin, Ursula K. 1989. Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places. First edition. ed. New York, NY: Grove Press.
Mitchison, Naomi. 1962. Memoirs of a Spacewoman. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd.
Pinar, William F. 2015. Educational Experience as Lived: Knowledge, History, Alterity: The Selected Works of William F. Pinar. New York, NY: Routledge.
St. Pierre, Elizabeth, Alecia Y. Jackson, and Lisa A. Mazzei. 2016. "New Empiricisms and New Materialisms: Conditions for New Inquiry." Cultural Studies ↔ Critical Methodologies 16 (2):99-110. doi: 10.1177/1532708616638694.