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Rehumanizing Higher Education With Emily Alicia Affolter, PhD

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The education system is designed to shape knowledgeable, responsible, and well-rounded individuals. However, higher education is currently suffering from various problems that unfortunately lead to discrimination, stereotyping, and unfair culture. Corinna Bellizzi chats with Dr. Emily Alicia Affolter, who is on a mission to bring back the human aspect of higher education. They discuss how to dismantle the destructive supremacy culture and bring a pedagogy of love to school curriculums. Dr. Emily also presents their sustainable related PhD programs that practice emergent strategies to allow learners to take on divergent career paths.

 

About Dr. Emily Alicia Affolter

Care More Be Better | Dr. Emily Alicia Affolter | Higher EducationDr. Emily Alicia Affolter (she/ella/they) is the director of and faculty for Prescott College’s Sustainability Education Ph.D. Program. Prior to this role, she worked as a Senior Research Scientist and Equity Consultant at the University of Washington’s Center for Evaluation & Research for STEM Equity. She earned her Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction with a focus on Multicultural Education from the UW working alongside Dr. Geneva Gay, founder of culturally responsive teaching. Emily’s current scholarship, dissemination, and facilitation highlight culturally responsive and sustaining pedagogies for teachers, faculty, and leaders in K-16 settings and STEM higher education utilizing an equity literacy frame, supported by the National Science Foundation largely. Additionally, Emily’s latest teaching centers on decolonizing research, equitable research methodologies, and liberatory organizational change methods.

 

Guest LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/emily-affolter-776722a/

Additional Resources Mentioned: https://prescott.edu/area-of-study/sustainability-education-phd/

 

Show Notes: – Raw Video

  • Looking Back – 04:14
  • Pedagogy Of Love – 08:10
  • Supremacy Culture – 19:42
  • Curriculum Shifts – 27:01
  • Power Class And Imposter Syndrome – 33:41
  • PhD Program – 44:06
  • Child-Like Side – 51:06
  • Closing Words – 52:49

 

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Rehumanizing Higher Education With Emily Alicia Affolter, PhD

For all of you who have been wondering what more you can do to create a more sustainable regenerative future in which we can all thrive, I invite you to open yourself to read with an engaged mind and curiosity, and ultimately be ready to get your notebook out and take notes as I interview Dr. Emily Alicia Affolter. I ventured a guess that we’ll all be doing that.

Dr. Emily Affolter is the Director of and faculty for Prescott College’s Sustainability Education PhD Program. Prior to this role, she worked as a Senior Research Scientist and Equity Consultant at the University of Washington’s Center for Evaluation & Research for STEM Equity. She earned her PhD in Curriculum and Instruction with a focus on multicultural education from the UW, working alongside Dr. Geneva Gay, founder of culturally responsive teaching.

Supported by the National Science Foundation, Emily’s focus is to highlight culturally responsive and sustaining pedagogies for teachers, faculty, and leaders in K-16 settings and STEM higher education utilizing an equity literacy frame. Her latest teachings center on decolonizing research, equitable research methodologies, and liberatory organizational change methods.

Dr. Emily, welcome to the show.

Thank you so much. I really appreciate your kind words.

Looking Back

It’s amazing to have the opportunity to connect, especially as I’m someone who has always dreamed of one day becoming a PhD. Let’s talk for a moment about what has inspired you on your educational journey and what really led you to this moment.

A lot of us know intrinsically that what we know is true. When I was teaching with a bachelor’s degree, I was teaching Spanish at a Waldorf school. I enjoyed it, but I had a lot of questions about, “Is this equitable? Might there be a way to do this differently? Who is being disenfranchised by this curriculum? Who is being lifted up by this?”

While I was looking for answers, I felt in my gut I knew, but I needed to investigate that further to really understand, “Is my gut telling me what many other people are thinking as well? If so, how can I share that and build a larger community of thinkers, educators, and learners that are having these conversations with similar language?” I wanted to investigate my gut.

As you’ve continued on your adventures in the field of education leading a program at Prescott College, how do you feel like your prior education journey has prepared you for this?

I believe that we all are constantly obtaining knowledge through formal and informal experiences wherever we go. In the world of education, we call that funds of knowledge. Every individual has this plethora of knowledge. We like to pluralize that because it’s complex and it’s more than one singular type of knowledge.

Especially if we have a practice that’s reflective, we call that reflexivity, which is we’re reflective. As we reflect, then we’re committed to acting differently with respect to what we’ve learned from our reflection. If we have a reflexive practice, I believe that everything that we do is going to inform where we are.

If we have a reflexive practice, everything we do will inform where we are today.

The PhD itself, there were so many things I loved about being at a large institution at the University of Washington. I had an incredibly supportive and brilliant advisor. If you haven’t heard of her, Dr. Geneva Gay is truly an icon. She founded culturally responsive teaching. Her work in the field of multicultural anti-racist pedagogy is incredibly important and prolific. She did wonders for me.

The most meaningful part of our relationship was that she saw me as a whole person. She didn’t see me as a vessel to be filled with the knowledge that she had. Rather, it was a very reciprocal relationship in which we were personally connected. We saw each other in all of our dimensionality. She was committed to supporting me and guiding me through a longitudinal, arduous process. I bring not just her, but I want to holler at all of the people and thinkers that I know, friends, family, and ancestors who have supported me to where I am. A lot of what I believe is that we have to think in a collective way. I am here because of all those who came before me who supported this path, and I try to pay it forward.

Pedagogy Of Love

I love that concept. When we initially spoke, you talked about how things were a little different at Prescott. You said you were rehumanizing a pedagogy of love. I found that that phrase stood out to me when we were initially conversing. I’d love for you to describe it in your own words. I also think that the lay public doesn’t necessarily hear the word pedagogy often. It’s important that we understand what we’re talking about, define the problem, and then define how the solution could be different as well.

We think about pedagogy in the educational world as the content and the methods of our teaching practice. What you teach and how you teach it are your pedagogy. When we talk about rehumanizing pedagogy, we’re thinking about how much of our academic and educational systems make us feel like we’re small silos of ourselves. We’re trying really hard to amplify small parts of ourselves while cutting off many other parts.

One of the problems is that the factors that we’re trying to elevate in terms of the dominant educational norms tend to advantage folks with more proximity to power. You can see those of us who have more proximity to power based on our embodied experience or some of the world that we inherited, we might have an easier time with your average pedagogy.

What we’re trying to do at Prescott College is say, “It’s interesting how many people feel dehumanized, marginalized, and invisibilized by this educational endeavor. How can we make that right? How can we completely change it up?” I’ll give you some examples. We talk in our curriculum about windows and mirrors. We would expect everyone who is teaching in our program to not only experience mirror reflections of themself in the curricula to relate to what they’re reading about or what they’re watching in the curricula but also to look beyond themselves. Those are the windows.

Oftentimes, our students of color or our queer and trans students are not seeing themselves reflected proportionally in the curricula as students that have more dominant racialized, sexuality, ability status, and other identities. One of the things we try to do in rehumanizing is windows and mirrors that are more proportional and leaning towards minoritization, like folks with minoritized identities who want to amplify those. They want to amplify the way people see themselves with those identities so that they can feel that they have that dignity and humanity that so many students with more privileged identities implicitly feel by how definite curriculum is reflected.

I want to interject here for a moment because this is part of what attracted me initially to the University of California at Santa Cruz for my undergrad work. At the age at which I went to UCSC, most of our courses would provide a written evaluation of your work as opposed to a grade. That has since been retired. In fact, I don’t even know if they even issue evaluations any longer.

There were some cases in which it was very confusing when I had a particularly tough instructor who didn’t like to give positive feedback. It didn’t matter how well you did in the quest. Your evaluation read like a criticism. There’s the good and the bad of that style of course leadership, but for the most part, what it enabled a student to do was really identify where their strengths were and where their weaknesses were. There was more depth to the information that the instructor provided you with. It also forced the school to have smaller class sizes because there was that integrated relationship between you and the teacher.

In this world, within the UC system, that has gone the way of the dodo. At the time I was there, I could take courses for a grade. There was some chatter within the university saying that students were having a hard time getting into graduate programs because of the fact that they didn’t have a letter grade equivalent GPA the same way that they might need one to get into some of these leading schools.

It became doubly important for me to achieve honors in the major, which I was able to do. However, it may have left some students a little behind the eight ball if they were on an academic track. I’m really curious to see if your institution, in a way, is working to help people feel less like a number by having some of these similar constructs in place so that there’s more feedback or how it would look different.

100%. First of all, I want to say I relate so much to what you’re saying. You’re constantly toggling when you work in a colonial patriarchal system, like any higher educational system in the United States, any that I know of. There are the values-oriented reasons why you would wish to have a narrative evaluation, and then you’re contending that with the vocational limitations that someone might be up against. If they don’t have grades, are they going to be treated fairly in the hiring process or in the next stage of their academic career? We then look at compounding minoritization. If they aren’t harboring many dominant identities, how much more of a disadvantage could a narrative evaluation be for them?

Most of the time, qualitative feedback is going to be much more meaningful than quantitative for our students. For a long time, Prescott College did narrative assessments as well, and we moved away from it. I was part of that conversation years ago for the very reason of, “Can you get veterans tuition exemption if you have a narrative evaluation?” A lot of the time, it’s no, in my experience, and different ways in which created barriers for students pragmatically.

Care More Be Better | Dr. Emily Alicia Affolter | Higher Education
Higher Education: Most of the time, qualitative feedback is much more meaningful than quantitative approaches for students.

 

I’m glad you brought up assessment because assessment is such an important conversation when we think about pedagogies of love and when we think about culturally responsive pedagogy. What the data say in culturally responsive pedagogy is that we need to rethink assessment. We’re leaning so much less on summative assessment, which would be a final project, a test, a quiz, or something that is a singular summation of learning versus formative assessment, which is the process piece of learning.

We have so de-emphasized in higher ed process learning that. Unfortunately, the system is grit. These summative assessments tend to advantage some while disadvantageing others and, at the end of the day, can stymie and impede learning. In my classes, I’ve reorganized the grading schema so that the majority of any student grade is what we call formative. That means, are you showing up? To what extent are you showing up? I’m so much more interested in engagement than I am in some summative piece.

The other reality is if we bring an equity frame to it, everyone is coming in with a different set of tools for any situation. In a short term, if you say you’re grading everyone equally but they come in and 1 person has a JD and EDD and has written 10 books, and 1 person is like, “I want to learn to write,” is it really appropriate to evaluate them in the same way? We’re about dexterity in our evaluation so we can support each student’s individual progression towards their goals.

When people engage, they tend to learn more. If you’re incentivizing the engagement, that makes a lot of sense because what they will cumulatively learn and the process of being in the course will be greater if they’ve remained engaged. If it feels like nothing you do will be enough, then I don’t think that you’re going to get the same impact from that course. You might even eek by to get the C or equivalent to that to check that box and have succeeded in the class, right?

Absolutely. It’s a fear-based effort as opposed to an inquiry-based effort. What you’re saying too makes me think about self-trust. I feel and believe that our educational systems compromise our own ability to trust ourselves and to allow ourselves to measure expectations, imagine goals, and push ourselves. There is a false binary all over the place with respect to people who we perceive to know more, experts, and ourselves in different settings. It’s very contextual. This is an exercise that, at the end of the day, who is this for? Whose opinion matters? Ultimately and ideally, it would be our own.

Supremacy Culture

Through this early phase in our discussion, you’ve demonstrated that you care a lot about unpacking how supremacy culture shows up in our work lives, our educational lives, and our life lives. Let’s talk about this part of our culture. Where has it gotten us? Where has it gone wrong? How do you propose that we work to dismantle it to create something new and potentially better?

I like to think of it as if you think of systems of oppression or systems of domination as the water in which we swim. A lot of the work, for me, is practicing seeing it. In the work that I do, it’s also recognizing that stories are part of systems. Any anecdote to me in any experience, I’m panning in my mind to imagine, “How is this anecdote reflective of these larger systems of power?”

First of all, it’s a lifelong constant process. Supremacy systems are so pervasive that    they’re always up in our minds, our bodies, and ourselves. We have to work actively and continuously for the long haul forever in order to continue to recognize them and unlearn them. I would think of it akin to plaque removal. The plaque is going to keep on building because we’re bombarded with all of these messages of what is good, what is bad, what is moral, and what is immoral. They’re encoded with values that minoritize folks and harm folks. They harm all of us.

Colonization is one way of looking at it. You can always pick a frame. You can pick a point of reference to see what is the historical context for this particular issue. I encourage people to have a critical historical understanding of their field so they can do some work to see, “What were the origins of my field or my town? What are the Indigenous stories of the place where I live? What’s historical and current future-oriented? How can I understand the impacts of colonization relative to that history and future?”

I don’t know if there’s a singular way to discuss supremacy except that it is pervasive. My big question to myself and anyone with whom I’m working, particularly folks of settler ancestry who are White identifying, which I am, is how might I be in collusion with systems of supremacy without knowing it or meaning to be? It’s not optional. We’re in these systems. We exist in them. We’re swimming in them. How do we start to check ourselves like, “How might I be colluding or complicit with a system that might benefit some and marginalize others? What steps can I take to dismantle that?” The answers are infinite but also very contextual.

If I’m looking at my pedagogy or I’m looking at my class, one of the things you were talking about is feedback and evaluation. With good equity hygiene, one of the things that we want to do, especially when we embody or hold a position of power, is solicit continuous feedback from the folks who are receiving services from us. Not only do we want to solicit continuous feedback, which you can make anonymous or the option to anonymize it, but we also want to have an accountability mechanism in place so that if people are giving us feedback, they know that we’re accountable to making changes based on that feedback.

That’s a mechanism in my classes. I try to have weekly feedback opportunities for students. I teach a class on culturally responsive teaching. We had a bunch of work on White supremacy culture and White privilege. One of my students of color was like, “I don’t want to read about White supremacy. I’m done. I want to read about my BIPOC folks. I want to read about Black futures or something like that.” I was able to say, “Thank you. What a great point.”

I’m letting everyone know, “This is the feedback that came in. These are all the readings and podcasts that we have added to this week. Anybody who opts can opt into those instead.” Maybe one of the ways of unlearning is humility and this commitment to accountability to make a change based on a solicitation of continuous feedback.

Frankly, it’s hard to take feedback and change courses every session. I noticed this even as I went to Santa Clara University for my MBA. I graduated in 2021, so not too long ago. I found that some of the course material was pretty outdated, specifically about things like social media and digital advertising because those particular areas of expertise change so rapidly. Google Ads themselves have something like 15,000 minor updates over the course of a year, so it looks different as a platform by the end of one year than it looked at the beginning of that year. Even the functionality of how you would see the data shifts dramatically in that time.

In the case of my course in social media, as one example, I had to give feedback to the professor that some of what they were teaching was so outdated that it could get people in trouble if they were trying to implement some of those strategies and, in particular, could get a store on Amazon shut down. It’s hard specifically in academics because going back and changing the curriculum on a routine basis can be challenging, to say simply.

Curriculum Shifts

The course director or the professor who has the freedom to make these minor changes along the way to make it more relevant to the present time is really critical, especially if you’re trying to build leaders of tomorrow. The rate at which we’re learning and the rate at which technology is forcing change, too, is so very rapid. I applaud the effort. I do also hear criticism on the other side of that saying, “If you’re constantly shifting what the course is using as its seed curriculum, how are you keeping it in some quantifiable measure? Is it still going to be hefty in the content or as deep?” I wonder if you have a perspective on that.

We have our learning outcomes and course descriptions. You have to go through a pretty rigorous revision process if you’re going to change those within that container. However, the approach and the methods can and must be nimble and responsive to the needs, purposes, and goals of the people in the room. You have your learning objectives. I have folks create what we call a pedagogical model. It’s a theory of change of how they would, because it’s a transdisciplinary approach, apply culturally responsive teaching in their sector. In the way that you would go about that, there are so many ways.

Care More Be Better | Dr. Emily Alicia Affolter | Higher Education
Higher Education: Educational approaches and methods must be nimble and responsive to the needs, purposes, and goals of students within the room.

 

I love to have a menu of readings. I love to have 6 readings, 3 podcasts, and 2 TED Talks and give people space to self-select. All of these readings could help you achieve this learning objective. What I want is for it to be relevant to the folks in the room. If it’s not, what am I doing? I think of that for any of us as educators. In our program, we ask our students who are really phenomenal, “Why are you here? What are your goals? What’s your purpose? How can we support you in achieving that purpose?” We don’t want to deviate or distract from this intrinsic knowing that they come in with, so we do try to honor that. You’re right. There are some parameters that we have to be honoring.

I think of my earlier college days. I graduated in ‘98 as a Santa Cruz Slug with anthropology honors in the major focused on archeology, primatology evolution, and things along those lines. I got to tell you. The readers, which were full of articles that you had to get printed and bound at the Bay Tree Bookstore and things along those lines, were extensive.

In graduate school at Santa Clara, it was the same, but more of these came through electronically, so I could read the PDF and print it at home or something along those lines. I understand that in leading this particular set of courses and the PhD program in sustainability education, you’ve got a little bit of liberty to shift how things are done. What do you think you’re doing really right, and what could we learn from that, even from the outside?

First of all, there’s a lot of hubris in academia. When I think about those, I remember those readers. It’s like, “For who is this reader?” I have a really phenomenal team of faculty, and we work in a highly collaborative fashion. We’re working on a book project together that is looking at how higher education can be harmful to a lot of folks. It is for many people who are either in PhD programs or who have graduated with PhDs to understand what didn’t work for you, what might have been dehumanizing in the process, what did work for you, and what your hacks are. We’re actively collecting data on it.

What we want to do is create an offering, and we are doing it. We have a publisher. It is an offering that helps people understand based on so much lived experience what’s not working, which is this feeling like you’re a number, this feeling like you have no authorship in the trajectory of your research, this feeling like there is one way of demonstrating success, or this feeling like you’re not a writer. All these things and these barriers, people experience in the form of imposter syndrome. We want to melt them away.

Some of the things we’re doing are actively researching this topic and having conversations with people so we can think together about antidotes, building all of our curricula in ways that are at the center, and honoring the unique purpose of the students that come in. We are more interested in, if you were a student, who you are and what it is that you wish to achieve. How can we take this space to refine and deepen that through these theoretical or practical lenses?

We’re very student-centric. We’re relational. You talked about course ratios. We really care about our individual students. We want them to have continuous feedback as well. We’re not going to quantify our students as little as we can quantify our students as possible because we’re here to go shoulder to shoulder with them, cheer them on, and give them any tools or resources that we or anyone we know have that would amplify their purpose.

We respect their purpose because it aligns with our values of social and environmental justice. We all believe that social and environmental justice are the key values to a regenerative future. We believe that we’re peers in this work. Some of it is how you approach the work, and then the rest is the alchemy and magic of who is in the program. Don’t even get me started because our students are phenomenal.

Social and environmental justice are key values to a regenerative future.

Power Class And Imposter Syndrome

You brought up a couple of things so far in our conversation that we should connect on and deepen. One of them is specifically about how closely connected you are to power class or the power. Another of which is imposter syndrome. I feel like these two ideas are very much connected. I’ve also been a little tired of how much I see people saying, “You can’t or shouldn’t ever feel like an imposter. Go out there and do it. Learn by doing, and somehow, you can even say you’re an expert,” but you’re not yet. There are some limitations here.

This comes through so much in the world of coaching when somebody goes through a course and becomes a coach. They might be 22 years old, lack a lot of lived experience, and not really have intrinsically experienced some of the learnings that they’re putting out into the world. Yet, someone is standing by them, cheerleading them, and saying, “Say no to imposter syndrome. You can do it.”

There’s something to that lived experience. You gain power through that experience. I’m curious to see how you see these things fitting together while also not telling us to be quiet while also not telling us that we can’t speak truth to power. There is incredible value in being willing to speak up. I’ve given you a framework of what I’m thinking about. I love your thoughts.

Thank you. I love your question. Contextuality is something important. The median age of our students in the program is 47. They come in with a minimum of one graduate degree. Oftentimes, more. We want people to disseminate the ideas that they have. We really believe that too few people fear sharing their belief systems. It’s great practice. That’s number one. We need more practice, especially being folks that have less proximity to power.

There’s a lot of data on how important it is for women in higher ed to learn to self-promote. Even self-promotion, there are a lot of people who cringe at that, like, “You’ve got to be humble. You’ve got to, be polite.” Honestly, there’s a lot of data that shows how self-promotion can really advance someone’s status and career. We do want to see more equitable roles in faculty and leadership. That’s one thing.

Imposter syndrome is similar. Imposter syndrome is something that folks with more minoritized identities like folks of color, women, queer, and trans folks would experience to a higher degree. I want to say how important it is that we know that. That’s not anecdotal. If we know that folks with more minoritized identities experience imposter syndrome more, what is the way that we can help challenge that problematic pattern that keeps some voices at the fore and others quiet?

Imposter syndrome is a symptom of a supremacy culture. It’s not like, “I have imposter syndrome.” It’s like, “I’m experiencing a symptom of something that’s going to hit me in certain ways.” To your point, we also have high academic expectations. We really want to cultivate and refine the skills of communication and deep and thorough inquiry. Perfectionism is something that can impede one’s ability to ever allow themselves to express themselves publicly. We want to question if perfectionism is even something that anyone would wish to uphold as something that can harm many.

Imposter syndrome is the symptom of a supremacy culture.

I can’t say I disagree with any of that. With perfectionism, I consider it one of my faults. Let’s put it that way. Perfectionism is the enemy of having fun. If you want to stay in a creative space, it needs to be a little bit fun. If you’re constantly thinking about what needs to be perfect, then you don’t come up with the same creative solutions to the challenges that you’re faced with. It’s something that I personally have to battle in my day-to-day to say, “Is this good enough? If I throw it at the wall, what do I think about it now?”

This is why I love some of the creative thinking and coursework that I had specifically in entrepreneurship at Santa Clara University. I didn’t expect the entrepreneurship classes to be quite as interesting as they were. They were more like thought experiments than they were sitting down and reading books about entrepreneurs. It was like, “What would it take to create the worst restaurant?” You create this fun story about the worst restaurant. It helps you identify what things really matter if you’re going to create the best restaurant experience. You’re erasing all these things that probably irked you at some point in your lived experience about dining out. That one was really fun.

Another was to do exercises like brushing your teeth that day with your opposite hand or even tying your dominant hand behind your back for an hour and trying to do all of your chores around the house that way. It’s to get you thinking about what it would be like to be differently abled and how you would be forced to use your creativity and another part of your body and your mind in order to get through a particular thing. Did I expect to learn this kind of stuff in business school? Not at all. Did we come up with some really interesting ideas? Yes, and it was fun.

You’re making me think how many times I have been in therapy where I think there’s a single answer to a question and then my therapist will be like, “You’re standing in the bottom of a hole. You perceive there’s no back, but you have to turn around.” You’re looking at the wall thinking it’s enveloping you and you turn around. That’s exactly it.

One of the things that we try to do in all ways in this curriculum is recognize binary thinking, that there is a right or a wrong answer. A summative assessment is never enough. Binary thinking is going to reinforce very simple ideals that perpetuate norms that we want to question. How can we begin to look at every question that we have that’s in a binary format and reimagine it to make it plural and conditional? It could even be as simple as, “What is your show about?” It could be something very simple. You would feel like you had to think of a singular response to that. We could say, “What might some of the characteristics of your podcast be?” That simple tweak in the way we ask the question allows you to have infinite answers.

One of the things that we struggle with as a society because we’re so conditioned to think and behave as if binaries existed and there were no other options is that we stopped thinking critically and thinking creatively. That’s one of the biggest unlearning for me. It is constantly reimagining if I believe that there’s a singular answer to this, I have to start again.

Care More Be Better | Dr. Emily Alicia Affolter | Higher Education
Higher Education: We are conditioned as a society to think and behave as if there were no other options than binaries, and that we should stop thinking critically and creatively.

 

This ties to an episode where I interviewed somebody about AI or Artificial Intelligence. One of the reasons that it remains in this genius state is its continual childlike curiosity to learn more, the fact that we encourage it, in a way, even to have hallucinations, and come up with ideas that don’t make sense. Sometimes, it’s throwing stuff at a wall and then coming up with solutions that we might not have otherwise thought about. That can be part of what gets us out of some of our even extractive principles of how we run society.

As we look at something like artificial intelligence, the threats, and the promise that it provides us with, we even need to think about that with a curious mind as opposed to one of judgment and closed thinking. That’s exactly what keeps us with the status quo. Frankly, it’s exactly what Millennials and Zennials are pissed off about. They are upset with Gen X as much as our generation was upset with Boomers.

As people age, they tend to get more closed in their thinking. Suddenly, it becomes, “I’m entering my later years in the workforce. Now, I’m going to be protective of what I have and my fence line and not think about being a part of the whole anymore because my mind, in a way, is allowing itself to shrink as opposed to expanding and integrating with the outer world.”

PhD Program

When you tell me your average-aged student in your school is 47, that’s amazing. It was a lot higher than what I expected you would say. I also really want to understand what somebody could expect from this educational experience. I’m 47. I’ll be 48 in September 2024. If I was to join a PhD program in sustainability education, what does that mean? How is learning this doctoral program going to benefit me, let’s say, as an individual if I seek to go this route, and then how would I apply it after the fact?” Maybe selfishly, I’ll ask you that question.

We ask that to each of our individual students. We ask them, “Why are you here? What might being here do to support your career?” I’m going to give you some broad examples of the kinds of students that we have. Of some of the folks that we graduated, 1 is a high sustainability board consultant at the global level, 1 of them is a dean of a small college, 1 of them is a high school educator, and 1 of them is an indigenous elder from the African continent.

We have all these different folks doing different kinds of work. What they’re going to leave with is going to be somewhat different because their goals are different. Much of it is like, “What is it that you want from this experience? How can we create a vessel for you to deepen and amplify a thing that you wish to know more about?”

The other thing that we do is there’s a real currency to a PhD, and with that is a whole language. We do a significant amount of writing, research training, multiple methodologies, anti-colonial methodologies, critical theory, quantitative, qualitative, and Indigenous statistics. We’re doing a whole range of things. What people leave with is a toolkit that allows them to speak much more deeply with really strong conceptual lenses that can be applied to practice or to action anywhere.

One of the things that we have folks do often is participatory action research so that they can use something they want to do. People are like, “I want to launch a business,” or, “I want to create a consulting curriculum.” We say, “That’s great. Create the curriculum. Base it on a theory that you are interested in, and then pilot it. As you pilot it, you can measure the efficacy of it. As you measure the efficacy of it, you write about implications for change.” All of a sudden, you’re graduating with a PhD and a new business or a new curriculum that you wish to consult with. It’s been tested.

A lot of it is helping people formalize professional pathways that they’re already on. We encourage our students to publish. I’m so proud to see how many of our students are publishing on a monthly basis. One of the students that graduated from our program, one of my advisees in 2023, had 50 million views on one of our articles before graduating. It was integral to her dissertation work. Some of it is practice on strategies for socially engaged public scholarship too.

The last thing that is so amazing that we’re not talking enough about is how impactful it can be to get these global change makers who all care about similar values in the same room and watch the incredible equation of them building something together. With the number of collaborations like partnerships, consulting gigs, publications supporting each other, and grant work, we are seeing so much peer enrichment. I couldn’t even begin to count the number of these that come out of it. That’s an unanticipated impact of having people who care about the same thing in a room who are excited to build.

Is there any program like yours that you’re aware of?

No. There are some sustainability-related PhDs in the UK, but their system, as I understand it, is much more decentralized and one-to-one. You come in and journey on with your dissertation. You know what you want when you come in. For us, we practice Emergent Strategy, shout out to Adrienne Maree Brown, and the notion of how emergence is important to the process. We don’t expect people to have a research question that’s firm when they come in. We hope that it unfurls and that we can all tend to unfurl together.

It sounds like what I’ve experienced even in undergrad when you say, “I’m coming into a university. I don’t have an exact major that fits what the curriculum the school is offering, so I’m going to work with the head of this department and create something of an independent study program to create the degree.” When you describe what you’re doing, it feels like it’s part of that, but you’re putting a framework around it so it becomes a PhD in sustainability education but catered to the individual journey of the person and their skills as they’re coming in. Would that be the quickest way to sum it up?

Absolutely. We oriented some new students. One of them is a paleoclimatologist. One of them is a classical musician. One of them is an artist with an MFA in change-making. One of them is a cyber big data analyst. One of them is a sustainability professional in higher ed. You get all these folks together in seemingly really divergent paths, but the great thing is that there’s this simple glue. They are doing their own divergent thing in a way because we honor their purpose, their research question, and their domain. At the same time, there’s so much that can be learned from working in a cross-disciplinary space like that. That’s some of the most exciting work I get to do.

Child-Like Side

I feel like I could talk to you all day. I’d love to invite you back to have a future conversation and dig in a little bit more deeply. I have many more questions I could ask you. I’d like to offer my guests the opportunity to sum up with a closing thought, or if there was a question I hadn’t asked that you wish I had, you could ask and answer that.

Closing Words

My closing thought is I wish for everyone to be able to find almost that childlike part of themselves that is so inquiry based, like almost play-learning-based, that we can still tap into in order to allow those curiosities to bubble up to the surface. Many of us out of fear, hustle cultures, acculturation, and supremacy cultures have de-emphasized curiosity. I hope that we can remember how important that is and how that is what’s going to rehumanize our landscape and make for a more sustainable and regenerative future.

Thank you so much for sharing that. I loved having you as a guest.

Thank you. I love talking to you. You’re such an inquisitive person. It’s a treat to get to know and be here.

Thank you so much for joining me.

We are launching our new Cause Before Commerce site this summer 2024. It’s called simply CircleB.co. This site will host the same content that you find on CareMoreBeBetter.com while also providing helpful tools to help you live a little greener, a little more regeneratively, and a little more socially and locally engaged. You’ll find how-to guides and DIY tools that can help you renew what you have, replace things you buy, and reduce waste.

When it fully launches this summer 2024, it will also offer plastic-free products from housewares and clothing to health-promoting supplements and personal care items, all of which are circular in design, that minimize waste and seek to limit our reliance on plastics. You can explore our landing page. To learn more about this upcoming launch, visit CircleB.co. Thank you, everyone, now and always for being a part of this show and this community because together, we can do so much more. We can care more. We can be better. We can build a society that respects all people and their unique contributions while we preserve this planet. Thank you.

 

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  • Corinna Bellizzi

    Corinna is a natural products industry executive who has earned a reputation for leading the development and growth of responsible brands (e.g. Nordic Naturals, iwi, NutriGold). In her professional life, she champions social benefit programs to enhance company impact while preserving and protecting our home planet. She’s presently working tirelessly on the development of a new pre-market that seeks to achieve a carbon-negative impact. In January 2021 she launched her show, Care More, Be Better: A Social Impact + Sustainability Podcast to amplify the efforts of inspired individuals and conscious companies. Through Care More Be Better, she shares their stories in an effort to show us all that one person with one idea can have a big impact. As part of her lifelong education journey, she earned her MBA from Santa Clara University, graduating at the top of her class with a triple focus in Entrepreneurship, Leadership and Marketing in June 2021.

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