Faculty Spotlight: Alyssa Paredes

Assistant Professor of Anthropology

Spotlight on ANTHRCUL 256: Culture, Adaptation, and Environment and the Environmental Wayfarer Project

We engage in transnational relationships every day, usually without more than a passing thought about the global supply chains that structure our lives and lifestyles. Professor Alyssa Paredes dedicates her research to studying these relationships through immersive fieldwork on the supply chains in plantation crops. After finishing her undergraduate degree in Anthropology, Paredes was a Fulbright Scholar in Japan and an employee in logistics at a Japanese multinational tea corporation in New York City. These experiences led her to reflect upon her role within the industry: “I became totally fascinated by the transnational relationship between producers and consumers, and how they manifested in everyday transactions. It dawned on me that while I was in every sense a middleman and perfectly situated between consumers and producers, I knew so very little about them,” she recalls. Prompted by these observations, Paredes pursued her PhD in Anthropology at Yale University. Since she grew up in Manila, she designed a project between the Philippines and Japan, hoping to continue exploring the paradoxes of global connection and disconnection. Like most projects in anthropology, her work is multifaceted and draws links across the fields of environmental anthropology, economic anthropology, legal anthropology, science and technology studies, and critical food studies. In particular, she investigates “various kinds of externalities that manifest in industrial agriculture,” including chemical drift, food waste, water effluent, and virulent pathogens, all of which led her to questions of ecological sustainability. At the University of Michigan, where she has served as an LSA Collegiate Fellow starting in 2020 and as Assistant Professor from 2022 onwards, she brings many of these experiences to bear in her teaching. 

Paredes inherited ANTHRCUL 256: Culture, Adaptation, and Environment from Professors Stuart Kirsh and Rebecca Hardin, who first offered it some 15 years ago. Since Fall 2022, she has taught it as an introductory class on what it means to think about environmentalism through an intersectional lens. In her words, ANTHRCUl 256 is “an exploration of how environmental ideals like environmental justice, biodiversity, sustainability, and conservation – ideas that we valorize and romanticize at times – are deeply shaped by cultural notions of race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, class, disability, and nativism.” Much of the work done in the class is inspired by Paredes’ observations that many students at Michigan can be passionate about sustainability, but also anxious that “what [they] do might not be enough, or that it might be culturally inappropriate or ethically problematic.” She views ANTHRCUL 256 as a platform for transforming feelings of eco-anxiety and guilt into “critiques of environmentalism that build a better environmentalism.” 

No aspect of the class better captures this core value than the “Environmental Wayfarer Project,” a semester-long project that Paredes designed to help students approach environmental problem-solving critically and collaboratively. The project prompts students to identify an environmental problem impacting the university and the greater Ann Arbor community and to follow a five-step process to discover a meaningful response to it. Given that “it’s unreasonable to expect any solution to be perfect for it to be meaningful,” Paredes incorporates insight from environmental anthropology by defining a “meaningful response” as possessing two attributes: first, it acknowledges that the very act of identifying an environmental “problem” can include the concerns of some groups while excluding those of others; second, it addresses multiple scales of the problem, noting how a proposed solution might be locally effective but globally ineffective, or vice-versa. 

To guide students through thinking about the often unfamiliar ideas of exclusions and scales, Paredes structured the project into five parts. First, groups of four to five students designed a “group contract,” in which they tackled many of the logistical issues with group work by establishing contact methods, scheduling meetings, and discussing their individual strengths. Part Two asked students to write a short essay about an environmental issue they care about on campus. Next, each group wrote a longer essay about inclusions and exclusions, answering the key questions, “Who is included at the table when that problem is defined? Whose concerns are excluded in the definition of that problem?” For Part Four, on scales, students reflected on the following prompts: “How do you see this problem as it manifests in the University of Michigan? How is it connected to different parts of the world? How is it responding to laws and regulations that are designed outside the bounds of the city?” Stepping up to the challenge of addressing these difficult questions, they used tools like Miro and ArcGIS to visualize their answers and illustrate the connections across them. Finally, pulling together their conclusions about inclusions, exclusions, and scale from Parts Three and Four, the groups were asked to identify a meaningful environmental solution from anywhere in the world. In what Paredes calls “the highlight of the semester,” students presented their findings to their classmates, demonstrating their subject matter expertise on a myriad of environmental issues affecting the University of Michigan developed over 14 weeks of research. 

Some of the most rewarding aspects of the Environmental Wayfarer Project had to do with what students gained not only academically, but also socially. Because members of the class were randomly assigned to groups, they were pushed out of their comfort zones and challenged to build new relationships with people they might not have otherwise never interacted with. Paredes reflected that one of the main pieces of feedback she received was that “students were initially very anxious about group work,” but “actually came to appreciate the importance of working collectively in tackling an environmental problem.” Similarly, she expressed that there is no greater reward than when students come away from the project feeling like they had made a “real friend,” as some shared. She believes that reflections like these – that collective action is key to environmental progress – may contain the antidote to eco-anxiety and feelings of isolation and individual responsibility over issues like climate change.

When reflecting on her research and teaching experience, Paredes has several pieces of advice for other instructors teaching about environmental topics. First, she encourages her colleagues to open their minds to the idea that “things that work” – environmental solutions that have been meaningful for local communities – are equally intellectually fascinating as things that don’t. Additionally, in her words, “If you’re going to pull the rug from underneath your students’ feet, you have to put something else back there. Give them something else to stand on.” In her final reflection, she offered the following words for other instructors: “We’re all invested in raising a generation that knows how to think critically. But when we do that, there’s always the non-negligible risk of encouraging cynicism and apathy. So how do we teach students to be critical, but not cynical?” She sees ANTHRCUL 256, as well as the Environmental Wayfarer Project, as important avenues for making those first few steps.  

As a part of the Year of Sustainability, we are interested in sharing, uplifting, and highlighting stories about the people who make up LSA and have experience teaching about sustainability. We sat down with a series of LSA faculty to discuss their background and courses and will feature these conversations in our Faculty Spotlight series.

To contact the LSA Year of Sustainability Team, please contact sustainable-lsa@umich.edu

By Lauren May

Lauren is the Year of Sustainability Intern for U-M College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.