Faculty Spotlight: Virginia Murphy

Lecturer in Program in the Environment and the LSA Residential College

Spotlight on ENVIRON 302: The Environment in an Election Year and RCCORE 334: Environmental Justice: The View From Capitol Hill

Virginia Murphy didn’t begin her academic career with a focus on the environment or sustainability – in fact, she worked as a chef before attending Georgetown University for her graduate degree in English and American Literature. She credits her time as a chef as the source of her ongoing interest in food sovereignty and sustainable food systems, which she channels into her work as the Faculty Director of the Residential College’s East Quad Garden. Her focus on environmental literature developed as she was teaching at American University, where she delved into the tradition of travelogues that characterized much of the early work by writers exploring the West and chronicling their journeys. She noted a “large environmental bent” to this early literature as travelers shared their stories of the Appalachian Mountains and natural beauty with people on the East Coast. When she and her husband moved to Michigan, Murphy decided to hone in on environmental literature in her teaching, along with various topics courses in Program and the Environment and the Residential College based on personal interests.

Two such courses are ENVIRON 302 – The Environment in an Election Year and RCCORE 334 – Environmental Justice: The View from Capitol Hill. Murphy will teach both during the Fall 2024 semester, but she has taught iterations of each in previous years. She recalls teaching The Environment in an Election Year during the fall of 2020, working remotely from Maine. “It was a very different class back then,” she shares, “because the first time I taught it, we learned that during the previous administration, they rolled back over 100 environmental regulations and statutes, shrunk national monuments, and did all sorts of things that have taken three years to be undone.” In her eyes, “the stakes are higher this time,” since both parties’ stances on environmental policy are well-established. She has a similar view of the environmental justice course: she has taught a Residential College course on the topic almost every year, and she will particularly focus on how federal-level policies affect justice this fall.

Murphy developed both courses herself, and while she observed that there weren’t many other courses on social issues and sustainability at the time, she’s glad to see increased interest from students and a growing body of course offerings across departments. Her goal in her teaching is “to collapse that boundary between what we term the real world and academic learning…with a problem-based, experiential pedagogical model.” For her section of ENVIRON 302, she envisions a collaborative, group-based structure for the class, where students explore environmental regulations and implementation on the state and local levels since these smaller scales often determine how well a federal-level policy is executed. “Students will work together in groups and look at what some of the environmental issues are in that particular location, and how the election may help or hurt that issue in that venue,” Murphy explains. For example, she describes how George Hartwell, the former mayor of Grand Rapids, implemented systems to reduce and nearly eliminate untreated discharge entering the Grand Rapids River: “These issues really come down to the municipality.” In both classes, Murphy will respond to what regions and issues students are particularly concerned about, “working on these together, almost as if we’re writing white papers to the local government.” Acknowledging that many students lack the knowledge of how local, state, and federal-level policy works, Murphy plans to begin with a unit on civics, and she will take advantage of virtual technology to interview several Michigan legislators on Capitol Hill. This grounding will “allow students to move forward to look at these problems and understand what is feasible and reasonable to suggest.” 

As her students learn more about these topical issues of current policies and the upcoming election, Murphy also has some core skills that she hopes her students take away from her classes and apply throughout their lives. First, she says, “I would like them to take away the ability to speak to someone who doesn’t share their views on the environment, listen to that person, and understand where they’re coming from.” In our increasingly “tribal” political environment, she sees these conversations and debates as a rare yet important skill to change culture and implement large-scale solutions. Second, in the civics unit and beyond, Murphy wants to underscore the importance of understanding how tax money gets spent on environmental projects. “The Inflation Reduction Act is the largest environmental bill since the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts of the 1970s. So where’s that money going? How will it get spent?” These questions are challenging to answer, and most Americans don’t know how legislation like the IRA is funded. Overall, she wants everyone to “be better-informed citizens about what your state, your city, or your municipality has to do with the issues you care about,” and for her students to do the research to figure out how each candidate’s platforms align with their issues “and how they are likely to proceed once they’re in a legislative capacity.” In this way, the lessons of this course go far beyond academic study to influence how students interact with politics for many elections to come. 

Murphy believes in the power of stories to help her students understand how environmental issues and policies impact people of different backgrounds, so she shared two books she plans to include in her fall courses. The first is Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place by Terry Tempest Williams. Williams, who is a naturalist, was raised in Utah and is a Mormon by birth; she interweaves the stories of her family to describe how the White Sands Missile testing site affected their health and livelihoods. Remembering how they sat on the hoods of their cars and watched the mushroom clouds, Williams shares this experience that led to all of the women in her family developing cancer. Murphy teaches this book in her environmental justice course because “it shows that no matter who we are, no one’s suffering is greater than anyone else’s suffering… even though she is a white Mormon woman, no one is safe from environmental toxins.” Murphy also found value in Jill Lepore’s This America: The Case for the Nation, which shares “a lot about the fascinating history of our government, including anecdotes that most of us wouldn’t know.” Since the writing style differs significantly from a history textbook, she thinks This America will be accessible and interesting to students in the Environment in an Election Year course. 

Just as Murphy encourages her students to explore content outside their comfort zone, she has the same advice for instructors who want to include sustainability in their teaching: “Consider something that you might not normally read, or listen to podcasts… Frankly, there’s just so much out there. I think that my greatest learning, both personally and professionally, happens when I step outside of my perspective to learn more about the world.” She also thinks that expanding perspectives helps instructors reach students along the political spectrum. Here at the University of Michigan and in her class, there are “very conservative students and students who are very liberal. You have to be honest and teach all groups,” since all students deserve to receive a comprehensive education in sustainability, environmental justice, and government, even if the instructor disagrees with them politically. “It’s so important to look at all sides and avoid alienating students from these topics,” she points out. “I’m as much a learner in these classes as my students are. They bring in content, so I consistently need to acknowledge that I’m not the only subject matter expert in the class, and we work on these wicked problems together.”

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.