Jules is a joint Ph.D. student in the Department of Geography in the College of Letters & Science and Environment and Resources at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. She researches the political ecology of agriculture and climate change and is interested in exploring agroecological movements through a climate justice lens. Jules completed her M.S. in Agroecology at UW-Madison and is a member of The LAND (Livelihoods, Agroecology, Nutrition, and Development) Project and the Center for Culture, History, and Environment (CHE) on campus. She has taught the courses Introduction to Agroecology, Environmental Conservation, and People, Land, and Food.
Can you tell us briefly about your background and your work as it relates to Africa?
I’m a Ph.D. student jointly in the Department of Geography and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, and I also hold an M.S. in Agroecology from UW. My research focuses on the political ecology of climate change for small-scale farmers, a project originally oriented toward agriculture in Malawi. However, after a six-week field visit to the community last summer, I became particularly sensitive to the complicated and often fraught politics of working within international communities as an academic. I’m actually now working with farmers in the Pacific Northwest, partly because of these tensions. Though my research no longer solely focuses on Africa, this attention to the role and politics of institutions in Africa remains a pivotal aspect of my work as a graduate student. This past year I’ve brought structured conversations to both my departments around the role of academics in critical, ethical engagement with international communities. I hope to push these conversations forward in meaningful ways across the UW campus during my time here.
What first sparked your interest in Africa as a student of Geography and Environment & Resources?
My research interests actually developed through experience working with an agroecological non-profit organization in Malawi a few years ago. Like many other recently graduated college students, I wanted to travel and hopefully do some good with my brand-new degree. During my year with the Malawian agroecology organization, I saw firsthand how institutional priorities and actions relating to climate change often do not address the local realities and needs of farmers. I originally entered graduate school with the goal of gaining knowledge and tools to bring to organizations like the one I worked with in Malawi, to more effectively engage with farming communities. Over the past few years, though, my understanding of development work in Africa has deepened through conversations and scholarship from the African Studies Program and across the UW campus. Now my interest in Africa has shifted towards more critical and effective institutional engagement at the university level.
What is a favorite memory you have from your travels and work in Africa?
Last summer I returned to Malawi for two months, to the same village where I had worked years before. The experience of returning to this community almost six years later was deeply impactful for me, particularly because I spent all of last year learning Chichewa through the African Studies Multilanguage Seminar. I remember a moment during a meeting with multiple farmers last summer when I realized I could actually understand what was going on – albeit on a very surface level. During one shining moment, I even managed to crack a joke in Chichewa. I hadn’t realized before how much personality and personhood gets lost in translation! Communicating with the farmers in their language marked a total shift in our relationships and my presence in the community.
What does winning the 2019 Campus-Wide TA Award, in particular, the Early Excellence in Teaching Award, mean to you?
I had my first teaching experience in graduate school through a UW study abroad trip to South Africa. Those three weeks threw me headfirst into learning how to facilitate other students’ learning and growth in an unfamiliar and challenging environment. I was hooked. That experience helped shape my approach and commitment to teaching: so much of the material I cover in classes here on campus is just as personal and challenging as what we learn abroad. It’s been so rewarding to watch students question their own assumptions and think critically about their role as citizens outside the classroom. Teaching is largely why I decided to pursue a Ph.D., so receiving this award was incredibly validating as I continue on this journey.
What advice would you give students who are interested in studying Africa?
Be intentional about why you choose to study Africa, stay reflective about what you learn about yourself and others and do the work to understand how to be a good student of another country, place, or people. I mean this particularly for students who want to study abroad: I think connecting with other people and cultures is an incredible, mutually rewarding experience if done conscientiously and respectfully. But I do think it takes a bit of work to understand what it means (politically, socially, ethically) to be a student from the United States studying (in) a country that was shaped, and is still impacted today, by colonialism. I think once you do that work, the entire experience of studying another culture in another place becomes much more meaningful and productive. I’ve found that personal reflection (why am I here? what do I bring and what do I hope to receive?) is so important to this continuous process of learning how to become a better student of Africa.
What is your favorite activity or go-to place in Madison in winter?
I just got a puppy last fall, and my favorite thing about winter this year is experiencing it new through his eyes. I love taking Blue on snow adventures at Cherokee Marsh or Tenney Park.
Next adventure: getting him out on the ice!