An interview with Jen Dollin
This month, morethanhumanmatters interviews Jen Dollin, Program Director at the Regional Centre of Expertise on Education for Sustainable Development, acknowledged by the United Nations University (UNU) – Greater Western Sydney and Senior Manager in the Sustainable Futures team at Western Sydney University. Jen’s background is in corporate finance, environmental economics, and policy development. In her current role, Jen oversees a range of sustainability education and curriculum development initiatives at Western Sydney University. A key focus of her work is connected to the United Nations University Institute of Advanced Sustainability supporting the grassroots delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals 2030. Jen is currently undertaking a PhD on multispecies ethnography that revolves around rivers and freshwater eels.
Hello, Jen, and thanks for joining me at morethanhumanworlds.com. Could you tell us how you came to be interested in the issue of sustainability, and what has the paradigm shift to more-than-human worlds entailed for you?
It's such a pleasure Sophie - thank you for your kind invite! I hope I have something useful to offer, given how new, tentative, and emergent my work in this area is. I first connected professionally and academically with the concept of ‘sustainability’ as part of my mid-life crisis when, disillusioned with the corporate world and my didactic economic education, I pursued further studies in the then field of environmental management. The propulsion for alternate career development came from working in the United Kingdom and from extensive travel through Eastern Africa, the Himalayas and the Ukraine in my twenties. It was an awakening to the world beyond Australia and the witnessing of great beauty but also wanton environmental destruction explicitly linked to humans.
As I have reflected this week on your question, I also realize how profoundly I have been influenced by both sets of my beloved grandparents. They essentially performed aspects of sustainability throughout their daily lives, each and every day. My brother and I grew up immersed their ¼ acre suburban gardening worlds with daily practices of inter-generational equity, careful consumption, and the important distinction between needs and wants. Through my Nan and Pop’s Great Depression-influenced values, my brother and I became attentive to the goings on of worms, soil, caterpillars, butterflies, chickens, mulberry trees, and vegetables. We were also encouraged to learn the basics of backyard astronomy and had lively kitchen table conversational lessons about the (then!) old working class ‘Labor and fellow man’ politics. It was the same with my Ukrainian Babushka and her garden only one suburb away, except with yet more ducks, chickens, other creatures, more pickling and preserving, more singing and feasting, and definitely more vodka. She passed away just recently in 2018 at the age of ninety-seven and her strong work ethic, feminism, and family and socialist ties of community and connection are deeply embedded in our whole family.
I’ve been professionally situated in the field of sustainability for over fifteen years - first in state government policy and now in academia. To be honest, I am quite conflicted and disillusioned with the current ‘sustainability’ agenda. Over this time, I have witnessed what was once a radical and inspiring agenda for socio-ecological transitions effectively co-opted by mainstream neo-liberal institutions into an operational 'business as usual' approach. My current dive into the more-than-human world/s has made it increasingly difficult to reconcile the human-centric sustainability doctrines of stewardship, management, and control, particularly now that we live through/with the coronavirus pandemic. I am perpetually and consciously trying to think as an assemblage instead of as an individual. This paradigm shift has been a journey of self-learning for me, that entailed documenting my family and cultural stories of growing up on the Hawkesbury River as part of a legitimate research project. This work is all attributable to the incredible and insightful encouragement of my doctoral supervisors - Margaret Somerville and Gay Hawkins - who opened doors and invited me to walk through into the unknown.
I recently wrote a book chapter titled "Passionate Immersions in Nature-Cultures of the Everyday" about the learning process of moving through this personal paradigm shift. Here's a quote that I feel captures the kinds of question this paradigm shift has brought me to grapple with. I think the quote also shows the importance of having supervisors that push the boundaries of your thinking and the importance of trusting yourself to respond to such pushes.
"When my patient, long-suffering doctoral supervisor suggested I document my family and cultural stories of growing up on the Hawkesbury River as part of a legitimate research process I felt deeply challenged. I just wanted to write about watery river worlds, not about me. Research was something to be done objectively, at a distance, emotionally isolated and safe! ‘Why eels, why the river, why do you care, what is your connection here?’ she [Margaret] kept asking. I kept resisting… It was only after, yet again, half-heartedly reading Body/Landscape Journals (Somerville 1999), and The Ethnographic I: A Methodological Novel about Autoethnography (Ellis 2004), that things made sense and fell into place. Drawing on Gandhi, I finally realised that I can only remake myself, not the world, and that this is where I need to start." (Dollin 2020, in press)
This paradigm shift has effectively required rethinking the notion of objectivity into one that is individual, intimate, attentive, and place-based. I have read about the ‘epistemological shock’ that can occur when paradigm shifts move us to a whole new way of thinking, being, and/or doing. However, it wasn’t like that for me. It was more of a slow connecting, a dis-entanglement with ‘sustainability,’ and natural homecoming with the more-than-human world/s opened up to my by incredible thinkers. And so here I am.
In a recent book chapter published in the edited volume, Academia and Communities: Engaging for Change (2018), you explore the meaning of local places in relation to community involvement in environmental sustainability initiatives. What, in your view, does a place-based methodology bring to our understandings and practices of environmental sustainability?
Mainstream environmental sustainability practices in Australia are based on Western philosophical principles and rest predominantly on scientific knowledge, notions of human supremacy, economic rationalism, and technical managerial approaches. The ‘environment’ is treated as a passive, vacant landscape awaiting human intervention and activation. This mode of thinking dominates mainstream practices and is reiterated in natural science and environmental management curriculum and research. It is also a mode of thinking that I myself have been deeply complicit in reinforcing through my earlier ventures in the ‘conservation’ and ‘environmental sustainability’ spaces. Challenges to this paradigm are many - starting with the long history of agential thinking and relational connections to Country of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I have also been fortunate to work on several sustainability educational research projects in Western Sydney with Margaret. Her thinking in terms of further theorizing an educational approach to place as a broad and contestable concept has been hugely influential in my research.
Place-based methodologies for me are incredibly productive because - as Margaret writes -
they create a space between the grounded physical reality of landscapes or environment and
the metaphysical space of language, stories and other representations of place (Somerville 2010).
This linking of the physical with the metaphysical provides not only the opportunity to bring
positivist paradigms from the physical sciences into conversation with post-positivist research
in the humanities and social sciences. It also opens both up to the notion of contestability and
constant change. This framing of place is multi-dimensional - it opens space for a lively
pluriverse of human beings in relationship with the more-than-human world. It also reinforces
Donna Haraway’s definition of situated knowledge as a positional proposition that is not based
on an objective view from an omniscient and detached somewhere, but rather one that is firmly grounded in some place. This enlarged concept of place provides a link between local concerns and global issues and is a way to engage community members on an emotional and spiritual level. I love how this methodology bridges worlds and paradigms and at the same time is relatable and applicable to a wide range of practitioners, including those who have been schooled in Western resource management frameworks. In practical terms, in the neo-liberal academy we are situated in, place also invites a more open conversation with a range of different disciplines and perspectives and so allows for true inter- and even trans-disciplinary engagement. In my professional and academic work, these spaces are vital for the co-creation of new knowledges.
You are currently undertaking a PhD on multispecies ethnography that revolves around rivers and freshwater eels. Could you tell us what you understand by “multispecies ethnography” and describe some of the opportunities and challenges you’ve faced in deploying this method in your encounters with rivers and eels?
I am particularly indebted to Thom van Dooren’s work in opening up this field for me. I see multispecies ethnography as an exciting turn in academia that allows for the development of new knowledge/s that attend to how more-than-human worlds are co-produced with humans. Multispecies ethnography invites us to explore the collective and individual agency of the more-than-human world, and to meaningfully reflect and diffract on how to ‘live with’ the many others with whom we share this world. It is a new way of researching for Western academics that is genuinely inter-/ trans-disciplinary but also does not preclude the rich cosmologies and historical trajectories of Indigenous thinking. As an umbrella concept, the defining characteristic of multispecies ethnography for me is the move to decentre (but not obscure) the human as the sole focus of the world and the only holder and producer of meaning or knowledge. A key conceptual move for me here is the exploration of how other beings come in contact with each other to co-create worlds, and how these interspecies encounters are entangled with ethics, power, and politics. Asking these kinds of questions has opened up a raft of methodological framings and conceptual horizons that are really fascinating and also quite challenging.
As my research is primarily situated within feminist post-human / new materialism theory, I have been exploring what methods and data become when we move away from human-centric approaches. My thesis has spawned a slippery methodological framing to explore the performative practices and situated knowledges being enacted in and along the Hawkesbury Nepean River, an iconic but degraded waterway at the edge of Sydney. One of the main struggles for me in this eel world is how to ‘think with’ the more-than-human in a way that is not superficial. How do I approach a research partner that is not human? I have twinned Vinciane Despret’s ‘curious practice’ of working with and thinking from animals and a traditional ethnographic approach of deep hanging out but worked through a posthuman orientation which again was inspired by the educational research of Margaret Somerville and her colleague Sarah Powell this time in ‘thinking with mud.’ I am learning to be in the moment, to become attuned to research as an encounter, and to attend to what happens in that encounter without assumptions of prior knowledge. An interesting opportunity for me has been to explore alternative methodologies that challenged traditional representations of a single fixed reality. In this regard, I have been working with Karen Barad's notion of diffraction and focusing my analytical attention on situated and interspecies practices, doings, and actions. It’s been particularly exciting to find myself gradually untethering from a paradigm driven by the pursuit of definite answers, towards an acceptance of the world as a realm of ambiguity and multiplicity.
Finally, Jen, what advice would you give to young scholars interested in studying more-than-human worlds?
I’d really like my response below to be taken in light of how new I am to this space. I'm sharing it specifically for other young scholars who are entering a doctoral program as advice I wish I myself had received earlier. The first is a question that was asked of us at a Higher Degree Research school and that has been pivotal in continuing to help me clarify my thinking and refine my framing, my fieldwork, and my writing. I return to this fundamental question time and time again and hope it is helpful: ‘On whose shoulders do you stand?’ In my professional role in curriculum development and engagement, I come from a natural place of trans-disciplinarity. But joining an academic research program made me realize that this is not necessarily the norm. My PhD draws primarily on more-than-human educational scholars and is informed by key insights from anthropology, geography, the environmental humanities, and the natural sciences. It is quite usual in the doctoral process to become lost down rabbit holes, confused by literature, and bogged wading through theoretical paradigms. With more-than-human worlds, however, there is an added dimension of complexity in answering the question, ‘On whose shoulders do I stand?’
The things that make this research agenda so exciting and inspiring also raise our awareness of
the potential pitfalls of academia. The question above has really helped me focus the direction of
my own research process. I know now where my work fits and this is really critical for an endeavor
you immerse yourself in for three to eight years of your life. I firmly adhere to the belief that the
future is trans-disciplinary (in education at least) and that this is one of the most exciting spaces
to be in at the moment. I think that this is an important issue to be aware of.
My other suggestions are to go with what reverberates with you, with scholars you LOVE reading, and with the style that speaks best to you. Play with language, style, methods, and theory. My last piece of advice is to connect with the right supervisor/s - people who will encourage you to be brave, curious, and passionate. Just as important is the need to connect with communities of scholars and peers who will support you but also push you - that can be a wonderful feeling!
"Place-based methodologies for me are incredibly productive because, as Margaret Somerville writes, they create a space between the grounded physical reality of landscapes or environment and the metaphysical space of language, stories and other representations of place."
"It's been particularly exciting to find myself gradually untethering from a paradigm driven by the pursuit of definite answers, towards an acceptance of the world as a realm of ambiguity and multiplicity."
Bass Fishing Club Bush Care site. Emu Green, Nepean River, Penrith LGA. Credits: Jen Dollin.