Faculty Spotlight: Dana Fisher (by Joseph Waggle)

                                     Professor Dana R. Fisher is approaching her fourth anniversary here at UMD SocioFisher Dana-Facultylogy, and it has been a busy four years for her and for the grad students she mentors. When she first arrived, she was kind enough to let our own Anya Galli profile her for Imagine. Now, four years later, we’re stopping by Dana’s office again to find out how her time here has been so far; what frustrates her and what excites her most about her work (spoiler alert: her answers will probably be familiar to grad students and faculty alike); and what she has planned next.      

Dana Fisher is a prolific author, editor, teacher, speaker, and scholar in the field of sociology. Her work on politics and the environment has broadened our understanding of how governance, civic engagement, and democracy intersect with environmental and ecological concerns. And she’s not done yet.

“We were going to change the world,” she reflects on her completion of her undergrad degrees from Princeton University. That was what pushed her to move from New Jersey to Washington, D.C., armed with only a dual undergraduate degree in Environmental Science and East Asian Studies, an interest in politics, and a desire to make some real change.

But the road to world-changing is rarely a straight line.

“That first year [after graduation], I had five different jobs. They were all environmental, but they were very, very different.”

And one of those jobs was as a junior lobbyist. She started out doing the “hopeless work,” lobbying conservatives in the 103rd Congress under a first-term President Bill Clinton on environmental political issues. She realized then that lobbying didn’t have quite the world-changing impact that she expected.

“There was no substance there,” she says. “It was just wrong for me.”

She needed a change of job, a change of pace, and a change of scenery. So she started a research job at a think tank in Berkeley, California.

“I didn’t really want it,” she says, nose wrinkling slightly. “I didn’t want to live in Berkeley. No offense.”

[Author’s note: on behalf of Cal grads everywhere, Dana, no offense taken].

 But after two years working in Berkeley, Dana found that she liked the work but had outgrown the experience.

“I remember that I used to always come up with these really great ideas for research projects, and my boss would say, ‘Yeah, that’s a great idea. Only you can’t lead it, because you don’t have a PhD.’ So I decided to get a PhD.”

But transitioning from East Asian Studies and Environmental Science to Sociology was not a natural step to take. On the advice of her undergrad advisor, Steve Brechin, she applied to the University of Wisconsin Department of Sociology to study under environmental sociologists like Fred Buttel and Bill Freudenburg,

“I didn’t know about sociology before that, so I got stuck in a bunch of undergrad remedial classes.” She calls this “dehumanizing,” and remembers that it put some emotional distance between herself and her work.

“I was definitely taking the speedy route,” she explains. “I wanted to finish up as quickly as possible because I wanted to leave Wisconsin.”

But somewhere along the way, sociology became a calling.

“I read Habermas and took a class with Fred [Buttel]. and I guess I became a sociologist.”

Her work with Buttel and Freudenburg, mixed with her passion for East Asian Studies and a fortuitous travel opportunity, sent her to Japan, where she gathered some of the worst data that she has ever collected.

“This was before I knew what ‘empirical’ or ‘method’ was,” she says. “I was in Japan on my own dime, so I grabbed everything they threw at me. Reports, charts, everything. I wanted to study technology and Internet in Japan, linked to[.] social movements and environment. I had a ton of data, but none of it was useful at all.”

But in that “crazy” mashup of data were the seeds of a project. With Freudenburg’s help, she found a thesis about sustainability and resource management, which later became the foundation for some NSF Summer Institute studies in Japan. This later snowballed into a project comparing civil society, governance, and market actors working in sustainability, from Japan, the United States, and the Netherlands. This would later become her dissertation, and then her first published book, National Governance and the Global Climate Change Regime.

But since then, her work has seen some tide changes. Her second major book—the one she calls “the most sociology book I’ve ever written”—was on professional canvassers, and received a lot of attention, both positive and negative. She has also worked on social movements and social change, and has contributed to literature on qualitative research methods.

And therein rests one of the most important pieces of advice that she would share with graduate students now:

“It’s important to have a good idea of what you want to be when you grow up. But a lot of what happens is luck and good timing, so stay flexible. Get yourself a good advisor that communicates well. [and] make friends in the field that communicate well with you.”

That’s a lesson she learned from her advisor, Bill Freudenburg, and it’s one that she carries with her today. Her experience with Freudenburg, as both his student and his friend, has informed her own mentorship philosophy as a professor.

“The only way to learn is by doing,” she says. “At least, that’s how I do it. And Bill understood that. So that’s how he mentored, and that’s how I mentor.”

That apprenticeship model has characterized her relationships with students ever since. And working with graduate students is her favorite part of the job.

“I came to [the University of Maryland] because there were great grad students here that I wanted to work with. And they have not disappointed!”

Her work in the department—particularly as founder and executive director of the Program for Society and the Environment (PSE)—is characterized by working very closely with graduate students who have some interest in studying the society- environment relationship.

“The idea [behind the PSE] was to create a home to cultivate smart social science on the environment.”

And, in that respect, at least, the PSE is a success. It has grown since Dana’s arrival four years ago into a major center of research on UMD’s campus. The Program brings together grad students and faculty from across the department and from universities in the greater Washington, D.C. area, to collaborate on a diverse range of dynamic environment/society research projects. The bi-weekly workshop provides a forum for students and faculty to share, critique, and improve their work.

“It’s also home to all of my research grants,” she notes.

Those grants are many, and they are varied. She brought with her to Maryland her research on the Comparing Climate Change Policy Networks (COMPON) Project, studying relationships and opinions among climate policy actors in the U.S. at the federal level. She is currently funded through Maryland Sea Grants to study watershed stewardship academies in Maryland. She is also funded through the U.S. Forest Service, using social, spatial, and network mapping techniques to understand local-level environmental stewardship organizations in cities along the East Coast. She’s on the verge of a project studying the implications of school gardens for learning and environmental education.

All of her grants provide opportunities for Dana to work with grad students, and the diversity of her grants allows for a variety of grads and research interests to become PSE fellows.

“I’ve kind of been wavering between the extremes. ‘I want to do international comparative stuff. Now I want to do really lo- cal [work]. Now I want to do more about governance. Now I want to do something that’s more about activism.’ I guess I’ll keep doing that until I regress to the mean. But I also have to follow the funding.”

And following the funding frustrates Dana more than anything else.

“The academic timeline is way too slow,” she says. “The ideas outpace the pro- cess. By the time a book comes out, I’ve moved on to a hundred new ideas. And the research that excites me the most is the stuff that isn’t funded yet, until the funding agencies get back to you.”

And that is the source of Dana’s second piece of advice.

“I think it’s important to ind something out- side of work to do. I do Pilates, spinning. I like to go hiking with my kids [daughter Margot, age 7, and son Conrad, age 3].

Anything that can wear me out. It’s kind of like a mental restart.”

And hitting the reset button is more important now than ever for Dana. She’s working on two new grants through NSF, and publishing the first wave of results from her current projects. All of this comes with opportunities, but it comes with plenty of rejection as well. And there is Dana’s final word of advice.

“Rejection happens to everybody. I think the most important thing you can learn is patience and resilience. I love my career… but there’s a lot of time sitting alone, waiting for rejections to come in.” At least she can still laugh about rejection, and she does, a little.

“I know a lot of grad students spend a lot of time wondering if this life is for them. That’s a personal choice, but you should know that it happens to everyone. Just be open to different paths.

“I was on this politics path, but it didn’t go that way. Here I am now. Didn’t work out so badly!”

Joseph is a Doctoral Candidate.

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