One University of Cincinnati Researcher’s Quest to Make 'Humanimal' Part of the Vernacular

Doctoral candidate Alan Wight uses education to further people’s understanding about food and the environment

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Alan Wight, PhD '14, working in the garden at Gorman Heritage Farm

University of Cincinnati doctoral student R. Alan Wight’s, passion for environmental education is contagious. His energy – much like the energy sources that he studies – lights up the room when he discusses ecological sustainability and the ways that he contends people should be learning about their food sources.

His profound curiosity about the relationships that people have with their food and the ecological implications of food choices fuels much of his research. So how is it that Wight, part gardener, part swim coach, and part researcher, became a student in the School of Education’s Educational Studies doctoral program? Wight, once a substitute teacher, says he’s been fortunate to have numerous mentors and opportunities to work on various projects related to education, agriculture, and the environment. 

Describing the start of his graduate studies educational path, he notes, “I knew I wanted to study sociology. That critical way of thinking is important, and I knew I liked it.” 

Wight went on to attend UC’s master’s program in sociology and graduated with his master's degree in 2008. For his thesis research he studied eco villages, intentional communities that aim to be ecologically sustainable. It was during this time that he became interested in the food system, and was fortunate to have the support of his advisor Associate Professor Kelly Moore. 

“Kelly was a great mentor and a tough cookie,” Wight says. “She really pushed me.” 

It was also during this time that he met Mary Brydon-Miller, a UC professor of education and participatory action researcher who engages in both community-based and educational action research while directing UC’s Action Research Center. The Action Research Center promotes social justice and strengthens communities, locally and globally, by advancing research, education, and action. This approach was a perfect fit for Wight and his passion to better society and educate others. After all, Wight and his wife had already put into action their collective mission to help achieve social justice by bicycling from Maine to Vancouver, raising money for various charities for four months in the summer of 2009. 

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An herb spiral at Gorman Heritage Farm

After teaching sociology for several years following graduate school, Wight felt compelled to return to UC for his Ph.D. because of Brydon-Miller and her action research approach as well as the Educational Studies’ largely customizable curriculum. 

“The benefit of the Educational Studies program is that maybe half of the classes are designated as required and the other half is your choice” Wight says. “I had the ability to take classes from Engineering, Arts & Sciences, and DAAP. I built my own education program from everything UC has to offer.” 

In addition to supplementing his coursework with programs across UC, Wight also discovered a service-learning opportunity through Miriam Raider-Roth, associate professor in Educational Studies. Wight knew he wanted to learn how to garden and started doing so on a volunteer basis at Gorman Heritage Farm in March 2011. Ironically, the farm is only two miles from his parents’ home, but he had never set foot on the farm before. His volunteering soon bore another mentoring opportunity as well as a job as Gorman’s assistant gardener. 

“I am indebted to John Hemmerle, and Barb Liphardt, the two head gardeners I have worked with over the last three seasons. John and Barb have provided me with the opportunity to learn and practice the art of gardening,” Wight says. “Being at the farm helps me generate research ideas, but more importantly is a regular reminder that there’s so much to learn when it comes to agriculture and the food system. Soil. Compost. Greenhouse gases. And how to discuss this information with people of all ages. The list goes on.” 

Additionally, together, Hemmerle and Wight coined the catchy and witty word ‘humanimals’ to remind people of the relationship they have with the environment and the earth. 

“Alan is an amazing example of what it means to be a scholar/activist,” says Brydon-Miller. “The most meaningful and memorable mentoring relationships I have with students are those in which I am learning alongside my student, and this is certainly the case with Alan. I’ve learned all about biochar and was even there for the first firing of the kiln at Gorman Heritage Farm, with Alan, John, and colleagues from the geology department at UC.”

Wight’s volunteering and work at Gorman Heritage Farm was meant to teach him how to garden. But the moment he dug his fingers into the cool, gritty soil, his curiosity about and appreciation for the environment deepened. Soon after, he was playing an integral part in developing the Gorman’s Community Supported Agriculture program (CSA), a co-operative model where individuals pay farmers directly and pick up their food from the farm on a weekly basis. Wight is focused on examining the educational aspects of CSAs and thinks this will become the topic of his dissertation. 

Wight says CSAs are terrific examples of experiential education if they require their shareholders to contribute on the farm by getting their hands dirty and learning about the food system. Furthermore, people are able to get their food directly from a farm locally instead of having it trucked or flown in from an average of 1,500-2,000 miles away, like most U.S. food is sourced today.   

Interest in CSAs is growing rapidly, as is the renewed focus in the food movement. 

“In 1984, there were two CSA programs nationally,” Wight says. “Today, some estimates put it at over 20,000 nationally. As people become more aware of the implications of the food system, more alternative opportunities become available.”  

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Freshly picked vegetables

For Wight, the beauty of a meal begins with the food source, where each delicious part of a meal is planted, nurtured and harvested. As interest in the food system continues to grow, Wight is excited by the steps that more and more people are taking to learn about their food and its sources.

“Until you are considering your food sources and what you’re eating, you’re not really looking deeply into ecological sustainability issues,” Wight says. “Food is one of our primary energetic relationships to the earth. How you get your food impacts energy use and other things that people don’t think about.” 

Deeply attendant to the issue of ecological sustainability and always striving to apply his research, Wight, along with the Peace Village, a UC student and community organization, pioneered a critical approach to understanding the food system: food mapping. It involves getting people together and analyzing their food sources, asking critical questions such as, “How far did your food travel? What is the retail space like where you buy food? How much does the food cost? What is the nutritional information?”

“These questions help people take a closer look at the food system,” Wight says. “This is an action research approach that builds on the food movement and gets people to be curious about their food.”

Brydon-Miller says that now she is more aware about where her food is sourced because of her work with Alan. “His dissertation on CSA's will make an important contribution to our understanding of how to promote greater food consciousness,” she says. “I look forward to continuing to work with Alan and to learning more about these important issues through the process.”

Wight has also worked with Victoria Carr, associate professor of education and director of the Arlitt Child & Family Research & Education Center, to study how children learn and play in the Arlitt Playscape, a natural play area free of synthetics and plastic structures. Part of a National Science Foundation-supported project to examine children’s learning and inquiry about science through their play in natural settings, Wight, Carr, and other researchers developed an iPad application to assist them in a research technique known as behavior mapping. The fully digitized app allows them to identify and record children’s behaviors that indicate science learning in specific areas of the PlayScape.

Unwaveringly humble, Wight notes that much of his work has been developed within a community of researchers and practitioners, as he is perpetually in conversation with other researchers, gardeners, advisors, and students. “I am grateful to everyone who contributes and with whom I’ve worked,” he says.

Wight truly embodies what it means to transcend boundaries – both in the way he immerses himself in the practical application of his research and in the way he encourages people to question and better understand their food sources.