Interview conducted by Sara Wilson
Amanda is scholar of home, place, and economic change. She is a PhD candidate in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s joint departments of Sociology and Community and Environmental Sociology. Her qualitative field work has taken her from homesteads in Swaziland, to kitchen tables in dairyland Wisconsin, to red-dirt roads in post-war northern Uganda, and most recently, to urban and rural Rust Belt communities. Amanda’s research situates the stories people tell about their places and their people within patterns of macroeconomic transformation. We had a lively conversation over the phone about Amanda’s interests, education, and life as a student.
Sara Wilson: What did you study in your undergraduate years? What’s your general academic background? Does it go all the way back to childhood, or did your academic interests sort of hit you later?
Amanda McMillan Lequeiu: I grew up in Pennsylvania in a former coal mining town near Pittsburgh. I studied political science and environmental studies in my undergraduate degree partly because I could envision what employment it could lead to—I saw myself working on the Hill or at a non-profit with the poli sci degree. For my senior thesis, I did some qualitative research in Swaziland on land tenure. I really enjoyed this on-the-ground research project.
SW: What led you to continue your studies in graduate school?
AML: After my undergraduate studies, I volunteered in an environmental non-profit in France for a year. When I returned to the US in 2009, and started looking for jobs, I quickly realized that there were very few entry-level jobs available in my area of expertise in the wake of the economic crash.
So I started thinking seriously about graduate school. From my research experiences in college and the non-profit work following, I knew I was interested in understanding home through applied research, community development, human-environment relationships, and agriculture.
SW: I’m interested in the details of how you arrived at your interests: would you say a little bit more about the process of honing in on those?
AML: Well, I spent my early childhood years in the Ivory Coast in Africa. So, I’ve always been interested in Africa. But I applied to graduate school to develop the sociology of home. My advisor, Michael Bell, was very supportive and excited about my work from the start. I did my Master’s on land transfer on farmers in Wisconsin, which was similar to my undergrad research on land tenure in Swaziland, actually. Mike, and my committee member Jane Collins, an anthropologist by training, introduced me to a body of work on land, ownership, and ethnicity within anthropology. My current dissertation came about from some exploratory research I did in Uganda. I had been thinking through some of these themes—home, ethnicity, land transfer, etc.—in light of conflict, war, and migration in northern Uganda. While in Uganda, I realized that there were local Acholi scholars asking similar questions as me, but better—because, in a sense, they were telling their own story. So I started asking, “What is my story? Who are my people?” As I considered the issues of deindustrialization, economic depression, environmental crises, and community change affecting homes in the former industrial corridor of the US, I realized I could tell the stories of the Rustbelt.
SW: How do you motivate yourself to work hard even when you perhaps don’t get much validation or don’t feel like you’re making progress (grad school can be disheartening!)?
AML: For me it’s setting deadlines. I’m already self-motivated, but it is setting these exterior (and sometimes arbitrary) deadlines that really keeps me working now that I’m a dissertator. I’ve arranged to Skype with a friend every other week and swap and discuss writing each time we call. Find a colleague and set a deadline that you both meet. And then backtrack and set up smaller deadlines to get you to that big one. Then, keep each other accountable. This helps when the internal motivation weakens, when the imposter syndrome flares up, when you’re tired, or when you feel anxious about the end result, because with a deadline in sight, emotions don’t matter as much: you just have to get some good writing to your friend!
SW: How was it in Santa Fe, when you received the Peter K. New award—what was it like; how were you feeling?
AML: Being in Santa Fe for SfAA was wonderful. Winning the paper award linked me with a wonderful group of people. Often, it’s challenging to build relationships at conferences, but the PK New paper award group of students and professors were contagiously excited to be together and talk about work at the SfAA to mentor graduate students. And the other sessions I attended were really interesting—I heard from practitioners, faculty, and grad students…I was very impressed by the caliber of people and the kindness and collegiality of everyone. I’ve been highly recommending the organization and the paper award to my colleagues, particularly those who are field-work-focused people, even if they’re not in anthropology. It’s cool that at SfAA, people are cheering for each other.