Meet the Division: Erin O’Connor

The 255 is back with a another Meet the Division series! These week we are highlighting the Chair of the Politics & Human Rights department who is vital to organizing guest speakers, community activities, and cooperating with the sociopolitical student led organizations such as the Bedford Hills Program and the Social Sciences’ Assembly.

MEET ERIN O’CONNOR

In addition to chairing the Politics & Human Rights department, Dr. O’Connor is an Associate Professor of Sociology. Her research, studies, and interests include ethnography, culture, art, work, knowledge, body phenomenology, body, and craft. Her book manuscript, Firework: art, craft, and self among glassblowers, researches glassblowing studios to analyze the meaning of contemporary craft in industrial and knowledge economies. Her research reveals the relations among body, materials, and others inform the emergence of self, community, and meaning while investigating the socio-political meaning of craft throughout history. O’Connor’s published work can be found in journals such as Qualitative Sociology Review, Qualitative Research, and Ethnography among others. She explains that she uses her areas of expertise as lenses through which to investigate social inequality and human rights in regards race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, and class among others.

Dr. Erin O’Connor
  • What is your favorite course/subject to teach here at Marymount? Why does this course interest you the most?
    • I have a lot of favorite courses, so it is hard to say. Spring 2020, it was Queer Ecologies (PHR 312 aka EcoCulture & Sustainability). The course was an exciting outcome of my research on craft and material ontology; it broke down the dichotomies that construct and separate subject and world. In short, ‘we’ are the ‘world’. Currently, I’m loving all my classes — Environmental Justice, Culture & Ideology, and Art, Politics & Society. I’ve revamped each in light of contemporary social and political issues. Particularly exciting has been the reworking of the Art, Politics & Society syllabus with students from the class. I honestly wasn’t feeling excited about the previous syllabus in the current climate — art activism is everywhere, morning and night, inside and out and I was feeling like that was more pressing to address. Luckily, the students felt the same! So, after talking about the movements, social issues, happenings important to them, I rewrote the syllabus as “Art Activism”. It’s very exciting as we’re discovering new artists and methods of art activism every week. Everyone pitches in!
  • What pedagogical approaches do you use when teaching? Why do you believe that this method is the most effective in engaging students?
    • I’m an ethnographer, so I like to be out in the city, talking with people, and learning from environments. Typically, I pair readings with field research. I feel strongly that experiential and theoretical learning go hand in hand. In my own research on glassblowing, for example, I couldn’t have gotten to the theories of material ontology that eventually took me into environmental studies without having blown glass. That’s our payment of the debt of experience — articulation! Covid has changed that, but have adapted through changing classes — Art Activism — does expansive surveys virtually and also through organizing a fall 2020 virtual department event series that brings experts in the field of racial justice into our community via Zoom. This has been so uplifting. At the end of the day, I need experience, the world, and community voices to think and to feel human. At the end of the day, we can neither think nor learn without this.
  • Why did you choose your individual career and/or field of study?
    • I’m from rural northern Michigan. In my house growing up, we had a set of encyclopedias, a glossary of tropical fish, a book about gnomes and both endless National Geographics and tomes about narrow-gauge railroads. The moments in which I got my hands on some ‘big-picture’ thinking — my English teacher, Ann Reasner, and my mom’s friend, who was an artist, Valerie Loop — I felt my mind leap and bound. I didn’t know what it meant exactly, but I knew that I wanted more. By almost random luck, I submitted one application for college and was accepted to Michigan State University (I’m the first person in my family to earn a college degree). First year, I didn’t understand anything — small town culture didn’t translate into a 40,000 person campus with 200+ person classes — and, though I was fascinated by the catalogue of classes (those lists under Philosophy, Religion, and Sociology!), I nearly flunked out of school. Luckily, my parents let me go back to try again the second year and I came upon a mentor in Political Science, Ron Puhek. Through him and a couple of philosophy and women’s studies professors — Herbert Garelick, Richard Peterson, and Marilyn Frye — I learned that the pursuit of ideas could indeed be a profession! I decided then, my sophomore year, to become a professor. I’m forever indebted to them for showing a small town girl that she could have big ideas 🙂  And, on that note, my town was quite conservative in the typical way of small American rural towns in the 1980s and 1990s, white, homophobic, heterosexist, and insular. I felt strongly at a young age about racial inclusivity, environmental justice, and gay rights, especially as I came to regard myself as bi-sexual. So, in short, I didn’t fit the bill. College was absolute liberation for me as were the big ideas that I encountered there.
  • What is your favorite activity to do when you are not teaching?
    • I love to be outside. All day in any way. I love walking, hiking, swimming, gardening. I also love laughing with my boys — age 7 and 3. When they’re smiling and we’re laughing, running around, there is nothing better.  Before the kids, I did a lot of collage work with handmade paper. I still build and make a lot….shelves, treehouses, garden beds, and anything that involves arranging.
  • Do you own any pets? If so, how many? If not, why?
    • Yes, two cats: Michael and Sappho. I was never into cats and my husband is allergic, but, hey, the boys begged us and the kitties were found by neighbors newborn with their mom on top of a garbage bag! Happy to have them now. They’re sweet.
Sappho (Left) and Michael (Right)
  • What is advice would you give to Marymount students in today’s uncertain and rapidly evolving world?
    • Stay connected!

Thanks to Professor O’Connor for sharing her pictures, interests, and professional background. Join us next week as our series continues! Autumn is well underway, a friendly reminder to be kind, stay safe, and begin to layer up!

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