First, A Seed; Tuesday musings on the wonder of PhD students

PhD students really are wonderful. The world of Hollywood sees all relationships between teachers and students as either petty or predatory or otherwise paternalistic, and it’s so sad because it misses so much of what is wonderful about the academy. Sure, there are jerks. But there are jerks everywhere.

I’m thinking this morning about how great PhD students are simply because I am doing things this summer I simply wouldn’t have done had it not been the influence of two wonderful PhD students had on me.

During my class on justice, my wonderful student, Jovanna Rosen, recommended the book, First the Seed by Jack Ralph Kloppenburg Jr. . It’s a wonderful book, beautifully written, about the science and industry around plant reproduction. I’ve always been confused about how to think about GMOS as I am not a scientist and I was too old to be introduced the science in college or high school. I’ve always seen good sense in Vandana Shiva’s advocacy against global agribusiness that attempts to go in and wipe out indigeneous practices, largely way more sustainable and nutrient rich, in favor of self-interested seed and equipment sales.

I am also, however, not one of those people who thinks indigenous practices must be preserved in toto, like a little village in a snow globe. Plenty of people starved over the centuries using indigenous practices. That’s why a consumer-led, community-led science, where they identify the tools and ideas from science useful to them makes a lot more sense. Unfortunately, scientists and businesses like to get paid, too. How to formulate such a much more equitable model of food development is very difficult, and it merits more scholarly attention than it gets.

That said, I do feel like the dominant business model and culture in agri-business are broken; I lived it growing up, and Kloppenburg’s book is splendid evidence.

I was thinking about all these things as I was looking to redo the little-growing garden of mine, much of which has fallen to the drought. I’ve only been in this house 3 years, and gardens need time, and some parts look great, an other parts were planted under the (dumb) assumption that we’d be able to water. With the drought, I’ve lost hundreds of dear little plants. I’ve put in others, lots of succulents, but I am unhappy with the lack of diversity in the succulent population available. Yes, there are some specialty nurseries in Los Angeles, but you’d better be a millionaire. Otherwise, if you are at Lowe’s, you have a choice of about four.

I have been filling those out with succulents that I get from discarded living centerpieces at USC; they are cute, and the waste bothers me (after an event, the centerpieces are discarded). But they undoubtedly contract with the same florist time after time, and diversity is limited, there, too.

I began toying with the idea of planning succulent seeds. But I have no idea how well they grow from seed. Clearly they must, as the ones that flower in my yard get seed pods on them. But I have had absolutely none spread that way.

Another of our PhD students, Bryce Lowery, who is now faculty at the University of Oklahoma has a background in landscape architecture. I asked him if succulents are difficult to grow from seeds, and has he ever done it:

I have not but I love the idea. Seeds are the key to plant diversity because living from clippings just duplicates. Go for it.

When people talk about influence in the academy, they tend to assign agency to the older, more established scholar, and receptiveness to the younger ones. Or, as I noted, people just think it’s a one-way street, with the younger scholars serving the older one, doing his bidding, being prey for his unadulterated power. It has never worked that way for me. Randy Crane didn’t treat me like that, and I never see any gain to doing so with the students who have come to work with me. Moreover, I can’t believe that Aristotle did not influence Plato as much as Plato influenced Aristotle, or that Plato didn’t influence Socrates and vice versa.

As for me, here are the first seeds I’m trying. May they grow, in honor of Jovanna and Bryce, and all the others who have planted ideas in me. It’s been so wonderful working with all of you; you’ve all enlightened me so much.

(I have no idea what the seeds are. Just a mix I bought off Ebay–meant to be trees. But they are very pretty when you look at each individual one; magical, really. )

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