Jessica Hayes-Conroy is an Assistant Professor of Women’s Studies at Hobart & William Smith Colleges. She has taught courses in Gender and Geography, Feminist Theory & Methods, Place and Health, Food, Feminism, and the Body, and The Politics of Health. She received her PhD in Geography and Women’s Studies from Penn State University in 2009.
Jessica came to feminist geography when she began her PhD but initially she entered into it because of her interest in health and the material body. “I was fortunate that the PSU geography department has some remarkable feminist geographers, as well as a dual degree program with the Department of Women’s Studies at Penn State, which also boasts many exceptional scholars,” she said. “As I quickly realized, feminist scholars, including many feminist geographers, have long been producing important and cutting edge work on bodily health and embodiment. This includes work at the intersection of disability studies and health geographies, environmental health and political ecology, affect/emotion and actor networks, and queer and transgender theory, to name just a few. I found these fields to be enormously valuable in helping me think through the varied and complex relationships between food and the body, as well as simply engaging and thought provoking in their own right. I continue to turn to feminist geographic scholarship as a starting place for many of my scholarly endeavors, in both my research and teaching. I teach in a women’s studies department at HWS, and I am very fortunate to be able to bring feminist geography into many of my classes. I find that my students particularly enjoy engaging with feminist geography texts.”
Jessica’s research interests exist at the intersection of food, the material body and social difference. More broadly, her academic background is in feminist political ecology as well as corporeal and material feminisms.
She focuses on a critical analysis of school garden and cooking programs as instruments of alternative food activism and nutritional eduction. Jessica has examined other aspects of food activism, and has been interested particularly in dietary decolonization projects. Jessica writes, “In my work, I have always been driven by theory — critical race theory, theories of affect and actor networks — but I have also continually sought to define a link to practice, however fraught and partial such links are.”
Jessica seeks to define and articulate what exactly “feminist nutrition” is, or what it could be. She just finished co-editing the volume Doing Nutrition Differently: Critical Approaches to Diet and Dietary Intervention with her closest colleague and twin sister, Allison Hayes-Conroy. “Allison and I wanted to create a book about nutrition that brought together scholar, artist, activist and practitioner voices in the project of re-defining and re-practicing nutrition,” she said.
Jessica has quite a few projects she is working on at the moment. The first is related to the Fukushima disaster and the contamination issues that are still impact thousands of residents around Fukushima prefecture. “In this project, I explore in how the disaster has changed the daily lives of different residents, including their eating habits, as well as other micro-geographic changes in their relationship to contaminated spaces – their homes, gardens, public areas, play spaces and even their own bodies,” Jessica said. In June of 2013, along with her colleague Sasha Davis, Jessica traveled to Fukushima to meet with residents and hear their varied stories. “During this trip, I also became especially focused on the experiences of elderly populations, as well as children and young mothers.” In addition to this research, Jessica is also continuing to work on a few intersecting projects related to the situated and contextual “doing” of feminist nutrition. “I am exploring different methodological and pedagogical practices that could help to specify new ways of approaching nutrition intervention, beyond the missionary-style education model. This research trajectory also includes a new local research project that I am starting with my colleague, Kendra Freeman, on food segregation in Geneva, NY, as well as continued work on dietary decolonization that my student, Abby Blumenthal, is currently spearheading as yearlong independent study project at Hobart & William Smith Colleges,” she said.
When asked the name of the last scholarly article or book Jessica read, she responded, “I have really been enjoying Charlotte Biltekoff’s new book Eating Right in America: The Cultural Politics of Food and Health, which just came out in the fall of 2013. It is a historical and critical perspective on dietary reform in the United States, examining everything from the foundations of nutrition science to the obesity ‘epidemic.’ The book offers a really important lens through which to understand what it means to eat correctly, and it importantly situates the purportedly individual project of healthy eating within the broader context of structural inequality and the bio-politics of citizenship. This perspective is really important to understanding contemporary food politics, including the alternative food movement. I am sure I’ll be adopting this book for the food class that I teach at HWS!”
As for Jessica’s must read classic, she said she couldn’t just pick one, “I blame it on being an interdisciplinary scholar.” However, Jessica did mention her two go-to books on the body are Susan Brison’s Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of a Self and Ladelle McWhorter’s Bodies and Pleasures: Foucault and the Politics of Sexual Normalization. Jessica was introduced to these texts in Nancy Tuana’s feminist theory course and immediately became profoundly valuable in helping her to think through how the material body changes and develops in particular socio-spatial contexts, and also how it can become a locations for political action. Jessica added, “I would be remiss to not mention Julie Guthman’s work, which has had a huge influence on how I approach my own food scholarship, as well as my teaching. I always start my food classes with pieces like “’If they Only Knew’: Colorblindness and Universalism in California Alternative Food Institutions,” and “Bringing Good Food To Others: Investigating the Subjects of Alternative Food Practice.” The critical perspective that Julie has brought to alternative food scholarship is undeniably invaluable.”
Jessica had a hard time picking just one class to rank as her favorite. The ones that come to her mind are those at Penn State: a Feminist Theory course taught by Nancy Tuana, ‘Curriculum and the Cultural Body’ taught by Stephanie Springgay, and a class on rural communities and schools taught by Kai Schaft. “I remember all of these classes fondly for a variety of reasons, but most basically because of the varied critical lenses that they gave me to explore how bodies “learn” in and through a variety of socio-spatial contexts. I still often talk about a particular workshop in Curriculum and the Cultural Body, where a guest artist invited class members to explore the social norms and expectations that surround physical bodily contact, and to recognize just how little most human bodies actually tend to touch and be touched. Thinking back to these classes, I am overwhelmed by what a privilege it was to share in a sense of collective excitement, as we explored news ways of making sense of the world,” she said.
Jessica hopes to illuminate some of the difficulties yet inspirations that come with academia. She hands out this piece of advice for emerging scholars: “I want to inspire hope, but also acknowledge some of the hardships that are out there. Today, emerging scholars currently face a variety of difficult structural issues. Many promising new scholars are bouncing from postdocs to visiting and adjunct professorships, which is something that I also did for five years after I finished my PhD. I have witnessed and experienced the mental and physical toll this can take on emerging scholars, and on the families, communities and ecologies that surround and support them. In addition, as institutions of higher education are increasingly driven by neoliberal models of education, even those of us in more permanent positions can find ourselves disenchanted with our place in the academy. To this I can only say that we must look for creative solutions wherever we find ourselves, and we must also recognize these problems need to be solved through collective action. I have been fortunate to be surrounded by colleagues and friends who are similarly minded, from whom I have received much support and inspiration. These networks are vital, and our collaboration as scholars and activists is what keeps me going.”
Although Jessica cannot make our conference this year, she hopes to participate in future conferences. “I love that there is a conference dedicated to feminist geography, and I imagine that it will be a wonderful opportunity to cultivate and expand the kinds of networks that I just spoke of. While a previously scheduled research trip is keeping me from this year’s conference, I am looking forward to participating in future conferences!” she said.
Jessica loves to hear from other feminist geographers and especially young emerging scholars. If anyone has questions or ideas to discuss, she encourages you to get in touch!
Her contact information can be found on the HWS Women’s Studies departmental webpage.