Q&A with Teaching Award Winner Melissa Baird

A portrait of Melissa Baird.
A portrait of Melissa Baird.
Melissa Baird has earned the 2021 Michigan Tech Distinguished Teaching Award.

Melissa Baird is the recipient of Michigan Tech’s 2021 Distinguished Teaching Award in the Associate Professor/Professor category.

Melissa Baird is an associate professor of anthropology in the Department of Social Sciences at Michigan Technological University. A graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, she earned her master’s and doctorate at the University of Oregon. Her research has focused on the politics of heritage within the extractive zone, such as mining or liquefied natural gas projects and protest sites. She is also the current president of the Association of Critical Heritage Studies.

"Dr. Baird is a perfect example of the teacher scholar. She is a distinguished anthropologist and president of her discipline’s national organization, yet she is also passionate about her teaching and a great advocate for involving undergraduates in research. Michigan Tech is fortunate to have her on the faculty!"David Hemmer, dean of the College of Sciences and Arts

Mike Hyslop is the recipient of Michigan Tech’s 2021 Distinguished Teaching Award in the Lecturer/Professor of Practice/Assistant Professor category.

Q: What do you do in your work?

MB: My work since 2011 has focused on the extractive zone — the place where industries, communities and ecologies converge. I am interested in how these complex and fast-moving spaces connect with heritage. What work does heritage do? I use the term heritage work to refer to how heritage is taken up to promote or defend claims.

For example, in my work in the resource frontiers of Western Australia, I found that industries mobilized the language of heritage, Indigenous rights and sustainability in their corporate campaigns. Yet, in their promotion of heritage, contested histories and contemporary issues are presented as resolved.

I set heritage work and the extractive zone within the same frame to see how heritage is enacted and brokered by different actors — the corporation, the state, communities or activists. Whether it is communities occupying protest camps or scientists mobilizing the policy process, in each case, the work of heritage is revealed: It is taken up to make claims, gain legitimacy and shape policy.

Distinguished Teaching Award

Since 1982, the annual Michigan Tech Distinguished Teaching Award has been awarded in two categories: Associate Professor/Professor and Lecturer/Professor of Practice/Assistant Professor. The award nomination and review processes are student-driven; finalists are selected based on student ratings regarding quality of instruction. Winners receive $2,500 and a plaque at an awards dinner sponsored by the Office of the President in the fall.

To do this, to render heritage work visible, I use corporate reports, public records, ethnography (interviews and participant observation of protests, for example) and public record requests to investigate the specific ways that heritage constructs, racializes or advances extractive projects.

For example, I interview energy researchers, agency scientists, engineers, protestors and activists, NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) and tribal representatives. Each has a different idea and understanding of the extractive zone.

Using a forensic approach provides a way to draw on my archaeological training to ground truth the archaeological and cultural resource reports. I have found that these reports often understate the importance of cultural resources or overlook important oral historical or archaeological data. Above all, I am interested in finding my way into the complex transnational projects and their impacts on local communities.

It is a way to combine public engagement, social justice activism and praxis — the space between theories and practice. And, I am also part of an NSF (National Science Foundation)-sponsored project and multidisciplinary team working to understand toxic contamination in the Lake Superior basin.

Q: Why do you care?

MB: Extractive zones are complicated and fast-moving places. Such places are ephemeral (think boom and bust towns) but also strangely durable (think toxic waste). Heritage is part of this conversation. I have found that frontline communities often use heritage to mediate the development rush and its impacts. And, companies are increasingly developing a corporate heritage discourse that positions themselves as key knowledge generators, limiting the discursive space and restricting forums for debate. For Indigenous or local communities, this has resulted in their heritage being presented in ahistorical and apolitical ways, contested pasts and presents, land rights or treaties claims and environmental contexts presented as resolved.

Q: Why do others care? Who benefits from your work?

MB: For communities of connection — Indigenous, frontline and local communities — connecting research to their current concerns is one way to be engaged and it connects activism and scholarship. It is essential to think about how our work connects (or not) and how to reframe contemporary conversations about critical heritage and justice.

Q: Are there specific teaching methods/styles/philosophies that make you successful? 

MB: My classes crosscut traditional disciplinary boundaries. I try to present material that challenges students to expand their worldview and develop critical perspectives of social and political issues — to move beyond their comfort zones and to express their ideas thoughtfully and clearly.

Q: What do you think makes for a successful learning experience?

MB: I see the classroom as a space to create knowledge collectively. I try to provide students with the space and tools to foster open conversations about the world around them. I present opportunities to learn independently and to develop their voices through critical analysis and contemplation.

I want students to encounter the material for themselves and not rely only on my interpretations or criticisms. One approach I have found successful is to use case studies. Case studies engage students to develop problem-solving and decision-making skills. I ask students to analyze the issues, review stakeholders and recommend solutions — to delve into their positions, tease out their contradictions and assumptions, and think about what the material means to them.

For example, one could use a case study on the mining disaster in Mount Polley, British Columbia, or the firestorm in Paradise, California. Students would be asked to analyze primary and secondary data, academic articles, media and websites, and critique how issues are framed. Where are the people? Who is impacted? How is this event framed?

"Students develop knowledge about stakeholders, assess data and debate the different positions — skills they need to succeed as global citizens. This approach also provides an opportunity to reflect and model how to talk about controversial topics and talk to each other, not at each other."Melissa Baird

And it is not that these conversations are easy — and even I can get flustered. But I think it is essential for students to see that I am learning too. Because that is where the learning is: where we let go of what we think we know and open up to other perspectives and possibilities.

Q: Who (or what) inspired you to become a teacher?

MB: I see myself as part of a lineage that includes my family, teachers and students, and friends — those who took the time to mentor and teach, to provide a kind (or firm) word at a particular time, and to pick me up and brush me off when I fell or lost my way.

The Quincy mine headframe with a cloudy, sunset sky in the background.
Baird's work focuses on heritage in extraction sites. The Quincy Mine in Hancock, Michigan, is a local site where mining and heritage are now intermingled.

My mentor Meg Conkey at the University of California, Berkeley, was one of these people. She was truly inspiring in the classroom, where she encouraged creativity and excellence. Meg saw something in me that I did not see — and she gave her time and energies to assure me that, as a first-generation and reentry student, I had a right to be there. That my voice mattered. I like to think that what she taught me and modeled is present in the classroom today.

Q: What opportunities does this award open up for you?

MB: I see this award as a recognition of all the important work of so many folks across campus. I think about my colleagues who give so much of themselves.

I am excited to be working on a new project with Dean (of the Graduate School) Will Cantrell and Dr. Kat Hannum to develop mentoring pathways and grant opportunities for under-resourced students. I am also working with my department on a new graduate mentoring opportunity — MEG: Mentoring Experiences for Graduates Students — to provide cross-generational mentoring opportunities. And I am in the very early stages of a book project on higher education that seeks to envision new ways to shift resources to align with this moment.

Q: What are the challenges you face?

MB: I think we have a collective challenge. We are in a tumultuous moment — and we are all, in some way, struggling to make sense. Education is a tool of transformation and transgression. Our students are looking to us to help them have the conversations and tools necessary to meet this moment. I am happy to see some changes and good work going on across campus (for example, the ADVANCE Initiative), but I think we have a lot more to do.

Our work is to think through specific ways to support students and to think about new ways to use our resources — to ensure access and equity in higher education and to create a diverse and shared space of intellectual inquiry.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.