About Michelle

I am a PhD candidate in Environmental Sciences at Oregon State University, focusing on research in informal education settings. I regularly post about my experiences as an external evaluator for museums and a local school district as well as stories or ideas that catch my attention. Research for my doctorate focuses on how aquarium staff and volunteer environmental identities have formed over time.

I believe every graduate student needs a distraction. My most commonly used distraction is cooking. As I’ve previously posted, I love books and cookbooks are some of my favorite books to buy or receive as gifts. Cooking is a way for me to take my mind off of things because my attention needs to be on chopping, managing heat, and tasting (duh!).

I was recently inspired by a tweet posted by Bon Appetit magazine (@bonappetit). They posted a photo of a famous chef’s cookbook station and said “you can learn a lot about a chef by the cookbooks on their station”. I by no means want to degrade chefs by saying that I am one, but it got me thinking about what my shelf of cookbooks says about me.


A selection of my cookbooks

I have cookbooks I turn to all the time for the basic recipes that every cook needs in their arsenal. And I have other cookbooks that I proudly own, thinking one day I’ll have the time to cook the recipes in them. For instance, I love the entree recipes in Tartine Bread, but the bread recipes are just out of my range at the moment. Bread, to me, is something so down home and I love, love, love making it by hand. That’s probably why I have two bread books (and the pizza book that contains pizza dough and focaccia recipes). I think bread making is in our roots, our heritage. I use the same ingredients and techniques as my great grandmother. Bread doesn’t change with food trends, it doesn’t need to.

I think we all need to respect the forgotten skills of cooking (coincidentally the title of a great book by an Irish woman), but I do like following food trends. My husband often tells people that when I cook you don’t get a hamburger, you get a hamburger. Cooking new foods keeps things interesting in the kitchen.

Some of my favorite books on my shelf are ones published by Junior Leagues. Of course, I own Honest to Goodness from my hometown of Springfield, IL (also Abraham Lincoln’s hometown, hint the name of the book). Other Junior League publications I own include Peoria, IL, Chicago, St. Louis (specifically the Italian-American neighborhood called The Hill), and one from my favorite city, San Francisco.

When I told my mom about this blog post she asked me, “So what do your cookbooks say about you?” I laughed and replied, “That I like carbs.” She then proceeded to tell me hers represent “comfort.” Sadly, I couldn’t get a picture of my mom’s cookbook station in time for this post. I did tell my advisor, Dr. Shawn Rowe, about this post and he and Dr. Olga Rowe so kindly shared a photo of their cookbook shelf. I’ll have to follow up on what their cookbook shelf says about who they are.


Shawn and Olga’s cookbook shelf

So, what do your cookbooks say about you?

I have 248 books in my house. Yes, I counted and no, that doesn’t count borrowed books. Topics range from travel to fiction to mystery to cookbooks to books on learning theory and biology. Obviously, I love to read. It should be a requirement for us as graduate students because we read a lot. Some of my books are like comfort food, comfort books I guess. When I need to escape into another world, I’ll pick up a book and read it cover to cover in a weekend and enjoy every word my eyes consume.  And it feels like a guilty pleasure.


I’ve read a handful of my books more than once. For academic books I find myself re-reading chapters more than the entire book. Yet every time I re-read the pages I notice something new. It’s as though I’m reading through a different lens. And that’s because I am. I started exploring this idea when our theory group was reading Dewey’s Democracy and Education. Dewey writes, “’Reason’ is just the ability to bring the subject matter of prior experience to bear to perceive the significance of the subject matter of a new experience” (pg. 146). What Dewey means is that we see an event in connection to a larger framework, that by habit we see things through different lenses.


Our theory group is currently reading Acts of Meaning by J. Bruner. Bruner states so eloquently, “Books are like mountaintops jutting out of the sea. Self-contained islands though they may seem, they are upthrusts of an underlying geography that is at once local and…a part of the universal pattern. And so, while they inevitably reflect a time and a place, they are part of a more general intellectual geography” (pg. ix).


This is the second time I’m reading Acts of Meaning and I’m simultaneously reading Maps of Narrative Practice (M. White). It wasn’t until I picked Acts of Meaning up for the second time that I started realizing the similarities between it and White’s book, nor had I previously recognized how much White built on Bruner’s theory. I’m now reading both books through a different lens all to create the geography that underlines my doctoral research. I would encourage everyone to re-read a book. Who knows what you’ll discover this time around.

This was not my intended topic for today’s post, but with so much history this week I thought it was a necessary post. A couple of months ago I wrote about creating and using Twitter and what it means to us in the free-choice learning field. With the 24-hour news cycle, social media, and even blogs we get news quickly. We are constantly connected through our computers and smart phones. How were people connected to news 150 years ago? 50 years ago? In those years two significant events happened that changed our nation’s history: the Gettysburg Address and President Kennedy’s assassination.

This past week PBS aired a program about Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address. The focus was on how he used the telegraph to connect to the country, how the telegraph allowed him to “feel the pulse” of the country and ultimately shape the words he used at Gettysburg. Lincoln used the telegraph as a tool for taking in information and for sending information out. Lincoln used the newest, quickest way of communication in his day just as we all use Facebook and Twitter for news and information today. One of the speakers on the show even said, “Lincoln would have been big time on Twitter”.

And what if Twitter existed 50 years ago? NPR drew me in this morning using the Twitter handle @todayin1963 to live tweet the events of the day President Kennedy was pronounced dead. The tweets, however, are ongoing as news continues to develop as though we’re using Twitter in 1963. Would this media source have changed the facts (accurate or not) people heard that day or would it just be a different media source to hear it through?

How we receive our news and how we share it is ever-changing. We’ll always have a new technology that lets us get that much closer to what’s happening in our world. For Lincoln’s generation is was the telegraph and for my generation it’s Twitter.

As a side note, you can follow the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum on Twitter @ALPLM, where they often post Lincoln quotes.

One week ago I was not a Twitter user. After hearing about it for years and seeing other people use it, I wasn’t convinced it was a tool for me. I personally have problems communicating in 140 characters or less (mainly because I don’t usually put a limit on myself) and I think Twitter has changed language use. We see words not being capitalized, the use of numbers where letters should be, an insane amount of shorthand, and #somanyhashtags I can’t #decipher what someone’s actually #tryingtocommunicate.

And then I heard this story on NPR, which claims that Twitter can boost literacy. And I got to thinking, am I just uncomfortable with Twitter because I haven’t fully immersed myself in the experience? Is there something to it that I’m missing? So on Monday, I created an account (@mamileham) to see how this cultural tool is used and what it means for us as researchers of free-choice learning.

Twitter is a cultural tool that’s here to stay.  It allows people to connect and communicate in a way like never before. As this video says, “you wouldn’t send an email to a friend to tell them you’re having coffee. Your friend doesn’t need to know that.” But what if someone is truly interested in the little things? With people connecting (@) and mentioning (#) where they are and what they’re doing, we can follow and understand what they are experiencing and possibly how they’re evaluating and making sense of the world.  With Twitter, the video says, “[people can] see life between blog posts and emails.” What if we could see the meaning making (in almost real time) between entering and exiting a museum based on an individual’s tweets?

I’m not completely sold on Twitter boosting literacy, but I do understand how we are using social media to share information, find information, think about who we are (i.e., identity formation), and that tweeting is a new language. You have to learn and then know how to use the @ and # but maybe it’s worth learning. However, think about how all those #hashtags sound when used in real life.

There is a lot asked of us as graduate students. We take classes, we read, we talk about what we read, we read some more, we work, and let’s not forget about our own personal research.  And that’s just the school side! So how does one balance all of this? As Shawn said on Monday, thinking is hard and it’s time consuming. So every once in while we need to step back and re-center ourselves in order to gain a fresh perspective.

I’m sure everyone has his or her own re-centering strategy: walking in the park, family time, watching your favorite movie, doing some yoga, baking… Personally, I craft. I’ve been sewing since I was in 3rd grade and only recently learned to knit (at the FCL retreat two years ago). There’s something to working with my hands, to reading instructions step-by-step and to knowing my end goal. The finished product is going to look like this.

There are so many ways to reflect on my crafting as a free-choice learning experience. I had interest and motivation to learn both sewing and knitting. When I’m stuck, I turn to the Internet and search for a way to solve my problem. With fellow FCL colleagues I attend a weekly knitting group that’s really nothing more than a community of practice. And, of course, there’s basic knowledge acquired over time. Will this fabric stretch when sewn? Can I knit this with that yarn?

It’s comforting knowing what the finished craft project is going to be. There might be hurdles, but each can be resolved and the project finished. Kind of sounds like grad school…



How did I learn to communicate scientific information to the public? While I was working towards my bachelor’s degree in biology I started working as an interpreter at a city park in Indianapolis.  The position was advertised through the university’s biology department and I decided it’d be a great way to get involved in the community. A lot of what I did was nature hikes with home-schooled youth, Boy Scouts, and Girl Scouts, and a few family events. My knowledge about indigenous plants and animals grew every week (i.e. I learned a lot of content). While I simultaneously gained confidence talking to people, I received very little training on how to communicate. The experience, however, was a driving force for where I am now – environmental education. My communication knowledge and skills have developed in recent years from coursework and from having Shawn as a mentor.

How can we teach others to communicate science to the public? As Laia stated last week, we led a workshop about outreach. We focused on questioning, observing, and reflecting and the workshop seemed well received. During a small group discussion, some scholars and I talked about how to start a conversation with a stranger, engage kids with complicated science concepts, and how to talk to someone who is aggressive and says your research is wrong. These are all important and relevant topics, which we addressed using past experiences and how those experiences were handled. Hopefully the workshop is a stepping-stone for the scholars as they continue to think about and pursue outreach and communication opportunities. You can visit their blog to see what they had to say about communicating science at daVinci Days (a Corvallis event).

So, how did you learn to communicate science to the public?