When the COVID-19 pandemic started, Virginia Murphy sought refuge in the mountains of Maine.

“I’m a huge hiker,” she said. “At the beginning of the pandemic, we drove to Maine because our daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughters are there, and we have a family farm that is situated at the base of a mountain.”

While there, they took advantage of the hiking trails alongside and up the mountain.

“The property that the farm is on is over 400 acres so that was an easy everyday hike,” said Murphy, lecturer II in Program in the Environment and lecturer IV in the Residential College in LSA. “For two months, I would wake up every morning before class and go for a quick hike.”

Virginia Murphy, lecturer II in Program in the Environment and lecturer IV in the Residential College in LSA, spent much of the COVID-19 pandemic hiking in the mountains of Maine. (Photo courtesy of Virginia Murphy)
Virginia Murphy, lecturer II in Program in the Environment and lecturer IV in the Residential College in LSA, spent much of the COVID-19 pandemic hiking in the mountains of Maine. (Photo courtesy of Virginia Murphy)

Because the internet connection at their farmhouse wasn’t strong, she rented space in a local barbershop to teach her fall semester courses.

“This little tiny town has a new arts colony and they’ve rehabbed some of the old, old buildings, and since we couldn’t teach at the house because the internet was ridiculously bad, we rented an old barber shop,” she said. “I was ever hopeful that we’d have the barbershop twirly thing, or whatever that’s called. My students thought it was hysterical.”

During the last stretch of her stay in Maine, Murphy was determined to go on at least one long hike each week.

“My husband and I went to Big Moose, which is a pretty big mountain that took us probably about five, five and a half hours round trip and we hiked, all the way to the top,” she said. “But we get to the top, and there’s a satellite weather station at the top, and there’s a helicopter up there. Going up is great, but going down is super painful, so I asked the guys, ‘Hey, can we have a ride down?’ He said, ‘You should be able to, but no.’”

They returned to Ann Arbor in mid-October, driving through the northeast on the trip back.

“We got to see the fall colors we’ve never seen in Maine before, which were spectacular,” she said. “And then got to drive home through New York State and New Hampshire so we sort of chased fall.”

Jointly appointed in the Residential College’s Social Theory and Practice program and the Program in the Environment, Murphy teaches about sustainability and environmental justice through literature. Her research focuses on the relationship between literary texts and the environment, food security, environmental activism and sustainability in food systems.

Before becoming an academic, Murphy was a chef. She left the culinary world once she had children. While raising her three children, she attended Georgetown University to study English literature.

She taught in the College Writing Program at American University in Washington, D.C., where she became interested in environmental justice after reading an article about the change in male fish exhibiting female characteristics.

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“It totally freaked me out and so I saw this man fishing from a bridge and I thought, ‘I bet people don’t know about this,’” she said. “I decided English literature was moving to the side of American literature and environmental literature.”

Her experience as a chef and love for food drew her to working with sustainable food movements, such as community gardening and sustainable agricultural practices.

She helped create and serves as the faculty director of the East Quad Garden, a community garden space in one of East Quad’s courtyards that is maintained by students and faculty. The garden donates most of its produce to the Maize & Blue Cupboard, a local food pantry that helps members of the U-M community.

An East Quad staple, the garden has become a featured component of some Residential College classes, such as Murphy’s favorite course, a freshman-level seminar called How America Eats.

“I don’t teach your typical environmental justice class, which is generally case studies,” she said. “I do incorporate that into the class structure, but primarily what I do is use nonfiction writing and journalistic writing that has exposed whatever environmental injustice has happened in particular communities. I think it really makes a far greater difference to the students to be able to see a person in a community who’s affected.”

Q&A

What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?

I was interviewing for a faculty position at American University in Washington, D.C. One of the questions from the hiring committee involved how I taught DEI at the community college where I was teaching. As I answered, a member asked “Why teach that? Aren’t we a post-racial society by now?” I was offended by the remark and articulated a long set of reasoning about how this person was wrong. As I finished, I realized I’d probably blown the interview by not just agreeing with this person. But as I was escorted to the door by another committee member, he looked me in the eye and said, “well played.” I was hired the next week.

What can’t you live without?

Chocolate. Yoga. Family. And Nanci Griffith, Joshua Bell and most any kind of music; sunlight (especially in winter), excellent food, myriad books, hiking, poetry and good friends.

Name your favorite spot on campus.

East Quad Garden. I love to see people from the community use the garden for lunch or reading, and I am so energized when my student interns take ownership of planning and planting and caring for the garden over the summer.

What inspires you?

Activists. People who actually stand up and speak out about issues of injustice, and who are willing to teach me, and all of us really, the nuances of the issues without arrogance or prejudice.

What are you currently reading?

I read everything. My night table currently holds Edward P. Jones’ short story collection “Lost in the City”; Jericho Brown’s poems, “The Tradition”; Margaret Atwood’s new poetry collection, “Dearly”; Rumaan Alam’s “Leave the World Behind”; Bruno Schulz’s “The Street of Crocodiles”; and I’m re-reading Jedidiah Purdy’s “This Land is Our Land,” which I’ve now taught twice and should be required reading for all Americans as we move forward.

Who had the greatest influence on your career path?

There is a professor who taught me at the University of Maryland, Mary Ellen Hrutka, who introduced me to her colleagues as “her writer.” She was the first person who gave me the confidence to imagine myself as a serious student. As a non-traditional student, my husband and three children are the people who enabled and encouraged me, every day, to earn my graduate degree and pursue my dream of teaching.

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