Select Language

Lakeland University Japan News

Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Adam Tompkins - LUJ Professor of History

Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Adam Tompkins - LUJ Professor of History


Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Adam Tompkins - LUJ Professor of History

Ever since joining Lakeland in 2013, Dr. Adam Tompkins has been the cornerstone of our history department, teaching classes from US and World History to his upcoming Environmental History of Japan course which starts in Fall 2023. Here, for the first time, he goes in-depth about his past research, his love for the state of Arizona, and his passion for waterfalls, among other things...

1) When would you say you first became passionate about history? Was there a specific moment, or was it a gradual realization?

I think it was a culmination of different things.

I did a good amount of cross-country traveling with my grandparents when I was a kid. I lived in Arizona, but most of my family was in upstate New York. I would fly to New York to visit during the summer and then my grandparents would bring me back to Arizona.

My grandpa was interested in history and my grandma was afraid of flying, so I got to see a lot of museums and landscapes as we drove across the country or took Amtrak. Seeing places helped me visualize the history when I learned about it.

I was also very lucky to have a few excellent history teachers in high school. History, for me, was always like storytime where I could sit and absorb and imagine.

One teacher would weave fun activities (bubble-gum blowing and hula hoop contests) into the class to teach cultural history. When I was in my early 20s, I saw him at a club show and told him that he was the reason that I wanted to teach history. He apologized and bought me a beer.

Finally, I read a lot of fiction growing up. Reading opens your mind to new worlds, introduces you to other ways of thinking and being, and makes you a more curious and critical thinker. History, consequently, appealed to me as a major because doing history is a combination of detective work, storytelling, and argumentation.

2) Some of us here at LUJ know about your connection to the state of Arizona. Could you tell us more about that, and perhaps let us know of the research projects you're interested in pursuing there?

The Sonoran Desert is a beautiful and special place. It is in my heart, my blood, my bones. I was lucky to spend my formative years in a small town on the suburban fringe of Phoenix. There was nothing to do (literally...we didn't even have a McDonalds until I was in 8th grade), so we had to go out into the desert to make our own fun.

Of course, some of that fun was possibly of a questionable nature, but I would not trade those memories or friends for anything. Growing up with the McDowell Mountains in my "backyard", Mazatzals to the north, and Four Peaks across the Verde Valley cultivated an environmental ethic in me that is a core of my being to this day.

Phoenix is a cool town that had a tight-knit local punk scene when I was younger. It now has a vibrant public art scene that is very grassroots in origin. It really highlights the city's diversity. PHX is Mural City.

In terms of research, I would like to turn a project that I worked on in graduate school into a Reacting to the Past roleplay unit in which students assume the identity of any number of historical figures with a vested interest in opposing or supporting the construction of the Orme Dam (just north of Phoenix) in the 1970s.

The dam had widespread public support, but it would have destroyed critical Southern Bald Eagle habitat and flooded the majority of the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation. Local environmentalists formed a coalition with the Yavapai and eventually defeated the proposed dam.

Turning that historical episode into a roleplay module would provide an excellent opportunity for exploring 20th-century Native American history and Native struggles for self-determination/sovereignty, social movement theory and coalition-making, and the intersection of social justice issues with environmental concerns.

I also have a plan to research Arizona's native plants law and the efforts of the state to curb cactus rustling, which, like the trade in illegal animal parts, threatens vulnerable species. Covid and some administrative issues have resulted in that project being put on hold though.

3) You've been an LUJ Professor for over a decade. How have your classes changed over time?

Well, I have got more of them. When I started, I only taught the US history survey courses and World History II. I think I teach eight different courses now.

My course content is always changing. I solicit student feedback at the end of every semester, which helps me to assess the semester and make adjustments to my teaching and course content. I have become a fan of Reacting to the Past roleplay modules and I have incorporated RTTP into some of my courses. Sometimes I use novels or video games as a door to the subject matter.

In terms of students, there are a lot more international students now than when I started.

One thing has stayed consistent through the years. The students are my favorite part of LUJ. When I was in graduate school, I always thought that I wanted to work at a university that prioritized research. I still love research (and think that it is central to being a great professor), but I have discovered a passion for teaching and interacting with students that I did not know that I had in graduate school. The close-knittedness and diversity of the campus community at LUJ is special.

4) Your 2016 book, Ghostworkers and Greens, deals with the relationships between environmentalists and farmers and the difficulties of ending pesticide poisoning. How did you go about gathering research for this book, and is pesticide poisoning happening in Japan as much as in the United States?

I prefer the term "grower" to "farmer." The term "farmer" conjures up images of the idyllic family farm. That is not really representative of much of the agricultural industry. I think Carey McWilliams nailed it with the term "Factories in the Fields."

But I actually didn't examine environmentalists and growers working together. With pesticides, they were often on opposite sides of the issue. Rather, I investigated the efforts of politically-disempowered migrant farmworkers to improve their working conditions and quality of life.

Farmworkers often lived in or around the fields where they worked and were regularly exposed to the toxic pesticides that were sprayed on the fields. Farmworkers are a historically difficult group of workers to organize and elected officials rarely addressed their concerns, so farmworkers were exempted from the landmark New Deal (1930s) labor legislation. Growing support among people who were not farmworkers proved to be an effective strategy for fomenting change in the fields, such as wages, working conditions, and pesticide regulation.

I became interested in the topic when I was a graduate student at Penn State. I was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma during my second semester in the program and had to return to Arizona for treatment. I was still taking classes as I was going through chemo and I needed to do a research paper on 20th century Catholicism. I was friends with the archivist who curated the Chicano Collection at ASU, so I started a project examining Catholicism within the California farmworkers' movement.

As I was combing through archival material, I started to see a lot of discussion about pesticides and health (including cancer, which I knew from personal experience sucked really bad). That was much more interesting to me as a research topic than Catholic influences within the movement.

I had always considered pesticides to be an environmental issue and the pervasive stereotype was that labor unions and environmental organizations were antagonistic towards each other (a general characterization that is somewhat problematic).

If farmworkers cared about the ill effects of pesticides and environmentalists cared about ill effects of pesticides, I wondered if organizations with the two social movements found any opportunity for collaboration. Contrary to public perception and what some scholarly literature suggests, farmworker groups and environmental organizations have cooperated in pesticide reform efforts periodically from the 1960s to the present.

I traveled to archives in Arizona, California, New York, and Michigan to comb through primary source material. Then I spent a week at the Farmworker Association of Florida office in Apopka. Using case studies, I challenged the argument that environmentalists did not care about the environmental justice concerns of farmworkers. Instead I argued that bridge-builders within the respective groups regularly facilitated cross-organizational collaboration.

The cooperation between farmworkers and environmentalists, though, often went unrecognized because the collaborations only lasted as long as necessary (the duration of a campaign or court case) and were often coordinated outside the public eye.

5) Okay, you're passionate about history, teaching and learning about the environment. How about your free time? How do you relax?

As a desert rat, I get excited over water. River rafting with my daughter is my favorite thing to do. I also have a thing for waterfalls. I have been trying to slowly work my way through the list of Japan's top 100 waterfalls.

In Arizona, I liked finding out-of-the-way swimming holes, but that doesn't seem to be too much of a thing here in Japan.

I like hiking and photography. I started walking the Michinoku Coastal Trail in sections last January, so now when I think about getting out of town, I usually think about Tohoku.

I have completed approximately 130 kilometers of the trail so far, which means that I still have a really long way to go. I hope to complete it in 4 to 5 years (hope being the operative word).

I am a bit of a gamer, though I am sort of on and off with playing. My favorite game series is The Last of Us (1 and 2). It is an emotional gut punch.

I was also a big fan of Detroit: Become Human.

I blended leisure and scholarship with that game, publishing an article titled "Acts of Becoming: An Examination of the Historical Symbolism and Embodied Empathy in Detroit: Become Human" in Loading...: The Journal of the Canadian Game Studies Association.