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ASU geography grad aims to bring more imagination into how we organize ourselves


Michael Coffey

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December 17, 2021

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2021 graduates.

If you look at Arizona State University’s iconic Palm Walk, what do you see? Is it appealing? What feelings does it elicit? Why? 

Michael Coffey, a master’s in geography fall 2021 graduate, in Arizona State University’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, is perceptive. He believes that having a deep understanding of the design choices in our environment and its effect on us, helps us not only move more intentionally through the world but enables us to design better spaces for the future.

“The date palms themselves, the design of the palm tree, is not really intended for human activity but we have this natural column of palm trees, this artificial design that's replicating a classical promenade or colonnade, designed to evoke the austere collegiate feeling, the feeling of being at a university,” Coffey said, who specializes in human-environmental geography, a field that examines relationships between people and environments. “With palm trees it's sort of localized to Arizona, it’s designed to evoke an array of feelings. There’s all these layers on top of each other, design choices are designed to sort of evoke a certain response.” 

Coffey says that when analyzing something in an objective and descriptive way we can be more conscious of human-created systems. 

“Human behavior and the human mind are so deeply interconnected with the physical world that we're interacting with, it’s not just making changes in the world, but also making changes in ourselves through our spaces,” he said. “By being aware not only are you able to make better choices, but you're able to ask, ‘Well, hold on, who is the designer here? And what are they trying to get me to do? Do I want to do that? What other things could I be doing with that?” 

Coffey’s interest in human environmental geography was first sparked as an undergraduate student, double majored in history and Latin, and captivated by the fall of the Roman Empire. He engrossed himself in understanding the social systems at play, how they interacted with their environment and the influence it had. 

Today, he continues to further advance his understanding of the interactions between human society, human history and the environment, with an eye towards taking creative approaches to potentially redesign the social organizations and institutions that we’ve become accustomed to.  

“When you stop looking at social systems as a natural given and more like a craftsman or an artist, you think, ‘What can I do with this if I just start tinkering with it? What do we do? How do we design stuff?’

“I view this as an exercise of citizenship where I am participating in society by understanding how it works and why it works the way it does and exploring alternatives that might lead to better outcomes, that is my goal.”

Here, Coffey answers a few questions about his time at ASU.

Question: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

Answer: I think the biggest thing that I learned that changed my perspective is the idea of complex systems and all the sorts of dynamics that you get from that. In a classical physical system you analyze in terms of individual changes of motion of a certain thing — your classic Newtonian billiard ball, you hit one ball then you can predict the motion of the other ball based on the initial conditions. In complex systems, you have very complex behavior and they're not entirely predictable. They can spontaneously generate their own order just through the interactions of their parts. Having a coherent theory to describe this not only improved my understanding of the world, but also made all of the sort of difficulties, nuances and contingencies that I learned about in history make a lot more sense. 

Q: Why did you choose ASU? 

A: I was looking for the best geography schools in the country and applied to those. ASU was ultimately the school that I got into and I'm very glad I did because it's a wonderful school. I'm very grateful that I did end up here. 

Q: What professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU? 

A: My first adviser, Dr. Billy Turner, and the lesson wasn't so much of an academic one as a personal one. I needed to learn to advocate for myself more. I transitioned from being a student, who passively accepted the teachers that I was given to being a scholar who actively chooses who to work with. I think it is very important to change that mindset that I really needed. I do attribute that to him. He was very gracious through the whole process and it was not that it was not for lack of interest in what I was doing, there was just a lot on his plate, so we reshuffled and he was still on my committee and I still very much appreciated his feedback. The most important lesson that I've learned at ASU is to really stand on my own two feet as a scholar. 

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: I would say the best piece of advice that I can give is to really take the time to understand what you need and don't be afraid to articulate it. That was the biggest challenge that I ran into trying to force myself to do something that just wasn't working on multiple occasions. The other thing I would say is that the more you can converse with your peers about what you're doing, the better your work is going to be, even if it's just talking about stuff over beers at a happy hour. Nobody does any scholarship alone. Having a living dialogue and to be challenged and to have serendipitous ideas in the middle of the night is where all the best scholarship comes from in my experience. So, advocate for yourself and collaborate with other people. 

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: That's a tricky one. This is a beautiful campus. There's an Indian laurel fig right outside of Coor (Hall), the big shady tree surrounded by a raised bed with benches underneath. At some times of the year, especially during the summer months, it's just such a nice respite and during the migratory season, you get a bunch of birds. I love bird watching. I'm not an ornithologist, but I've just enjoyed looking at birds so having that opportunity there was really nice. 

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I'm taking some time off of schooling. I've been in school starting from preschool, probably a good 20 years straight with a one-year break. I honestly probably will be going for a PhD at some point, most likely in anthropology. That seems like probably the best place for me going forward. But for now, I’m just going to take some time off and coach and tutor writing on the side to pay the bills and live life while I still have the opportunity to do so. I already feel the call to do more research, so I don't think that my time off is going to last very long.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would solve the lack of imagination in how we organize ourselves. As I was reading through changes in social organization, I noticed that it seems that we have a very narrow range of ways we create institutions, we have business firms that have management making the decisions for workers. … I don't necessarily think it’s bad, but I think that whenever you get too narrow a diversity of any sort of complex system you start to run into problems because you don't get the same sort of adaptability and resilience, and you start to almost compete with each other. 

Say in running a business or having a social group or learning something new or raising a family, what are the different ways that we can organize ourselves? What are the different configurations of the big component parts that we can put together and what effects do they have? I don't anticipate that there's going to be any one perfect thing, but there might be possibilities for stabilizing boom-bust cycles in economies for people on the ground, especially workers or reintegrating more practical skills into the very heady atmosphere of a university.

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