Exploring the Gray Areas
Alero Akporiaye is working to establish political economy as a robust field of study at RISD.
“What does the global economy mean to you?” is one of the first questions new Assistant Professor of Political Economy Alero Akporiaye asks in introducing students to the field of political economy. “They arrive in class with strong views” about the impact of globalization on the environment, human rights and social mobility, she observes, noting that she takes these as a starting point for exploring the relationship between economics and politics in all its complexity.
Akporiaye says her goal “is to leave students feeling muddled and even confused about what they think they know” about the world, which informs their design thinking and influences the art they make. Crucial to this, says the Nigerian-born scholar, is challenging the gender- and color-blindness of her field. “It is wrong to assume that the global economy is gender-neutral, that we can ignore [its impact on] the environment, the differing interests of developed and developing economies or on the social world and human rights”—a wrong she plans to redress through building a stable of courses at RISD that investigates the economic world in all its messiness.
The arrival last fall of Akporiaye, who earned a PhD in Public Policy and Political Economy from the University of Texas at Dallas, underscores RISD’s deep commitment “to global perspectives and cultivating a significant new curricular focus on the politics of entrepreneurship, innovation, labor and capital,” says Dean of Liberal Arts Dan Cavicchi. After observing the US housing-bubble burst from inside the mortgage industry, when Akporiaye left that career to pursue a grad degree, she naturally gravitated toward a social scientist’s approach to investigating the global economy. Since then she has built up research specializations in the study of oil politics, political risk and the complex relationships between corporations and communities.
“The choice [of field] suited me so well,” says the scholar, who taught at Bates College before joining the RISD community. So far, she's relishing the challenge of introducing the discipline to students engaged primarily in studio learning. “Students here are very bright and keep me on my toes,” she says, adding that she also welcomes the opportunity to advance RISD's efforts to promote diversity, inclusion and social equity on campus. But she’s being patient about this, taking time to get to know and earn the trust of students here, while also modeling diversity as a woman working in a male-dominated academic field—a form of “embodied diversity,” as she puts it.
During her first semester as a member of the History, Philosophy and Social Sciences faculty, Akporiaye taught courses on how political and economic forces affect global supply chains and natural resources. This spring she will turn to teaching International Politics and Women in the International Political Economy. “I want to build a canon of courses so there is a foundation” at RISD for understanding how art and design work fits into larger systems, she says.
Given that the 2016 US presidential campaign showed how easily the complicated questions political economists ask—about globalization, labor, trade and prosperity—can be repackaged as empty yet sensational arguments, Akporiaye is committed to addressing them with the nuance they demand. “I want to make room for all possible explanations,” she says. “The world is murky and gray, and people should feel comfortable with not knowing.” In other words, she’s reminding students that “it’s okay to explore and ask questions”—not just about the world but about one’s role within it.
—text by Robert Albanese / photo by Jo Sittenfeld MFA 08 PH
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