Friday, September 2, 2011

Dashboard Scribbles: Nonacademic Thoughts on Academia, Geography, and Anthropology

Like everything else in the world these days, academia finds itself in constant fits of renegotiating identity, structure, funding, and futures. And in the midst of these the students, faculty, and staff find themselves pulled in eight different directions and working under exponentially more directives. That said, these notes apply not only to the interplay between Geography and Anthropology, but also to academia as a whole.

I ask myself on a regular basis what it means to be interdisciplinary, trans-disciplinary, multi-disciplinary, disciplined at all. The changing face of scholarship in the United States and the students creating it (and I do, for the record, still identify professors and staff as students) supports a whole slew of symptoms I have yet to successfully negotiate in myself and others. Quick and dirty on me: I started in Journalism, earned a BA in English Literature, an MA in Religious Studies, and am now in a conjoined Geography & Anthropology program. And I’ve had the same research focus through it all: people and culture. Cheers. Now back to reflections on academic climates (little nod to my physical geographer friends, there).

We have, on the one hand, scholars who came of academic age in a period where one learned the discipline, touted the discipline, acted as its apologist, and established a firm foundation for one’s students to reiterate the experience in their own sweat and tears, ultimately perpetuating the department’s funding and its necessary (and yes, still necessary) contributions to academic and nonacademic lives.

On the other hand we have contemporary scholarship’s adolescents, energized by passions they have yet to fully understand, flirting with a variety of disciplines, programs, and futures. Finding love, feeling the burn, nursing the wounds, and stumbling onward into the outstretched arms of the next theory, methodology, case study, department, etc. wondering if the next one will be the one, as if that even exists (and I opine it does not, at least, in the case of academia).

Enter the multi-disciplinary program. One could argue that Geography and Anthropology are uniquely and fortuitously situated in complex matrices of foci, methods, and goals, and as such, make perfect lovers in the bed of contemporary, multi-disciplinary departments. Since their respective inceptions (the convoluted and often re-contextualized origins of which are not for this essay) these departments have each endured debates and cleavages spanning physical/cultural, quantitative/qualitative, and inductive/deductive spectrums, just to name a few. And as any scholar worth one’s student loan debt acknowledges today, even if only begrudgingly and with a dash of passive-aggressive banter, there is no yin without yang, no single “correct” method of study that out-concludes another. The qualitative, culture-oriented anthropologist and geographer sigh as questions of census data and carbon-dating emerge as part of their studies (and let’s not forget the perpetually irritating “Are you sure you talked to enough people? Participant observation?”); the quantitative GIS aficionado and the forensic anthropologist groan as they encounter their myriad variables that cannot be addressed via the very real numbers and specimens before them (ask any climatologist how “exact” their hurricane studies and predictive models can get and they will wince a little bit).

As such, since these two very different departments have within them very different characteristics, it makes sense to add the people/place debate to those aforementioned spectrums. Further, the vast and varied foci of these disciplines necessitates that they consistently dip their toes into other methods, theories, and departments to accomplish their goals. This means they’ve also left their marks on other scholars. Sociologists, Media Scholars, Biologists and Mathematicians have nodded to Anthropology’s accomplishments. Computer Scientists, Geologists, and researchers in English Literature and Art History incorporate Geography into their studies. These days everyone is borrowing from everyone else and comfortable admitting it (thus begins the “free-love” period of scholarship as a follow-up to its clandestine key parties phase).

And with that, it becomes increasingly clear that Geography and Anthropology situate themselves as necessary considerations for each other. It is impossible to study people without acknowledging where the people are. Similarly, it is impossible to study the world without acknowledging the creatures living in/on it.

The pros of multi-trans-inter-disciplinary work:
  • The ability to build from multiple firmly-established, traditional programs that paved the way for vital scholarship, and be a part of how these traditional programs apply their strengths to the shape of new forms of scholarship
  • Significantly more freedom than a single academic program’s focus would allow in absorbing methods, philosophies, materials, and topics. In my department, for example, it is not only encouraged but required that doctoral students take a minor outside the department, which opens up course credits to follow one’s passions.
  • A potentially higher retention rate for materials, based from multi-modal learning approaches and different teachers’ strengths, not to mention the personal impetus to coalesce seemingly divergent components under the umbrella of something like, say “Geography and Anthropology”.
  • Increased potential for more holistic approaches to learning, teaching, and content for future generations, which many argue leads to better undergraduate student retention and higher GPAs.
  • Increased potential for funding and support from sources that may have otherwise been obscure or inaccessible (I, for example, as a Religious Studies doctoral student would have a significantly harder time vying for NSF funding than I do as a Geography doctoral student, despite the fact that my project would be the same in either program).
The cons:
  • Fewer professors from my home department who dovetail “perfectly” with my theoretical foundations and methods. This, of course, is a challenge for any department (sorry, those of you still holding a candle for the ONE), but it becomes more obvious with a conjoined department. Simply put, I cannot talk with a geomorphologist about what’s missing from my dissertation.
  • Increased existential anxiety: am I a jack(ass) of all trades and a master of none? This occurs with good reason; while many of us embrace the freedom of multidisciplinary work, the necessary training in undergraduate courses (as students, TAs, and teachers) can fall to the wayside entirely too easily. Anyone who enrolled or taught courses at a large university can attest to some of the poor pedagogical and content training teachers receive, if they are lucky enough to receive any training at all
  • And when I finally hit the job market in thirty years, will I be employable as a geographer, having never taken an undergraduate geography course? Will I be employable as an anthropologist, having never been exposed to all four fields? Although this anxiety is unavoidable it is also, in my experience, amplified with each additional discipline I am supposed to have mastered. Twice the department=twice the stuff I missed.
  • In my department, its not unusual for someone to ask the person sitting next to him/her, “What is that? Is that part of our department?” and I’ve been asked outright by both anthropology and geography students, “are you sure you’re in the right program?” Similarly, I’ve asked these questions of others. They are good questions, and when they are posed to me I can’t always answer in the affirmative. But like Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman, “I got no place else to go.” (Although I do, let’s be honest. I know people in English and Communication Studies who “do what I do.” But that’s also a topic for another essay).
To me, ultimately, Geography and Anthropology is my home (notice the verb tense on that one) because of its frustrating lack of one central core. Working in my department, I have the opportunity on a daily basis to admit I have no familiarity with a topic, be only mildly chided, and then receive a whole new bibliography to pool and obsess over (or, you know, add to the stack of bibliographies I stare at but never quite get to review). And at the end of the day, we should all be doing this for the love of it. We should all be amateurs. Because if we’re looking for stability in sensibilities and signed checks, we’ve chosen the wrong path.

I sat next to a climatologist in one of my classes last year, a forced-socialization to the multiplicity of geography and anthropology, and asked him what he thought of that week’s assigned reading in cultural anthropology. He replied, “I don’t what the hell this reading is doing in a department where I’m a student, but I had a good time looking through it. This is fun night-time reading for me.” I can’t say that I’ll be picking up an archaeological review of pots from Peru any time soon (for work or pleasure), but I appreciate the sentiment. The best of the department is when we try to figure out what the hell someone else’s work is doing near ours. This makes us more creative (and I aver, better) scholars, teachers, researchers, lovers, and people.

So here’s to you, political ecology, whatever you are…

Annemarie Galeucia
Doctoral Student, Louisiana State University’s Department of Geography and Anthropology

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