When a Sense of Place is a Sense of Motion

I’ve been thinking a lot about staying alive by thinking about place.  One of the common situations for those of us that pursue intellectual work is finding one’s way into a life, as Wallace Stegner once put it, where a sense of place is a sense of motion.  I’m interested, then, in the consequences of mobility–the ways we respond to the risk of departures, the enigmas of arrivals, the ongoing challenges of coming to terms with a place-among those of us whose intellectual lives take us (whether by circumstance or by choice) in unexpected directions.

John has written eloquently about the challenges of mobility in “The Road of Exile,” the first chapter in his book The Cincinnati Arch. My own path back and forth across the country-from the oceans and mountains of the West to the fields and forests and rivers of New England-has kept me off kilter as well. A few years ago I wrote a commentary on some of the problems that many of us face as we undertake the move from graduate school to (if we are fortunate) to another college. “Where do you Teach?” questions the commonplace story of graduate students, trained in university-based programs, seeking the few coveted positions but mostly (and unfortunately) settling for jobs at second- or third-tier schools. As the story goes, there are desirable jobs, with course releases, research funding, upper-level seminars, and smart students; and there are less desirable jobs, with barely tolerable teaching loads, lower-level courses, and less-talented students. The myth is as pernicious as it is destructive. As I say in my commentary, “With the values and practices of the research university accepted as the profession-wide standard, we devote fewer of our intellectual energies to teaching, as well as to the ever more important engagements with public audiences who benefit from our work; we diminish the commitments of faculty whose intellectual work is organized around teaching undergraduate students, and whose reading and writing often arises from that work; and we disadvantage new PhDs struggling to imagine rewarding careers in English programs located outside the doctorate-granting institution.”

A few weeks ago, the subject of staying alive by thinking through place emrged in a commentary by the philosopher Gregory Pence in The Chronicle of Higher Education. In “”How to be Happy in Academe,” Spence makes the case that to be happy in the academic world you need a job. He argues that while difficult to come by, academic  jobs require you to “work hard at the three things we are expected to do: teach students who want to learn, publish about things you care about, and be a good academic citizen through service to your institution and field.” I guess Spence is mostly on the mark-at least as far as he goes. For in fact there is something very agreeable in the in the idea that we need to develop a sense of purpose and meaning right where we are.

But I really don’t think he goes far enough. My experiences tell me that the pragmatic advice in his “How to” essay neglects, even plays into, the seductions and betrayals of our professional lives. And my hope is that we might discuss further the ways our migratory patterns intersect with our struggles to build and sustain meaningful professional lives.

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One Response to When a Sense of Place is a Sense of Motion

  1. Nancy Cook says:

    Dear John,

    You’ve hit on a topic here that has concerned me for quite some time. In short, the current traditions surrounding hiring academics, frequently exile our nation’s best thinkers foreign, not necessarily desirable landscapes & communities while simultaneously working against the goal of “place-based learning” for our students.

    As an MFA student of Creative Nonfiction at the University of Alaska I experienced the shortcomings of this approach directly. I chose UAF expressly because I was writing Nonfiction about Alaska and assumed I would find my best guidance in my home state. However, that was far from the truth. With several notable exceptions, many of the “imported faculty” had little connection to the Alaska landscape and frankly little interest in being in Fairbanks. They were “exiled” in the name of a job, and often it showed through in their teaching, causing a disservice to their students and institutions.

    When I applied for my first academic job, I had a clear goal. I would leave my home in Alaska for a job in the West in a town where I wanted to live. And I got lucky. I found a CC (complete with the awful workload you speak of) in Astoria, OR on the Columbia River relatively near (if five hours is near) my original hometown of Richland, WA. But again, I got lucky and severely limited my options by refusing to look at “everything open on the Chronicle.” And still, it’s taken me at least five years to feel a real sense of community and sense of place here. As a teacher of writing, I feel fortunate to learn a lot about local culture from my students, but I’m not so sure I serve them well while I’m on that learning curve.

    Now that I’m a mother, I find myself challenged again. It feels unfair that my “academic career” means I have to live far from my otherwise very close extended family who my daughter should be able to grow up near.

    Most recently, I find myself sitting on hiring committees asking myself, does Joe Blow from Central Ohio really want to come here to teach Spanish ? And how well would they serve our immigrant community versus the born & raised (albeit quantitatively less qualified) candidates who live and thrive here with a sense of place (and associated community networks) in tact?

    In my mind, institutions that want to support “place-based education” need to adjust their hiring practices to assure those most qualified to offer a “place-based education” are in place, in the right place: especially in state schools. The National Park Service in Alaska (my former employer) has attempted to remedy similar issues through the use of a local hire preference, but I know the policy remains suspect in many managers minds.

    Anyhow, I agree. The current system includes “seductions and betrayals” that deserve more close analysis. I will be at the ASLE Conference Victoria and would look forward to an opportunity to discuss this further.

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