I remember the day I ran into my PhD advisor from York University at a conference and told her how much I had loved my first year at Mount Allison University. She wrinkled her nose and said “really?” before looking away and changing the topic. I felt pretty small in that moment, and maybe even a little ashamed for so enthusiastically endorsing my time at a tiny, teaching-focused undergraduate institution in a small Maritime town. I had, it seemed, ungratefully discarded the promise (my promise!) of a PhD in cutting-edge urban theory in the centre of the known universe.
Four years and a series of contracts later, I’m now on the tenure track at Mount A and looking at spending the rest of my academic career as a feminist urban geographer in a town of 6000.* This irony is remarked upon regularly by colleagues, and I see the scepticism in the eyes of those who squint in confusion at the institution on my conference name tags. And there is something to this: not only am I far from my research sites, I’m a long way from the acknowledged hotspots of contemporary urban research and theory making. I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when I was asked to review a proposal for a new collection of Canadian urban scholarship. It had clearly been put together by folks I knew well in just such a powerful hotspot, but I was not an invited contributor. Ouch. I decided to blow my honorarium on a nice bottle of scotch.
Luckily, neither the feeling of smallness nor the sting of exclusion lasted long. There was work to do, and refreshingly, it had very little to do with reading or citing or responding to the so-called cutting edge. Instead, I collaborated with feminist colleagues on two conference CFPs that push my thinking in new directions. I worked on a paper I’ve nicknamed the “Dr. Who” article for its oddball references to time travel and timespaces. I analyzed the data from a collective project on joy. And I started the second iteration of a seminar on ecofeminism with an amazing group of enthusiastic undergrads. In short, I had a lot of fun while doing nothing that fit the mould set for me by my graduate training.
So this is my ode to the edges, to working from a place that everybody knows is nowhere.** There is a lot of freedom here to pursue wacky, “queer,” unexpected ideas and projects – in other words, to be genuinely curious. No one is policing my choice of theory, frowning at my teaching topics, or telling me which journals to publish in. This is a rarely acknowledged benefit of being beyond the gravitational pull of the theory-stars in one’s discipline. I realize that it’s easier to take advantage of this freedom if you have secure(ish) employment, and that actually living in a place like Sackville is more comfortable when you have certain privileges. Despite those caveats, it might still be possible to meander over to the intellectual edges from time to time without sinking your career. Go to that slightly-odd sounding conference panel instead of the “big name” talk. Find out what people are working on at smaller universities. Read and cite the work of emerging academics (and non-academics). And whenever possible, let curiosity chart the course.
Mount Allison University
* My PhD advisor is, for the record, very happy for me now.
** “Everybody knows this is nowhere” was the slogan for Sappyfest 7 (2012), an annual indie music festival in Sackville, New Brunswick.