Problems of Place: Discovering Where I Am in Academia

I found myself in the field of environmental history by accident. Never having taken another college-level history course, in the spring of my junior year I joined friends from the environmental studies department to take a course together called “Environmental History.” The first day of class, Professor Monica Rico asked us to write about a landscape or natural setting that was personally meaningful.

Though I had spent hundreds of hours over the last three years in the quarter-acre garden outside our classroom window in Appleton, Wisconsin, I wrote about the landscape where I grew up: what is now Great Hollow Nature Preserve and Ecological Resource Center in Southwestern Connecticut. As I pounded away at the keyboard, I realized how very little I knew about the property’s history, even though the history of my life played out in it.  In class, we read William Cronon’s Changes in the Land, and from almost a thousand miles away, I learned how to see both human and natural forces at play creating the 900-acre valley I knew and loved.

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I found myself in Wisconsin by accident, too. An angsty teenager, one of my priorities for college was simply to leave East-Coast society and culture behind. Truth be told, it was toward the end of my freshman year when, sitting in Door County looking out over Lake Michigan, I abashedly asked a Wisconsin native to point out on a map exactly which peninsula we were on. I had been so busy escaping to new beginnings afforded to me in this “fly-over” state I hadn’t bothered to learn where I was.

Professor Rico also assigned us to read Gregory Summer’s Consuming Nature, an environmental history of the Fox River Valley where we all lived. I felt I was starting to know where I was—in place, in time, in context; not just at Lawrence University, but also in both the natural and the socio-economic-political landscape.

Ever since a tortuous A.P. U.S. History course, I had looked upon history with scorn. Historians didn’t care about ideas. They only cared about piles of names, dates, and other meaningless trivia. Worst of all were the local history buffs. How could you think such historical minutia was good for more than boring your friends, family, and school field trip groups? What did any of that matter to the really big, important questions: about power, about how to make change in society, about how to create a sustainable future? I was starting to learn.

Class was in Memorial Union; the garden riverside below. Image Source: Lawrence University Digital Archives

I found myself by accident in graduate school in Delaware; during application season a friend of a friend knew somehow who found themselves moving there, and I found myself accepted with funding. I did not like Delaware. It was a small state, with neither mountains nor Great Lakes, whose import beyond being the Cayman Islands of the United States was unclear to me. As the bullet-ridden sign as you entered Wilmington on Route 2 reminded me, it was merely “a place to be someone”—and I vowed to do exactly that somewhere else as quickly as possible.

Seven years later, having completed my masters and working to complete my PhD at the University of Delaware, I am living in a small house in Newark a short jog away from White Clay Creek State Park. I have learned a lot—not just about the old farm property I live on or the early industries that left mill-races along White Clay Creek where I run, but also why place and history matter.

As a historian, it is my conviction that history is humanity’s best tool for posing and attempting to answer all of the important questions that drove me as a teen and continue to drive me today. I’m also firmly committed to the feminist insight (and rallying cry): the personal is political. This insight guides my conviction that power doesn’t just operate at the center, in marble halls of power in important cities and elite boardrooms, but physically manifests in the spaces and places we spend our lives. Yes, even the dinky local railroad museum is part and parcel of important and powerful stories that explain where we are today, and where we might go from here (whether museums highlight those narratives and draw out their inevitably political histories is another question—#museumsarenotneutral).

Image Source: David Rumsey Map Collection

Though reluctant at first, I have set down deep roots in Delaware. The local climate and resources have indelibly shaped both me and my scholarship, beginning with my training in material culture and history of technology at the University of Delaware. In growing my own plot of vegetables, I have embarked on a path of discovery about local climate, growing practices, and agricultural technique that connects me to so many U.S. Victory Gardeners in World War II. I am now proficient in foraging for locally abundant mushrooms. I know local farms and farmers. I’m also informed about local political and institutional landscapes; I have a vested interest in my university, my department, local elections, and am positioned to serve them well.

This is all likely to change. I am on the job market this fall. Like the vast majority of people with doctoral degrees hoping to work in academia, I have almost no agency or choice in where I may have to move in order to be employed next year. If I am lucky enough to obtain a Postdoctoral Fellowship or a Visiting Assistant Professorship, I may spend the first half of the year divided between finding my feet at a new institution and simply applying for more opportunities that will require me to move again a year or three later.

The problems of dislocation and placelessness are more acute for me in some ways because of my intellectual commitments to the importance of place, but these are problems endemic to all academics. Indeed, I’m lucky to have a partner with fairly mobile employment opportunities and to not have children or family that depend on me. I’m lucky that no matter where I move, I will likely feel socially safe in my white cis-het femininity. I struggle to see how either scholars as people or their bodies of scholarship benefit from an academic system dependent on scholars who can’t be sure they will stick around long enough to see their students graduate, or finish a research project predicated on local archives or resources.

Rick Guidice, Interior View of an O’Neill Space Colony. Image Source: NASA Ames Research Center, NASA ID# AC75-1086

I don’t dream of being lucky enough to choose where I ultimately land.

All I want is continuing, stable, employment; the chance to set down roots and extend myself in new scholarship, pedagogy, and outreach while grounded in the soil of my new home. I want to contribute and to serve—to be part of a community long enough to enjoy the fruits of my labors within it. I want to write a local history of global magnitude, and reveal how historical forces created and continue to shape the places and landscapes where I live, work, and play.

I want to find myself somewhere, on purpose.