Problems of Place: Place and Placelessness in Academia

Editor’s note: this is part of an ongoing series on #problemsofplace. Stay tuned for Heather’s follow-up to this piece, in which she will discuss the importance of connection to place in our work, and the impacts these structural pressures and realities have on our abilities to connect to place and community in our work, activism, and lives.

I grew up next to the ocean. Surrounded by it. Hearing the waves crash and lull against the cliffs that I roamed growing up, watching countless sunsets, devouring page after page of books while sitting on rocks along the shore, watching the tide slowly creeping in and away. I spent my childhood hopping rocks and collecting seashells and sand dollars. I played with sea creatures I found along the beach. Starfish, flatfish, flounder, crabs, lobsters, sea urchins, eels, the list is endless. I saw whales and seals from the deck of my father’s fishing boat, learned to band lobsters, and watched as the crew hauled in traps, and loaded and unloaded them each season. I learned the terror of the sea along with its calmness. The ocean is part of who I am; it has informed my identity and influenced the ways in which I interpret the world. The ocean, in a sense, has been my home.

My youngest sister jigging for mackerel, 2014.

Home is often an elusive concept in the academic world, at least for those of us pre-tenure. The life of an academic is a life in motion. We move from place to place as we complete our degrees, as we take up post-docs or internships or contract jobs, and we move around on the job market. It is expected of us—and often on short notice. However, I have come to realize that the structure of academic life has created a sense of placelessness in me.

Schooner Pond Shoreline.

I opened this post by mentioning my connection to the Atlantic Ocean because that particular body of water always represented home to me, to centering myself in place and constructing my self-identity. It influenced the ways I negotiated adapting to new places and establishing new homes throughout my journey as an academic. Through this process, I have come to realize that I have multiple homes. The first is the place I was born and grew up—Cape Breton Island—but my research has given me adopted homes. I spent six years living in Edmonton, AB while doing my PhD and made multiple and extended trips to the Yukon throughout that time. Both of these places have come to feel like home to me.

In an earlier post, Aadita Chaudhury discussed her experiences with outgrowing the places she once identified as home. Unlike Aadita, I have not outgrown my multiple homes. Instead, I crave them. Each of them, and for different reasons. I crave the tremendous sense of pride and the dangerous beauty of Cape Breton—the salty ocean in the air, friendly faces on the street, and the sense of belonging I feel when I am there. I crave the family I built for myself throughout my time in Edmonton—the friends and comrades who saw me through the journey of a PhD. These are relationships that cannot be replicated. It’s a sense of being through something together that you can only understand if you were there. And finally, I crave the beauty and wildness of the Yukon, a place that leaves my heart simultaneously aching and filled with awe and inspiration. My Yukon home offers adventure and potential, my Edmonton home stability and support, and my Cape Breton home family and possibility. But what I have realized binds these places to my sense of home is a feeling of belonging.

Throughout my years as a student I always felt like I belonged, like I had a home. For those who commit to living in their PhD cities, like I did, we established some stability there. I spent six years in Edmonton; I had my favorite restaurants and breweries, I knew the nicest off-leash trails along the river valley to walk my dog, I knew the public transit schedules and fastest routes to get around town. I have memories embedded in these locations. I developed a life there, yet it is this very feeling of belonging and identifying place as home that has created a feeling of placelessness in me now.

Since finishing my PhD last May I have felt on edge about the next step. Finishing a PhD should be a time of celebration—it’s a big accomplishment! And I did feel relieved, but as I went out with my friends the evening of my defense to celebrate I found myself responding to their questions, not with great relief and satisfaction, but with uncertainty. They’d ask how it felt to be finished, to be able to breath. But I didn’t feel that way. Yes, I was pleased to have successfully defended my dissertation, a project I am passionate about and loved working on. But, more than relieved, I felt lost. At the time of my defense, I didn’t have a postdoc or a job lined up. I felt out there in the world with no idea where I was headed or what I was going to do. I was anxious and spent much time thinking about where I should move, scouring H-Net, and applying to every job posting I could find remotely related to my expertise. This only lasted a couple of weeks before I got notice that I had landed a postdoc with the Wilson Institute for Canadian History at McMaster University, as well as a Fulbright fellowship in American Indian Studies at the University of Arizona.

Though I made the bittersweet move away from a place I identified as a home, away from my chosen family and support network toward a new journey, the anxiety of instability was still in the back of my mind. I was pleased to have a two-year position at a great university with a fantastic institute, yet I still felt unsettled. Even buying furniture for my new apartment I found myself thinking, “I don’t want to buy much, because I’ll just have to move it all again in two years.” And then, within six months of relocating to Hamilton, I made another temporary move for a semester-long stint in Tucson, Arizona. And though I have these positions, I’m still actively on the job market. This is not meant to be a complaint; it is the reality of this life that I have chosen and I knew this going in. These are decisions I made, and things I wanted to do. And these are all things expected of us as academics in order to secure a paid position.

I was one of those grad students who thought “I’ll go wherever I can get a job.” I don’t think that anymore. I now allow myself to let job applications pass me by if they are in a place I know won’t make me happy or won’t help me feel at home. Lately, the importance of place has become clearer to me. Feeling connected to the place I live and work in are crucial, for me, to my mental, emotional, and physical well-being.

Jessica DeWitt‘s earlier post in this series discussed young academics’ tendency to strive for an unknown future place where there is stability, rest, and permanency. Now that I have left the places I feel connected to, I can’t help but fall into this thought process. I dream of a future time where I can “shoot roots,” as Elizabeth Hameeteman‘s post discussed, and begin to fully engage in my community. The labour, time, and emotional contributions we make to our work and to our lives outside of work is exhausting when we live on short-term contracts and constantly move from place to place. As a single woman in my late 20s, the external pressure of “settling” looms large (both internally and externally). While female academics work to reach our own personal goals, it often feels as though we are falling behind the cultural norm—marriage, kids, owning a home, etc. Even if fitting the cultural norm is not important to us individually, it has some influence over our lives. It’s difficult for me to even plan a trip because I don’t know what next year will look like—where will I be? Will I be employed? When will I have time?

I worry if I will ever feel at home in only one place, but I also worry if I will ever find stability and permanancy. Will I ever be settled long enough in one place to truly make a contribution to that place and those who call it home? These tensions of places and placelessness are the trade-offs, it seems, for my generation of academics to finding full-time employment. While completing our degrees and searching for meaningful employment we have the opportunity to create multiple homes for ourselves; in most cases, the time comes where we must move on and renegotiate this sense of place and placlessness once again.