Academic geographers often become college administrators. We would speculate on the pattern at my national geography meeting every year while missing a friend who has gone over “to the dark side” and thus could no longer get away to attend our geography meetings. “No time for field trips,” we would say, lamenting their loss.
One theory related to the pattern of geographers becoming administrators was that we worked at the intersections of large areas of learning–science (earth sciences), social sciences–the more obvious, humanities (historical and phenomenological), and the arts (cartography). We understand different ways of approaching the world and different “ways of knowing.”
Another theory that has been floated is that geographers are both “lumpers,” or big picture people, as well as “splitters,” or detail people. We move back and forth across scales of analysis, a useful trait for college administrators.
I have recently been reading the book, On Thinking Institutionally by Hugh Heclo. I summarize some of Heclo’s thoughts that have led me to construct a third theory on the relationship between geography and college administration which is related to a desire to construct (we ask questions such as–where would be the best place to put a road?) or take abstract theory and see how it is lived out on the ground. Of course, geographers become city planners who have the ultimate task of trying to take theories of the good life and turn them into concrete spatial expressions on the ground (in collaboration with real people). But first let me summarize some of Heclo’s thoughts:
1. Thinking about institutions is not the same thing as thinking institutionally.
2. Skepticism involves exercising our critical thinking facilities—a good thing, but our modern inclination to distrust typically goes beyond this for various reasons that range from contemporary history to individualism.
3. A “critical theory” approach, associated with an analysis focused on unmaking and demystifying, can often fail to lead to the goal of actually making a decision, but instead remains at the deconstructive stage. This can illustrate “thinking about” institutions if it goes no further than this stage.
4. “Thinking institutionally,” in contrast to “thinking about” institutions, involves asking yourself, “What should guide my decision?” An actual concrete expression of theory is thus assumed to be the end result when “thinking institutionally.”
I believe that geographers tend to “think institutionally” because they tend toward studying concrete, on-the-ground expressions of theories. And they are not constrained to an analysis of what is because it is a discipline that is also free to ask questions about how we want to shape the future. It allows normative thinking about the future.
Now for a disclaimer. There are totally abstract, theoretical, “thinking about” types of geographers. But other geographers tend to push back, asking what it means on-the ground. I was once part of a smaller geography specialty group that had a quarter of its membership made up of those who “thought about.” It also represented a national and class divide with Americans and Canadians being concrete and the British being abstract. We all met every three years for field trips and research presentations. At a pig farm in North Carolina, one of these “thinking about” geographers asked Tommy, the large scale hog producer, about the international flow of capital and economic restructuring. Tommy’s reply? “We just get them young. We feed them well. And when the time is right, we ship them out.”
OK. There is something to the international flow of capital in terms of investment in intensive hog farming. And agriculture in the U.S. has gone through massive restructuring which has led to the movement of hog production from the Midwest to North Carolina and now to other places. But in the end you still have to make a decision on the local scale. When and where do you get them? What kind of experience do they have and how do you build structures that help them grow and mature? What is the end goal you have for them? And how do we get them out at the right time? Sounds like college administration to me.