Geographers, Pigs, and College Administration

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.


Language and Communication

My daughter told me about a conversation she had on the commuter train coming back from student teaching in Boston.  It was with a man who was blue collar in background who teased her about the big words she used.

This led us into a conversation about language and how we are all cross-cultural and flexible in language abilities.  We have to switch audiences and contexts all the time.  My daughter loves to talk with teachers because she can quickly start using a vocabulary that assumes a common understanding and leads to more precision in understanding.  Early in my career I was the only geographer at a small college.  When I went to my professional geography meetings I would find comfort and relief in being able to switch to using language that allowed me to easily express things that would take more explanation with other audiences:  “I live on the Kansan till plain just south of the end moraine of the Wisconsinin glacial lobe.”  This one statement tells my geography colleagues a great deal about the age of the landscape, the extent of its being stream-dissected, the type of farming that might be expected there, and its physical location.  I need not say any more.  What a joy to be able to express myself in a language that is rich with meaning for my profession!

Families, of course, are cultures.  A friend told me about going to his in-laws for a meal and his father-in-law saying to his mother-in-law that the roast was a bit dry.  My friend was ready for the explosion, but the only response was, “Yes, you may be right!”  This was not the conversation about identity and worth that he anticipated, but simply a conversation about the roast.  My extended family is very playful with language.  If you are teased, it is merely being playful, and perhaps an indication of affection—there is no other point.  It took my younger daughter some time to figure this out until she had the “eureka” moment.  Now she is probably the largest contributor to this playfulness.

Americans exhibit particular traits when it some to language and communication that truly has to make it difficult to cross cultures.  One trait that has been identified is that of being literal and seeing things in black and white terms.  I once heard of a case of an American who was living in Italy.  Her local permit had to be renewed which would require her to travel some distance with small children.  The local police told her to just say that her children were sick, and thus gain exception to the travel and let them renew it.  But she protested that this would be lying.  The response of the Italian local police was to roll their eyes at her lack of pragmatism.  Americans expect what you to say to be the literal truth and look for connections between words and truthfulness underneath.  In China I always got the sense that it was the words that counted and not the truth underneath—everyone knew it wasn’t true but it was the words that mattered.  And words do matter—often more than Americans realize.  Social norms for hospitality exist that precede getting down to business.  Words are often part of this context-setting and not meant to be taken “literally” but are a piece of the process of honoring guests and making them comfortable.

I have come to appreciate the role of guides that help us cross the many cultures of language and understanding.  They help us move beyond the words to the meaning and context underneath.  I had several friends who were my guides in Hong Kong.  After a meeting, they would answer my questions about what was REALLY going on, or even sit by me during the meeting and whisper to me.  Speaking the same language does not mean that we understand each other.

Sometimes I marvel at our ability to communicate with each other at all. It is hard work.

Destination Wedding or Notes from Table 4*

Destination weddings are the newest rage.  I recently attending such a wedding in St. Louis.  St. Louis as a destination wedding site, you ask?  All good stories have to answer particular questions.  This one includes:  Why here? Who was involved? and What happened?

I asked many of the participants to speculate on the choice of St. Louis–the “WHY HERE” question.  The responses ranged from St. Louis being a very humble place, to its being half way between the home towns of the groom and bride (Bloomington, IL and Kansas City) to St. Louis being the gateway to the west (so what, I ask?), to being between the Royals and the Cardinals (actually it wasn’t between but aligned with the Cardinals).  There was much speculation on the deeper meaning of the location–it was a North-South crossroads (breakfast included grits and biscuits and gravy), or an East-West crossroads (was the arch actually leading to the east or to the west and didn’t it depend on which side you were standing on?).  The stronger opinions stated were that it was all about the humble church and was a choice that was meant to be inconvenience to all.

I was actually interested in WHO was going to attend this wedding, given its location.  I came from Boston and my mother came from Grand Rapids, MI but we met in Minneapolis in the airport.

IMG_20141018_124132780The groom’s parents came from Bloomington.  The groom’s grandparents came from Central Illinois along with Beth, the widow of the cousin of the groom;  the groom’s uncle, aunt, cousin and significant other–the first introduction to the family;  Frank and Susie who I believe were related to the groom’s father.  The invisible sister of the groom and her husband and daughter came from Atlanta, truly excited about the idea of a destination wedding in St. Louis and the 10 hour drive with a wonderfully lively ADHD daughter.  They had to choose whether to provide medication for the drive or the rehearsal dinner–calm for them or for the bride and groom?  They chose themselves, as would have I.  Leslie, from Connecticut, was also there and was someone that the groom once kissed but with no sparks.  Brittany, a waitress from a bar, came from Peoria.  GG and Ingo were there from Texas.  Who are GG and Ingo?  I was never really sure who they were but their son, Chris and his girlfriend from Chicago were in attendance as well.  They tried to visit the St. Louis Arch, thinking it was the one tourist site in St. Louis that was available, only to find the site was under high security.  We speculated on why the arch would be such an important site that we were spending federal money to protect it from such humble people as GG and Ingo.  But then, Ingo was German by birth.

360px-St_Louis_night_expblend_croppedAll weddings include drama.  Drama is the “What Happened” part of the story.  If there is no drama, there is no real wedding because it means that nothing happened.  I am glad to say that there was drama.  The beginning of the drama began with the father of the bride failing to clarify with the hotel that several of the bride’s family would not be arriving until Friday rather than Thursday.  Thus two rooms had been cancelled when they failed to show up on Thursday.  I sat with the groom’s extended family at a distance while we watched the drama–tears, gnashing of teeth by bride and her mother.  It finally ended with the arrival of the bride’s father.  After some loud voices, the rooms became available to the bride’s party but would not be available to the two who held the reservations who would come later.  There would be no room in the inn for them.

My humble job for the weekend was to transport my mother and the groom’s grandparents to the various venues. Friday night we started for the rehearsal dinner–three elders in their 80s, one aunt of the groom, and me driving them in a van.  I was pleased with the help I received in navigating.  All three elders watched the blue dot on my smart phone.  We got lost once for each of them.

We were organized by fall themed decorations at each table.  For example, there was an acorn table, a buckeye table, a squash table, and corn table.  When I said that we were at the “corn” table, one of my elders thought I said “porn.”  We made sure that all the hearing aids were adjusted before we sat down.

IMG_20141017_185204410  IMG_20141017_191820909 IMG_20141017_184910584The next morning we had our southern boundary breakfast that included grits.  We were also handed quarters for the meters near the church.  I then headed out with my elders in the van to go to the church.  We found a parking place and filled the meter with quarters.  I was surprised to see a scaffolding over the church steeple.  I was told that there was drama when the bride had seen the scaffolding.  Luckily drama is essential to weddings.



The wedding was beautiful.  The humble sister of the groom became visible for a brief moment when she read a prayer.  The only slight drama was the sister’s husband being late for photos–he was outside feeding quarters into all the meters of all the vehicles on the street.


We returned to the hotel before the reception and thankfully a shuttle had been arranged for all of us so that I no longer had to drive the elders. We let someone else navigate to and from the reception–we were the party bus.



The food was good.  The toasts were humble.  We left before the Cardinal’s mascot arrived.  After all, I am a Cubs fan.  It just would have been too much.


St. Louis–Destination wedding site?  A humble choice.

*The people involved played themselves.  But this does not represent the views of all those present.