Monday, October 31, 2011

The best defence is a good offence

It’s not often that the discipline of geography gets significant attention in the nation’s newspaper op-ed pages. A recent opinion column by Globe and Mail writer Margaret Wente ruffled the feathers of quite a number of geographers. Wente, who is the Globe’s answer to Don Cherry, never lets the facts stand in her way. The column in question takes issue with a couple of fairly well-known geographers who edited a book entitled “Rethinking the Great White North: Race, Nature, and the Historical Geographies of Whiteness in Canada”. I am quite confident UBC Press was pleased – any popular media coverage of an edited volume of scholarly essays is good for sales, even when the book is being slammed.

Wente’s issue seems to be that she is described somewhere in the book as being racist. This gets her started on a critique of the humanities generally, and geography, specifically, arguing that too many geographers spend too much time on theory, discourse analysis, and similar activities. Her conclusion is that the quality of undergraduate education suffers as a result.

One letter Wente received in response summarized her argument along the lines of (1) people in the humanities use technical language (2) I don’t understand it (3) therefore they must be wasting our tax dollars. This is certainly an element of Ms Wente’s argument, although it does leave out the stimulus for it, namely that Ms Wente’s doesn’t like being considered to be a racist.

I haven’t read the book in question, nor am I likely to. It’s not my cup of tea. I’m a Globe subscriber, and I’m also not sure I would label Wente’s writings as being either overtly or subtly racist. There’s a formula to them – find someone’s sacred cow, and take some potshots at it using what Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness” (i.e. statements that sound like they could be fact-based, but are not necessarily so). Wente’s schtick is taking opinions you’re more likely to find in the tabloid newspapers and tailoring them to be read by and rile the Globe’s readership.

The Canadian Association of Geographers’ listserve just about melted down from the indignant discussions about Wente’s column. Many writers seemed very upset, obviously taking her column very seriously. Others entered into long reflections about the role of canoes in Canadian culture (apparently canoes were the subject of a Wente column mentioned in the UBC volume), and so forth. My own feeling on the subject is this: Wente has a point, albeit an inadvertent one. She openly challenges geographers to make a greater difference beyond the academy. I think this is a wonderful challenge. She challenges us to ensure we give good value for money in terms of undergraduate education. Again, I think this is a great challenge. She questions the need for yet another edited volumes of essays written primarily for other academics. I think such books are still needed, but she’s right, we also need to be generating knowledge in formats more likely to be consumed by a broader audience.

There are many geographers doing fantastic research out there, but are we doing a fantastic job of disseminating it widely? I don’t think so. We have entered a period where funding for post secondary research and teaching will be more and more constrained. Scholars in all disciplines are going to be expected to demonstrate explicitly the broader relevance of their work. The traditional metrics of academic performance – scholarly journal articles and book chapters – will still be relevant for getting grants and promotions, but broader, less easily quantified public perceptions of relevance will grow in importance. Scholars whose work has credibility with (or is at least vaguely familiar to) elected officials, newspaper readers, radio listeners, and on-line communities are the ones who will succeed in this new era. So rather than wasting time complaining on listserves or writing letters to the editor in response to Margaret, I would encourage my fellow geographers to write their own op-eds about the issues they study. Or write an article for a popular magazine, or start a blog or a website. Do one extra thing to communicate and connect your ideas and research to the broader public. Don't be defensive - go out and play on the forward line.

1 comment:

Dawn Bazely said...

agreed - getting out and talking to people other than the converted is the way to go. I find that many academic colleagues are horrified by this idea, and then wonder why many members of the public think that all we do is sit around drinking tea.