Academia


I’ve been doing a lot of academic reading lately in a relatively new area: mobilities. It comes out of sociology, with side branches in geography, communications, and planning, and it’s basically the social theory approach to transportation. The two main areas of work have been on automobility (about how our society is so inextricably tied with the auto that we can’t talk about the labor market, housing, economic development, or nearly anything else without cars being involved somewhere) and aeromobility (similarly, the way that long-distance and international transportation depend heavily on air transportation and airports). Aeromobility in particular looks at the way people are sorted as they pass through airports, especially through security screening procedures but also through sitting in first class/coach class, using the Admiral’s Club or equivalent, and even by choosing the airport in the first place (e.g., Ryanair and EasyJet ‘s practice of using secondary airports).

So this story in Chicago has caught my interest. Midway Airport has instituted a system that Denver and Salt Lake have been trying out, where passengers self-sort themselves into security lines based on their familiarity with procedures and thus with their speed. The three lines are coded according to the same symbols as ski runs: green circles for beginners, blue squares for the middle level, and black diamonds for the experts. As an earlier story noted, the familiarity of Midwesterners with ski run symbology is a dubious assumption, but the slow-medium-fast idea is pretty simple.

According to the article, the assumptions about who is slow, medium, and fast are also simple: “Workers helped steer flip-flop-wearing vacationers one way, and briefcase-toting business travelers the other. Moms and dads hauling the accouterments of parenthood—strollers, diaper bags and car seats—were funneled in yet another direction.” Now, it apparently is possible to switch lanes if you feel you’re more (or less) expert than TSA eyes designate you, but there are still some strong assumptions being made here. It reminds me of the pre-9/11 days when I went to meet my long-distance sweetie at the airport; every time I carried my backpack with me, I got the wipe-down treatment checking for drugs/explosives; no backpack, no extra check.

Of course, the self-identification may be problematic: the Tribune’s poll says nearly 70% of people consider themselves to be in the “expert” category, and 72% plan to use the black diamond lanes. (This is why I’d go for the blue square, myself; I’ve certainly traveled enough to know what I’m doing, but taking out the laptop and the liquids, taking off the jacket and shoes, and then reassembling myself at the other end takes an embarrassingly long time even when I’m careful to do things like send the backpack through before the laptop so I can pop the computer back in as soon as it comes through).

But it’s such a prime example of Foucault’s argument that modern society is more and more about disciplining (and sorting) ourselves, becoming docile bodies within the system. It’s also a great illustration of all of this mobilities literature that I’ve been reading, right here in the real world; so much for the ivory tower! In particular, it demonstrates how identity is becoming tied up with speed, and how the “kinetic elite” (as Rem Koolhas has termed them) are moving ever faster and more smoothly while those of us who are not visibly elite (e.g., with children, wearing flip-flops, not carrying a briefcase) are slowed down in our travels.

Besides, as one commenter on the Tribune’s website pointed out, we’re all going to sit at the same gate and wait anyway!

The feminist blogs I read have been going through a major upheaval over the past few weeks. It’s made me think about the issue of white privilege from an academic point of view (surprise, surprise). Not from an I-want-to-study-this POV, but from a this-happens-here-too POV. See, geography is an overwhelmingly white discipline. Over the last decade, we’ve been hand-wringing like so many white liberal institutions/organizations, trying to figure out 1) why we’re so white, 2) what we can do about it, and 3) what difference it makes to our work. The last one is relatively easy to see: we marginalize other points of view, intentionally or not, and for a discipline that’s supposed to be about the relationship between humans and the environment, we miss out on a lot of those humans. The first one is the standard story of discrimination, I would guess; the discipline is also predominantly male, with the predomination larger the higher you go up the scale, and although the numbers have changed over time, history informs and explains the present. And by now there’s a certain amount of reinforcement going on; I would imagine that people of color feel geography doesn’t speak to their interests and concerns, so they don’t join in, and so on, and so on.

But the middle point is the hard one, and it’s the same one that parts of the blogosphere are struggling with right now. Initiatives to increase minority students and faculty can smack of bringing outsiders into our cozy little discipline as token representatives, instead of expanding our field of inquiry outward to include the topics that people of color are already working on. My previous department wanted desperately to hire a Hispanic woman because so many of their students fit that demographic and they wanted a role model in place. That’s great. However, I didn’t see the older white males in the department changing their areas of research or teaching to incorporate broader perspectives. (Neither did I, truth be told.) The argument seems to be that if we only had more brown or black or red people in our discipline, we’d be diverse, hooray! Cross one more thing off the to-do list. But does that change the practices we currently have, and force us to see how we perpetuate current inequalities? I doubt it.

For example, I think that in recent years, geography as a discipline has become more inclusive with regards to people with disabilities. Or at least, there’s been a lot of literature on the topic, although anecdotal evidence tells me that it’s perceived as largely written by people from that community and that others don’t necessarily see it as relevant to their own lives. Also, there’s been a series of conferences on race, ethnicity, and place, although I don’t know how diverse the papers and participants are.

My own research tends to focus on place rather than people; I’m not the world’s most outgoing person, and it takes a lot of emotional energy to reach out to potential collaborators, interviewees, informants, etc. I also tend to prefer to approach a problem inductively, not starting with a hypothesis or problem statement but starting with a phenomenon or pattern and seeing what’s going on. Of course, it’s easy from there to let my own privilege direct my interests to neighborhoods and communities like my own, instead of trying to look at how race, class, etc., are part of the transportation and urban sustainability issues that I’m interested in. Maybe it’s time to get rid of the idea that “this” (whatever “this” might be) isn’t an issue that has anything to do with women or POC (or disabled people, or LGBT people, etc.), and therefore I can ignore gender/race/etc. For example, how does urban sustainability intersect with social justice issues? How do transportation accessibility and externalities depend on race and class? Big time, I know.

The point is, this isn’t just a personal/blogosphere issue. It goes on in all professional realms, even among those of us who profess for a living. Examining our own privilege and how it informs the teaching we do and the knowledge we construct is critical because of the students we teach and the research we produce. Now more than ever.

So, being at a teaching-oriented institution like I am, with no graduate program and nothing but little tiny research grants, I decided to see if I could get a research team of sorts going via independent study. So I have five undergrads working on two different projects for me this term (plus another who’s doing her own thing). So far, since the quarter got off to a very sluggish start due to circumstances largely outside my control (like the weather), nothing much has happened. I’m worried that with only 7 weeks left in the term, nothing much is going to happen, and I’m going to have to assign grades to these folks based on a tiny amount of work, and they’re going to get 4 credits for doing basically nothing.

I’ve never supervised students before, so I haven’t had to deal with the delicate balance between checking in on them and nagging. This quarter, I’m only coming in two days a week most weeks, and there isn’t a lot of time during the day for me to connect with them. I suppose I’m going to have to start scheduling a half an hour or so to talk with each of them and make sure they’re getting stuff done. And that they’re learning, ’cause the point is not just to make them research slaves, but to help them practice and enhance their GIS skills.

It’s just so hard to get engaged on a project when the odds are good that I’m leaving when the year is up. I want to be at a more research-focused university (though not exclusively research-focused), and my husband has a number of issues with his current institution as well. So I’m being hesitant about community-based learning projects (though I am doing one with my class this term; more on that in another post), or applying for mini-grants for next year, or networking with other people on campus, because it takes a lot of time and (for me) emotional effort to do that. And if I’m not going to reap the benefits, or if I’m not going to be here to hold up my end of the bargain, then why start in the first place?

So that’s one advantage of the independent study, is that it’s over in a quarter. It’s a project that’s basically repeating the same process in a couple of dozen different locations, so it can be expanded or contracted quite easily. I just hope I don’t forget that since I got a course release from the college for this quarter, I have to do some of the research, too…