Wednesday, October 26, 2011

In defence of geography and our space for critical thinking.

From The Mark: In defence of geography and our space for critical thinking.
The Feminist Geography Collective writes in response to Margaret Wente’s column,
“They hijacked the humanities, then my canoe,” which appeared in The Globe on Oct. 22.

Dear Peggy,

This weekend, you took a cheap shot at our colleagues and our own research pursuits.

In Saturday’s column, you attacked Andrew Baldwin, Laura Cameron, and Audrey Kobayashi’s book, Rethinking The Great White North: Race, Nature and Historical Geographies of Whiteness in Canada.

We invite you to read the entire book – there are 18 other contributing authors from a variety of social science and humanities disciplines – as we believe you would see how you’ve taken those scarce few lines about you out of context.

We are a group of approximately 70 academics (from across disciplines) who read your column with brittle bemusement. We draw from geographical perspectives in our teaching and research, and we think you might benefit from a Geography 101 primer.

Your characterization of geography left us puzzled because geography is far from irrelevant. In fact, geography achieved even greater widespread popularity in the early 1990s – disciplines like sociology, anthropology, and English began to borrow from geography, explaining that it offered the tools and knowledge needed to make sense of our ever-changing world, including new migration patterns and globalization.

This is especially the case in Canada, where geographically inspired analyses have led the way in making contributions to a variety of policy spheres – health, social, and environmental among them. Geography departments in Canadian university programs are growing in popularity with both undergraduate and graduate students.

But policy-relevant research is only one part of geographic pursuit.

Geographical thought is also about turning the world upside down, probing taken-for-granted policies and ideas in search of other ways of thinking. It's about giving histories to the present, and putting things into context. It's about dreaming and imagination, too – for a future different than the past, one where reconciling with our colonial, settler history means true economic and social justice.

Universities provide spaces for critical thinking. Those critical-thinking skills help students challenge false assumptions and both open and hidden prejudices. They help those students contribute to effective planning and policy practices. The role of a liberal arts education where geographical analyses are front and centre is to promote critical thought. In geography classrooms across the country, we encourage students to re-examine what they think they know about place, the region, and the nation.

Feminist geography allows us to consider the perspectives of those who are marginalized, who almost always have a better understanding of the unconscious underpinnings of society and culture than do the majority or the elite. Many of us have examined how dichotomous ways of thinking about spatiality are misplaced. We challenge binaries like home and work. We ask what a truly fair city would look like – one sensitive to differences in gender, class, status, race, sexual orientation, and ability – and what it might take to create such a city.

We invite you into our geography classrooms to learn more about what we really do. Indeed, journalists are no strangers to our lecture halls. We often ask them to come in to help us understand our world. Nicholas Kristoff of The New York Times will be a keynote speaker at the Annual Meeting of the American Association of Geographers in February, for example.

If you take us up on this, you will learn that geography is not just about rocks and trees and National Geographic. In our classes, we talk about the rights and responsibilities of immigrants to Canada, the cyclist-driving divide, and the ways that Canada’s three largest cities are bifurcated by income and race, among other things.

And ultimately, that’s what Rethinking The Great White North aims to do. The authors believe that understanding life in Canada today, and making decisions about its future, demands a clear understanding of the past. Nature has a history and it is of pressing concern when, for example, indigenous landscapes are viewed as “pristine” wilderness. The “Great White North” – as a metaphor, myth, economic frontier, and comedy – has long endured in collective imagination. The book aims to challenge and rethink its place in Canadian self-understanding. Surely that’s important for all Canadians?

So come on in and visit us, Peggy.

You might see that the students we teach think of themselves in ways that are vastly different than you imagine.

We promise to make sure you don’t feel like a black fly blasted with a bazooka. Do your j-stroke and paddle upstream to us. We understand you spent time during your Masters in English at the University of Toronto drinking tea with Robertson Davies. We’ll have a cuppa waiting for you.

One lump or two?

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