Myths and mismatches, part 9

This is part of a series of posts that was written as a response to – and a means of thinking through issues raised by – an e-course by Jo VanEvery and Julie Clarenbach called “Myths and Mismatches”. Here is the link to the original post, from January 17, 2011: “Myths & Mismatches” Part 9 – Finding Your Place.

Today’s myth from Jo and Julie is one I find quite important – perhaps because I’ve done quite a bit of moving around throughout my life. I’m giving this one a lot of consideration as I ponder the next steps.

Myth #5: Geography Doesn’t Matter

In case you hadn’t heard, “academia is notable for the lack of control we have about where we end up geographically, especially in a job market with few opportunities.”
I know that for me, place has always had importance. Sometimes there’s more of a connection to the people around me (as there is in Ontario, where I’ve now lived for quite a while). Other places just feel “right” whether I know someone there or not (Montreal, for some reason; and New Zealand, probably because I grew up there). There are also places like England that I love to visit, but where I could never see myself living.

In a profession where long-term positions are becoming harder to obtain, mobility becomes an asset in your job search. But this is also the reason why “it’s not uncommon for people to end up in geographic locations that just don’t work for their lives and personalities.”

There’s more to place than climate and topography: “let’s face it — being the only person of color or queer person around is rarely sustainable.” The latter point is at least semi-relevant to me personally, and I think it applies to one’s life-politics (as opposed to life-style) as well. For example, I know a lot of people who have applied for work in the U.S., but I wouldn’t personally feel comfortable moving there even for a temporary position. That’s a personal preference, which also stems from cultural tastes and familiarities developed over a lifetime. But it’s also savvy to know and understand that there’s no way I would “fit in” at a college in rural Arkansas (or at least, that’s not how I want to spend my time).

Why is it, then, that where you work is supposed to be irrelevant? To return to a running theme in these posts, if you’re living “the Life of the Mind” then “geography doesn’t matter — because you can take your mind anywhere.” This is of course untrue at every level of post-secondary education (and elsewhere). It’s also an idea underpinned by the separation of mind and body, by the ideal of the ascetic/academic, and by the assumption of a guarded boundary between the university and the “real world”.

I feel the same way about my living/working space as I do about geographic location–I’m more stressed, it’s harder for me to work, when I’m living in an unpleasant environment and there are people with whom I don’t get along. At the moment I’m lucky, I have a great space and I share it with only my cats; I’m an introvert so this works out very well for me. I admit that I need quiet and physical order to get my work done, mostly because my mental state is usually pretty chaotic (or “creative” to put it nicely). The same point applies to institutional spaces, something I wrote about here.

I agree that geography, that place, “matters to our happiness, it matters to our health, and it matters to our relationships” and that this affects how well we’re able to do our jobs. When you make a decision you need to take into account that place contributes to your career trajectory often in unforeseen ways. Just as the wrong institution or department can be a “mismatch” (often a career setback), so can the wrong city/town or country.