Monday, May 28, 2018

Mapping with elementary school students
Late this spring I visited Picadome Elementary School here in Lexington to give a talk about geography and mapping. I wanted to convey what geographers do, and how mapping is more than just state lines and capitals. Here is my presentation.  Many of slides are linked to videos and online visualizations. The students were really taken with the idea that the internet could be mapped, and the Japanese earthquake visualization, as it often does, had their full attention. The grade levels ranged from second through fifth. After the presentation, the students and I made smell maps. We walked around the school and wrote down what we smelled on post-it notes. Then they tagged the smell locations on the large air photo of their school shown in these photos. From there, we talked about how what smells we mapped would differ for an old person and a younger person, and among people with different sets of experiences. We discussed how time of the year would matter too - December would produce a different set of smells.  This tied in to the overall theme of how representation and the senses are part of geography as well as science. How we sense and categorize is a basic attribute of knowledge production, and geographers foreground these lines of inquiry in their work. Of course, we didn't have such an explicit discussion of these topics. I just wanted to give them an inkling of how mapping is much more dynamic and complex than what they might think. More of what we talked about was how to describe the smell of a crowded playground on a hot day? Exactly what do sweaty fifth graders smell like?  Wood chips and warm tennis shoes under a salty beach blanket. Thanks to Ms Courtney the science specialist at Picadome, as well as Jeff Levy at University of Kentucky Department of Geography for printing out our air photo poster.  Ms Mullins and Ms Exterkamp also allowed me to come into to their classes - they taught my kids this year, third graders.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Microgeographies of my summer

I grew cherry tomatoes and three large tomato varieties, okra (grew like a weed), tomatillos (pests set in, I won't try these next year), banana peppers, zucchini (I'll plant more next year but be choosier about the variety), green beans (attack of the Mexican bean beetle), parsley, basil. My blackberries were in the their first year of growth so they did not produce berries. My garden is hemmed in by mint, various Aster species, and some ornamental flowering plants planted by someone who lived in the house before me.

What I read for fun in 2017

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Against overprofessionalization

Competing in the marketplace of ideas can be unpredictable. Themes and methodologies emerge and disappear over time, not always in sync with our own research interests and abilities. There is also the uncertainty of the review process. And then there is the quality of our work, which can be difficult for us to judge at the outset. More than just a few geographers have seized upon an idea or concept, worked it over for months or even years, and if not shot down early, produced what we though surely must a recognizable breakthrough for the discipline. Unfortunately, these passionate works of ours are most likely coherent and revolutionary only to ourselves. But that is not to say there is no value in such idiosyncratic work. It may not be entirely productive from the standpoint of publication counts and lines on a vita. But the incomprehensibility and failure common to free form intellectualizing is part of the collective process of moving knowledge forward.
I am amazed at the knowledge we possess and wield on any average day in any average lecture. On the other hand, I wish we could make more institutional room for what we don't know, for what we can’t yet articulate in a perfectly clear manner. As the anecdote goes, the knowledge of today will be revised by the knowledge of tomorrow and few of us can see it coming until it is here. And that is what we might keep in mind when the certainty required of being a professional academic – always the smartest, most confident person in the room, right? – replaces that restless curiosity about what we don't know. A few recent articles have offered critiques as well as solutions to enhance how knowledge is produced in the life sciences. They illustrate how the small and conjectural can be valued amid the seemingly steadfast towers of academic accomplishment.

Vazire, S. (2017) Our obsession with eminence warps research. Nature, 547(7661)
Fortin, J. et al (2013) Big science vs. little science: how scientific impact scales with funding. PloS One 8(6)

Most of our research proposals undergo single-blind review, in which reviewers are aware of the author's identity. In a double-blind review, the reviewer does not have this information. Single-blind reviewers are significantly more likely than their double-blind counterparts to recommend for acceptance works from famous authors and top universities. Double-blind reviewing, on the other hand, does more to get around this problem of prestige. Eminence, the very thing that we are required to cultivate to get tenure and promotion, shapes the processes of inquiry by favoring the well-established rather than the novel and lesser known.

Fang, F. & Casadevall, A. (2016) Research funding: the case for a modified lottery. MBio 7(2)
Gravem, S. A. et al (2017) Transformative research is not easily predicted. Trends in Ecology & Evolution.

It is actually quite challenging to predict transformative research, one of the criteria for which NSF grants are judged. Transformativity often arises as an after effect of more incremental research and cannot be easily predicted ahead of time. Big science may not even be the most productive type of science. Larger grants do not necessarily lead to larger discoveries, as scientific impact measured in publications is only weakly limited by funding. Funding strategies that emphasize diversity in topics and in investigator prominence, along with appeals to excellence, may also be productive. Lotteries have been proposed as a mechanism to make research funding awards more equitable given that ranking large numbers of meritorious proposals induces selection bias.

Mountz, A. et al (2015) For slow scholarship: A feminist politics of resistance through collective action in the neoliberal university. ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 14(4).
The degree to which our public academic personas emphasize certainty and closure over working the more productive gray areas is a consequence of the professionalization of the academic class. Rather than being researchers in the thick and tangled woods of ideas, we are expected to signal and advertise certainty and clarity by producing large numbers of publications. We are also expected to  embrace the cultivation of a university administrative utopia that reinforces this ideal. Good scholarship, on the other hand, requires more open-ended use of our time. Extreme professionalization may actually disrupt the processes of intellectual growth. Time to think, reflect, and even fail may not be always be possible, but we need to hold on to that ideal and cultivate it how we can.