“OUT THERE”: MAKING A MIKESELLIAN GEOGRAPHER

In April at the Annual Meeting of the American Association of Geographers in New Orleans, I had the pleasure of attending a series of short talks in memory of Marvin W. Mikesell (1930-2017), who passed away last spring during his 59th year of service to the University of Chicago.

 

My first year at Chicago was consumed almost entirely by core courses, providing a scholarly foundation and giving me a taste of the immensity of the academy. Not until fall quarter of my second year did I finally get to take my first, and long-awaited, geography course. The first day, as Marvin fidgeted with his perennially empty paper coffee cup while regaling the eight of us with stories of Berbers in the 1950s, I immediately knew that the third floor of Pick Hall was my intellectual home.

 

Having spent nearly five years away from Chicago, and nearly two of those in a UCLA department dominated by scholars with epistemologies and conceptions of geography that too often seem alien to me, the memorial session was refreshing and invigorating. Hearing from and meeting many of Marvin’s former students (undergrads and grads) working on such a plethora of topics and subfields inside and outside the academy shed new light on one of my key mentors, showing me that so much of what I’ve taken for granted as an empirical, field-oriented geographer I owe to Marvin.

 

The presentations were all about people’s current work and how Marvin has in some way or another shaped their trajectory as a scholar. I could write a summary of all these cool talks (to give a skeletal idea: tsunami prevention through youth education in Indonesia, spaces of homebirth in Appalachia, prisons as a proving ground for the liberal arts in Oregon, transnational spread of banana cultivars from Israel), but rather I want to paraphrase four main contributions the presenters saw in Marvin’s mentorship.

 

  1. Reality and Curiosity: Marvin studied real people and the real world. He knew a hell of a lot and had incredible recall, but his own curiosity led him to encourage students to go beyond the bounds of what he knew rather than direct them towards more familiar terrain.
  2. Integration: Historians of geography may pigeonhole Marvin as a cultural or cultural-historical geographer. Though history and culture featured prominently in Marvin’s work, as a student, I found that the strength of his teaching lied in his ability to show how what we so often separate as distinct categories (“culture”, “history”, “politics”, “society”, “economics”, “environment”)—not just in academia as a whole but also in a discipline that gives lip-service to being integrative—exhibit such a strong and often amusing interplay in the landscape.
  3. The Field. A student once came to Marvin’s office to inform him of an opportunity to do fieldwork. Marvin immediately replied, “Well, you’re going, aren’t you?”. In Marvin’s view of the world, it was the geographer’s duty to get off the beaten path and bring other places closer to home. Marvin wanted us to be a part of “out there”, to get out of our comfort zone and find a sense of place. For Marvin, fieldwork had four steps. First, GO TO THE FIELD, be it your backyard, or Timbuktu. Second, have a well-developed understanding of your problem, but be prepared that you’re wrong. Third, find a geographic pattern to the problem. Fourth, develop contextual evidence through reading the landscape and take a time frame that fits the problem.
  4. Clarity: Marvin once won an essay contest for finding the longest and most academically-loaded way of saying a rather simple phrase: “Barns Have Roofs”. Of course, he did this in jest, but Marvin was not one to beat around the bush in writing or in speaking. After his students had done sufficient fieldwork, Marvin encouraged them on their final step: Write your story with verve, clarity, and a short title. Perhaps the best example of his own work was his succinct definition of geography, “The Why of Where”.

 

By appearance, in many ways, Marvin conformed to the stereotype of the traditional academic: a mahogany desk, shelves full of old books, and a pipe. Yet, if you actually met with the man—which was not hard to do, because he was on campus everyday and would leave his office door open—he was the opposite of out of touch. Marvin had something to say to and about anyone. It felt was as though it was impossible for someone to NOT pique his curiosity.

 

In today’s academy, it would be all too easy to dismiss Marvin as a relic, as someone who stopped publishing in earnest decades ago and gave up on following the latest debates. Yet, just because the material he may have taught may have been dated does not mean that his underlying beliefs and epistemology are invalid. Inspiring a sense of wonder and amusement about the world around you in your students well into your eighties is not only worth celebrating, but also worth emulating.

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