Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A Food Geographer

Or maybe, a geographer of food. Sounds nice, eh?

My attempts to summarize my chosen area of study have enjoyed a wide range of success and failure over the past few years. There's the old standby, the definition from my department of "the study of the spatial organization of human activity and human interaction with the physical environment." I used to (and sometimes still do) rattle that one off with a matter-of-fact tone and a straight face (for some reason substituting 'distribution' for 'organization'), as if I am fulfilling the stuff of everyone's childhood dreams. But I have received enough blank stares, quizzical looks ("that's a real major?"), half-smiles of suspicion ("you're serious?"), and I-tentatively-think-I-get-it-but-don't-care-to-press-the-issue facial expressions to know that the old standby is not enough.

These days I usually proceed in a fashion similar to the following:
"I study human geography-it's the study of human activity and society, like, the distribution of our activities, in relation to the environment...it's somewhere between the social sciences and hard sciences, like, an interdisciplinary focus...yeah, it sounds broad, I know. You can study just about anything and call it human geography, like transportation systems, economic geography, urban planning, uh, and, lots of people go work for government agencies or as consultants...yeah, and I'm really interested in agriculture and how we get our food..."

Of course it is natural to get so many questions about such an obscure and inglorious field of study as mine--I would be wondering too if I wasn't the one studying it. Heck, I still have those what-the-bleep moments at times, and I don't feel at all like someone who is wrapping up 4 years of studying to be a human geographer. Looking through the lens of geography and environment and the above description of my major on the website, my classes and academic program have felt about as cohesive as wet sand drying in your hand in the sun. But that is the subject of another whole post, and probably a letter to BU too when this is all over. You can peek at my course list for the entire college career below.

However, I wasn't studying for 4 years to become a career or a specialist; I was studying to become JD.

That food/farming part at the end of the description of my studies, I added that within the last year and a half or so. (I found this great entry, in the online Encyclopedia of Food & Culture, on the geography of food; it neatly sums up the applicability of geographers to food studies.) That is something I am sure of, something that grounds me whenever I get waves of panic about not leaving school with 'marketable skills' or a job lined up for my favorite I-banking firm (did you know people, young people like students, have favorite I-banking companies? it boggles my mind, but it is true) or a clear sense of the direction my life will take in the next 5 or 10 years.

Whatever happens, I know that I want to devote part or all of my life to reconnecting people (including myself) with the landscapes that sustain us and with sources of healthy (in many senses) food. I daresay I might feel passionate about local food systems, sustainable agriculture, urban and peri-urban agriculture, and the many associated benefits these production systems can provide to people, communities, the environment, and our societies as a whole.

So yeah, it took a few years, but I feel I can say, finally, with confidence, in my last semester of undergraduate liberal arts studies, that I am a food geographer.

CAS CC101 Ancient World Hume 1
CAS CC105 Core Natural Science 1
CAS GE100 Intr Envron Science
CAS PS101 Gen Psychology

SPRG 08 CAS CC102 Core Humanit 2
CAS CC106 Core Nat Sci 2
CAS ID116 Africa Today
CAS LG212 4th Sem German

FALL 08 CAS CC201 Core Humanit 3
CAS EC101 Intro Microeconomics
CAS GE103 Economic Geography
CAS MA121 Calc I-Soc Sci

SPRG 09 CAS CC202 Core Humanit 4
CAS EC102 Intro Macroecon
CAS GE309 Envir Analysis
CAS MA213 Basic Stat&Prob

FALL 09 CAS GE250 Fate of Nations
CAS GE275 Intro Env Modelling
CAS GE356 Third World Development
CAS LA111 Hausa 1

SPRG 10 CAS HI384E N Afr History&Relig
CAS LY111E Modern Arabic 1
CAS LY112E Modern Arabic 2
CAS WS351E Women Islam&Pol

FALL 10 CAS GE302 Remote Sensing
CAS GE304 Sustainable Dev
CAS GE460 Resource Economics
CAS HI589 Hist Food Envir & Soc

SPRG 11 CAS GE492 Local Food Direct.study
CAS GE365 Intro to GIS
CAS GE394 Envir Hist Africa
CFA MU567 African drumming&dance
PDP DA179 Afro-Jazz


  1. This is great! Now I can use that term, too, instead of mumbling about human geography being "people's impact on the environment." Nice summary of your studies and your interests.

  2. Hi Johnny,

    I hope you don't object to my commenting on your post here; I was referred by Edith from a Facebook comment thread.

    I think you're being too hard on yourself; "food geography" as you describe it sounds like a fascinating, exciting, and important field. Have you ever read any Jared Diamond? He's right up your alley, I suspect. I am among those who think that geography counts for nearly everything in human affairs.

    Reading your posts reminds me of the way that words used to fly onto the page & screen when I was in school, something I've spent my life since trying to recapture. If I have one regret in life it's that I didn't stay in academia…

    Anyway, keep writing, keep thinking, and even keep worrying, but only just enough to keep you hungry and sharp. I followed other people's advice and graduated with a 3.9, lots of marketable skills—and not much passion or direction. I should have gone with my gut, as should you, because it sounds to me like you know what you want.

    I see you're a DFW fan. Me too, although a newbie. I'm a big fan of his nonfiction pieces, and I'm most of the way through Infinite Jest, which is absolutely mind-blowing.

    Phil Parsons

  3. thanks Mommy, and thanks Phil. yes, Diamond's work is very thought-provoking. He is a geographic determinist, a perspective that I think is valuable but also cannot explain everything.

    I am glad that these posts have some kind of an audience. It is mostly just my ramblings and feelings, but it feels good to know it is appreciated. I have only read his essays "A Supposedly Fun thing..." but I enjoy his exacting detail and critique of many of the things that I find problematic in our society. I hope to tackle IJ this summer-my Brother is of the same mind as you, and has been urging me to read it.