Ryan  Burns, phd
November 1, 2018

A(n Intellectual) Community of My Own

Where and how do you learn? Are you consciously learning while you navigate the blocks between your transport and your office or classroom? When you dig into books, are your notes meticulous and spontaneous, only to recede into the cavern of your bookshelf, or do you congregate with peers to bounce ideas back and forth? When you convey a new idea to someone you know, do you notice whether it “sinks in” while you explain it? What about writing - maybe you weren’t quite sure you really understood a concept until you started detailing it line by line in Word, hitting the backspace button as many times as each letter combined.

I’m now deep into my third year at University of Calgary, and I’m beginning to note the ways I either consciously or unconsciously try to foster a learning community. For the most part it’s a selfish exercise: I know the ways I learn and how to cultivate inspiration for myself, and I want that to be the environment within which I operate. I want to be part of a community that richly shares, radically challenges, rigorously synergizes and synthesizes, and resolutely seeks out unfamiliar perspectives and approaches. Years of reflection have led me to desire the ideal environment where ideas are so fresh and provocative that my and my colleagues’ engagement is inevitable (and still enjoyable). A community, so to speak, that sees itself as integral parts of a larger, international, interdisciplinary, locally-integrated conversation outside the home base where we run our seminars. Where departmental conversations are consciously and deliberately situated within much larger debates. Where we’re cited not just in top journals but also in our local cities’ policies, or even better, in inter/national policies.

So, where are we at, in this regard, at UofC, and where am I trying to take us? First and foremost, I am absolutely thrilled at how vehemently our administration financially supports research in the form of grants, and backs up the financials with fantastically capable staff support. But, while there’s not much technically stopping us from co-applying for those funds, grants tend to be a rather individaulistic approach toward what should be a community of research support. In the interest of translating those funds into more communal assets, I co-convened the campus’s first smart cities working group with Anthony Levenda, where we brought in Elvin Wyly and Taylor Shelton as guest speakers. This developed enough interest that others took on the organizing for a second year of the group, and Gillian Rose will be our main speaker this year.

Perhaps I’m focusing quite strongly on these sorts of encounters. With the support of a really amazing group of grad students, I brought the 13th Critical Geographies Mini-conference to our campus - the furthest east the conference has ever been! We brought presenters in from Finland, The Netherlands, Indiana - Bloomington, U of Minnesota, Western Washington U, UBC, Simon Fraser U, and several others. And this conference followed a year after I drove a group of 7 grads to the 2017 iteration of it, 13 hours’ driving up to Prince George, BC. I want people to think “critical geography” when they hear “University of Calgary” - so that we can bring in diverse speakers, attract the most amazing prospective grads from around the world, and meaningfully interject into disciplinary debates. These kinds of venues, where really tough, really new, really provocative ideas circulate – they’re addicting. I want to organize a speaker series for the 2019-2020 academic year, to draw crucial intellectual exchange into the center of my department’s identity.

But for me, this intellectual community is also about having conversations with the scholars we have here at the university. So, to foster new conversations, Victoria Fast and I are bringing in a post-doctoral scholar to help the university’s collective work around smart cities. We haven’t yet settled on our ideal candidate /(as of this writing, we’re still reviewing/), but we’re so, so excited about the candidate we’ll bring on board. I can’t express how much I look forward to having their voice emanating from our research lab, our department, our university.

My students are central to my vision for the department. I co-author peer-reviewed articles with them. The AAG this year will have a strong “Burns advisee” presence. If they don’t make it to the big research workshops, it’s because they couldn’t swing the costs, or chose not to attend, and decidedly not because they didn’t know about them. I want to have my inbox littered with grads’ notices of new conferences, workshops, special journal issues, calls for papers, and funding opportunities. I want to see that they’re finding as many exciting opportunities as I am, and exhausting every conceivable resource for funding those opportunities!

Like any department and university, we’ve got a ton of room for improvement. Here’s what’s on my immediate radar.

  1. We need to dramatically decrease the international graduate student differential fee from its current absolutely ridiculous level, in order to be taken seriously by the top prospective grad students. The first year for international grad students is prohibitively expensive - I want to work with the best grad students, not necessarily the most financially capable ones.
  2. We as a department need to trade some of our robust undergraduate offerings for grad seminars. For our graduate students, tenure track-level ideas come to the surface in seminars, and we don’t offer enough of them.
  3. Our department should offer such stronger support for recruitment. We need to provide travel funds to our current grads so that we’re represented at more conferences. We should fly admitted students out to entice them to accept our offers. We should have a pool of money reserved to waive the international student fee for our top admitted students. We should offer a scholarship to free up PhD students’ time so they can write their dissertations and articles to make them more competitive on the job market – OK, this isn’t about recruiting, but maybe we’d get higher-quality referrals if our PhD graduates were better placed in tenure-track jobs around the world…?
  4. The Faculty should give course releases for editors of journals, to encourage us to take on those platforms for influencing our disciplines. As it stands, we have quite minimal representation on editorial boards, and that’s a big reason why.
  5. We need a Faculty-wide Paperwork Reduction Act to cut down on the needless bureaucratic red-tape we suffer through. Our work could be orders of magnitude more streamlined.
  6. It’s a long-term goal, but my ideal intellectual community is one in which we’re constantly tacking between the wonderful research we’re doing locally, and the international, inter/disciplinary debates within which we operate. I think we need a bit of a culture change for that to happen. It might entail starting to give greater priority to platforming the research of our global colleagues, in, say, a regular annual speakers series, or flying top scholars to our already-held annual department conference. It might entail giving grad students experience handling papers in, or peer reviewing for, the journals for which we are editors. Or we might envision more structured, extracurricular, grad student-led reading groups. Maybe we could offer a formal course on publishing. There are lots of things we can do differently to encourage what Doreen Massey called a “global sense of place” at UofC.

But what I want most of all is for my department to be a dynamic, cosmopolitan, and impactful intellectual community. And that’s what I’ve pursued since I arrived here in 2016. Perhaps that’s naive - it’s not a one-person job, after all - but that won’t stop me from trying.

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