Annual Post: A visit to yesteryear

Since it appears, I only ever have time to write on my blog about once every year, I've decided to call this my "Annual Post." Who knows if that will stick around...

It’s been a crazy summer. A two-week choir tour with EMU to Germany, Austria, and Poland, followed by a stay over in Poland to visit Katowice and Auschwitz. Then after getting back to the US, after only a couple days turnaround, I taught our annual Historic Preservation field school course at Cranbrook Educational Community. (Both of these “main events” were absolutely wonderful, by the way). So that was pretty much my May.

Then came June, which started with my first time experiencing the College Board’s Advanced Placement Human Geography exam reading, aka “Nerd Camp” aka “simultaneously the best week and the worst week of your life.” I’d say it was better than my expectations, given that they were so low, but it’s a balance staying in a swanky downtown hotel and hanging out with friends every night in Cincinnati with utterly terrible convention center food and reading high schoolers’ best attempts to butcher your love of your chosen discipline or at least make you rethink your life. (Okay, there might have been some hope for humanity among the the most ridiculous misunderstandings about geography put into words, but it was sparse.) The rest of June was a mad scramble, trying to complete two projects with near-simultaneously deadlines: teaching an online section of GEOG 110 World Regions (first time online; moving the content over was more time consuming than I thought it might be) and finishing revisions on a journal article that might see the light of day by the end of 2019…maybe! (It’s actually based on a chapter from my dissertation, still not published after three years, four or five rounds of revisions, and now at its third journal. Academic publishing isn’t exactly pretty, folks!)

Anyway, since those two major hurdles have wrapped up in the past week, I’ve taken it a little easier yesterday evening and today to have a mental reset. There’s still a lot to be done as far as my academic “put off ’til summer” list, the “I finally have time to take care of myself and see doctors/dentist/optometrist” list, and my other summer hopes and dreams (like relax and read for fun? What’s that?)—and all of that is exacerbated by Karen’s success in landing travel gigs this summer, leaving me in charge of dog/house/and baby chick sitting.

In the process of letting myself live a little yesterday and today, while filing away some of the handwritten notes I’d scribbled about this latest round of article revisions, I rediscovered a classic gem of yesteryear: a “That’s so Matt Cook” professional development journal from my first year or so in grad school. I don’t remember writing much of this at all, and honestly, the first few months of grad school seem like another lifetime ago…Fall 2010! That’s nearly a decade! But the “wisdom” I was so hastily scribbling down back then…wow: 1) I was super naive, like, painfully so! 2) So much of the advice I jotted down then is still 100 percent relevant today and to academia in general. Below, I copy over some of the best reminders and sage bits of wisdom I found in this blast from the past. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did! My editorial comments from me in the present are [in brackets.]

Professional Development Ideas I

A Journal-resembling MindDump

Matt Cook
Sept. 02, 2010

Sept. 2, 2010

So here I am a grad student in geography. Trying to figure out what the heck it means to be a geographer, after all this time I thought I knew what I was doing. Grappling with things like ontology, epistemology, and methodology. My three new friends. Plus, of course, the paradigms. It’s a pretty hectic time.
Today in GEOG 504 (Professor Show & Tell) Micheline van Riemsdijk offered up some tidbits of wisdom, and then followed the ‘beloved’ 599 [the dreaded Geographic Thought course] in which we also talk about a few key points of professional development wisdom. The first point from Dr. v.R. [back when I was still young and naive and hadn’t pick up from her email signatures that it was okay to call her Micheline…she had to tell me in person after a couple months!] is to journal daily. And so here you go. +1 for me. As she herself admitted, though, it is not always easy to stick to this ingenious method of tracking thoughts (brilliant or otherwise) and trends in professional development. [I still don’t usually do this unless I’m super stressed and need to visualize the way-too-many things I’ve said yes to doing…]
The second point came from a discussion between Dr. Rehder and Dr. v.R. and that is to focus on your individual research and write daily. [Also easier said than done…believe me, I’ve tried. And failed. More times than I can count.] Rehder [may he rest in peace] said his goal was 2 hours a day [what the….how does anyone except people at R1s have time for that??? Granted, UTK is an R1…]; v.R. suggested a more modest “at least 15 minutes.”
And I would tend to agree with this assessment/charge/necessity, though (again) it doesn’t always happen. [If only you knew back then what you know now…] However, my thesis work has largely been relegated to the weekends so far in grad school, so this must change. [Ahahahahahahahahahahahahaha…ugh]
The third piece of advice came out of a question from 599: How do you keep up all the literature (primarily journal articles) in your field(s) of specialization? Dr. Josh Inwood [also back when I called him Dr.] recommended the strategy of reading one new article every day during the week. 5 per week x 15 weeks a semester = 75. 150 per year, 300 in the course of master’s degree. And then so forth throughout your entire career. So that, too, am I resolving to do. I think I will first set out a course of action of what to read, but then I plan to jump in. My final thought for this entry comes not from classes today, but from Jeff Rogers [my main human geography mentor, advisor, and department head at UT Martin]: always be thinking five years down the road and know what goals will get you there. So with that, I have some goals. Some short, some long. All relevant.

[And shed a little tear here, y’all, because I only checked one box while I was still thinking about and using this journal…but how far I’ve come since then!]

  Learn and fully grasp ontology, epistemology, methodology, and their various forms in Geography. Timeframe: soon. [I teach this now; good thing I checked this one off at least!]
__ Write/research daily on thesis work. [Daily didn’t really happen, but I finished it!]
__ Get ahead in at least 1 class. [Does this ever happen?! I still can’t do it, and I’m the teacher now!]
__ Earn Master’s Degree. Timeframe: 2 yrs [Yay! Retroactively checking that one off!]
__ Earn Ph.D. Timeframe: 5-6 years. [Even more yay! Not only did I finish—I did it in 4!]
__ Find funding opps + start applying, for fieldwork this summer Timeframe: 2-3 weeks [Done and done. That fieldwork for my thesis—a month in Berlin—was unbelievably influential and those memories have largely stuck with me.]

That’s enough for tonight. Again, I’m amazed at how relevant so much of this is to my life today and to academia in general. Part of me wishes that I’d followed through a bit better on some of these ideas…no idea where I’d be now (probably at an R1 complaining about the tenure process—ha!) but I think that now with the benefit of 9 years of added perspective, I can say that I did what needed to be done, kept my sanity/finished grad school without any mental health issues, and didn’t pick up too many new bad habits! 😉 Perhaps I’ll return to some other other entries in this slim little journal for future blog posts.

An Artistically Satisfying, Emotionally Refreshing Weekend


This week in my GEOG 333/577 class (a mixed-undergraduate and graduate seminar with two different course titles, but essentially “Geographic Thought” or “History and Philosophy in Geography”), our discussion centered on Feminist Geographies. While I’m not going to take the time now to spell out the many brilliant contributions to the field that are included in Feminist Geographies, I did take time at the end of the seminar to highlight one Feminist concept that is particularly important for students right now as we approach the highpoint of the semester: the idea of self-care.

Now, the interesting thing there is that some scholars would no doubt argue that self-care, while highly important and recommended by feminists, actually comes from health care and mental health, but whatever—I’m not here to argue semantics.

Anyway, the point is: after a rather dark and depressing turn in our class discussion about how we frequently arrive on difficult topics in my classes, such as how to fight racism and patriarchy, I could sense that we were collectively approaching a point of exhaustion. For one, the class meets from 7:20–10 pm, and for another, discussing difficult topics can really wear on people emotionally, particularly if they aren’t used to engaging with difficult topics on a regular basis. So I ended the class, essentially, by modeling for students (without directly mentioning it by name) the concept of self-care. I said, something to the effect of:

Go home, hug your kids or pets, do something you love, and get some sleep. And then wake up tomorrow ready to fight on.

I swear I was probably more eloquent in class! As you might expect, I felt that this really reverberated with the students, and I subsequently experienced what many of us in the education world call a real “teaching high” moment.

And then I came home and made the mistake of looking at Facebook. And what I saw made me angry. So angry, I couldn’t go to sleep for a long time. I woke up on Friday, still trying to mentally move on from what I read from Facebook. Somewhat angry. Then I went to a two-plus hour faculty meeting, which ended with several less-than-pleasant announcements. Which made me angry all over again.

And then I made a conscious effort to engage in self-care. It is amazing what that decision can do.

I went to EMU Choir rehearsal and prepared for a concert.

Karen and I drove to the Detroit Athletic Club for an amazing dinner and evening with friends as we performed for our church’s annual parish dinner.

On Saturday, I slept in, and perhaps to my future peril (but present delight!) I truly took the day off. Yes, I now have a few extra emails to reply to tomorrow morning and a recommendation letter to write because I didn’t work…

But I made time for tea (and a lot of it to substitute for coffee, lest I get a caffeine headache later!) I turned on the TV and found that with our limited number of stations, I could watch the UT-Alabama game (though there was no need to finish watching…) I got chores done. Ate some really good meals with Karen. Got ready for a concert, and then shared in sheer music-making artistry with my new EMU Choir family—a truly special group of people.

Then this morning, after I accidentally over-slept a bit more than I intended, we drove to Detroit, again: this time to church to celebrate Mariner’s 175th anniversary with some absolutely stunning music. (If you have never listened to Charles Hubert Perry’s I was glad when they said unto me, please go rectify that immediately.) Then, as if the weekend weren’t already amazing enough, Karen and I also had the opportunity to see the Michigan Opera Theatre’s matinée production of Verdi’s Rigoletto, which was fantastic. (Thanks, Ted, for the tickets!)

To top it all off, we ate supper at Cracker Barrel! (Insert witty phrase here about “you can take a person out of the South…)

So what is the point of this overly long-winded post, which, as always, I suspect all of five people will read?

Take the time to engage in self-care. When you do, don’t forget to be thankful for the time and opportunity you have to engage in it.

And then wake up tomorrow ready to fight on.

First EMU semester in the books

As of 6 p.m. yesterday, I wrapped up my first semester as an assistant professor at Eastern. It took a whole day of grading GEOG 107 exams (with some distractions, as I was also in the process of moving offices up to the main floor of Strong Hall) but I got my grades in two days early. I call that a win.

Despite a few initial moments of fear (and loathing, frustration, surprise, adjustment, etc.) in the first month or two of teaching, my first semester was ultimately a very rewarding and overall positive. There was only one day I wanted to quit or at least pull my hair out—the time when I got back from a long weekend of fieldwork about six weeks into the semester to find my office desk covered with my entire collection of academic books that a mold remediation company was allegedly going to “be very good about keeping organized.” Yeah… that didn’t happen. Oh, and the mold remediation? Took about twice as long as predicted, and no one’s quite sure that it won’t happen again, except that our building is supposed to be renovated starting next summer, Lord willing and the creek don’t rise. (And state legislature-willing, too.)

It’s taking some “getting-used-to” to adjust to the heavy teaching load here, and I’m not even at four courses per semester yet. It’s a balancing act to be sure, and my research and writing have certainly slowed.


The good news is that we have four months off in the summer…imagine how productive that could end up being!

But other than that, plus a day of trying to figure out what on Earth to do about staying positive after the election, the semester can decidedly go in the “Win” column. I like it here. I like my new colleagues, I love my students (well, most of them—but that’s no different from teaching at UT Knoxville!), I love our new-found singing opportunities and church, and I’m starting to love the area, too. I even think I can survive the winters, just with lots of driving patience, Kleenex, and hand lotion. Seriously—I thought my hands were falling apart in Knoxville during the winters… Oh, and possibly a bigger humidifier. We’re running that thing 24/7!

Anyway, as much as I have missed (and definitely continue to miss) Knoxville and all our friends there—and it’s just about the only place I can think of where a job could tempt me away—I think I will do well here. And that’s very reassuring. (But ask me about it again later when I’m closer to my tenure review!)

In the meantime, while you’re here, look around the site and let me know what’s missing. I always have the best ideas and plans for the website but never the time and energy to get around to it.

30 by 30—Updates left and right!

Twenty-nine years of age has come (happy belated birthday to me…), and some major life changes along with it! Most of you know that I’ve finished up my dissertation this semester at UT Knoxville and applied for, been offered, and accepted a job as an assistant professor in the Historic Preservation program in Eastern Michigan University’s Geography and Geology Department. That checks a few major boxes off of 30 by 30 list, and since I’ve had a spare couple of minutes to update my website, I thought I could spit out a quick update on the 30 by 30 list! (Speaking of, what do you think of the updates? New landing page for the front of the website, moved the blog posts to a separate page, updated research interests, CV, etc.)

So here’s the list as we stand now:

√ Chicago
√ Quebec
√ Charleston/Edisto Island
France and Belgium (Coming soon! In June!)
√ San Francisco

I never got around to blogging much about vacation on Edisto Island last summer or about fieldwork in the Charleston area twice this semester for the NSF-funded fieldwork on plantations, but suffice to say all of those trips were extremely rewarding and useful trips. San Fransisco for the 2016 AAG Conference was also a lot of fun and beneficial to my career—it’s the first one where I’ve gotten and accepted job offer! Plus my talk went well, I organized a photo exhibit, attended some great sessions, did some speciality group service stuff… Oh, and got to explore an incredibly city with Karen! Photos at some point…I promise!

√ Earn my PhD (graduation this coming Thursday!)
Seven publications (Five down, four in the works at various stages right now, plus one waiting in the wings to be written next!)
√ Land a job
Month-long photo challenge (maybe this summer?)
√ Purchase a professional, tailored suit (okay, it was not exactly tailored, but two matching suit separates that look great together is close enough in my book!)

√ Talk theology with a minister
√ Volunteer for a good cause
Read the entire Bible (got started on this last year, started to really slow down somewhere around Psalms or Proverbs…)
Study the Methodist Hymnal (This has been ongoing, but hopefully I’ll find time to finish this before they make a new one…)
Fast for 24 hours (And not just because of a colonoscopy, cholesterol, or other medical test!)

√ See another Broadway show — Godspell
√ Sing in another opera
Sing karaoke…but maybe just once
Go to a (non-classical) concert
Learn a new instrument or pickup an old one

(Honestly, of all the categories on my list… those last three music items might be the hardest to find the time/gumption to complete!)

Just for Fun
52 in 52 book challenge (Probably going to be difficult to make time for, too)
Hike Mt. LeConte (This summer! It’s got to happen before we move!)
Watch a dozen classic films
Watch a meteor shower
√ Baseball at Turner Field

A couple of substitutes if things don’t work out
Throw a huge 30th birthday party? (Not sure if this will really be worth it…)
Baseball at ___________________? (Seems like copycatting from above, but we will be moving to an entirely new area of the country soon…)

30 by 30—2015 Year End Update

434 days.
62 weeks.
37,497,600 seconds.

That’s how long I have before I hit 30 (and thus the amount of time I have to complete my 30 by 30 list!)

Even more scary is the fact that I have only 112 days to complete my dissertation if I want to graduate on time, which by the way IS part of the professional category of my 30 by 30. So where do I stand? Here’s where I was the last time I remembered to swing by my website:

√ Chicago
√ Quebec
Charleston/Edisto Island (this will be my next blog post, coming soon hopefully!)
France and Belgium
San Francisco

I can now check off Charleston/Edisto Island from the travel category, though I never blogged about it. Vacation 2015 was lovely, and quite possibly one of my all-time favorites. It’s a lot of fun to vacation with the niece and nephew (and their parents and Mimom and Grandaddy are pretty nice, too!) With that vacation, plus some serious family time this Christmas (both my side and Karen’s side, as I write this at Karen’s grandparents’ house!), I think I can safely check off another big (and certainly ongoing) item from the personal category: spend time with family. I’ve also been able to check off some items from the Musical, Spiritual, and Just for Fun categories this year. It’s been a great start to the list, and looking back in total, a year of great accomplishments.

Here’s where the list stands (again, not giving it away in full!) heading into 2016, with some comments:

√ Spend time with family

Earn my PhD
Seven publications (no really—I’ve already got five if you count the two book reviews, with three more dissertation chapters and a third book review under development!)
Land a job
Month-long photo challenge
Purchase a professional suit (perhaps a bit vain of me, but I’ve been waiting to lose some weight first…and hey, forthcoming job interviews are maybe not all wishful thinking and pipe dreams, right??)

√ Talk theology with a minister—Thanks, Rev. Matt Hampton!
√ Volunteer for a good cause (more on this if I ever get around to it, but suffice to say that volunteering at Church Street’s Soup Kitchen has been one of the most meaningful, amazing additions to my life this year!)

√ Chicago
√ Quebec
France and Belgium (forthcoming, summer 2016!)
√ Charleston/Edisto Island
San Francisco (forthcoming, March/April 2016!)

√ See another Broadway show — Godspell (I don’t care if it was staged in the Church Street Parish Hall, it was an amazing production!)
√ Sing in another opera—Knoxville Opera’s production of Boito’s Mefistofele (sure, I was just in the auxiliary heavenly chorus, but it was fun!)

Just for Fun
52 in 52 book challenge—this may never happen at my current reading rate!
Hike Mt. LeConte—seriously HAVE to do this in 2016
Watch a dozen classic films—now taking suggestions!
Watch a meteor shower?—or something else if the opportunity does not astronomically present itself…
√ Baseball at Turner Field—finally checked this stadium off of my MLB travel list, now up to a grand total of Busch Stadium II & III (STL), Kauffman Stadium (Kansas City), Nationals Park (D.C.), and Turner Field (ATL). So many more stadiums to visit…I’m looking at you next, Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati!

TTFN! There’s life to be lived (and dissertation chapters to be written…!) Much love and best wishes to my readership (all, like, four of you) in 2016.

30 by 30—Quebec

Yeah, so it’s a little late, but I “checked off” the second item on my 30 by 30 list earlier this summer with a trip to Quebec. For those keeping score at home, here’s the updated list of what I’ve revealed so far:

√ Chicago
√ Quebec
Charleston/Edisto Island (this will be my next blog post, coming soon hopefully!)
France and Belgium
San Francisco

As is true for all of these travel goals, going to Quebec was planned in advance, before the idea to do a 30 by 30 even crossed my mind, so it’s kind of cheating. Oh well. The choir tour to Quebec was, nonetheless, a blast.

This quick trip to Quebec (slightly under five days total in the province + almost four solid days of driving!) was my first adventure in Canada, and I’ve gotta say it was a almost entirely positive experience. (Hint: Watch out for flower boxes that hang over the sidewalk in Quebec City… as my new eyebrow scar can attest.) I now have some new and interesting insights into Canada to include in Geography 101 lectures (which is great, because I start teaching the course again on July 6), and my international travel itch has been scratched for at least another few months. I definitely want to visit SO much more of Canada now. Vancouver, Toronto, Albert, Prince Edward Island, Nunavut… Okay, maybe not Nunavut (it’s seriously cold there) but maybe Baffin Island… I mean, who wouldn’t want to visit a place that looks like this? (Not my photo, btw.)

Speaking of photos, here are just a handful of photos from Montreal and Quebec City. I haven’t had enough time to do much else with the 100+ good photos from the week, so this will have to suffice for now.

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30 by 30—Chicago (First item done!)

Okay, so this may technically be cheating, but one of the easiest items to check off of the 30 by 30 list was going to Chicago for the Annual Meeting of the American Association of Geographers back in April. I say it’s cheating because the trip was planned long before I started coming up with ideas for the 30 by 30 list.

If you will recall, one of the six categories for the list was travel, a somewhat ideal category for geographers. The difficult part, however, was how to plan/envision/strategize getting in several trips  (1) in a limited time frame, and (2) on an extreme budget.

So I “cheated” and went primarily with trips that were going to happen no matter what, including a vacation, a couple choir tours, and two AAG meetings.

Update: That said, I guess I can give more spoilers to the 30 by 30 list. Still not giving them all away yet! Here are the travel “goals”: Chicago, San Francisco (AAG 2016 will be there), Quebec (CSUMC Youth Choir Tour going there in just a couple weeks!), Edisto Island/Charleston South Carolina (going here on family vacation in June), and France/Belgium (planned Knoxville Choral Society choir tour for June 2016).

Here are some highlights from the 2015 AAG Meeting;

  • Despite not seeing much of the city (in part because Karen wasn’t there to pull me away from conferencing and partly because of increased responsibilities for this meeting), I did get out and see a lot of Chicago’s beautiful architecture around the Magnificent Mile. More on this below.
  • The conferencing itself probably rates for me as the best annual meeting yet. I went to a number of highly relevant sessions, made a few introductions and caught up with several friends from previous meetings/former UTK students who are elsewhere now, presented a pretty good paper (in my humble opinion) for a somewhat small audience (the curse of the Friday 8 am session…), and organized both a landscape photo exhibit and a breakfast as part of my responsibilities on the Cultural Geography Specialty Group board. Whew.
  • I was elected, with my dear UT friends/colleagues Melanie and Janna, to be student board members of the American South Specialty Group.
  • I did make it almost out of the city (at least somewhere near the northern suburbs) with my other UT friend/colleague (and other officemate with Melanie and Janna, come to think of it…) Tyler Sonnichsen to see him perform stand-up comedy. It was fun!

Now then, to the photos… I posted some online earlier, but I haven’t gotten around to processing any of the other photos from my camera. Here’s what I took with my phone.

Trump Tower, Downtown Chicago
Trump Tower
The Bean!
The Bean!
The Chicago Tribune Tower
The Chicago Tribune Tower
Savannah and I went on a photo tour of downtown Chicago, mostly in the South Loop. As you can see, it was slow going!
Savannah and I went on a photo tour of downtown Chicago, mostly in the South Loop. As you can see, it was slow going!
The Chicago Public Library. Didn't have time to go inside.
The Chicago Public Library. Didn’t have time to go inside.

Geographic Musings