Category Archives: Travel

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.

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:

Travel
√ 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.

2014 Fieldwork Day 4

Not a whole lot new to report from yesterday. I’m writing during breakfast at the Fairfield Inn in south Baton Rouge.

Yesterday, the first thing I did after writing up the notes from Thursday at Natchez Coffee was to tour the William Johnson house. Johnson in and of himself is a counter narrative to commonly assumed notions of slavery in the Deep South—Johnson and his mother were freed by his (white) father, and Johnson became a middle class free African American in Natchez’s community of around 200 free blacks, who were either former slaves from nearby plantations or Haitians who fled Haiti after the successful slave rebellion. Johnson eventually owned four barbershops in Natchez, serving mainly the upper class white community, and he even owned slaves himself at one point. The National Park Service, which owns and operates the house museum, pointed out that Johnson never says much in his dairy about owning slaves, despite being formerly being one. They hypothesize that Johnson was well aware of how free black were constantly under white suspicions because of their potential to foment slave rebellions, especially after the Nat Turner rebellion. Johnson also knew that by owning slaves he could provide for them a safer existence than life on a white owned plantation.

The museum itself consists of the renovated downstairs—the NPS information desk, small bookstore, and several informational panels and displays—and a few rooms in the upstairs that shows the main living quarters of the Johnson family.

After that, I said goodbye to Natchez and drove down to Baton Rouge. I stopped in for a quick lunch (without intending to, at the same exit as my hotel) then continued on to Donaldsonville, across the river. In Donaldsonville, I stopped at the River Road African American Museum to investigate it’s potential as a sight of counter memory. I think it was David Butler who originally brought it to Derek’s attention, who then in turn suggested it to me. The museum literally is four rooms in an old house that tells the story of slavery and emancipated life in the River Road area through a collection of a artifacts, news clippings, home-made (by which I mean not professionally printed) signs, etc. The museum is a noteworthy addition to the River Road area’s stunning number of plantations simply because it exists to tell the stories of black life in the area. Like many small, local museums, it does suffer from a lack of funding but their is potential (and certainly the spirit/desire from its owner) to be so much more.  I ended up spending around a half hour in the museum, with only one employee/volunteer(?) there in the house. As I have been doing at all of the sites I’ve been visiting, I took dozens of photographs of the museum’s collection to aid me in further processing/dissecting/evaluating/whatever else needs to be done later for publication and dissertating.

The plan for Saturday (today, as I’m writing it) was to tour the two main plantations that the research team has been studying for a number of years now—Laura and Oak Alley—to see, basically, what is done on these plantation tours and to experience first-hand the sites that I’ve heard and read about from the research team over the last year as I’ve become a part. I’ll update more about that later.

2014 Fieldwork Notes: Day 3

Sorry these notes didn’t get posted yesterday. I actually had time to sit and think (and write in a notebook) during my lunch and dinner yesterday. Today (Friday) I’m eating breakfast at the Natchez Coffee Company, which I popped into yesterday afternoon for some cold coffee (IT’S HOT AROUND HERE!) and they have free wifi, so I’m working on typing up my notes from yesterday.

Frogmore Plantation – Lynette Turner, owner & main tour guide

(Written while eating lunch at Pearl Street Pasta, just around the corner from the Natchez African American Museum—also sometimes referred to as the Af. Am. History and Culture Museum).

This moring I went to Frogmore Plantation, just across the river in Concordia Parrish. When I showed up, I was the first car—and sitting right out front was a BIG tour bus with a Wisconsin Badger on the side. Turns out, a large group of (white) retirees from Wisconsin was doing a group tour (ironically? with their black bus driver), so I just joined them part-way in to their tour. The tour itself lived up to the expectations generated by their website, which mentions slavery front and center. The two tour guides I interacted with were all well-informed about the history of slavery in the area and what life was like on the plantation. Particularly noteworthy was the co-owner (Lynette, owns the farm with her husband Buddy—may want to interview her in the future, but I would need an IRB for this). Lynette has apparently conducted quite a bit of archival research (and read numerous books/anthologies on slavery, many of which are worked into the tour narrative) and has written a book on plantation life and slavery. (Didn’t catch the name of this book, but I can email for more information.) The tour includes (first and foremost NOT the “big house” because it is still being used for the Turners to live in) several historical structures including the overseer’s house, the slave kitchen and quarters, a church built on the property, the smokehouse, etc., before moving on to the 1880s-era cotton gin. The Wisconsonites also toured the modern ginning operations, so I finished up with the part of the tour I missed at the beginning. While one of the tour guides (the one other than Lynette—didn’t catch her name) described the overall nature of the tour as not being a “slaves and (in?) shackles” tour, it was obvious that the operation paid a lot of attention and time to telling the slaves’ story. (Some thoughts on this: maybe easier for the Turners to tell these stories because they are not descendants of the original white plantation-owning family. Buddy leased the farm and later purchased it from descendants.) In the video that was supposed to start the tour, Lynette explains that not all of the structures were original to the property, but when the decided to restore and open the structures for touring, they searched in Louisiana and Mississippi for additional structures to purchase and move to their property. She discussed the difficulties of work in the fields…and referenced several books I need to investigate.

Other things: they have used 12 Years a Slave (the book) for 16 years as a part of their tours. Somewhat sad to see how slavery has been so Hollywood-ized through films like this, but accept the fact that at least the films put slavery more into the public consciousness. Something to think about for the slavery in the media paper this fall.

Natchez African American Museum – David Dreyer, Local historian and volunteer museum curator/docent

  • One of the earliest exhibits in the museum (it’s grown quite piecemeal over the years) is a look at middle class black life, not necessarily sharecropping. Pieces donated by Natchez African American community, reflects the fact that many were not sharecroppers, even if their grandparents had been.
  • Need to check out Richard Wright’s books! (Local to Natchez, quite famous author)
  • “We will shoot back” ­– investigate the Deacons of Defense (as counter-narrative to the common stories of the Civil Rights Movement)
  • Slavery of Native Americans – first slaves in the Natchez area under the French (lot of French tourists to Natchez). Africans were later brought as slaves, first from Mali (Bamara Tribe, I believe.)
  • Discussion of “what should be shown? What should be included in the museum?” curators struggle over this.
  • US Colored Troops ­– counter-narrative to Civil War narratives
  • Mississippi in Africa – book by Alan Hoffman
  • Prince among Slaves (and documentary film about it) ­– includes David Dreyer as a commentator
  • Liberia’s Declaration of Independence ­– read this for reference

So, it’s a good thing I’m writing a paper on popular media accounts of slavery later on this year —David and the Frogmore people discussed Hollywood films and the impressions of slavery that viewers get from them. Particularly relevant (in these parts) is 12 Years a Slave because Solomon Northup was enslaved in a nearby part of Louisiana, and a cabin from the Epps plantation is on the campus of LSU Alexandria.

2014 Fieldwork Notes: Day 2

There’s not a whole, whole lot new to report today. Kind of like yesterday, I spent something like five to six hours in the car driving across western Alabama and all of Mississippi. Along the way I popped into Tuscaloosa to photograph three historical markers for the Alabama marker program paper. Tuscaloosa was a convenient place to stop because it has three of the scant few markers in Alabama that even give slavery a mention. Montgomery has a handful, too, so that’s why it’s the last stop on my way home next week. Tuscaloosa has a surprisingly small town feel for having such a large university. It also looked liked it has some holdovers from segregation, just by driving across town there are some clear signs of poverty and race on the landscape.

After Tuscaloosa, I stopped after another 1.5 hour drive in Meridian, MS, to have lunch with an old high school friend—Gavin Breeden. Gavin is a Presbyterian minister in Meridian, and it was fun to catch up with him and also talk about my research. He gave me some insights into Meridian and confirmed some things about the differences of living in the “Deep South” vs. where we grew up (Martin, though not that far from Meridian or climatologically all that different, definitely fits the mold of a “Mid South” town…whatever that means. I’m too tired to flesh that out right now.)

Two key insights/points from talking with Gavin: one, without me even having mentioned this, he brought up how important the idea of empathy is to understand the memory of slavery. Second, he brought that up by telling me about a new board game he bought recently called the Underground Railroad. While at first blush, that game might sound like it trivializes issues surrounding slavery, Gavin explained that the game is not some much a cutesy kind of game but one for serious board game types. Through various strategy, the players “work” as abolitionists helping slaves escape to Canada, with a lot of historical information woven in. Sounds like a game I’m going to need to check out. Apparently the best card in the is “Harriet Tubman.” Neat!

After lunch, I had my first good sweat of the trip under the Deep South sun/humidity combo. I stopped in at the Meridian Tourism Office to pick up a copy of their Civil Rights marker map. I walked around downtown Meridian for about an hour to see/photograph the first seven signs in the program. I didn’t know anything about Meridian before starting this research, so I only found out at lunch that the city was once the largest city in Mississippi sometime before/shortly after the Civil War. The downtown area is substantially dilapidated today, hurt tremendously by white flight, though it showing a few signs of life/gentrification. Similar to Tuscaloosa, there is a palpable separation that still hangs over the city between the formerly African American business district and the rest of the downtown surrounding the county courthouse and the federal court (which, I learned today, was the site where the case against the Mississippi Freedom Summer murderers was heard.) There were not many people downtown at all, and I stuck out like a sore thumb in a red t-shirt with a gigantic camera… And yes, until I started heading back toward the federal courthouse side of downtown, I one of only three or four white people that I saw out and about. From a reflexivity standpoint, this was a very surreal moment. Having read a lot about the experiences of blacks in the South during Jim Crow and the range from uneasiness to outright terror that people experience during that time, this geographic/spatial act of just walking around in an unfamiliar, dilapidated area allowed me a moment (however brief, and yes, I can’t overemphasize how fully I am aware that the situations do not truly compare given my positionality as a white male) of empathetic understanding with the people who had to experience those feelings as a part of their everyday life.

After Meridian, I drove the final 3 or so hours to Natchez, arriving too late to get any real work done. I checked into my hotel and drove a little bit around downtown Natchez. It is unlike pretty much anywhere I’ve been before, and definitely a unique gem of a Southern city. Having read Steve Hoelscher’s (2003) article on Natchez, it’s starting to come together for me seeing it in person. I’ll have more thoughts on this later, since I’ll be here a couple more days. I ate dinner at a local place, Biscuit and Blues. Pretty good food. One thing I observed already about Natchez is that it’s apparently very popular among European tourists. I walked into the hotel with a German (or possibly Austrian, Swiss, or other German-speaking nationality) couple, and at dinner I had first an Italian couple and later a French family sit on either side of me at the restaurant! No, I didn’t strike up a conversation with any of them, but that is one advantage of being able to identify around half a dozen European languages just by hearing them! (Side note: I count English, Norwegian, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese. Plus I can usually guess when it comes to Russian. Now if only I spoke any of them fluently besides English!)

Tomorrow’s plan is to get up early and head over to Frogmore Plantation across the river and spend the afternoon at the Natchez Museum of African-American History and Culture.

2014 Fieldwork Notes: Day 1

Editor’s note: Per the rules of qualitative geography, general “best practices” in fieldwork, and my advisor, I am debriefing every day of this week of fieldwork—a practice that basically entails taking extensive notes about what happened during the day, what I saw, thought, felt, etc. Writing these ideas down when they are fresh is KEY to being able to remember, processes, and write about these fieldwork experiences in the future. Since I rarely blog, and my readership is all of about five people, I thought I would share my notes with the world. They are not heavily edited—part of the “safety” of this kind of note taking is that there is no judgment for stream of conscience writing. Perhaps you will enjoy following along.

So far, so good. The trip has had a successful start after picking up the UT car (nice Dodge Avenger) and hitting the road. Took a conference call with some UCW folks at the Smith County rest area for about an hour.

In Nashville, I visited the Tennessee State Museum. Although my visit was brief, I saw two short-term (“Changing Gallery”) exhibits while there—the Slaves and Slaveholders of Wessyngton Plantation and an exhibit of African American art from Tennessee artists. The Wessyngton Plantation exhibit could be useful as an example of a museum exhibit (while temporary) that encompasses a deep history of a single plantation. It succeeds in telling a pretty complete and authentic narrative about slavery practices in Tennessee. Some of the particular things that stood out to me were the inclusion of displaying shackles (two different kinds, have to review the photos), under glass though–can’t be held/touched, in the exhibit and the decision to focus much of the narrative on a few key personalities and their descendants. I also liked the exhibit’s efforts to include a few information placards at key spaces that explained how the information came to be known/researched/included in the exhibit. (Question to go back to in the photos—were these shown with any kind of controversial parts of the exhibit?!) So, for example, one sign discussed how a lot of information presented in the exhibit was made possible because the white planter-class family kept extensively detailed records about everything. Another “method” if you will that was mentioned was oral histories that were passed down through some of the slaves’ descendants and their families. All very useful to think about.

One other item to note — I didn’t spend a ton of time looking through the museum’s permanent galleries, but I meandered briefly through the state’s Civil War history section. Spatially, it was quite interesting to observe how much prominent space was given to armaments (cannons, rifles, pistols, swords, etc.) in the exhibit and to explaining some of the key battles and state politicians/personalities VS. the extremely small section devoted to discussing Nathan Bedford Forrest and the start of the KKK, which occupied a small glass case tucked away facing a wall about three feet away, on the “bookend” of “end cap” of two other displays.

After driving to Birmingham, I first stopped in downtown to (re)photograph some of the city’s Civil Rights district. I have photos of the park area from the last time I was in Birmingham, for the Southeastern Journalism Conference during my undergrad. I think the city (or another group/institution) has added some informational markers around Kelly Ingram Park, adjacent to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (which was closed by the time I got there) and 16th Street Baptist Church where Martin Luther King, Jr. was once pastor. These photos can come in handy later for discussing (and teaching about) Alabama’s desire to latch onto Civil Rights history/memory vs. addressing the slavery and the Emancipation eras.

Plans for tomorrow:

  • Stop in Tuscaloosa on the way to Natchez to photograph three signs for the Alabama Marker paper – Alabama Riverwalk and a couple of historically Black churches
  • Drive to Meridian, MS, for lunch with an old friend (Gavin Breeden) and if possible, take a look at/photograph Meridian’s new Civil Rights Trail
  • Drive to Natchez and evaluate what I have time to accomplish.