Exploration in the intersession: thoughts from a shackled geographer…

by Lynn Moorman

At this time of year, those inevitable questions from well-meaning friends and family arise. “What will you do on your time off?” “What do you do when your classes end?” Teaching students is the most visible of our responsibilities in the community, but it overshadows important work we do to keep our knowledge and skills current, prepare our courses, conduct and present research and provide valued support through outreach and service. I’ve been thinking about how the current situation affects the intersession and summer – and what my answers to those inevitable questions will be this year, compared to answers in years before.

I am a geographer – my job is to write (graphia) the Earth (geo).  As a species, geographers have a massive home range; our habitat extends from pole to pole. It is in our DNA to explore and travel. For the last three years, I’ve averaged 50 flights a year, working with people around the globe, conducting research from the Arctic to Australia. My “summers off” are much more of an amazing race than a vacation, as it is this time away from students and classes when much of the “other” work is accomplished.

What does the 4-month race typically look like? Last year it started in April heading east. An international conference in Washington DC, then four flights straight north to the north end of Baffin Island in Canada’s high Arctic, to conduct a workshop with Inuit on sea ice mapping with satellite imagery. Then a hasty return to make it to the MRFA retreat for PD and dancing, always a welcome end-of-academic-year ritual. I worked in a K-12 school on a wetlands project that turned into keynote at an industry conference where my own students were presenting. June was data collection month, and supervising research students off-site. Then the ritual of convocation, to celebrate students and meet their families, and also being a student again myself, getting National Geographic certification to teach their education courses.

The summer proper started with a phone call on a Thursday morning Stampede breakfast to be in Iceland by Saturday, for a chance to teach about volcanos, glaciers and all things geographic on an expedition ship and then a two-week voyage from Iceland sailing through the fjords on the east, south and west coasts of Greenland. This is my favorite classroom of all and builds my creativity and teaching toolkit as well as my spirit! From Greenland I had to fly to Hong Kong, but had to go the long way around the world to switch out my Arctic gear for tropical. There I was working at the International Geography Olympiad where I was advising on the field work exams and trying to isolate students from typhoons and the growing Hong Kong protests. I was pretty sure this coming summer was going to be a lot less challenging! Following a trip to western China to study earthquakes and hydrological infrastructure, I returned to Hong Kong where escalations in the protests has reached a dangerous level. Flights out were cancelled and I spent days in the airport, in trains, and in the middle of the massive protests trying to get out.

Eventually, with the help of colleagues there, I was able to get home, and just in time to teach a summer block week course back at MRU on landforms and landscape development. We used all of the amazing visualization tools available in the library and had a day field trip to explore Rat’s Nest Cave in Canmore, exposing the students to a whole new underground world. Then back to Greenland on the ship for two weeks along the coast, across the Davis Strait, down the coast of Labrador and Newfoundland, learning and teaching about landscapes and geologic history the whole way. I arrived back home to fall classes starting and the inevitable question “what did you do on your time off?”. My stock answer should be “I did an amazing race!” but this year I find myself wondering what my new answer will be.

Ten trips have been cancelled from now to October, I’ve gone from 50 flights to a few if I’m lucky, and goals and schedules have been blown away with the snowy winds passing by my window. But it’s good. Everyone needs a break from the race, whatever that race is for them. Opportunities that have disappeared make room for the new ones that may never have had a chance to surface until the waters were calmer. It is a chance to take better care of ourselves and loved ones, to keep healthy and safe; this is the best race to win by far. I suspect time to think and catch up will open up our creativity and spark new research ideas, especially anything related to COVID-19. I know my industry is playing a critical role in mapping the spread and vectors of the disease and this will serve to inform my teaching and research in the future. My newly found technology skills developed in the mad panic to create lectures, labs, and assessments online in record time will add another dimension to my classes, especially in how I manage the larger ones. I want to finesse the resources I rushed to put together so I can use them again. I will engage in PD, but this year it will be online and will focus on my own skill development. My focus will be less on outreach and more on in-reach and building my own capacity.

As priorities shift and we reassess our work and processes, I hope we all have a chance to breathe and think carefully about how we use our time when classes are done to create time that is valuable to us both personally and professionally. The race this year is different – and our answers to the question about “our time off” will be different as well. I suspect we are all currently feeling like we are running a marathon at a sprinter’s pace, and like every runner, time is required to recharge and rest. But there will also be a need to start to train again, to build stamina for when we find ourselves on the starting line again. I think my answer this year is “I am in training and I’m making a map”. As a geographer unwillingly shackled to one location, my explorer’s urge to travel is challenged so I have to engage in personal “cartography”. Every explorer needs to stop at some point and record where they’ve been and plan their route ahead; it is part of the success of navigating the unknown. This unexpected interruption can serve us if we can use it well and keep thoughtful, engaged and healthy.  My wish for you all in this period full of unknowns, is that you can safely navigate to a place where you can rest, reflect, and restore and replenish in all ways, ready to run again when next we meet.