"I’d defend the idea of developing theory, critiquing established ways of thinking, and challenging norms about the way places and processes and people are thought about."
August 27th, 2012

Caroline Faria Geographer

Caroline Faria is a geographer and an assistant professor at Florida International University. Her work focuses on identity and nationalism in post-colonial Africa, a continent to which she travels frequently making us very jealous.

Much of your work these days deals in the heady fauna of feminist political geography. Was that what inspired your interest in geography in the first place?

I loved geography in high school, and I remember learning about everything from volcanic eruptions in the American Pacific Northwest, to voting patterns in Europe and population control in China. I liked the very open and broad focus on interactions between people and place. That’s really at the heart of the discipline, so you can imagine that it leaves lots of room to explore your own interests. I should also say that I stayed with geography because it meant avoiding, for as long as possible, a decision to decide what I wanted to be. Since you go into university in the UK with your major decided, I always felt a lot of pressure to know what I was supposed to do with my life early on. While my friends applied to study law or marketing or medicine, I chose geography in a way to delay such a decision. I took a year to travel with two friends before going to uni, and I ended up spending some time in Zimbabwe and South Africa. It was a pretty formative experience for me, and I eventually took classes in African studies, development, and postcolonialism as part of my degree.

Can you tell us a bit about feminist political geography and your work now?

Feminist geography is a pretty diverse field, but at its heart, at least for me, it is concerned with the inseparability of power and place, and the everyday ways in which power in its varied forms gets worked out, performed, reinforced, and undermined. Most of my writing has been about South Sudan. For part of my doctoral work, I looked at a diasporic beauty pageant in the US held for Southern Sudanese called Miss South Sudan USA. I looked at it as a way to discuss nationalism and women’s bodies, and it in turn led me to an interest in beauty, which led me to the emergent beauty salon industry in South Sudan, which led me to hair — synthetic and human — and it’s trade between India, Brazil, and China to Europe, the United States, and Africa.

As an academic who studies something very real, as opposed to something abstract (like, say, combinatorics), do you ever wish a larger audience was seeing your work, or that it was somehow making a larger impact?

There’s actually a long history of concern with ethics and activist scholarship that comes out of feminist, critical race, queer, critical disability scholarship, and other social justice oriented work in and beyond geography. There’s some really innovative and exciting joint work going on now that positions people and places not only as research subjects and sites but as collaborators: community mapping projects to influence urban planning, curated shows on histories of immigration, public debates, documentaries, historical city tours of queer spaces. It’s maybe a bit of a cliché, but I’d also say that our teaching is a form of activism since so much of what we’re doing in the classroom is challenging taken-for-granted assumptions about the world, and pushing students to think differently. Or at least to think critically about why they think the way they do.

But as a younger person conditioned to the immediate gratifications of social media and the Internet, do you find the slow, peer-reviewed world of academia stifling or limiting in some contexts?

Academic writing might seem less immediate — though some new insights can take off very quickly. It just depends on where and what you place value on. I’d defend the idea of developing theory, critiquing established ways of thinking, and challenging norms about the way places and processes and people are thought about. The peer review process is also part of that effort to push theory forward. It can be slow, but it is an example of community. You invest all this time and emotion and energy into writing something quite narrow and focused, and two or three people who don’t know you and who you may never meet actually take days out of their lives to read and think about it so they can give you meaningful feedback. And for no compensation except an investment in having you produce as strong as piece of work as you can.

Can you tell me about your writing process?

For me, the writing I do for research usually involves starting with the kernel of an idea: being excited by a talk at a conference or an article or a documentary or an interview or moment in the field, then mulling over the idea for a (long) time, working through it on a beer mat with a friend, writing diary entries on buses, planes, cafes, talking to myself about it in traffic jams, making lists and notes of ideas and possible stories to tell, sketching out the structure of a paper, thinking about theorists whose work is useful and inspiring, and even then by the time I start to write I’m usually not sure where the paper will go. Once it is written, I’ll drag friends and colleagues together to look it over and help me revise. I’ll probably present it at a conference or two for feedback, and then eventually ready it for submission to a publication. After that there’s usually a couple of stages of revision before, or if, it gets published. It can take a while – it’s more like something you build and piece together over time, with a lot of collaboration and input. That said, the written work I spend much more time on is the day-to-day stuff: lectures, assignments, syllabi for classes, and exams. We don’t talk much about that side of the writing in academia, and I’m still figuring out how to write those in ways that really capture students’ interest and motivate them. But that’s also a type of writing that can be really engaging and fun and creative, believe it or not. And when the students respond to it, you can get the kind of instant and really embodied feedback and engagement that you rarely get through the publications.