Professor Richard Walker
Professor Richard Walker, who is retired this year, sang his swan song to the Department of Geography on April 25, 2012. Since he is now 'history', and he has been witness to enormous changes in his 37 years at Berkeley, Prof. Walker took the opportunity to reflect on the history of the department and of geography as a discipline, and his role in both. Since so many of the principals of the last half-century of Berkeley Geography have passed away, it was a valuable reminder of things past, as well as a celebration of the present state of the department and the discipline of geography. More than a stroll down memory lane, Walker gave the department and many of its friends gathered for the occasion a lot to think about, as well as provided a few laughs at his and his colleagues' expense.
April 25, 2012
From the Age of Dino-Sauers to the Anthropo-Scene
Reminiscences of life in Berkeley Geography, 1975-2012
Richard A. Walker
Department of Geography
University of California, Berkeley
Retirement talk Berkeley,
April 25, 2012
My aim today is to reflect on my time in Berkeley's Geography department. I will try to describe the arc of a career in relation to that of an institution and a discipline - by no means the same thing, although there are parallels among the three. I will do so in five segments: a prehistory before my time, then four decades from the 1970s to the 2000s (an obvious simplification to break up the narrative).
It will try to bring back to life a past that most of you here know very little about, but which laid the basis for the world of Berkeley Geography you now inhabit. I hope to avoid a teleology that demonstrates how we inevitably arrived at the present moment. Yes, we had a degree of vision about what the department and geography should look like, but much of what happened was unexpected. Yet, honestly, any such biography is testimony to the serendipity & unpredictability of life, as much as anything. At the same time, I think it speaks to the virtues of determination and struggle, or, at the very least, "hanging in there" over the long haul.
My tale will inevitably suffer from the one-sidedness of personal experience and the blur of memory; memory of details has never been my strong suit. I hope it will not suffer unduly from ego and self-indulgence, though it must of necessity reflect my pride in the successes I have had, and, more importantly, those of the department and, more broadly, of modern critical or radical Geography (as I shall call it, for lack of a better term).
The Department of Geography at Berkeley is the oldest geography program in the country, started in 1898 in the College of Commerce as a course on world geography by aging geologist George Davidson. No doubt in the wake of the Spanish-American War, as Gray Brechin has pointed out, but also as part of the growth of the University of California under the wing of patroness Phoebe Hearst after 1896.1 The first quarter century was not terribly distinguished and not much is known about it. Many women teachers received MAs, but women pretty much disappear from the story until the 1970s, as Kate Davis has shown.2
Geography in general got off on the wrong foot as an academic discipline by trying to be too closely tied to the earth. On the scientific front, it was unable to distinguish itself from geology as an earth science, despite claiming Harvard's William Morris Davis as a father figure.3 As a social science, it was led into the trap of environmental determinism by Yale professor Ellsworth Huntington and Kentucky's Ellen Semple, just when Boas and Weber were laying the basis for social sciences that took seriously the people they studied. On the political front, early geography played handmaiden to imperialist aims in Britain and Germany thanks to Frederic Rätzel in Germany and Halford MacKinder in Britain. There was a radical branch of the discipline in Europe thanks to Élisée Reclus and Peter Kropotkin, but they had no discernible impact on American geography.
The Department of Geography's fortunes took a turn for the better with the arrival of Carl Sauer in 1923. Sauer brought a distinctly new vision to Berkeley and to American Geography. His cultural and regional geography turned away from Environmental Determinism and mere physicalism to emphasize the cultural dimensions of human use of the earth. Sauer's immense contribution was to take 'prehistory' and 'primitive people' seriously, first in pre-Colombian Latin America and then around the world, where he famously considered the origins of domestication, early forms of tropical agriculture, and more (in this he was moving in parallel with the Anthropologists at Berkeley). Furthermore, he went on to consider the role of humankind in 'changing the face of the earth' (in the tradition of George Perkins Marsh) and was an early conservationist and critic of modern environmental destruction.
On the other hand, Sauer's great limitation was a disinterest – indeed, antipathy – to modernity and the workings of commercial, urban and industrial societies of his own time. While a great thinker, he was not a theorist or model-builder at heart. He and Hartshorne at Wisconsin jointly eviscerated geography of any claim to systematic social science. Nor was he an institution builder or political actor like Isaiah Bowman. In any case, the Department of Geography, like most academic departments of the time, remained a small affair -- with a core of Sauer, John Leighly, Jan Broek and John Kesseli, with a few others wheeling through.
The third quarter of the 20th century saw the flowering of the seeds that Sauer had planted. The university entered its greatest period of growth, which allowed the Department of Geography to add faculty and bring in many more students. In the 1940s and 50s, it added Clarence Glacken, Jim Parsons, Paul Wheatley, and James Vance and, in the 1960s, Allan Pred, Ted Oberlander, Hilgard Sternberg and David Hooson. Despite the impression that many have, these were not all Sauer School clones, by any means. Parsons, Sternberg, and Oberlander were closely allied, to be sure. But others represented a vision of geography that went well beyond Sauer's version of Cultural Geography: Clarence Glacken on western intellectual history, Hooson on the Soviet Union, Vance in urban geography, and Pred in economic geography and quantitative methods.4
Sauer retired in 1957, but remained a huge presence around the Department of Geography until his death in 1975 (he was succeeded as chair by Leighly, Parsons, Glacken and Hooson). His fame only grew with retirement (we should all be so lucky!). Thanks both to his reputation and to Berkeley's ability to attract superb graduate students, Sauer and company pumped out a host of stellar geographers who went on to populate geography departments across the United States: Yi-Fu Tuan, Wilbur Zelinsky, Marvin Mikesell, Billy Lee Turner, David Harris, Bill Deneven, and more. Pred and Vance added their own notable students by the end of the 1960s, such as Dick Peet, Paul Groves and Martyn Bowden.5
By the time I arrived in 1975, the Berkeley School of Cultural Geography had been the single biggest influence on American Geography for a quarter century. If Clarence Glacken and Paul Wheatley were every bit as brilliant as Sauer, the school's reputation was synonymous with the Old Man. This came in no small part from Sauer's hold over the imagination of the bright young men he took as students (he didn't think women should get doctorates). As I discovered over time, Sauer was a father figure to dozens of them, above all Jim Parsons. In their eyes, he could do no wrong. I never met the man; he died right before I arrived on campus in the summer of 1975.6
Unfortunately, as the Department of Geography entered the last quarter of the 20th century, the Sauer School was falling badly behind the times. This was so on several fronts. Political Science had stolen Geography's thunder in world affairs after World War II, as it grabbed international relations and Cold War studies of Communism from World Geography. Big social science became all the rage at mid-century, and there it was Sociology's turns to shine behind the likes of Talcott Parsons and Neil Smelser (also at Berkeley). Economics became a practice of mathematical modeling and the king of the quantitative social sciences, and by the 1960s the quantitative (statistical) revolution was sweeping all before it, including Geography.
To all this, the Cultural Geographers had no answer. Nor had the rest of the discipline under the sway of Hartshorne and the Wisconsin School's hold over the Midwest. Worse, the discipline had been beheaded in the United States by the closure of the Harvard department in the late 1940s, followed by Yale and Stanford. Columbia and Hopkins still had departments, and Chicago remained strong. But by the time I entered the discipline, American Geography had sunk pretty low.
Worse, the Berkeley School was so enamored of its Great Man that it took a reactionary view of everything that deviated from the party line, and this was particularly true of true believers like Hilgard Sternberg and Ted Oberlander. The Department of Geography at Berkeley, which had started to broaden in the 1960s, was still far too ingrown, having hired so many of its own: Leighly, Kesseli, Parsons and Bob Reed. It became a field of Dino-Sauers, facing extinction but unaware of the intellectual asteroids raining down from on the discipline. In case you think I'm exaggerating, go back and look at the transcripts of talks at the Department of Geography centennial in 1998, when the DinoSauers again stalked the land, and nary a word was said about anything done since Sauer's death. Time, for the acolytes, had stopped.7
1970S: DAYS OF DISCOVERY & DOUBT
Such was the world I entered as a naive almost-PhD in 1975. (I finished my dissertation while on the job the first year and turned it in a year later). I came from Johns Hopkins, the alma mater of Glacken, and was greatly influenced by Reds Wolman on environmental change. But I was tainted in the eyes of some of my new colleagues by contact with David Harvey – who was a positivist before he was a Marxist and suspect on both counts. I had started as an environmentalist and an economist, but had gone through a Marx conversion by reading Capital along with David and a handful of students at Hopkins (maybe 3 times before I bought it all). I'd also picked up a bit of urban geography from Harvey and my dissertation was on American suburbanization and its relation to capitalist development in the United States.
My hiring was already controversial, pitting the New Guard of Pred, Hooson and Vance against the Old Guard of Parsons, Sternberg and Oberlander. As Chair,
Hooson had been trying to engineer a change in the place, and he was forever proud of hiring the first woman, Risa Palm, the first person of color, Orman Granger, and the first Marxist, me. He advised me in no uncertain terms not to talk about cities or economies or Marx in my job talk, so I had to give a lecture on wetlands conservation in the Chesapeake Bay (not my dissertation topic, I might add).
What I didn't realize right away was the depth of the schism in the department. It had driven poor Clarence Glacken over the edge when he was chair in the late 1960s. One sign of trouble was that Jim Parsons had hidden a letter of recommendation for me written by Reds Wolman (who had mistakenly sent it to Jim, thinking he was still Chair). When that was rediscovered, it reopened my case and I was invited out for an interview. That talk got me the job, because the other candidates had not given very good ones, apparently. Job talks matter, I discovered.
The next year, Parsons would call me into his office, having read my dissertation and his hands were shaking. He had found out what I thought about capitalism and he said, "I don't know about this stuff about 'class'; I've been around a long time, and I've never seen it". We crossed swords again a few years later over my opposition to the Contra war in Central America and a declaration I helped introduce at an AAG meeting in 1981 (or 82). Btw, the AAG got rid of those open meetings and political statements later.
Geography was undergoing a major renewal in those days. The first round had taken place in the 1960s, and it had two major flanks. The first was the rediscovery of urban and economic geography (location theory) by the likes of Brian Berry, who was Pred's advisor at Chicago, and Raymond Murphy, who was Jay Vance's mentor at Clark. Meanwhile, Walter Isard had created a new field, Regional Science, at Penn, which was economic geography by another name. The second flank was the quantitative revolution or the use of numerical data and statistics, which was sweeping through the social sciences. Berry was one of the leaders, along with Bill Garrison at University of Washington (who later came to Berkeley, but not to Geography).
The second round of renewal came out of the radicalization of many scholars in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which spawned Bill Bunge’s Urban Expeditions in Detroit and Harvey's turn to Marx in Baltimore. Harvey made it halfway to Marx in Social Justice and the City, written while I was a grad student, and then he began working on The Limits to Capital and The Urbanization of Capital (originally two books) right away. Those books marked a huge departure in geography, but other people were moving to the left in tandem with Harvey, such as Ed Soja, Allen Scott, Doreen Massey, Richard Meegan, Dick Peet, Jim Blaut, Allan Pred and Kevin Cox.
A big part of the renewal of American geography, it must be said, came from the influx of postwar British 'scholarship boys' to North America, working class lads who had broken through the old public school system to get PhDs, but migrated to North America to get good jobs in a growing market and to escape the cloying class relations of Oxford and Cambridge. Harvey, Berry, Peet, and Cox came out of this migration of surplus intellects, not to mention Hooson, Michael Watts, and Roger Byrne (and Michael Teitz in Planning) here at Berkeley.
I kept a pretty low profile through the 1970s. I had replaced Dan Luten, who pioneered a set of courses on the environment that I inherited. Dan was an adjunct faculty member and former chemist at Union Oil who was also a board member at the Sierra Club. So I inherited courses like "Natural Resources and Population", Water as a Resource, Open Space as a Resource, and Environmental Pollution, which I taught into the next decade. I quite loved those courses, especially turning around Dan's Malthusianism in Geography 130 (a still popular course taught for many years by Michael Watts and now by Nathan Sayre). But the work was hard, since I didn't know very much about anything yet and I had almost no TA help in those days (the senior faculty and lower division courses got the TAs -- not yet called GSIs).
As for research and writing, the race for tenure was daunting. I could never turn out a book; it was just too big to get my head around, although my articles were always the size of small books. I distilled a couple articles on suburbanization from my dissertation and wrote about the failures of environmental regulation, about national land use policy, and on water development in California. I often despaired of my capacities, but gained traction often by working in concert with graduate students, such as Michael Storper, Mike Heiman, and Doug Greenberg.
On the departmental front, as an assistant professor you don't really know what's going on, and in any case most of the important decisions went on behind closed doors in those days. Risa Palm left as soon as I arrived, having been denied tenure. When Barney Nietschmann and Michael Watts were hired in the late 1970s, I hardly knew what was happening -- and my views probably had no impact at all. I did my job, wrote articles, and didn't speak up much in faculty meetings. Allan Pred was good to me and became a great fried and ally, but he was away in Sweden a lot my first years. Jay Vance was friendly at first, but later lost interest. The other junior faculty, Bob Reed, Roger Byrne and Orman Granger, were congenial – before they got sucked into the vortex of departmental politics and took sides. Doug Powell was always eager to chat in the hallways.
Clarence Glacken stands out in my mind for his kindness. He had the office next to mine and I audited his 'Man and Nature' course my first year. He always had ready advice about teaching and geographic thought. He had just come back from what they used to call a 'nervous breakdown', and had adopted a mellow persona as an emeritus (he was no longer involved in departmental politics).
Alas, he suffered a final breakdown in the early 1980s and disappeared from view. It was a huge loss for Geography.8
I never won over the doubters on the faculty. Worse, I seem to have alienated Jay Vance – perhaps my dog, Leila, pooping on the 5th floor in front of him had something to do with it or perhaps my touching his arm once in a friendly way put him off (Jay did not do 'touching'). I did seem to win begrudging respect from Jim Parsons, chiefly because I evinced a serious interest in California, water supply, and environmental matters. Jim was a conservative man, but open- minded and fair-minded in his own way. With the reactionaries, it was more sordid: I was not just a commie, but anti-Sauer and overly popular with students. In his letter to the Budget Committee, which I got in redacted form, Oberlander accused me of sleeping my way to popularity. Sternberg was more sophisticated, but ended his 17-page tirade by saying that if I got tenure, they should just close the Department of Geography.
The upshot was a long, drawn-out tenure fight from 1980 to 1982. Allan Pred was chair, but on sabbatical the first time a negative decision came down from on high; Barney had to do the dirty work (he was always in my corner, to his credit). Pred was determined, so he put the case up again, and it failed again. I got a majority vote each time in the Department of Geography and a 5-0 vote in the ad hoc committees, but still lost in the Budget Committee. It was pretty fishy and I found out later that the key guy on the Budget Committee was the next-door neighbor of Hilgard Sternberg, my greatest enemy.
David Hooson was Dean of Social Sciences at the time, and he did his best to no avail. The poor fellow had another terrible tenure case on his hands at the time, in Anthropology, and it took such a toll he had to a heart pacemaker installed. The good news is that he lived for another 25 years and married the denied anthropologist, Margaret McKenzie. As for me, Pred was dogged; he wouldn't give up. So he kept after it, appealing to the Provost, Bob Middlekauf, to no avail and finally the Chancellor, Mike Heyman, who intervened to save my skin (with the help of another fair-minded conservative, Mel Webber in Planning).
That tenure fight was horrendous, but it sure made my reputation. There was a worldwide mobilization led by Harvey and others like Allen Scott, Barbara Epstein, Dick Peet and Bennett Harrison. Letters poured in to the Chancellor from faculty, deans, presidents of the AAG and IBG, and even one Nobel Prize winner in Physics. I received something like 150 cc's of letters directed at the Chancellor.
The California political world thought I was being persecuted for opposing the Peripheral Canal, my first sortie into activism as a professor. Our research helped convince people that L.A. was subsiding agribusiness in the San Joaquin Valley, and was instrumental, I think, in the referendum defeat of the canal (and then-governor Jerry Brown). In the discipline of Geography, everyone thought I was being rejected because of my Marxism, since that school was on the upsurge in the late 1970s and early 80s (Harvey's Limits to Capital came out in 1982). But, in fact, there was very little overt Marxism in any of my classes or writings, but there was no denying my leftist take on things.
Back on campus, it was definitely about ideology. Leftists had never gotten tenure at Berkeley before my peer group, the 1968ers, came along. Michael Burawoy, Michael Reich, Ann Markusen and I were all up at the same time and we were the first to break that barrier. Another vein of politics I had been involved in, founding the FACHRES group to oppose the contra war in Central America, also worked in my favor, since it gave me a wider group of faculty contacts on campus who rallied behind me.9 Public scholarship turned out, overall, to have benefitted me. In the end, I survived – if just barely.
1980s: CIVIL WAR ON TWO FRONTS
The 1980s were a decade of civil war in the department. Pred had been made chair over the undoubted objections of certain colleagues and presided through most of the decade (1981-88). Pred deserves all the credit for taking the brunt of abuse from the Dino-Sauers for many years (although Vance was the most vocal opponent of what he called 'muddy boots geography' and the one who personally detested Sauer). My tenure fight got the decade off to a nasty start, indeed.
I can't tell you how bizarre faculty meetings were in those days, with Vance and Sternberg holding forth on matters of high principle and the true meaning of geography. Ted Oberlander was quieter, but rarely happy about decisions taken. He famously stalked out of a meeting when he couldn't get his way over a hiring decision. That hiring, c. 1986, was certainly ugly, with Sternberg opposing his own student, Suzanna Hecht, the leading candidate. My student, Kristin Nelson, got the job, mostly through the urging of Vance, but she was driven out within three years by the unfriendly atmosphere in the department.
David Hooson played peacemaker. Vance later complained that David always got his way. When Pred's term was drawing to a close in 1987, the faculty were hopelessly divided over a successor. While Vance, Sternberg and Oberlander were the senior faculty in line for the job, all were too divisive to win majority support. When David Hooson brought in David Stoddart from Cambridge to give the annual Carl Sauer Memorial Lecture,10 his name suddenly surfaced as a candidate for chair. Anthropologist Brent Berlin, head of a departmental review committee, pushed for this solution. It seemed a brilliant stroke, bringing in a famous physical geographer with an open mind toward human geography, and when Pred went for it, the deal was done.
Roger Byrne and I were the only ones to vote against Stoddart's appointment. I didn't care for David's heavy drinking or the Malthusian touches in his Sauer lecture. But I was wrong. Stoddart proved to be a good chair (1988-94). He brought great intelligence and enthusiasm to the job, along with a ghastly passion for short pants and off-color jokes. He quickly presided in 1989 over the hiring of Beatriz Manz (a freebie shared with Anthropology), who was the first senior woman faculty member ever in the department, then oversaw the hiring of Lisa Wells, the first woman physical geographer. Then he supported the candidacy of Michael Johns in 1990.
Stoddart worked a special deal with the administration to get the permanent faculty FTE that became Lisa's position. He engineered the retirement of Doug Powell, a long-time lecturer and stalwart of Berkeley geography, who had taught courses on California, Alaska and, most of all, field study (Geography 180), with its legendary field trips to Owens Valley and beyond. Doug did not want to retire, but the university was eager to be rid of lifetime lecturers in the 1980s (under Provost Roderick Park). Alas, Lisa left Berkeley in 1996 when she and her husband got a double offer at Vanderbilt.11
Michael Johns was hired to replace Jim Parsons, as a Latin Americanist. He was a student of Harvey and Erica Schoenberger (one of my former students) at Hopkins, and had worked in Argentina on the relation of circuits of merchant capital to urbanization. Parsons wanted his own student, Karl Zimmerer, which led him to make a notorious declaration in a faculty discussion. When I pointed out that getting an urbanist for Latin America would be a good idea, Jim said, 'Well, there may be more people in Latin American cities, but there are more acres in rural areas'. The Dino-Sauers had trumpeted their last, however, because Johns was hired. They might have worried less had they known how Michael's youthful radicalism has mellowed over the years.
As for me, my career took a big turn in the 1980s away from my early stabs at environmental and (sub)urban geography. I dove into industrial and economic geography, thanks to the influence of two charismatic visitors to Berkeley, Doreen Massey in Geography and Bennett Harrison in City Planning, at the beginning of the decade. They fired up a group of students around me and Ann Markusen that was truly remarkable: Michael Storper, Erica Schoenberger, Annalee Saxenian, Meric Gertler, Amy Glasmeier, David Wilmoth, Kristin Nelson, Marc Weiss, and, a bit later, MaryBeth Pudup and Arantxa Rodriguez.12
I spent the rest of the decade writing on industrial geography and economic changes that were revolutionizing capitalism at the time – what was then called "post-Fordism". Out of it came many articles and a book with Michael Storper, The Capitalist Imperative (1989) and another with Andrew Sayer, The New Social Economy (1992). Both were widely read and made a bit of a splash. So I can claim some part in creating what was then called "The New Industrial Geography" along with Allen Scott, Massey, Storper, Saxenian, Gertler and more (the California connection was quite strong and, I believe, not accidental).13
Hovering over us all, however, were broader intellectual shifts at work in Geography. The 1980s were a time of upheaval in the social sciences, and the changes afoot threatened to put the geographic accomplishments of political economy and Marxism into the shade. A new scholarly civil war had broken out in the universities against both the old positivism of the 1950s and the New Left of the 1960s. This was the decade of post-everything, of which our musings on post-Fordism were but a taste. How to summarize such a time without trivializing it? The verities of High Modernism were under assault, and the nature of social science would never be the same.
Geography would be turned inside out, for sure. This is the first sense of the 'anthropo-scene' in the title of my talk. Anthro, in this case, refers to both a renewed humanism in social science and a loose association (in my mind) of the field of anthropology with certain tendencies in the devolution of political economy, big theory and masculinity toward what I call 'the revolution of the subject'. By that I don't just mean a transformation in the subject of Geography; I mean it in three more profound senses: philosophical, meta-theoretical, and political.
The first facet of the revolution of the subject was the turn to philosophy. Once you start questioning the validity of mainstream thought, whether the Old Geography, Neoclassical Economics, or Primate Studies, it throws the verities into doubt. A lot of path-breaking ideas came out of science studies, in particular, thanks to the work people like Donna Harraway, Elizabeth Fox-Keller, and Bruno Latour. For my part, I dipped into that stream and came away convinced of the validity of Roy Bhaskar's critical realism, filtered through the lens of my friend Andrew Sayer. But many geographers grabbed hold of Post- Modernism and its revolt against all truth claims (e.g., Michael Dear, Julie Graham) and many sessions at the AAG were full of it (so to speak). Marxism became just another type of positivism and Big (Male) Theory. As a discipline we spent a lot of time working our way out of that morass. But the philosophical turn changed the subject position of the social scientist forever.
A second facet of revolution of the subject was against the Big Subject in social theory. This movement was kicked off by the 'agency-structure debate', led by figures such as Pierre Bourdieu and Anthony Giddens. Allan Pred was an evangelist for this approach, which was quite influential in Geography. But pinning down what it meant to escape from a rigid structuralism was harder. For some, it was a license to drift toward methodological individualism and ethnography, and to let social theory atrophy. A more fruitful move was to limit ones scope to mid-level ones subjects, like studies of distinct places or institutions. Michel Foucault was crucial in pointing out the depths of analysis one could do of things like hospitals and asylums, showing that power and oppression were not located only in the highly abstract realms of 'capitalism' or 'the state'. Foucault's theoretical insights were at the core of what came to be known as 'Post-Structuralism'. Many left geographers scaled down to locality studies and industrial district theory or the study of children's spaces and gentrification.
The third revolution was perhaps the most important: displacing the universal male subject. Feminists and queer theorists were the pioneers in this, with help from anti-race and anti-colonial critiques. What it meant was, on the one hand, redirecting social inquiry to a whole set of neglected subjects and subject people and, on the other, rethinking what has come to be known as 'subject formation', or the internalization of the social within the mind and body of the person. Foucault played a big part here, too, with his later ideas on biopolitics. Another key figure was Berkeley's Judith Butler and her notion of 'performance'. In geography, such ideas were taken up by the likes of Cindi Katz, Gillian Rose and Linda McDowell.
I expound on all this because it truly changed the way everyone (or at least everyone on the left) thought about and practiced social science, including Geography. Those of us of the old Union of Socialist Geographers were suddenly on the defensive: no longer radical pioneers but another set of white guys and mid-career institution builders. When I took over the editorship of Antipode in the early 1990s, for example, it was scraping bottom with the alienation from political economy and rise of new journals such as Society and Space and Ecumene.14
Berkeley Geography would never be the same, either. Not only were the Dino- Sauers going extinct, but the New Guard were easily tarred with the same brush for the department being too white, too male and not hip to the times. Fortunately, Pred got a second wind and changed his approach completely in the 1980s from political economy to cultural and race studies, with a big dollop of post-modern writing style. Watts always kept up with trends, as did the students.
Once The Capitalist Imperative got me appointed as Full Professor, and The New Social Economy came out, I could think about new things as the new decade open out before me. I also noticed that I had finally arrived as a legitimate figure on campus after that, and got invited to be on Ad Hoc committees and the like. But being on the far left of the faculty meant that I would never shake a reputation in some quarters of being a dangerous radical. This is less a testament to my leftist credentials than to the astounding liberal (i.e., middle of the road) conformism of most Americans, even at the greatest public university in the world.15
As for the Department of Geography, it felt like the Triad of Pred, Walker & Watts finally had the upper hand as the internal civil wars wound down by the end of the 1980s. Michael and I were now full professors, and Johns, Wells and Manz were on board. Parsons and Sternberg had retired. For a while, most of the antipathy of the conservatives in the department fell on the head of David Stoddart – for the sin of having compromised with us, I suppose. But as he told me, he had tried to work with them and got nowhere, so he had to turn to us out of desperation. That worked well for all concerned, for a while.
The 1990s arrived with a mix of triumph and uncertainty, and it was by no means clear where my intellectual life, home department and career were headed.
THE NINETIES: TRIUMPH AND TRAVESTY
The early 1990s turned out to usher in another major shake-up in the Department of Geography. The first great fiscal crisis of the state of California hit during the recession of 1989-93, and the university felt the pinch for the first time. Some 400 out of 1500 Berkeley professors took early retirement when the university offered a Golden Handshake, many to go teach elsewhere. That had the beneficial effect, in my young eyes, of clearing out a lot of dead wood to let younger people move in and move up. But UC would make two big mistakes in the wake of that purge: bidding up top salaries to match the well-endowed privates and stopping contributions to the pension fund. We're still coping with those decisions twenty years later.16
For the Department of Geography, the retirement binge took out Vance and Oberlander in 1992 and 93, leaving us permanently short-handed (there have been no straight replacement FTE since then). On top of that, the Chair came open in 1994. David Stoddart's fall was precipitous. We had a falling out when he proposed a deal to hire Paul Starrs, a Parsons favorite. The Triad rejected the idea and David was left both angry with us and unable to placate the conservatives. More importantly, his behavior became more erratic in the wake of his brother's death, making it hard to run the department. When finally the faculty had had enough, a delegation went to Vice-Chancellor Carol Christ to see what could be done. When David made the mistake of threatening to resign over some issue or other, the VC took him up on it and he was out.
Barney Nietschmann was the heir apparent, but he was a very anti-institutional guy and demanded a lot of perks to take the job. Dean Bill Simmons eventually gave up on him and chose me instead, probably because I had been a visible supporter of the American Cultures requirement, an effort he had spearheaded on campus. The first interview I had with Simmons was quite something: as I was making my plea to be made chair, he got a phone call telling him his ex-wife had died; he tried to go on with the interview, but as he begun to dissolve, I finally had to tell him it was over. Of course, my selection as chair was not simple either. Once again the letters poured into from around the Lost World of the Dino- Sauers saying that making me chair would ruin the department. When Simmons told me about the letters, he said, "Well, I'm certainly going into this with my eyes open".
My life as chair (1994-99) was not quite the triumph I had hoped for. To start things off, there was nothing like a new baby to keep me exhausted all the time. Then, there was the reconstruction of the newly renamed McCone Hall (yes, the former head of the CIA and construction magnate in California). The staff and I were stuck in the midst of the noise and dust, while the faculty and grad students fled to quieter venues. Still, our offices got a much-needed upgrade, the 5th floor balcony became gigantic, and we were no longer faced with imminent death in case of an earthquake on the Hayward Fault. On top of all that, I faced another decadal department review, in which the future of Physical Geography was seriously in doubt.
I also got some bitter lessons in personal politics. I found out that having a bit of power meant that a lot of people with no notion of larger structures of domination thought that a department chair, and a white male to boot, was a figure of oppression. Identity politics of the time were wanting. How I envied Michael Watts! He got the directorship of the Institute of International Studies at the same time, a much cushier job with a nicer office. To his credit, however, he brought in millions in grants, ran great programs, and enhanced the campus standing of Geography.17
I can say, without fear of exaggeration, that Department of Geography made some important progress during my time as Chair. After a dicey departmental review, I proposed building up the footprint of the department on campus by bringing on board as courtesy appointments several geographers and near- geographers in other departments, including Paul Groth, Matt Kondolf and Louise Fortmann. That worked quite nicely, especially when Paul joined the department half-time in 1995. The system of outliers still operates to this day.
Then manna fell from heaven: Gillian Hart wanted out of DCRP and into Geography. This was a terrific intellectual addition to the faculty, not to mention giving us our first full-time senior female professor. I tried to top off the coup by bringing on board two other women alienated from their departments, Carol Stack and Jean Lave, but the administration blocked it (with a bogus argument over department target levels) and the department conservatives weren't buying. I did succeed in making a Target of Opportunity hire for Lynn Ingram, which the administration went for because her husband teaches in Geology. Alas, the opportunity was hers and we were the target, and she took off downstairs at the first chance, leaving us empty-handed.
On the positive side, I won a President's Postdoctoral Fellowship for Ruth Wilson Gilmore and then an offer of another Target of Opportunity hire for her in 1997. You'd think this would have been a walkover, but no. In a ridiculous reply of the departmental civil wars, all hell broke loose over Ruthie's appointment. I was accused of having lied about the circumstances of getting the FTE; some people wanted an open competition; and, most of all, some wanted a GIS specialist or an Asianist, not a woman doing race and gender geography. The grad students split wide open, just like in the bad old days, and I was widely vilified (along with a young Jake Kosek, who got mud on his face in the mess).
In the end, VC Christ told the opponents of Ruthie's appointment to stuff it; she was delighted to have a woman of color hired in the face of the setbacks for Affirmative Action in California in the mid-1990s. So Gilmore came on board in 1999. And, moreover, Christ saw to it that we got another FTE in China – which became Prof. You-tien Hsing in 2000. I have to interject a personal gripe at this point: when outsiders criticize this department's lack of women and people of color on the faculty (which has been true) and thinks it has anything to do with the failings of the Three Old White Guys (Walker, Pred & Watts) (which is false), I get very huffy.
Things took another step upward with the hiring of Kurt Cuffey in 1999, a move that turned around the physical geography program and, indeed, the whole relationship of the two geographies. I had the excellent stroke of putting Bill Dietrich on the hiring committee to make sure we got a first-class scientist, and we did. Kurt's arrival, along with that of Paul Groth's move over to McCone in 2004, also helped soften our image on the masculinist front.
Nevertheless, the Gilmore battle did me in. I was washed out and my social capital as chair was exhausted. So I resigned. Even that was no picnic. For one thing, Kurt still thinks I was dumped by the Dean, which is not true. For another, getting Michael Johns selected over Orman Granger as the new Chair was a difficult bit of political maneuvering, with a lot of help from Professor Watts with the higher-ups. Of course, Watts should have been chair himself, but he had a better job and has always been a hard man to catch napping.
On the intellectual front, the Nineties were a decade in which critical human geography in general would flourish – the intellectual revolts of the 1980s became the common coin of the 1990s (rather like the relation of the 1970s to the Sixties). The Berkeley variant of critical geography was doing very well, indeed. The addition of Hart and Gilmore was a sign of that, along with new waves of superlative students who would go on to make the department's reputation in the wider world: George Henderson, Brian Page, Katharyne Mitchell, Jinn-yuh Hsu, Tim Sturgeon, Amy Ross, Aaron Bobrow-Strain, Wendy Wolford, Rod Neumann, Susan Craddock, Suzanne Friedberg, Jake Kosek, Julie Guthman, Gray Brechin and more besides.
This was a decade of triumph for the field of Political Ecology, led by Michael Watts and his students: Neumann, Schroeder, Friedberg, Wolford, Guthman, Kosek and more. It was also a time of deepening of race and gender studies of the kind done by Pred, Gilmore, Hart and students such as Mitchell, Craddock and Henderson. I can take a small measure of credit in these achievements, I suppose, having had a hand in advising many of the terrific students of the 1990s, along with others across campus doing similarly innovative work in environment, race and gender, such as Scott Prudham, Geoff Mann, Leslie Salzinger, and Rachel Morello-Frosch.
Equally important for Geography as a discipline is that the 1990s were a time of revival for spatial studies. In part, the radical geographers were rediscovering their home ground and asserting a disciplinary pride after years of neglect. In part, it emerged from 1980s debate on locality studies and the way political economy had neglected the specificities of place in its critique of old time
Geography. It also arose from a critique of the raging ideology of 'globalization' that then prevailed. The result was some truly innovative thinking about the intertwining of space and time and the local and the global by Doreen Massey, Ed Soja, Kevin Cox, Erik Swyngedouw, and others, including our own Allan Pred and Gillian Hart. The new thinking went beyond simple nodes and networks or global cities ideas then popular in economic geography. The local could be taken seriously, national boundaries were not going away, and new formations like NAFTA and the European Union were creating new transnational territories. A particularly fruitful offshoot was the debate over scale led by Neil Smith and Neil Brenner, more recently picked up by Nathan Sayre here at Berkeley.
Lastly, I have to put in a plug for Hart and Walker's work on regional development, a topic badly in need of rethinking beyond the industrial districts craze (which had always been shy about the big social questions of class and race that Gill and I put at the center of our work). During the 1990s, I decided to take seriously the study of the Bay Area and California, under the influence of Mike Davis (who launched the L.A. studies craze with City of Quartz) and Jeff Lustig (who founded the California Studies Association in 1989). I had taken over Vance's urban field study class in 1980 and was ready to start writing on the Bay Area by the end of that decade. I also began teaching Doug Powell's California class, and turned it into an American Cultures course that dealt seriously with race and racism.18 This led to essays on the history of California's growth (and that of the Midwest) and on the contemporary plight of the state. In all this I was helped immeasurably by my students: Brian Page, George Henderson, Julie Guthman, Dan Buck and Gray Brechin. I had become a kind of New Regional Geographer, of all things. I was also writing on urban landscapes and publishing in Ecumene, reflecting the influence of Vance and Groth.19
Somewhere, the ghost of Carl Sauer had to be smiling.
THE 2000s: NEVER SO GOOD, NEVER THE SAME
The turn of the millennium saw the passing of the last of the Old Guard. Jim Parsons had died in 1997, Jay Vance in 1999, and Barney Nietschmann, far too young, succumbed to throat cancer in 2000. David Stoddart was forced into retirement by failing health the same year. Then Orman Granger and Bob Reed left precipitously in 2001-02, the latter retiring early. Berkeley Geography had suddenly become a completely different place. I discovered the truth of an elder colleague's wisdom back when I was fighting for my tenure life: "Be patient", she said; "you'll outlive them."
Michael Johns took the reins as chair for a long run, 1999-2007. He did a fine job, overseeing the hiring of You-tien Hsing in 2000 and engineering a double-dip hire of John Chiang and Rob Rhew in 2003. The latter was a crucial step, building on the presence of Kurt Cuffey (who might otherwise have left for Cal Tech). We finally had a Geography Department in which the Physical and Human Geographers talk to each other and even, god forbid, like each other. You have no idea how rare this is in American geography, and the lack of unity has contributed to the weakness of the discipline in the past. Indeed, one of the great intellectual pleasures of being in Geography has been the opportunity to interact with Earth Scientists; sociology, economics and the rest are much more boring places to be.20
All in all, the atmosphere around the department became something I had never known: calm, pleasant and reasonable. I recall that the Hsing hire was the first ever where the faculty simply went around the room and gave their reasoned opinions, and then a rational decision ensued. My god, what a concept! Especially among academics. So whatever else you can say about Berkeley Geography, this is the happiest academic place on earth. That's a fact.
Human Geography at Berkeley came into full flower in the 2000s. Another batch of fabulous students came rolling in, including the likes of Trevor Paglen, Juan DeLara, Jason Moore, Rebecca Lave, Jenna Loyd, Shiloh Krupar, Mark Hunter and, of course, all of you here today. Our reputation had taken firm hold around the country, and the legacy of past students was paying off in a big way. People now in mid-career had become leading figures in their fields, such as Storper, Friedman, Carney, Hecht, Groth, Guthman and McCarthy. Indeed, the New Berkeley School was able to replicate the old Sauer School's ability to create a diaspora across the discipline of Geography.
When Watts and I went back to teaching the first-year graduate course, Introduction to Geographic Thought, a few years back, we realized would be possible to build an entire year-long course around "classics" of geographic research that had been written by our own students! That's a pretty amazing reflection on what we had achieved. I don't think you can put all this great work into a neat package, but I do think it all shares three qualities that we all like to trumpet around the Department of Geography these days. First, the work of Berkeley geographers is resolutely geographical, whether about nature and environmental change or about cities and social-spatial phenomenon. In that sense, the New Berkeley School harkens back to classical Berkeley Geography. Second, and quite at odds with the Old Berkeley School, the new work is deeply informed by the best of social theory, as well as being based on thorough empirical research. Third, the New Berkeley Geographers always have a critical take that does not shy away from showing the forces of capital accumulation, social power, and state violence at work in the world.
As for the wider academic world, the most startling thing to happen in recent years has been the transformation in the status of Geography as a discipline. Somewhere in the 1990s, everyone suddenly wanted to take the spatial turn. Spatial questions have gone from the margins of anthropology and urban studies to the strongholds of history and sociology. Even economics generated a short burst of interest in geography, which won Paul Krugman a Nobel Prize. And the geographers best known to the wider world are the ones I most admire: David Harvey, Doreen Massey, Edward Soja and their ilk.
Moreover, much to my delight, political economy and even Marxism came back into style in the 2000s, thanks to two massive recessions, a reconfigured global economy, and a pair of American imperial invasions. Geographers were quick to take up new themes, writing about violence and conquest, American imperialism and the imperial city, racism and incarceration, global work and the rise of capitalist China, and more. The politics of students at Cal also became rather more left, especially our grad students – most of whom could not find such a comfortable intellectual home anywhere else. Some works of note in this era were Paglen's Blank Spots on the Map, Kosek's Understories, and Guthman's Agarian Dreams.
The decade of the 2000s has been a grand one for me, even though it started very badly on the personal front. I ended up as a half-time parent, got rid of my large garden, and settled back into serious writing for the first time in a decade. Of inestimable value was a year and half off, with sabbatical and a Guggenheim, in 2001-02. In that time, I got the first drafts of my next books done, and more. They started as chapters in my never-finished book on the Bay Area, but grew out of control to become half-books of their own. A couple nice editors at The New Press and the University of Washington Press took pity on me and said they had the potential of books. So, with that encouragement (never to be underestimated), I banged out the rest of the Conquest of Bread (2004) and The Country in the City (2007). I felt whole again as a scholar and writer, and have never looked back. Kurt even got me a nice promotion to Super-Prof (Professor VI) a few years ago.
Back in the Department of Geography, one sour note was that another chairship did not end happily, when Michael Johns resigned suddenly not only from the chair but from the university (a decision he has since reconsidered). The lesson is that all chairships should be limited to no more than five years, before burnout sets in and colleagues and students grow restless. In any case, Kurt Cuffey got the nod and took over the chair in 2007. I thought I was young when I got the chair, but Johns was even younger and Cuffey younger still. Once again, there were no volunteers from the senior faculty. But the emphasis on youth had its virtues: the department kept on evolving, and faster than it otherwise would have.
And that theme of change in the Department of Geography brings me to the last meaning of 'the anthropo-scene' in my title. As you all know, the era of Global Warming has led earth scientists to label the present era in earth history as 'the Anthropocene' because of the transformative impact of human beings on our little orb. In keeping with this, the Department of Geography has taken up the cause of the future of the earth in its focus on climate change. This connects us to an honorable piece of the Sauerian past, the concern with what was then called, 'Man's role in changing the face of the earth'. It also represents a new turning point in the history of Berkeley Geography, away from Critical Human Geography to Critical Environmental Studies.
Johns and Cuffey decided in the early 2000s that the future of the department lay in seizing the initiative in climate science and environmental studies. It would be a more balanced department, physical and human, and it would have more real collaboration and intellectual flow across the natural science/social science boundary. This plan seems like a winner in this day and age. And, furthermore, the younger faculty have the right to decide the future, not we old farts. After battling with my own Old Guard for so many years, I didn't want to repeat their folly of trying to hold on beyond my time.
Nonetheless, I have some misgivings. Clearly, an era is ending for the Department of Geography and a new one beginning: 'the Anthropo-Scene'. But what will become of Critical Human Geography, let alone political economy?
The department has been dominated for so long by the Walker-Watts- Pred-Hart axis that no one has worried about the human geography side of things. But we ended the opening decade of the 21st century with four aging human geographers and the passing of Allan Pred, who died so suddenly. I'm now retiring and I wouldn't be surprised if Watts, Hart and Groth follow in the not-too- distant future. This will leave a huge hole in the human geography side of the department that is not going to be filled any time soon, if ever. Unfortunately, FTE come slowly around here because we're a small department and the situation has been dire in the 2000s, when two major recessions have wrecked havoc on the university budget and faculty replacement.
To conclude: speaking of dinosaurs and the changing scene at Berkeley, the university has been in the throes of a revolution itself. We're all aware of the endless budget cuts, rising student tuition and campus reorganizations. I have been deeply involved with campus struggles over the last three years, by helping to organize SAVE the University and becoming vice-chair of the Berkeley Faculty Association. Geography students have been in the thick of those fights, helping to raise cane in Oakland, recast the Graduate Student union, and even getting arrested on Sproul Plaza.
When I was young, the university seemed eternal, changeless, practically Mesozoic. I couldn't have been more wrong. It is now changing fast, and not necessarily for the better. Privatization and privilege are the rule of the day. The administration acts and faculty sit on their hands. Graduate students are frantic for financial support and face a bleak job market. It's not a pretty picture.
So I end on a note in a minor key. Becoming a Dinosaur myself has something to do with that. But my advice to you all is this: you've got something great here at Berkeley Geography. Appreciate it, keep it going, fight for it, and never look back.
Berkeley, April 25th, 2012
- Talk given at the Department Centennial in 1999. Brechin is a former student of mine and author of Imperial San Francisco (UC Press, 1999).
- Talk given at department centennial in 1999. Kate Davis is another former student of mine, now teaching at San Jose State.
- As a Californianist, I have to note that William Morris Davis moved to Pasadena in his last days.
- See the list of faculty and chairs at http://geography.berkeley.edu/about/history.php
- See the full list of PhDs at http://geography.berkeley.edu/grad/past-dissertations.php
- There was a common view in my early years that I hated Sauer, but I had no opinion of him, one way or the other.
- Centennial transcripts??
- The fate of his projected second volume of Traces on the Rhodian Shore is an unsolved puzzle which I became embroiled in when I became department chair a decade later.
- There was a political sideshow over Nicaragua involving geographer Barney Nietschmann, who fell in with the Mosquito Indians against the Sandinistas, while I was actively supporting the revolution. Another rumor has it that Barney and I were enemies because of this. In fact, I thought Barney was right about Indian rights and autonomy, but he took it too far, both in denouncing the Sandinistas and in allying with the contras (he went so far as to appear on Pat Buchanan's notorious TV show, the 700 Club).
- Another sign of department hostilities was the establishment of this lecture series through donations from Sauer acolytes. Control of the funds was kept away from the department, for fear that the anti-Sauerinians might get their hands on it.
- That move had nothing to do with her treatment here, where she was well liked; her husband was itching to get a regular faculty position somewhere. I've heard that Lisa eventually left academia and is living in Portland.
- Much of this story was retold at the AAG meetings in February 2012, in two sessions in my honor.
- Walker, Richard. 2012. Geography in economy: reflections on a field. In: Trevor Barnes, Jamie Peck and Eric Sheppard, eds. Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Economic Geography. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 47-60.
- I was asked to be on the editorial board of Society and Space, but refused, thinking it would undermine Antipode. I was right in the short run, but wrong in the long term. Not only was the proliferation of journals just getting underway, Antipode would prosper again in the 2000s in tandem with many other left-leaning journals in geography.
- But things like taking the lead in a brief and wildly unsuccessful opposition to the First Gulf War in 1991 didn't do anything for my reputation as a bit beyond the pale. Still, compared to some activist faculty, I have maintained a modicum of legitimacy because I have always remained a serious scholar and a good campus citizen on committees.
- I have had my say on those things, and more, as Vice-Chair of the Berkeley Faculty Association, from 2009-12.
- There's a telling back-story to Watts' appointment, which owes everything to the refusal of Beatriz Manz to allow the Political Scientists to maintain control of a long-time fiefdom. It has since returned to them under EVCP George Breslauer, a Poli Sci professor himself.
- I took over Powell's course on California at this time and turned it into an American Cultures course that incorporated the history of race and racism in the state. I had been anti-racist from childhood, but this was my chance to bone up on developments in race theory since the 1960s.
- Given the demands of chairing and child raising, I produced no books in the 1990s.
- It was often said in the Civil War days that we on the Human Geography side were against Physical Geography, but that was always bogus. I began my college course work in the physical sciences and was steeped in water resources and geomorphology in graduate school