In Praise of Small Places

Culture, Vol. 13, No. 1 - Publics

by Daniel Tubb, Assistant Professor, Anthropology, UNB Fredericton.

There is a North American phenomenon of young people from rural areas and small towns and medium-sized cities moving to the Big City. In Canada, the destinations are Toronto or Montreal, Vancouver or Calgary. In the US, they are New York or Chicago, Los Angeles or San Francisco. But are big places so necessary for creative work?

Richard Florida suggested in 2004 that innovation is urban, and that the “creative class” requires cities. Dense populations and cafes and bars and restaurants and theatres and concerts and bookstores are the intoxicating fuel of creative people. Sarah Schulman, in a way, eviscerates this idea with her haunting critique of the gentrification of urban spaces and the mind, which occurred in New York after the AIDS crisis. Still, she celebrates the authentic artistic scene of urban spaces that she experienced moving to gritty and vibrant New York in the 1970s and 1980s.

Academia has its own narrative where urban places promote creativity and productivity. A class system of prestige accrues to the large, cosmopolitan, research-intensive universities. We seek them out as undergraduate students, as graduate students, and as faculty. They are intensely competitive. Getting in as a student is hard—as faculty well-nigh impossible. As with the trope of successful people in the Big City, if a scholar doesn’t go to a Top University, it is seen as they couldn’t, not as they didn’t want to.

Why such reticence to the small places and their small universities? One is what I’ve come to think of as prejudice against rurality—to echo Wendell Berry’s observation about the prejudice against country people. We need to blow up the academic and social prejudices against small towns and flyover states and the backwoods and their universities. This might need an intersectional perspective to consider people in place, but I digress. What I want to extend here is an invitation to the freedom one can find on the periphery.

My ticket out of a village in Eastern Ontario was a small university. Applying for graduate school and then jobs, I felt the prestige of the Big City and Big Centers. After several years, I finally found a job at the University of New Brunswick. I was lucky, and I didn’t even know it. I hadn’t yet realized the benefits of small places.

In March 2019, I was listening to CBC Radio host Tom Powers interview the Irish-Canadian playwright, literary historian, novelist, and screenwriter Emma Donaghue, who lives and works in the mid-sized Canadian city of London, Ontario.

“I understand one of the things you love about being here is how productive you get to be. Is that right?” Tom asked.

“If I were in some big glitzy international megacity of the 21st century, there’d be a lot to distract me,” Emma replied. “But, as it is, I’ve had twenty-one years here, and I’ve written quite a lot because there’s not so much getting in the way.”

“That’s a compliment, right?”

“I think so. I mean, London, do you want to be in a city where writers party, or where writers write award-winning screenplays?”

Do you want to be in a city where Anthropologists party, or a town where Anthropologists can get things done?

Fredericton is no 21st-century international megacity. Things shut down on a Sunday afternoon. I am one of a handful of sociocultural anthropologists in the entire province. It is not a city where anthropologists party, although we did host CASCA a few years before my time, and I’ve been to my fair share of parties. There are even more talks and lectures and events than I manage to attend.

Yet, Fredericton and the University of New Brunswick provide conditions more valuable than the so-called urban innovation engendered by Big Cities and their Universities.

Why?

The non-existent commute. Dropping my son and wife off is a ten-minute drive. It’s also walkable. A hike in the woods is a few minutes away. There is no traffic, except for a few minutes at five o’clock in the afternoon. The city has places to walk, bike, ski, swim, and do many kinds of things.

The money. It may be gauche to say it, but rent is cheap, daycare is in the hundreds, not thousands, of dollars. If the time comes, house prices are affordable—some of the cheapest in the country.

A community. I see friends, and we can do things, planning hours not weeks in advance. Having time to meet friend and find a community and recharge, can paradoxically be much harder in a larger city.

The anonymity and lack of competition. I am a small fish in a small pond, yet there are no big fish to gobble me up. I can put my head down and get to work. The university, like any other, keeps me busy. Classes and service and committees and students and meetings and writing and research and grants and email. I run seminars and I teach too widely. But I know my students well, and they number in the dozens and not hundreds. I feel I can slow down a bit, as much as one can at the beginning of the tenure track.

The extra time is time to write, to think, to teach, to invent, to pursue new ideas, to meet, and to organize workshops and events. I’ve had time to write my dissertation into a book, publish some shorter articles, start another book, and successfully apply for a number of grants. My priority is to balance teaching and writing, and here I’ve had time for that and to think and perhaps reach a new public.

One new public, it seems to me, is defined by the places we live. I’m an ethnographer of mining in Colombia, and now of mining in rural New Brunswick.

I write in the morning for a bit, I go to class, I write in the afternoon for a bit. Or, I go to a coffee shop. Or, I walk across the river.

Sure, the grass is greener. I would like more doctoral and masters students, to teach less widely, more colleagues to talk ethnography with, and more scholars and people who care about Colombia and Latin America.

But would all that intellectual partying let me have so much time to think and write?