In Praise of Small Places

Small towns can be a great place to get your head down and get things done.

By Daniel Tubb, published in Culture: The Newsletter for the Canadian Anthropology Society, 13.1.

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.


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?

Cite as: Tubb. Daniel, 2019, “In Praise of Small Places.” Culture: The Newsletter for the Canadian Anthropology Society, 13.1.

It’s Anthropologies, not Anthropology

By Daniel Tubb, published in Culture: The Newsletter for the Canadian Anthropology Society, 12 Special – Stories from Cuba / Échos de Cuba / Historias de Cuba.

There are many ways of doing anthropology.

A little auto-ethnography. Writing this, I look east over the white crested waves of the Saint John River through the girders of a bridge, once a railway now a footpath, and on towards the hillside campus of the University of New Brunswick Fredericton. Amongst the ubiquitous brick, there is a lone wooden building, also red. Once, rumour has it, the building housed prisoners during the Second World War. Now, it houses the Department of Anthropology and my office. All of this is a far cry from the bustling city of Santiago de Cuba and the annual meetings of the Canadian Anthropology Society in May 2018. Not least because the Saint John River was colder than the Caribbean, but also because there are far fewer anthropologists. And yet, I’m convinced my department is a microcosm for the part of a CASCA meeting I enjoy the most.

Our department is small and three-field: archeologists, biological anthropologists, and sociocultural anthropologists. I am probably one of a handful of faculty in New Brunswick who identifies as a sociocultural anthropologist. In my department, we each do anthropology, but we do it in different ways.

In Cuba, there was a concentration of anthropologists—faculty and students and practitioners—from across Canada, Cuba, and the Americas. Many doing anthropology differently, in their own ways. On the campus of the Universidad del Oriente, I regularly felt myself a humble eavesdropper on conversations new to me. Conversations about what anthropology is in Cuba, about what anthropology is in Latin America, and about what different anthropologists are doing for their research. The conversations were in Spanish and English and French.

I once thought such a large national conference was a place where everyone was participating in the same conversation. Conferences bring people together, after all. In our case, people with a commitment to this thing we call anthropology, and a peculiar way of understanding, thinking, researching, and writing about the world as anthropologists. While I suspect many of us have a shared commitment—fraught and conflicted as it may be—to this thing we call Anthropology, we do not share one vision of what anthropology is. And yet, still, we talk of ourselves in the singular: anthropology. A case can be made that it should be anthropologies.

What is anthropology, anyway? We debate it, we critique it, we deconstruct it, and sometimes we try to redefine it. Sometimes, we police our disciplinary boundaries of interlopers, or we lay claim to central concepts or methodological approaches. “They’re not really doing anthropology properly, all they do is ask questions?” I think to myself. In my department, we tell students that Anthropology is a holistic study of humanity across time and place. Yet, how we teach that, the questions we ask, and the answers and methods we accept as truth are different. I think this plurality is a good thing.

Even the way I self-identify as a sociocultural anthropologist is a plurality. The name has resonance in Canada, influenced both by British social anthropology and American cultural anthropology. In Quebec, where I trained as an undergrad briefly, the influences were the French school. In Colombia, where I do fieldwork, the influences are wider still. Indeed, Colombian anthropology has its own thriving history. All of this, of course, was a brought up by the debates around World Anthropologies. Yet, going to CASCA in Cuba, reminded me that there are many anthropologies, even within the settler state some call Canada. Cuba was humbling and exciting precisely because there were many good ideas to think with and about.

As I contemplate how to teach a theory course next semester, I’m struck at how difficult the task is. It can’t be enough to dwell on Western anthropology from elite US and British schools, too often white men from prestigious places have dominated those conversations over the last hundred years. That anthropology is tied up with colonial histories. That it is complicated and exacerbated by a tradition of writing about marginalized communities in non-Western (and now Western) contexts, is of course true. Conversations about anthropology as a handmaiden of colonialism and a discipline in need of decolonizing are vital conversation to keep having. In Santiago de Cuba, I was struck by the many other vibrant and urgent conversations already going on. This is the plurality that I found exciting.

There were challenges, of course. One is the academic class system, which was entirely on display—a cup of coffee at the conference hotel was almost a month’s wages for a Cuban worker. The lingua franca was, too often, English. None of this is unique to an anthropology conference, Canadian or otherwise, as attendees and organizers of all conferences face these challenges. I congratulate the organizers of CASCA in Santiago de Cuba for shifting the locales of conversation and opening up new spaces for discussion, even as money and language and prestige were elephants in the room.

There is a politics to who gets to define anthropology, of course. A jockeying for position. The attempt to define a discipline, can be a good move. “Anthropology should be this.” “It should be that.” Being in Santiago de Cuba reminded me there are so many conversations already going on in many places, and that such that is exciting. In broad left organizing, there are arguments about a “diversity of tactics.” While I do not condone all tactics employed at political demonstrations, I support the right of people to choose which tactics to adopt. I may not find all conversations in anthropology to be equally compelling, but a cacophony is more critical than attempts to discipline the discipline.

Annual conferences like CASCA serve many purposes, not least bringing people together. For me, from a small province and a small city where I am one of a small community, the conference was a much needed chance to recharge, to remind myself what I am doing and why I am doing it by connecting (and reconnecting) with colleagues, by learning to listen to what other people are doing and saying, and by dipping into many conversations. I met people whose work I appreciate, I thought about how to teach better, how to write better, and how to be a better mentor. While I’ve always been most attracted to evocative ethnographic writing and making ideas accessible by doing my best at being readable, this is just how I approach my discipline. There are other approaches. We need more spaces for more voices and for more conversations, as messy and imperfect and as human as these spaces may be. In support of this, we can embrace anthropologies as they are, a plurality in all of its messy glory.

Cite as: Tubb. Daniel, 2016. “Getting on the Tenure Track.” Culture: The Newsletter for the Canadian Anthropology Society, 10.2.