Reflections of a Peripatetic Academic

June 26, 2020

Most academics begin their careers with one set of creative ideas and conclude with an entirely different set. Most often this is evolutionary but occasionally it is revolutionary just as disciplines themselves transition into new fields of enquiry. Such is the unique privilege in our university system- the freedom to question, investigate and discover while at the same time being constrained by Oscar Wilde’s adage that, ‘The truth is rarely pure and never simple.’ Skepticism is an important check on ‘fashions’ in research and a healthy reminder to students of the value and importance of evidence based enquiry.

I began my university education at the University of Toronto in the late sixties in Geography during the ‘Quantitative Revolution’. The wide-ranging curriculum, which required courses in science, social science and the humanities, later shaped many of my ‘new avenues’ for research. U of T was a rich and diverse place to learn. The quality of that learning was enhanced by so many luminary thinkers who gave generously of their time. One such person was my climatology professor, Kenneth Hare (former president of UBC), who planted seminal seeds into my research DNA on climate change, earth systems, food systems and global environmental change. But there were many other persons who were also very generous with their time such as Larry Bourne, Michael Bunce, Ian Burton, Alan Scott, Ross McKay, and graduate students, Geoff MacDonald and Mary Barker who later came to SFU as a faculty member.

I began my graduate work at University of Waterloo on land use modeling under the tutelage of Chris Bryant, Bruce Mitchell and Dieter Steiner. I went on to the LSE a year later for my PhD where I applied remote sensing data from 17 Canadian cities to estimate their morphology and spatial spread. Contact with leading intellectuals such as Lord Robbins, Michael Wise, Ralf Dahrendorf and Karl Popper impacted my world view significantly as did the highly contested political environment at LSE at the time.

My training in land use change; urban economics/geography-archive; modeling; and quantitative analysis was foundational and gave me a good start to my career at SFU in 1976. SFU was a very welcoming environment for a 27 year old ‘green’ academic. I was very appreciative of the support from my colleagues Phil Wagner, Ed Gibson, Mike Roberts, Mary Barker, Shue Tuck Wong, Len Evenden, Tom Poiker and Ted Hickin to name a few.

Of course other research opportunities beckoned and I became increasingly interested in food/agricultural systems, community development, sustainability and resource policies. This in turn shifted my teaching and supervisory interests which produced their own dynamics as did my interest in epistemic research communities where I became part of larger research networks at Guelph, UBC, the CAG and the IGU. Two Canadian individuals were key in shaping my subsequent thinking and approach to research and teaching –the geographer Vaclav Smil’s work on existential questions surrounding global food systems and environmental change and the ecologist Crawford (Buzz) Holling’s work on resilience, adaptive cycles and linked social and ecological systems.  Buzz (a SFU honourary degree recipient) was instrumental in creating the Resilience Alliance and his work is particularly relevant to understanding the vulnerability of societies to surprise events such as COVID-19. Ironically, Smil is not well known in the profession but he is now amongst the most cited academics globally. I continue to work in these areas- the fruit of which is a recently published monograph based on a seven year study in Kefalonia, Greece – Ainos and its Regions: the Story of a Mountain Ecosystem and its People. This is classic Geography.

If there is unity to all of this it is at the intersection of three realms - science, what we know; policy, what we should do; and practice, what we actually do!

For over twelve years, I have been involved in promoting archaeological field schools in Greece in co-operation with Hellenic Studies (now the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Centre in Hellenic Studies). I was keenly interested in promoting experiential based learning opportunities for undergraduate students. This was one example that was incredibly successful. These efforts rekindled my interest in archaeology/anthropology (which I had studied at U of T) with a focus on understanding the rise and fall of Mycenaean pre-historical societies.

Within the context of Greece and, for that matter, the research journeys that academics pursue and the challenges of aging let me conclude with a few final lines from Tennyson’s poem,


We are not now the strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

JTP, March 2020 (John Pierce)