What does it mean to know a place?

I have just overseen the removal of the final bits and pieces (21 boxes to be exact) from the office in my previous employ.

Such events are significant, they mark a passage from one location to another (in this case to a different country).

The institution itself invokes a host of feelings from nostalgia, to regret, to horror, to ambivalence.  But what exactly is an institution?

Yes, there is the building itself – the stairs, carpeted corridors, the lift that was always breaking down forcing a healthy walk on all and sundry.  There is the particular quality of the light at different times of day and year and face of building.

But, while physical places, the geography of a place, can imprint themselves on you, actually it is people that fix a place, and more importantly, frame the quality of place.

The academic literature, in its usual abstracting manner, talks of the way academics identify with their disciplinary tribes, of how our disciplines feature more strongly in our imagination than our institutional location.  So, the theory goes, we identify more with other mathematicians, or historians, or educationalists than with the particular employing institution.

That may be so.

But again I would suggest even here it is the quality of interactions with particular people within the ‘discipline’ that really counts and defines ‘discipline’ for us.

To say I remember a certain institution really what I am saying is that particular interpersonal interactions occurred that animate my pathic memory of that place.  It is the friendships that are important, the folks we continue to think about fondly, to email, to arrange to meet at conferences.  It is also the pain, the hurtful behaviours.  It is the excitement you gained from working with students.

To say I belong to this or that ‘discipline’ is to say something about the social spaces I frequent where I meet particular others, and hope to meet others who I can form qualitatively positive relations with.

The boxes are packed and taken away.  Next week they arrive in a new location.  And in this location I am forming new relations that will be captured by the short term – place, institution.

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