Windsor, Ontario

I have hesitated to write anything so far on this blog about the city where I work and sometimes live, because there is a lot that I could write and I didn’t quite know how to break it down or conceptualize it. I have many years’ worth of material to work with, as I have been teaching at the University of Windsor since 2005, lived in Windsor full time from 2005 to 2010, and have been commuting between there and elsewhere since then. So I am inside and outside the place, tied to and invested in Windsor in some ways and detached from and alien to it in other ways. The politics of daily life in Windsor – for example, recent debates in city council and among residents over bike lanes, downtown parking, planned spending on a Christmas lights festival, and the construction of a new “mega-hospital” – are somewhat remote to me as someone who is not a full-time resident, though the ebb and flow of public political participation means that many thousands of Windsorites also probably have little interest in or knowledge of these issues. Then again, as a tenured faculty member at the university, I am deeply involved in that institution’s public educational and research mission as it relates to the local community, and in the past I’ve been part of community gardening groups, advocated on behalf of colleagues and students in the university structure and in provincial and national settings, and worked to integrate local issues into my courses and research.

In that vein, I want in this post to talk about an in-class exercise I do with every fall semester with the students in my introductory human geography course and, in the past, in my intermediate level course on political geography, though structured somewhat differently there. In the current course, I use a textbook by Mark Boyle, and he begins with a broad overview of human geography as a field of study and research, and as a way of viewing the world and our place in it. Boyle structures part of his discussion around five “key concerns” within human geography as defined by a couple of major American-based educational and professional bodies, the American Association of Geographers (AAG) and the National Council for Geographic Education (NCGE). These are core, cross-cutting themes and concepts around which human geographers build their research and through which we might devise appropriately geographic questions about the dynamic processes shaping geographic connections and change. The five key concerns identified are location, place, human-environment interactions, movement, and region (which I also refer to as scale in the class). I ask the students to work in small groups of two to four, and to apply each of these concerns or themes to Windsor, writing down what you might identify or say about Windsor in relation to each. After they work on that for 20 to 30 minutes, we come back together as a whole class and see what they wrote for each, compiling the entire group’s perspectives into one large list.

Many of the students in this class are in their first couple of weeks on campus, and while most are from Windsor or the local region, many are not. The university has a fairly high percentage of international students from all over the world, and there are students from other parts of Ontario and Canada as well. My hope is always that we will get a variety of responses to these ideas, to show that different people bring multiple views and experiences of a place, its unique characteristics and qualities, its connections and disconnections, to the understanding or sense of a single place. This is my first cut at the central idea of the course as a whole, that the geographies of human social life are always changing and constantly made and remade through our interaction in and through place; they are social and dynamic, shaped by and shaping of our sense of self, community, and nature. It’s a big idea, filtered through our discussion of where we all find ourselves together, namely, Windsor. Some students have difficulty with this, either because they haven’t done the reading yet to really get what the five key concerns actually mean (a universal obstacle, according to colleagues pretty much everywhere), or because they’re hunting for the “right” answer rather than an entry point for a broader discussion. But most of them get into it when I reframe the concerns as questions – where is Windsor located, and relative to what? How is Windsor connected to other locations? Where does ‘Windsor’ end or begin? And what is Windsor like? In other words, if someone who knew nothing of Windsor asked you, what kind of place is it, what would you tell them and why?

In this I can usually count on a small range of comments almost always appearing, and they don’t always paint a pretty picture. Windsor is small, it’s dirty and polluted, it’s boring, it’s an industrial town with high unemployment, it’s the southernmost major city in Canada, it’s diverse, and (my personal favorite) it’s “the armpit of Canada.” That last one encapsulates a lot in what is kind of a strange body metaphor, but strangely enough this is the first time in a few years that I did not hear that one in the class discussion. So I brought it up as we went along. I always joke that if we’re going to use a body metaphor to describe Windsor as a place, it’s better to think of Windsor as a sphincter than an armpit. An armpit is just kind of an accidental function of your arm meeting your body at an angle, and has limited functionality or agency, a one-trick pony that is interesting largely because it might stink and little else. A sphincter, on the other hand, may have a bad rep (especially after Stephen Colbert famously called Windsor “Earth’s rectum”), but is active and vital and comes in multiple forms, regulating flows between different parts of your body and between you and the rest of the world. This gets a giggle (from some) but I think it’s an apt analogy because of Windsor’s position as a border city and an important node in continental trade networks and production systems.

In any case, the discussion of the five concerns and what the groups identified as Windsor’s defining qualities covered a broad array of issues: pollution, hazards like flooding (two 100-year flood events in two years, including one in late August this year) cultural diversity and immigration, the changing local economy, regional connections to both Detroit and Toronto, crime and safety, the link between the city and surrounding rural areas, the role of the university, the importance of the US-Canada border and whether Windsor is “Americanized,” and the city’s built environment and historical connections. These photos are the whiteboards where I wrote down the class’s points under each theme, but we didn’t get as far on the region/scale on because we were running out of time. I am hoping to remember to do this again next time I teach the class, and to compare over time how the students coming through the course may see Windsor differently over time. But I also like this list because it’s a way of showing them that they are already thinking geographically, that they have the capacity to start using the concepts and questions of human geography to examine their own immediate surroundings and connections, and build out from there. I also have been thinking about Windsor, Detroit, and the border lately because I am part of a Borderlands Research Cluster at the university with several colleagues in other departments, and am getting geared up to team teach a grad course next semester on the spatial history of Windsor-Detroit and the border region with Rob Nelson, a colleague from the history department. This is part of the research group’s capacity building and attempt to link research and teaching directly, but it’s also just because we’re both interested in this region, for which no good comprehensive or systematic academic study of the regional historical geography exists. And it’s my way of re-upping my own personal investment in Windsor as a place. So I’m probably going to write a lot more about Windsor here as this all progresses and I start poking around in the long history of the place and its multiple reinventions and iterations, from indigenous presence dating back thousands of years to the current Rust Belt city trying to remake itself.