Outsider. Insider. My academic journey thus far often seems like a tightrope act between these two desires. My background and passion for state parks and nature has led me to become an environmental historian who focuses on parks. My dissertation is a comparative history of the development and management of state and provincial parks in the United States and Canada. I grew up “one mile up the hill, South on Route 36” from Cook Forest State Park in Western Pennsylvania. My parents owned rental cabins for over twenty years. Our cabins were authentic relics of an earlier era, built by hand from trees felled on the property in the 1920s. Rejecting the common path their middle-class backgrounds had paved for them, my parents took the cabins over after years of neglect in the early 1980s. My childhood was admittedly idyllic and largely spent meandering through the woods, alone with just myself, my dogs, and my nature. Even as a youngster I understood the deep divide that stood between my family and our renters; our tight knit community of small business owners and the droves of tourists; the insiders and outsiders. While the tourists assumed our life was serene, our business profitable, we understood how difficult it was to “make it” in the tourism industry, how difficult it was to hold on to the dream and to deal with the very tourists upon which are livelihood depended. Most of all, whilst the tourists sought an ephemeral thrill in what Joe Hermer refers to as a “knotless nature,” we enjoyed what we viewed to be a deeper connection to the forest. The forest in all its natural (and manmade, but we’ll leave the wilderness debate for another post) glory was a part of me, it still is a part of me, and it shaped who I am today.
In my mind I traverse this world cloaked in the distinctive experiences of my youth; a kind of admittedly self-important, superiority complex puts a little bounce in my step as I travel to various parks to collect historical documents and talk to park employees. However, within the first couple minutes of any park visit it becomes quite clear that my cloak is indeed invisible. Park employees look upon me with gazes that typically reflect some level of confusion as to why I am there. This is not to say that they hold me in contempt or are rude, they are almost always hospitable and as helpful as they can manage. Nevertheless, as they pull out long-forgotten documents out of the crevices of their offices (and sometimes attics), I can tell that they think of me as just another disconnected academic concerned with the irrelevancies of the past. I often find myself feebly interjecting, “I grew up on the outskirts of a state park…”, “My parents owned rental cabins…”, attempting to demonstrate how deeply connected I am to the subject, to develop a modicum of street cred, an acknowledgement from them that I am indeed an “insider.” If these interjections work at all, their effectiveness is typically nullified once I start rambling about how I am going to analyze East/West and Canadian/American conceptions of nature or some other similar topic and their eyes begin to glaze over. “Yeah, that’s interesting,” they quip, eager to get back to the immediacies of the present: campers to check-in, trails to clear, school children to host, budgetary constraints to overcome.
As strong as my impulse to be recognized as an insider is, at times I desperately just want to be an outsider. It seems that I can no longer return home to Cook Forest without constant analytical questions and thoughts streaming through my head. “I wonder how I can use this photo I just took as a supporting document for an argument in my dissertation…” “I need to remember to look up articles on the clean-up of the Clarion River…” “That sign is classic example of social norms controlling park visitor behavior…” “What is the deeper meaning behind the canoe liveries in the forest?” And so on. Every park I visit elicits similar thoughts. At times I desperately wish that I could turn off this inner dialogue and be a normal tourist, to just kick back and enjoy the experience without contemplating how my experience fits into the larger picture.
I believe that this insider/outsider conflict is a common experience amongst academics, particularly graduate students, no matter their field of study. We desperately want to be recognized as an expert and to have the merit of our research acknowledged, to be the ultimate insider, and yet we also, at times, want to escape the confines of academia and experience the outside world.
Jessica DeWitt is a PhD candidate at the University of Saskatchewan. Her dissertation is a comparative study of provincial and state parks, defining the unique role that these park “middlemen” play in North American society. She is on twitter @JessicaMDeWitt