Hunter Geography Alumni Focus


An Interview with Rebecca Kukla, MA, Geography
Edited by Christina Santiago, Hunter College, English major


Rebecca Kukla is currently a Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University and Senior Research Scholar at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics. She attended Hunter College and received her Master’s Degree in Geography. Her degree is assisting her with the development of her book which will be published by Oxford University Press at the end of next year: City Living: How Urban Spaces and Urban Dwellers Make One Another. Rebecca also completed an interview for an independent Philosophy page where she talks about her life as a philosopher and her time at Hunter College:

Why do you study Geography?
For years I have been interested in how selves are constituted by the material and social spaces they inhabit throughout my philosophical research. As a young child I was fascinated by cities and at the age of eleven I spent a year traveling to every subway station in Toronto for a middle school project. I marked the apparent ethnic and economic character of each neighborhood on a giant map. However, my determination to obtain a degree in Geography came from research I developed to write a book. As I worked on it, I realized I was becoming more and more interested in the practical, geographic dimensions of the question. So in order to write the kind of empirically informed philosophical book I was looking to write I applied to the MA program at Hunter. It functioned as a kind of mid-career present to myself, to reinvigorate my research, build my interdisciplinary skill set, get the background I needed to finish my book in a fun and efficient way, and - perhaps most importantly - to finally give myself a chance to study cities for real.

What is your current research?
My thesis research is on “repurposed cities” that were materially built for one very specific social and political order. They were designed to allow and enforce the separation, flow, and surveillance of various groups, but went through an abrupt regime change and are now being used by different people in new ways. I am currently questioning how the leftover material form of the city shape these new forms of life and how people find ways to repurpose these spaces for new uses. The research is focused in Berlin and Johannesburg, which were the two starkest examples as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of apartheid are two of the most iconic events that formed political consciousness. Studying these transitions from a spatial perspective is fascinating so aside from my thesis I am currently studying commuting maps as I have been really interested in transportation geography. Thinking about how our representation of movement through cities shape our sense of what counts as important and what counts as peripheral movement and whose movement and whose lives are represented and representable.

How has Hunter Geography helped shape who you are today and your future?
I began my Hunter College journey as a fun professional enhancement, but I have developed a passion for geography and have had a great time studying a new discipline. You never quite know what the future will bring and I will have a hard time returning to a regular Philosophy professor. However, at a bare minimum, I will develop a class in Philosophy of Geography at Georgetown University.

What was being a graduate student in NYC like?
Having family that resides in New York I was able to visit frequently throughout life. However, it was such a treat to finally get to live here and feel like a legitimate part of the city. New York is one of my favorite cities aside from Berlin and after living here I find it kind of funny how NY-centric other places have become. As someone who is fundamentally based in a different city, I see it in all the classes where I currently reside, Washington, D.C. After all, New York is the center of the world, as New Yorkers often think anyway, it is the most important and influential city thus far. It shows up in everyday life and in geography classes as well. As a Canadian, I am used to thinking of myself as always peripheral and never central the perspectives I’ve gained are interesting and sometimes amusing.

Why is geographic approach important to your research?
Thinking and analyzing social phenomena in terms of spatial patterns and relations is an incredibly powerful conceptual tool. In Philosophy, many of us have argued that trying to understand social phenomena in terms of people's inner characters, thoughts, and intentions is problematic. There is a lot of good scientific evidence showing that we are bad at knowing what's going on in our own minds and vastly unaware on the minds of others. These types of explanations in terms of inner thoughts also tend to individualize behavior and rip it out of its social context, making structural forces invisible. I find that thinking about social phenomena in terms of spatial phenomena, who is where, and why, and how are they occupying space - gives us a powerful way of seeing structurally rather than individually. It is a way of examining human phenomena that keeps them inextinguishably rooted in their surroundings.

What motivates your research?
At the moment, getting to explore cities as a scholar, rather than just a curious and eager traveler and wanderer! I have become interested in a range of geographical issues since starting the program and have been writing about the epistemology of maps. Some of the questions I intend to answer are: how do we use maps to know things? What kind of a communicative object is a map? How do values and interests get embedded in the social process of producing maps? My interests in transportation geography are also motivators for finding solutions to these inquiries. As the interplay between my philosophical training and my geographic training are productive and exciting I hope that I can help jumpstart a whole genre of research. To create an analysis that combines the conceptual toolbox of philosophy with the spatial toolbox of geographers.

Published: December 7, 2018