Tom Özden-Schilling

Assistant Professor


My research explores how new practices of environmental knowledge production are transforming individual articulations of identity politics and settler colonialism in rural North America. In conversation with forest ecologists, First Nations cartographers, and other experts working in British Columbia and Alaska, I examine everyday experiences of neoliberalization amidst the ongoing deregulation of the region’s resource management institutions. By detailing how aspiration, obligation, and belonging come to be mediated by maps, models, and other material artifacts of scientific work, I ask how professional precariousness has changed what it means for different kinds of experts to speak on behalf of the contemporary rural north.

My current book project, Salvage Cartographies: Mapping Futures in a Northern Forest, is a multi-locale ethnography of two research communities currently mapping and modeling ecological succession patterns and land use changes on the traditional territories of the Gitanyow and Gitxsan First Nations. In it, I explore how, amidst the interweaving temporalities of forest succession and bureaucratic transition, First Nations experts and forestry scientists alike have struggled to craft new venues for sharing territorial histories. The book traces the racialization of the region’s landscapes through the tools and discourses of adaptive management and environmental modeling, as well as through the legacies of lapsed capacity building projects originally designed to train and disperse First Nations technocrats.

In my second project, I plan to trace the rise and fall of rare earth minerals exploration in Alaska and the Northwest Territories by exploring how contemporary alternative energy development projects interpellate rural communities and individual workers. In the process of promoting these highly dispersed speculative projects, state geological surveys, exploration companies, and First Nations development corporations have all become adept at instructing communities near potential mines how to invest, why to alter their landscapes, and what kinds of futures they should want. Even if hardly anything has been taken out of the ground, the project asks, how have these transformations altered rural articulations of the common good? How does thinking about an object of speculative finance as a common good change the way we expect these objects to be regulated and cared for? And how have fleeting recruitment and promotional strategies premised on mobility, technological innovation, and global interconnection marked rural subjectivities in remote locales, particular as American and Canadian national imaginaries turn inward?

I came to Baltimore from Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I served as a postdoctoral fellow in the Harvard Canada Program after completing my Ph.D in the History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2016. Through my teaching at Harvard, MIT, UC Berkeley, and Tufts University, I have learned to treat all classroom engagements as opportunities to encourage students to examine and critique their personal ideas and experiences. I look forward to helping future students find new ways to make ethnography and social theory relevant to their own lives and career aspirations.