Last Wednesday (the 28th of October), the 21st Practising Historical Geography conference took place at the University of Sussex in Brighton. The conference is organised by the Historical Geography Research Group of the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers (or HGRH and RGS-IBG for short!), and is aimed at undergraduates and postgraduates. This was my forth year attending the conference (previously held at the University of Bristol (2014), University of Central Lancashire in Preston (2013) and the University of Hull (2012). I first attended as a Masters student (all those studying the MA Cultural Geography at Royal Holloway are encouraged to attend), and even now, in the third year of my PhD, I still found it to be a beneficial and enjoyable experience.
The conference combines keynote speakers, workshops, and chances to network. The first keynote was given by Dr. Simon Rycroft (University of Sussex) and was entitled ‘Mid-century Representation: John Latham’s Cosmos.’ Using the work of artist John Latham, Dr. Rycroft argued that it is important to be alert to the changing practices of representation. Representations reflect the ways we think about materials, which changes over time. Academics need to take such things into account when analysing representations.
After the first keynote is a section called Postgraduate Voices, where someone who has recently completed their PhD gives advice based on their experiences. This year, Dr. Jake Hodder talked about the 3 major crises he faced during his PhD, which roughly align with the 3(ish) years that a PhD takes:
- Imposter syndrome: The fear that someone will realise you are not good enough to be here, and tell you to go home, in a very public and humiliating way.
- Project isn’t coming together: At some points it can feel like you will never be able to make a coherent whole out of all the work you have done.
- Uncertainty: Particularly in the third and fourth years, financial insecurity and a sense of ‘what the hell am I going to do next?!’ can take its toll.
I found myself agreeing with everything Jake said. It is always reassuring to know that others are facing the same difficulties as you, and knowing that Jake overcame them to become Dr. Hodder is a welcome confidence boost!
Every year, the Historical Geography Research Group runs a competition for undergraduate dissertations in the field of historical geography. This year, the prize was won by Victoria Bellamy (University of Cambridge), who told us about her research on Victoria Park in East London in the second half of the nineteenth century. Parks are ideologically contested spaces; there is constant debate about their purpose and how they can be used. Victoria’s research explores how some of these debates played out in Victoria Park, surrounded by some of the most deprived areas of Victorian London. She did a fantastic job of presenting her work.
The middle section of the day is taken up by 2 workshops, which focus on what it’s like to actually do historical research. Previous workshops have involved all kinds of things, from taxidermy to the Preston bus station, but this year they focused on extreme weather events in Britain (run by Dr. Lucy Veale, University of Nottingham) and the spatial politics of British households in the nineteenth-century, particularly the relationships between domestic servants and employers (run by Dr. Fae Dussart, University of Sussex). Chances to discuss the practice of researching the past with other researchers are rare, so I always look forward to this part of the day. It is an opportunity to talk about the difficulties of historical research, as well as explore some methodologies that may be unfamiliar.
The day was rounded off by the second keynote speaker, Dr. James Kneale (University College London), who spoke on the subject of ‘Looking for Drink in the Archive.’ Dr. Kneale has been researching alternative approaches to Victorian understandings of alcohol. There is plenty of evidence of the moral debates surrounding alcohol in the archives, but the Victorians didn’t just talk about alcohol, they experienced it in a whole range of other ways. Dr. Kneale has been using the archive to investigate practice, which is no simple task.
If all goes according to plan, I will probably be too busy putting the finishing touches to my thesis to attend the 22nd Practising Historical Geography conference next year. This is a shame, as it is a great event. I would thoroughly recommend it for any Masters or PhD students whose work even remotely relates to historical geography, especially if you are relatively new to academia. The atmosphere is friendly and welcoming, and it would be an ideal first conference. I have learnt a lot over the past four years, and met people who have become both colleagues and friends. Thank you to the Historical Geography Research Group (particularly Lucy Veale, who has organised the last 3 conferences) for putting on such wonderful events.