The Postgraduate Forum: When Human and Physical Geographers Meet

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Last week I began my eighth year of study at Royal Holloway (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Last week was my eighth Welcome Week at Royal Holloway (although it was still called Fresher’s Week in my day!), and my fifth as a postgraduate. Every year, as part of the Welcome Week programme in the Geography Department, two PhD students organise the Postgraduate Forum, a one-day conference in which current PhD students present their work. It gives current PhD students the chance to present in a friendly environment, and introduces new Masters and PhD students to the breadth of postgraduate research going on in the department.

The research community at Royal Holloway is split into three research groups: the Centre for Quaternary Research (which is where you’ll find the physical geographers), the Politics, Development and Sustainability group, and the Social, Cultural, and Historical Geography group (which is where you’ll find me!) For most of the year, these three groups operate quite separately, although there is quite a lot of overlap between the PDS and SCHG groups. On just one day a year, at the Postgraduate Forum, these three groups come together to share their research with each other, and I think it’s great.

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Ashley Abrook very helpfully adapted his presentation to suit his audience, and included an explanation of what the Quaternary period is (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Geography is a a very broad academic discipline which encompasses a wide range of topics, methodologies  and theoretical approaches. For example, the Forum was organised this year by Rachael Squire and Rachel Devine (who did a fantastic job, by the way). Rachael Squire’s PhD is about the geopolitics of the ocean, focusing on the US Navy’s Sealab projects during the Cold War. Rachel Devine’s PhD is about trying to find evidence to support a new theory about what caused a period of cooling during the last interglacial transition (apologies in advance if I haven’t summarised the projects well!) You couldn’t get much more different than that, and because the different areas of geography can be so diverse, you don’t often get human and physical geographers in the same room discussing each other’s research. Which is why  the Postgraduate Forum is such a good event. In the space of just one day we heard about: using the size of fossil teeth to investigate past climates; a radical eco-squat in Camden; the response of vegetation to centennial-scale climate variations; the tensions involved in being a black Christian rapper from Ealing; using rocks to reconstruct the movement of glaciers;  and whether or not the Estonian government’s use of digital technologies are creating a more transparent and accountable form of government.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the RGS-IBG Annual Conference acting as a social nexus. I was kind of joking, but the analogy actually works quite well here too. The Postgraduate Forum brings PhD students together who otherwise might never interact. At the Postgraduate Forum, I met second- and third-year PhD students who are studying in the same department as me, but who I have never met before, because we’re not in the same research group. In one respect, it’s a shame that I haven’t had the chance to get to know them until now, but on the other hand I’m really pleased that we get this chance every year.

So whilst I hope, for the sake of my sanity and my bank balance, that this is the last Postgraduate Forum I will attend at Royal Holloway (as a student anyway- I’ll gladly stick around if they’d pay me!), I hope that it carries on for many more Welcome Weeks.

Turbulent Londoners: Elizabeth Elstob, 1683-1756

Elizabeth Elstob

An engraving from self portrait of Elizabeth Elstob (Source: History Today).

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. My next Turbulent Londoner is Elizabeth Elstob, known as one of Britain’s first feminists.


Elizabeth Elstob was a renowned Anglo-Saxon scholar at a time when the medieval period was not considered worth studying, and when women were not considered worthy of education. Like fellow Geordie Mary Astell, she has since become known as one of England’s first feminists.

Born in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne to a merchant family on the 29th of September 1683, Elizabeth was orphaned young, and raised by her uncle, Charles Elstob, in Canterbury. Depite disaproving of women’s education, he allowed the young girl to learn Latin and French. 10 years her senior, Elizabeth’s brother, William, was sent to Eton and Cambridge before joining the church, becoming a scholar as she was also destined to. He introduced the teenaged Elizabeth to a small group of Anglo-Saxon scholars.

From 1696, Elizabeth lived with William in Oxford, and moved to London with him as his housekeeper in 1702. William Elstob did not share the same reservations as his uncle, and in London Elizabeth had the freedom to learn Old English. The siblings encouraged and supported each other in their academic endeavours. Elizabeth used her brother’s scholarly connections and her own force of will to gain access to intellectual circles and resources that she would have otherwise been denied. Being in London also allowed Elizabeth to join Mary Astell’s circle of female intellectuals, who helped her find subscribers for her publications.

Elizabeth’s first major work was published in 1709, a beautiful edition of Abbot Ælfric of Eynsham’s tenth-century An English Saxon Homily on the Birthday of St. Gregory. In the preface, she argued for the importance of women’s education, using religious reasoning to support her arguments. He second major publication came out in 1715, and was entitled Rudiments of Grammar for the English-Saxon Tongue. It was the first such work to be written in English rather than Latin. This was a deliberate decision on Elstob’s part- she wrote in English so that her work would be more accessible to other women. It was not only women who appreciated her work, however; Thomas Jefferson owned a copy of Rudiments which he used to understand terms he came across during his legal studies.

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The title page of An English Saxon Homily on the Birthday of St. Gregory (Source: University of Glasgow Library Special Collections).

Unfortunately, William Elstob died in 1715, leaving Elizabeth homeless and with large debts from financing their expensive scholarly publications. She started a girl’s school in Chelsea, which proved very popular but did not make a profit- it closed after just six months. In 1718 Elizabeth fled London, abandoning her books and an unfinished manuscript of Ælfric’s Catholic Homilies, a project she had worked hard to finance. She moved to rural Worcestershire where she ran a small school under the assumed name of Frances Smith. It seems that no one in the scholarly community knew where she was for almost 20 years, until 1735. In 1738 she was given the comfortable position of governess to the children of the Duke and Duchess of Portland, and she remained in their service at Bulstrode Park, Buckinghamshire, until her death on the 3rd of June 1756.

Elizabeth Elstob must have possessed incredible determination and resolve to become such a well respected scholar, despite her unpopular subject area and particularly her gender. Sadly, without the support of her brother she was not able to overcome the odds that were so heavily stacked against her as a woman. Nevertheless, her brief scholarly career demonstrated what women were capable of given half the chance, and she used her influence to support the education of other women, a revolutionary prospect at the time.

Sources and Further Reading

Seale, Yvonne. “The First Female Anglo-Saxonist.” History Today. Last modified February 4th, 2016, accessed August 3rd 2016. Available at http://www.historytoday.com/yvonne-seale/first-female-anglo-saxonist

Wikipedia. “Elizabeth Elstob.” Last modified May 10th 2016, accessed August 3rd 2016. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Elstob

London’s Protest Stickers: EU Referendum

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The EU Referendum was a significant event in Britain’s political life (Photo: BBC News).

The recent EU Referendum was arguably one of the biggest political events to happen in my lifetime. I haven’t written about it before because I felt there were enough opinions being voiced and, quite frankly, I didn’t know what to say. In the weeks since, however, I have started to come to terms with the result, and on recent trips to London I have found something that I do know how to talk about- protest stickers. Like all big events and political topics (other recent ones include the 2015 General Election, the London housing crisis, and immigration), the EU Referendum left its mark on the streets of London in the form of protest stickers, which serve as constant reminders of the Brexit result.

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Some stickers were produced by the official remain campaign, like this one on the Euston Road (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 03/08/16).

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This sticker, in Malet Street, Bloomsbury, is also recognisable by the slogan and colour scheme of the official Remain campaign (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 15/07/16).

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This sticker, advocating a Leave vote, was also quite common, but it doesn’t share an obvious connection with the Leave campaign (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Russell Square, 13/04/16).

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This sticker is also urging a Leave vote. It refers to 1215, the year in which the Magna Carta was signed, declaring that the British have been a “free peoples” since then. It is a good example of how the Magna Carta is repeatedly brought into debates about freedom and liberty, having achieved symbolic status hundreds of years ago (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Great Portland Street, 03/06/16).

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Many individual groups and organisations took sides during the EU Referendum campaign. The Alliance for Worker’s Liberty, a socialist campaign group, declared themselves for Remain. This sticker alludes to the employment rights enforced by EU law (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Borough High Street, 15/07/16).

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This sticker was also produced by the Alliance for Worker’s Liberty. It reads “Lower Borders, Don’t Raise Them.” One of the big issues of the referendum was immigration (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Borough High Street, 15/07/16).

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The RMT, a transport union, supported the Leave campaign (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Euston Road, 03/06/16).

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The location of protest stickers can have a big influence on how it is interpreted (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Euston Road, 03/08/16).

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Protest stickers are ephemeral, and last for varying amounts of time. Sometimes, they are scratched away in a way that suggests there was a deliberate attempt to obscure the message of the sticker. This is what I think happened to this sticker on Borough High Street (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 15/07/16).

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There were lots of people who were not happy with the actions of Boris Johnson after the referendum. This blunt sticker expresses that disapproval in no uncertain terms (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Byng Place, 15/07/16).

You can see the locations of all of these stickers on the Turbulent London Map.

The RGS-IBG Annual Conference: A Social Nexus

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The Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers Annual Conference took place this year at the RGS-IBG in Kensington (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

I spent most of last week at the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers (more commonly known as the RGS-IBG to save time!) Annual Conference in South Kensington. It is the fourth big international conference I have attended since I started my PhD, and apart from being more familiar with big conferences and how they work, I noticed one big difference from my previous conference experiences: I know people now. During the tea breaks, lunch breaks, and drinks receptions, I could be fairly confident that I would find someone I know to talk to. Not that there’s anything wrong starting a conversation with a stranger; I did a little of that too. But knowing that I could probably find someone I already knew to talk to make the prospect of networking less intimidating.

The overarching theme of the conference this year was Nexus Thinking. One of the latest buzzwords in geography, a nexus is a space of connections, of junctures, and of interaction. It got me thinking about the way in which conferences bring people together from a wide range of geographical locations and subject areas- they function as social nexuses (see what I did there?).

I saw lots of people that I know at the RGS-IBG, many that I haven’t seen in quite a while. There were previous Royal Holloway students who have now moved on to further study at other universities; current Hollowegians who I haven’t seen since the end of the summer term, or who I don’t normally get to talk to in the day-to-day life of my PhD; and people that I only really see at conferences.

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Myself with some fellow Hollowegians during a lunch break. From left to right: Ben Newman, Rachel Squire, Innes Keighren, Hannah Awcock (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Many of them were fellow PhD students, whose PhDs I have followed via conference papers and chats over tea and biscuits, lunch, or a drink in the pub at the end of the day. I have watching from afar as their research has developed and progressed, and it was really nice to see them last week, as we all come in to the final stretch.

The RGS-IBG Historical Geography Research Group too, have been an intermittent presence throughout my PhD, particularly at the annual Practising Historical Geography conferences. The more established members are so supportive and generous with their time, never seeming to get tired of the incessant questioning from postgraduate students.

Sometimes when I am sat at home at my desk staring at a computer screen for hours on end, a PhD can feel quite lonely. Last week I was reminded that I have become part of a community; a group of people who know and understand what I’m going through, and that feels really nice. It might be a largely long-distance community, that requires a social nexus like the RGS-IBG Annual Conference to bring us together, but it is one that means a lot to me. And I am now confident that I will always be able to find someone to eat with during the conference lunch breaks.

The Self-Motivation Society: PhD by Timetable

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I have found timetables a useful way of motivating myself during my PhD (Photo: Altug Karakoc).

A PhD is a very individual experience; everyone works in different ways, and finds different aspects challenging. For me, one of the hardest things has been keeping myself motivated. Doing a PhD, it is largely up to you how you spend your time. You might get guidance from your supervisors, you might have work, family or other commitments that you have to work around, but ultimately it comes down to you. Self-motivation is a really important part of doing a PhD!

When I started my PhD, I had 3-4 years to write 100000 words, a mammoth task that seemed both hard to comprehend and far away. It was difficult to know how much work I needed to do each day, week, month, in order to get it done. I tried to stick to a 9 to 5, Monday to Friday schedule, but it was easy enough to talk myself into an afternoon or a day off if I got a more appealing offer, or even if I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind. My favourite argument I used on myself was “well, 9-5 Monday to Friday is a social construct anyway, so why should I stick to it?”-  I wonder if that one works on employers? Now, as I approach the end of my third year, the panic has set in but I still find it hard to motivate myself to work on occasion.

Something that I have found useful in recent months is timetables. I never used to find them helpful, I was never one of those people who made revision timetables in the run up to exams, for example. At Royal Holloway, PhD students have to undertake Annual Reviews to make sure they are still on track. One of the materials you have to produce for the annual review is a timetable of the work you plan to do over the next year. I must admit that for the first few years, I made the timetable then promptly forgot all about it. However, as the end of my PhD started to loom, I decided to try and make a timetable and actually stick to it.

I planned out every week until the end of my PhD, including conferences, teaching, and time off. I included self-imposed deadlines, on which I have to send pieces of writing to my supervisors, so I have concrete objectives to work towards. And for the most part, I have found it very helpful. I know what I need to get done by the end of each week, and from that I can work out what I need to do each day. It is helping to keep me focused and motivated, as well as breaking down the PhD into chucks that are more manageable.

I have also discovered one important caveat, however. Timetables are only helpful for as long as they are actually helping. There is a fine line between good pressure, which forces you to get on with things, and bad pressure, which puts your mental health at risk. Sometimes things happen which you didn’t predict, and sometimes specific tasks take longer than you anticipated, despite your best efforts. When I was writing up my most recent case study, it became obvious that I just didn’t have the material to analyse the issues convincingly. I had to spend another two weeks doing more research. It put me behind schedule, but it was necessary to ensure I come out with a good quality PhD. In fact, I have revised my timetable several times since I decided to take it seriously. I have even moved my self-imposed final deadline back by a month, because it was becoming clear that my previous date was unrealistic (I was aiming for December, I am now hoping to submit by the end of January. Royal Holloway requires me to submit by the end of September 2017, so I still have some wiggle room). My timetable isn’t set in stone; it is there to help me, and if it’s not helping me, then I can change it.

As I have said, the process of doing a PhD is different for everyone, and what I find useful might not be helpful for everyone, or even anyone, else. However, I think its important for PhD students to talk openly about our experiences, and discuss what works and what doesn’t. So please let me know if you’ve tried timetables, and if so, whether or not they’ve been useful to you.