ICHG 2018: Some (Nice) Reflections on Academia

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The 17th International Conference of Historical Geography was held in July 2018 in Warsaw, Poland (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

I recently attended the 17th International Conference of Historical Geography (ICHG) in Warsaw, Poland. I had a brilliant time– it was a week full of exchanging ideas, meeting new people, and catching up with old people. The conference is held once every three years; it was last hosted by London in 2015 and I was there, heading towards the end of the second year of my PhD. Someone commented that the cycles of the ICHG feel like markers in your career, which got me thinking about how far I have come in the last 3 years, between London 2015 and Warsaw 2018.

I have certainly got ‘better’ at big conferences; in 2015 I co-organised one session at the ICHG, in 2018 I organised 2 on my own. I am better at networking, and I have learnt that it is not just about meeting new people, but also about developing relationships with people that I have met before. I’m less afraid to use the opportunity to ask more experienced academics for advice; I have finally convinced myself that they won’t think I’m stupid and/or annoying for asking.

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The speakers in “Historical Geographies of Protest and Dissent.” From left to right: Carl Griffin, Briony McDonagh, me, Nathan Moore, Iain Robertson (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

 

There are other areas of academic life on which I’m making good progress. Whilst I was in Warsaw I got word that my thesis revisions had been accepted by my examiners. I won’t technically be a Doctor until I graduate, but I will be a Doctor, it’s definitely happening. In 2015, the only geography department I knew was Royal Holloway. It is a fantastic department, but it meant my experience was rather limited. Since then I have also taught and worked at Oxford Brookes University and the University of Central Lancashire. I have learnt to give lectures, run tutorials, and write and mark assessments within a variety of different academic cultures.

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing, not by a long shot. I had moments during my PhD when I thought I would never finish it, and there were chapters that didn’t come together for months. I’ve had conference papers rejected, and for the jobs I got, there have been many, many more that I did not. I think it is important to acknowledge our failures as well as celebrate our successes in academia; it is all part of the process.

I am only at the beginning of my academic career; I still have a long way to go. By the next ICHG in 2021, I will have published some journal articles, and be on my way to securing a permanent academic job, if I haven’t already. 3 years ago, I would have qualified those goals with ‘hope’ or ‘might.’ Now, I am more confident in myself and my abilities. Of course, I still have my moments of fear, insecurity, and doubt. But they are becoming less common.

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Celebrating making it through the conference with a cocktail and friends (Photo: Ruth Slatter).

This blog post is not meant to be a big old boast (although I do think that female academics in particular could do with being more confident about expressing our achievements). It is meant to be a message of hope. I spoke to a lot of PhD students in Warsaw, and I recognised in many of them the same insecurities I felt back in 2015. There is a lot of discussion about how hard academia is to get into, and it is. But I can also give you loads of examples of people who have succeeded, in all kinds of ways, including outside of academia. So I guess the purpose of this blog post is to say to those PhD students: don’t be too hard on yourself. It might take you longer than you think, and it might not look like you imagined, but you’ll get there.

Justice and the Digital: The Second Annual Digital Geographies Working Group Symposium

The second annual symposium of the Royal Geographical Society’s Digital Geographies Working Group (or RGS-IBG DGWG for short) took place on the 6th of July 2018 at the University of Sheffield. The theme was Justice and the Digital. I am Events Co-ordinator for the group, and I was on the organising team for this event, so it was a pretty stressful day for me. Everything went really well though, if I do say so myself, and I had a fantastic time!

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The attendees of the second annual Digital Geographies Working Group at the University of Sheffield (Photo: Lucy Dunning).

The day started with a panel entitled “What’s justice got to do with it?” A combination of academics and practitioners (representing Oxfam UK and the Good Things Foundation),  discussed the relationship between justice and the digital. Whilst it might be quite obvious that inequality shapes who has access to digital tools such as the internet, the panel discussed the ways in which injustice and inequality can play out even once access is gained. The digital is not a silver bullet that can instantly relieve inequality, it can also make things worse if it is not used in the right ways.

After the opening panel, the day split into three parallel strands. I convened the strand on Citizenship, Protest, and the Digital. We had talks from two excellent speakers, digital shorts (I’ll explain later!) and a really interesting discussion. The first speaker was Dr. Sam Hind from the University of Siegen, who spoke about his research on Sukey, an app developed during the Student Tuition Fee Demonstrations in 2010 to help protesters share information and avoid police kettles. The second speaker was Professor Karen Mossberger, who joined us via Skype from Arizona State University. She spoke about place-based projects were used in Chicago to improve digital citizenship and create a culture of technology use.

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Dr. Sam Hind (University of Siegen) talking to the Citizenship, Protest, and the Digital strand (Photo: Ozlem Demirkol).

It is important to the DGWG committee that the group is accessible to, and supportive of, postgraduate students and early career researchers. This ethos extends to the events we organise, so we introduced digital shorts. These are 2-3 minute presentations, with or without slides, about a research project. Generally this project is a Masters dissertation or PhD thesis, but it is not compulsory. They are meant to be informal and low-stress, although it can be difficult to summarise your research in just a few minutes! In the Citizenship, Protest, and the Digital strand we had five great shorts of topics ranging from Eurovision fandom to the Paris terrorist attacks, via protest in Turkey, Libya, and Dublin.

After the stands, the groups came back together for a closing panel to discuss what geographers can bring to the study of the relationship between justice and the digital. Speakers from the three strands responded to the topic, and we came to the rather satisfying conclusion that there is something unique geographers can offer, due to our specific methodological standpoints that differ from other academic disciplines.

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Symposium attendees ‘networking’ at a nearby pub (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

No academic event is complete without a trip to the pub, so that it where we headed after the final panel. The next day, some of us met up in Hathersage in the Peak District for a ‘walk-and-talk,’ which pretty much does what it says on the tin. It was a great opportunity to carry on some of the discussions that had been started the day before, and to walk off some of those conference biscuits!

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The Walk-and-talkers celebrate making it to the top of Stanage Edge in the Peak District (Photo: Hannah McCarrick).

See how the day unfolded on Twitter by looking at the Wakelet story generated by the wonderful Sammia Poveda, which can be accessed here.

 

 

 

Afterlives of Protest: Researching Protest Memories Workshop

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Source: Protest Memory Network.

The Protest Memory Network is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and brings together archivists, curators, activists, artists, and researchers to think about how memories of protest are preserved, materialised, recirculated, and utilised. The Network is organising three workshops and a conference between 2018 and 2020, amongst other things. I was invited to take part in the first workshop, on the subject of Researching Protest Memory, at the University of Sussex on the 30th and 31st of May 2018.

The workshop was a combination of paper sessions and workshops exploring the methodological opportunities and challenges of researching such a broad and frequently intangible topic. A whole range of research methods were discussed, ranging from the conventional (oral histories, archival research, mapping, social media analysis) through the creative (film making and artistic engagements), to the rather unconventional (embroidering interview quotes onto handkerchiefs and baking them into empanadas). My contribution was a paper on my work on protest stickers.

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Alison de Menezes and Carmen Wang’s creative engagement with the interview transcripts of Chilean exiles, exploring the role of women in the maintenance and (re)production of social movements (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

We had workshops run by: the TAG Lab, (Text Analysis Group), which conducts research into the analysis of text and language by computers, and applies it to social media and other forms of communication; the Business of Women’s Words project, which explores feminist publishing in the UK during the 1970s and 80s; and the Mass Observation Archive, which is a fascinating collection about everyday life in Britain in the twentieth century. The workshop was also supported by the Sussex Humanities Lab, which looks at the ways in which digital technologies are shaping society and culture. Over the two days, I was reminded of just how many options there are when it comes to selecting a research method, and the importance of considering your options when embarking on a research project, rather than just falling back on what is easy or familiar. The workshop was a chance to learn about unfamiliar methodologies in a supportive environment, where I didn’t feel stupid asking potentially obvious questions.

Invariably, it is difficult to think of research methods without also thinking about research outputs. Over the two days, the topic of research outputs came up often, particularly in terms of how to make research more accessible and engaging for those outside of academia. The alternatives that came up ranged from working with cultural partners such as museums and libraries, to creative outputs such as documentary films and even board games. On the Tuesday evening, we were treated to a radical history of Brighton walking tour. It was fantastic, if a little fast-paced, and highly informative; I learnt a lot even though I have lived in Brighton for most of my life. There are a number of researchers who make use of walking tours as a form of public engagement, and I think they are a great way of

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The radical history of Brighton walking tour (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

I have written before about how much I value the academic communities I am a part of (see Parts 1, 2 and 3), and the Researching Protest Memories workshop was a nice reminder of that. It was much smaller than most of the conferences I am used to (20-30 people), which meant I had a good chance to get to know everyone and their work. I came away feeling like I was part of a new (to me) academic community of supportive, creative, and energetic researchers, and as far as I’m concerned, the more communities I am part of, the better!

I don’t think I would be alone in saying that the Researching Protest Memory workshop was a resounding success. I went home exhausted, but with my head buzzing with thoughts and ideas. I would like to thank the Protest Memory Network, particularly Pollyanna Ruiz, for organising the workshop and inviting me to participate.

Author Meets Critics at the AAG

I spent last week at the Annual Conference of the Association of American Geographers (AAG), a mammoth event with hundreds of sessions spread over 5 days and 3 hotels in New Orleans, Louisiana. I had a fantastic time at the conference, and I loved exploring New Orleans in my time off. I have attended the conference before, in Chicago in 2015, so I knew what to expect from this epic exchange of knowledge and research. But I also had some new experiences, including participating as a panellist in an Author Meets Critics session.

Representing my new employer, the University of Central Lancashire, at the Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting in New Orleans (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Author Meets Critics sessions are odd. Primarily designed to publicise recent books (I think!), panellists speak about the book, and the author(s) then respond to those comments. Most of the time, the majority of the audience has not read the book, so it can be hard to formulate questions when the floor is opened up to audience discussion. The number of critics depends on the length of the session, but can range from 3 to 5.

At the AAG, I was taking on the role of critic for Revolting New York: How 400 Years of Riot, Rebellion, Revolution, and Uprising Shaped a City, which attempts to document almost four centuries of contentious history in one of the most famous cities in the world. I really enjoyed reading the book, and I had an idea what I wanted to say about it, but I had never actually been to an Author Meets Critics session before, and I wasn’t sure if what I wanted to say was appropriate. So I went to two other Author Meets Critics sessions before the Revolting New York one. The critics in the two sessions took very different approaches, and I liked one much more than the other.

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The Author Meets Critics panel for Space Invaders by Paul Routledge at the 2018 AAG (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The first session I went to was for Paul Routledge’s new book, Space Invaders: Radical Geographies of Protest (2017). Routledge, and most of the panellists, have published work that has been influential on my understanding of the geography of social movements and protests, so that was a second reason for me to go along. I haven’t read the book, in fact I wasn’t aware of its existence until I saw the title in the conference programme. All of the critics (and there were five of them!) talked about what they liked about the book, and what they didn’t like. It was effectively a verbal review. Times five. With the author in the room. Whilst none of the reviews were overwhelmingly bad, it still felt pretty brutal. I felt quite uncomfortable during the session, and I also found it quite difficult to engage with the discussion.

The second Author Meets Critics was for Tear Gas: From the Battlefields of WW1 to the Streets of Today (2017) by Anna Feigenbaum. I have read this book, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I also got a lot more out of the discussion of the book. There were only three critics, which gave Feigenbaum the time to briefly outline the book for those who hadn’t read it, as well as responding to the critics at the end. In addition, rather than reviewing Tear Gas, the two critics built on it, discussing which elements they found most interesting and how the book fit in to contemporary academic debates. As an audience member, I found this approach much more engaging.

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The Author Meets Critics Panel for Tear Gas by Anna Feigenbaum at the 2018 AAG (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Luckily, this was the approach I had decided to take in my role as critic for Revolting New York. I do not think it is perfect, but I didn’t feel comfortable pointing out what I didn’t like/agree with when the book’s editor, and several of the authors, were in the room. This doesn’t mean I wasn’t critical, however; it is possible to critique something without being negative about it. I instead discussed the elements of Revolting New York that got me thinking, the issues it throws up that I think are worthy of further discussion. The two issues I focused on were: comparisons between New York and London; and the impact of terminology and whether we study events alone or as part of wider social movements. I think it went pretty well, if I do say so myself, and the terminology issue in particular carried on through the audience discussion.

I suspect that not everyone will agree with me on this, some people might not have a problem with pointing out a book’s weaknesses with the author in the room; it can even be argued that it is more fair than publishing a review to which opportunities for response are limited. For the audience however, I think it is downright awkward. I personally think the constructive approach is more engaging for the audience, particularly if they haven’t read the book yet. I would definitely take this approach again if I get asked to participate in another Author Meets Critics panel.

The Value of Academic Communities Part 2: Being Part of the Community

On the 8th of November 2017, I gave the Postgraduate Voices talk at the Historical Geography Research Group’s (HGRG) annual postgraduate conference, Practising Historical Geography. I talked about my experience of academic communities, because of how important they have been to me during my PhD. I have decided to turn my talk into three blog posts, which I will publish here over the next few weeks. Part 1 was the about the various groups that make up my academic community. Part 2 is about the activities I have taken part in to build and maintain that community.

Seminars

My Seminar Groups

The Landscape Surgery and London Group of Historical Geographers seminar groups have been very important to me during my PhD.

Just as there are probably different types of people in your academic community, there are different ways in which you can extend and strengthen it. Seminars are not just a way to hear about new research, they are also a way of participating in various communities. Attending departmental seminars are a good way for PhD students to be part of an academic department, particularly if you don’t have an office or desk in the university. The Social, Cultural and Historical Geography Research Group at Royal Holloway have a bi-weekly seminar series in central London called Landscape Surgery, for postgraduates and staff. It is a forum for Landscape Surgeons to share our work and ideas, and also sometimes features external speakers.  Landscape Surgery has been a lifeline for me during my PhD. The Human Geography postgraduates at Royal Holloway are quite geographically dispersed—most of us don’t go into the department on a regular basis. So Landscape Surgery was frequently my only contact with an academic community. It helped me to maintain my connection to the staff and students of the Royal Holloway Geography Department.

However, seminars can also introduce you to communities that go beyond your department. Another important seminar series for me is the London Group of Historical Geographers, which also meets every other week in central London. The seminars, and the trip to Olivelli’s Italian restaurant for dinner afterwards, have really helped me to develop my academic social skills over the years. The dinners in particular have introduced me to a range of historians and historical geographers in a less formal setting, which made it easier for me to actually carry on a semi-intelligent conversation.

Conferences

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The Royal Holloway contingent in a pub in Preston the night before the 19th Practising Historical Geography conference in 2013 (Photo: Innes Keighren).

I have been to quite a few conferences during my PhD, from small-ish ones like Practising Historical Geography to massive international conferences like the RGS Annual Conference and the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers. Like seminars, attending conferences is a brilliant way of meeting other academics. If you are presenting a paper, people will often come and introduce themselves to you, and it also serves as something to talk about, thus helping to avoid awkward silences or introductions. I have found organising conference sessions to be even more helpful. Putting out a Call for Papers connects you with people who have similar research interests. Or, you can invite people to take part in your session, providing you with a reason to get in touch with that Professor that you’ve always wanted to talk to. I’m convening a session at the International Conference of Historical Geographers in Warsaw next year. The prospect that I would get silence in response to my invitations and Call for Papers was a scary one, but I actually got a fantastic response. So I’m making new connections and extending my academic community, as well as building on my pre-existing connections with excellent academics and the conference is still months away.

The point that conferences help to maintain and develop pre-existing connections as well as making new ones is important. There are a number of my peers from all over the country that I only ever really see at conferences, so they represent a good chance to catch up. Being part of a community isn’t just about making new connections and meeting new people, it’s also about staying connected to people you’ve already met but don’t see very often.

Research Groups

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The attendees of the Digital Geographies Working Group’s (DGWG) first annual symposium in London in June 2017 (Photo: DGWG).

Research Groups are open, welcoming, and often actively encourage the participation of postgraduates. They also organise events that give you the chance to participate in academic communities.

Research groups also give you the opportunity to give back to your academic community. For just over a year, I have been a member of the committee of the Digital Geographies Working Group. Serving on a Committee provides you with the opportunity to meet new people, and work with those you already know, but it also allows you to develop new skills, such as organising academic events, managing budgets and accounts, or running a website. I helped to organise the first annual Digital Geographies Symposium last year. It was a steep learning curve, but it was also great fun.

 

Social Media

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I am active on social media, including Twitter and this blog.

Not every academic makes use of social media, but I have found it to be very beneficial. I am active on Twitter, and I also run this blog. Twitter has allowed me to make new connections, and stay in touch with people in between conferences. Twitter can also act as a sort of leveller, making it less intimidating to approach and start a discussion with a big name.

As well as being something that I really enjoy doing, and allowing me to toy with the concept of impact, my blog gives me a presence on the internet beyond your normal Twitter account or departmental webpage. If someone wanted to, they could get a good sense of who I am and what my research interests are from Turbulent London. I am also keen to publish contributions from guest authors, which is another reason to make connections with people that you perhaps otherwise wouldn’t. Although not universal, there is no doubt that social media has changed the way that academics interact. I personally think it is a great way to participate in the academic community.

Participating in academic networks can be time consuming, but it is incredibly worthwhile; you can learn new skills, cement your place in academic communities, and it is great fun. In is not all plain sailing however; in Part 3 of The Value of Academic Communities, I will talk about some of the challenges I have faced whilst building my academic communities.

The Value of Academic Communities Part 1: My Academic Community

On the 8th of November 2017, I gave the Postgraduate Voices talk at the Historical Geography Research Group’s (HGRG) annual postgraduate conference, Practising Historical Geography. I talked about my experience of academic communities, because of how important they have been to me during my PhD. I have decided to turn my talk into three blog posts, which I will publish here over the next few weeks.

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Myself with some of my Royal Holloway peers and my PhD supervisor at the 2016 RGS-IBG Annual Conference. From left to right: Ben Newman, Dr. Rachael Squire, Dr. Innes Keighren, myself (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

A PhD can be a lonely experience. I have spent many days sat on my own in the archives or in front of my computer. As such, I have always embraced opportunities to work or interact with other PhD students and academics. There are a number of reasons why it’s a good idea to actively participate in the academic community, ranging from the strategic to the emotional. It can lead to opportunities that are helpful for career progression, it provides access to a wealth of advice and experience, and it can be a source of support when you’re struggling. Talking to others who know what I’m going through has been one of the key strategies I have developed to deal with the stress of doing a PhD. Every PhD is different, and as such, it seems likely that every PhD student’s academic communities are also different. Because of this, I thought I should explain what I consider my academic community to be.

PhD Supervisors

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This is the only photo I could find of myself and both of my PhD supervisors. Professor David Gilbert is on the far left in the back row, and Dr. Innes Keighren is on the far right in the back row (Photo: Graeme Awcock).

In many ways, your PhD supervisors are your first point of contact with the academic world, so your relationship with them is an important one. My supervisors have been incredible, helping me through all aspects of academic life as well as the thesis itself. My department runs an annual training session on called Managing Your Supervisor, which always gets a bit of a giggle, but it is actually important to think about. What do you want or need from your supervisor? What do you expect from them? What do they expect from you? The relationship between postgraduates and supervisors varies a lot depending on the individuals involved, but it’s worth investing some time thinking about what works best for you. I have two supervisors: Professor David Gilbert and Dr. Innes Keighren. I almost always met with both of them, which I think is quite unusual from what I’ve gathered talking to others. I guess my key piece of advice is be honest with them, especially when things aren’t going well. It can be embarrassing to admit you’re struggling, but how are they supposed to help you if they don’t know what’s really going on? Your supervisors are probably your most valuable source of advice, support, and feedback: don’t waste it. However, you also have to be wary of being over reliant. At the end of the day your PhD is your project, and at some point you have to take ownership of it.

Peers

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My Masters class on a trip to the Royal Geographical Society archives in December 2012 (Photo: Innes Keighren).

There isn’t really a concise way of saying ‘people who are doing a PhD at roughly the same time as you,’ so I’ve settled for peers. There are quite a few PhD students in the Geography Department at Royal Holloway, and I have also met PhD students from other departments along the way. My peers have been really important to me, because they understand what I’m going through. It can be hard for those outside of academia to grasp a PhD; I have had to field quite a few questions over the years about what I’m going to do in my summer holiday, when my next exams are, and what I actually do with my time. Other PhD students get all that though, and more. They know it feels to get stuck writing a chapter, or hit a dead end in the archive, or have a frustrating supervision meeting. Equally, they know how it feels to have an abstract accepted for a conference, or to find that perfect source in the archive, or to get some great feedback from your supervisors. My peers understand it all–the triumphs and the tragedies. Peers are a wonderful source of advice, and if they can’t help, they can at least sympathise.

Established Academics

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Past and present committee members of the Historical Geography Research Group in 2013. (Photo: HGRG).

Another endless source of wisdom is academics who are further along their career path. I have found them to be unceasingly generous with their time and advice. Although it was a while ago for some of them, they know what it’s like to go through a PhD too, and I have been the grateful recipient of many pearls of wisdom over the years. I know it can be intimidating to talk to a high-flying professor when you are just a lowly postgraduate, but they don’t bite, honestly!

Over the course of a PhD, you get the opportunity to meet a lot of interesting people, who you will probably have a lot in common with. In Part 2 of The Value of Academic Communities, I will talk about the various opportunities that I have made the most of to establish and maintain myself in academic communities.

23rd Practising Historical Geography Conference

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The 2017 Practising Historical Geography Conference was held in Manchester (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Last week, I went to Manchester Metropolitan University for the 23rd annual Practising Historical Geography Conference, organised by the Historical Geography Research Group (HGRG).  It was my fifth time attending the conference (I wrote about the last one I attended, in 2015, here), but my first time presenting. As always, I thought it was a great day, well organised, with really interesting speakers.

The day involves: two keynote speakers; two methodological workshops; a Postgraduate Voices presentation by a recently completed PhD student; and a paper by the HGRG undergraduate dissertation prize winner. This year, I gave the Postgraduate Voices talk. It meant a lot to be asked, as the Practising Historical Geography conferences have been a really important part of my PhD. I have valued the time spent with other enthusiastic researchers who have been unfailingly supportive over the last five years. Because of how much I have gotten out of these conferences, I decided to use my Postgraduate Voices presentation to talk about my place in the academic communities that played such an important role in my PhD. Doing a PhD can be a lonely experience, so I think it’s really important to take a bit of time and effort to participate in academic networks when you get the chance.

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The Royal Holloway contingent at the 23rd Practising Historical Geography conference. Left to right: Ben Newman, myself, and Ed Armstron-Sheret (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

In her introduction to the conference, President of the HGRG Dr. Briony McDonagh said that the field of historical geography was in “rude health.” By the end of the day, I couldn’t help but agree. The keynote lectures, given by Professor Jon Stobbart and Dr. Kimberly Peters, were both fantastic, and they highlighted the diversity of research being conducted in the field. Professor Stobbart discussed the construction of ‘comfortable’ homes in Georgian England using material objects, whilst Dr. Peters talked about the development of maritime ‘motorways,’ shipping lanes designed to minimise the chance of large container ships colliding head-on. I never thought that I would find maritime trade so interesting!

The two workshops were also excellent. The first, organised by Dr. Sarah Mills, was about the ethics of archival research. I must admit I generally fall into the trap of assuming that I don’t need to think too much about ethics because I research the past, but the workshop made me realise it was something I should pay more attention to. The second workshop, run by Dr. James Kneale, was about the merits and challenges of time capsules for historical research. During the recent demolition of the Temperance Hospital in London, two time capsules were found, and Dr. Kneale was asked to consult on their contents. Whilst it seems unlikely that many historical geographers will find themselves in a similar situation during their careers, we had some great discussions about the nature, meaning, purpose, and use of time capsules.

Practising Historical Geography is always a brilliant event, and this year was no different. I drove home feeling energised, with a renewed enthusiasm for my own research. I would like to say thank you to the HGRG committee, particularly Dr. Cheryl McGeachan and Dr. Hannah Neate, for organising such a wonderful event.

RGS-IBG Annual Conference 2017: The Geographies of Everything

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The RGS-IBG Annual Conference is held at the Society’s headquarters in South Kensington two years out of every three (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

I spent most of last week at the Annual Conference of the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of the British Geographers (RGS-IBG). It is one of the biggest events in British academic geography’s calendar; this year there were more than 1600 participants and 380 sessions. This was my third time at the conference (my previous trips were in 2016 and 2014), and as always, I had a brilliant time. One of the things that I love most about geography is that is such a broad and varied subject; you can study the geography of anything and everything. The conference really brought that home. I attended a wide variety of sessions, on topics from digital geography to the geographies of dissent to historical geography.

For the last year, I have been on the committee of the RGS-IBG’s Digital Geographies Working Group. As part of that, I looked after the Group’s Twitter account during the conference, so I went to several digital geography-themed sessions, including really interesting sessions on the role of the digital in commemoration, and the geography of video games. Digital geography relates to a whole range of different elements of academia; it can be a topic of research, a method of research, or a way of communicating research. My interest in digital geography comes from thinking about the ways that social media and the internet is used by protesters.

Because of the topic of my research, the geographies of dissent was also a big part of the conference for me. Conferences are a great way of keeping up to date with new research in your field, and they also allow you to meet the people doing that research. I presented my research in a session called Geographies of Activism and Protest, and a had a brilliant time meeting the other presenters and discussing our research. There was also quite a large audience as well, which was especially nice considering it was the final session on the last day. I also went to some really interesting sessions on the geographies of opposition, political geographies of the event, populism, and anti-colonialism.

When I’m at a conference, I also like to go to some sessions that have nothing to do with my research or any other commitments, but just sound interesting. I went to the second of three New and Emerging Research in Historical Geography, and heard some great papers on Scottish travelling fairgrounds, the property of eighteenth-century widows, and the practice of Victorian monarchy, amongst others. The  conference’s opening plenary, on decolonising geographical knowledge, was brilliant, and I went to a lecture on land titles that was much more interesting than it sounds!

Big international conferences like the RGS-IBG are exhausting, and sometimes a bit bewildering. But they are also great fun, and can be incredibly rewarding. At the RGS-IBG, you can find geographies of all kinds, and I personally think that embracing that variety is a great way to make the most out of the conference.

 

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.

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.