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.

Reflections on Twitter as a Historical Source

Last week, I detailed my clunky and ad-hoc method for collecting and analysing old tweets. I have now finished my data collection (I read almost 26,000 tweets in total), so it seemed like a good time to reflect a little more on the experience of the process and what I found, rather than just how I did it. The tweets I read were all written during 4 days in November and December 2010. During this period a nationwide campaign was trying to persuade the British government not to make dramatic changes to the way that higher education was funded, which included raising university tuition fees to up to £9000 a year.

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The Student Tuition Fee Protests in 2010 are the most recent case study in my PhD, which has presented methodological challenges as well as opportunities (Photo: Urban75).

The Student Tuition Fee Protests in 2010 is the only one of my case studies (the others are the Gordon Riots (1780), the Hyde Park Railings Affair (1866), and the Battle of Cable Street (1936)) that I lived through and participated in. I have my opinions about the issues contested in each of the other case studies, but researching events that you yourself experienced is very different. I was a second year undergraduate in late 2010, my younger sister would be affected by the proposed increased fees, and I cared very much about what happened. Reading through tweets from the four days of protest in London brought back a lot of emotions; the desire to do something; hope that we could make a difference, disbelief that anyone thought the proposals were a good idea; betrayal at the Liberal Democrats’ U-turn; anger at those who dismissed students as ignorant, lazy and apathetic; all soured by the knowledge that we didn’t change anything. Compounding this is the tendency people have to be more arrogant and abrasive on the internet than they ever would be in person. Because of this some Tweets were quite offensive, and it was hard not to take it personally. I found myself fighting the urge to reply to some of the most irritating Tweets, repeatedly reminding myself how strange it would be to get a reply to something written 6 years ago. Reading the tweets caused me to re-live many of the feelings I experienced back in 2010, which meant that this research was often quite draining emotionally.

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Some tweets expressed extreme opinions, which I often found difficult to read.

One of the biggest problems I have faced so far in my PhD research is that the further back in time you go, the less archival material there is which records the perspectives and experiences of ordinary people. This is a challenge for many historical researchers, but it has been particularly difficult for me because the wealthy elites don’t tend to be the people participating in protest and dissent. The internet is relatively accessible, with only 11% of British adults having never used the internet (Office of National Statistics, 2015). This does not mean that 89% of British people use Twitter, but it does give me the opportunity to see what ‘ordinary’ people were saying about the protests, which is a rare treat for me. Twitter revealed some wonderfully fine-grained details about the protests and what it was like to be there. For example, a woman called Rosie McKenna broke her glasses and hurt her leg whilst being kettled by police on the 9th of December. It was great to be able to develop such a clear picture of what it was like to be part of the protests, rather than having to rely heavily on imagination.

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Twitter preserves the experience of protesting in finer detail than traditional archival sources.

Another aspect of the research that I really enjoyed was seeing how various processes present in my other case studies played out through this modern technology. A common feature of protests and social movements is conspiracy theories; people speculate about who the ‘real’ organisers of a protest event are, or who might be manipulating the course of events to suit their own aims. The Gordon Riots, for example, were blamed on the American, Spanish or French governments. Scholars have argued that these theories developed because at that point it was not generally believed that the lower classes were capable of organising themselves in such a manner; they need someone to tell them what to do (Leon, 2011; Tackett; 2000). Conspiracy theories persist, however, despite modern society holding a less patronising view of the working and middle classes.One of the best known events of the 2010 Student Protests was the occupation of 30 Millbank, the building in which the Conservative Party campaign headquaters were housed. The response of the Metropolitan Police on this occasion was rather slow and inadequate. The most likely explanation is that they were surprised by the strength of feeling amongst the protesters, and had not prepared for trouble on that scale. However, it was suggested by some Twitter users that the police had deliberately responded slowly, because policing was facing its own budget cuts under the austerity regime, and wanted to demonstrate their usefulness to the government. The saying ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’ springs to mind…

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Twitter gives modern conspiracy theories related to protest a new platform on which to be transmitted and debated.

After a long period of writing, I really enjoyed getting to doing some research again, and exploring a new source of data. Working with Twitter was tiring, physically as well as emotionally (I had to take regular breaks because of the strain on my eyes), but also very rewarding. It has provided me with evidence to back up my arguments, as well as leading me to develop some new ones, and I feel like my PhD will be stronger because I tried this new (to me) research method.

Sources and Further Reading

León, Pablo Sánchez. “Conceiving the Multitude: Eighteenth-Century Popular Riots and the Modern Language of Social Disorder.’ International Review of Social History 56, no. 3 (2011): 511–533.

Tackett, Timothy. “Conspiracy Obsession in a Time of Revolution: French Elites and the Origins of the Terror 1789–1792.” The American Historical Review, 105, no. 3 (2000): 691–713.

The AAG: Why Did I Sign Up For This?

The Chicago skyline from the top of the Willis Tower, the tallest building  in the Western hemisphere.

The Chicago skyline from the top of the Willis Tower, the tallest building in the Western hemisphere (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Last week, I attended the Annual Meeting of the American Association of Geographers, otherwise known as the AAG. Probably the biggest Geography conference in the world, the AAG continues to grow every year and this year over 9000 delegates gathered in Chicago for the 5 day event. It was my first time attending the conference, and although I had a fantastic time I did find the whole thing a little overwhelming at times. Amongst everything, it is easy to forget why you’re there in the first place. I decided to put this post together of what I believe are the 3 main purposes of going to a large international conference like the AAG, so you can reassure yourself when you find yourself asking the question, which you almost certainly will at some point, ‘Why did I sign up for this?’

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A welcome sign at the AAG (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

  1. Present. And/or organising a session. Although you don’t have to present your work when you go to a conference, it seems a bit daft to fly all the way over the Atlantic Ocean and not present. Each presenter at the AAG only gets 20 minutes for their talk, including questions, so it really isn’t a big commitment. Presenting allows you to share your work with, and get feedback from, people outside your normal academic circle, which can be incredibly helpful. Presenting at such a prominent conference also allows you to stake your claim to your research topic, to make sure other people know what your research involves. Plus, it can actually be quite fun- you might actually enjoy yourself!

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    Yours truly presenting a paper on the Battle of Cable Street (Photo: Innes Keighren).

  2. Network. The sheer size of the AAG makes it a unique opportunity for networking, particularly for international contacts. Some really big names in Geography attend the AAG, and it can be a great chance to introduce yourself (I was sat behind David Harvey in one session, although I didn’t say hello!) If you are thinking about publishing your work, many publishers have booths in the exhibition hall, and a lot of journal editors also attend, so there are plenty of people to talk to about your ideas. It is a great chance to meet other PhD students, and catch up with existing friends who you haven’t seen since the last big conference. A PhD can sometimes be a lonely experience, so I like to take every chance I get to socialise with other people in the same boat.

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    My business cards, an invaluable networking tool! (Photo: Hannah Awcock)

  3. Learn. My final purpose of going to a large international conference is a bit cheesy I know, but I think it’s a really important one. Conferences are a great chance to find out the latest ideas, theories and concepts in geography and your particular field. As I said, some of the biggest names in Geography attend the AAG, so it’s a great chance to hear them speak, and learn directly from them. Plus, it gives you the chance to ask questions about things you don’t understand, which you can’t do when reading a journal article or book. You can develop your own current projects by listening to others, and perhaps even get some ideas for future projects.

And if all that wasn’t enough to convince you to go along to the next AAG, the 2016 meeting is being held in San Francisco, so if you’ve always wanted to see Alcatraz or the Bay Bridge, then why not squeeze in a massive international conference whilst you’re at it?