By Louie Bell, Third Year Geography
As I put the finishing touches to my dissertation in the last few weeks, I went back and read the first essay I wrote after arriving at Bristol, the infamous ‘Mayhew essay’ that challenges first-years to examine the trajectory of the discipline and consider the implications for present and future Geographical study.
Arriving in that old department and immediately trying to wrangle some weighty and wordy interpretations of a discipline that you haven’t yet gotten your teeth into is never an easy feat. I read over it the other day, laughing at my failure to grasp Harvard referencing and cringing at the convoluted quasi-academic writing style that read more like an A-level AQA textbook.
However, reading it also made me think about how we study Geography nowadays in these new and unexpected social and spatial landscapes we face under lockdown. In particular, that tricky question of how to define Geography must rear its head as soon as one begins to think about tracing the past, present and future.
Regardless of the actual definition you choose of the discipline – for which I think every Geographer should be well-prepared to argue – I think it has more relevance in thinking about how the way we actually study Geography has changed, most notably in the past year.
The present study of Geography at Bristol is likely characterised by students craning over laptops whilst cooped up in family homes or University houses with weary and screen-tired eyes, potentially dodgy wi-fi complicating zoom calls and online lectures, computers whirring as if they’re about to take off as R scripts print out endless red error messages to the console.
Not that this is anyone’s fault, it’s merely a product of COVID-19 induced lockdown-learning, of which the inevitable stresses every student, parent and teacher will be aware. The gentle hum of discussions in the Haggett has become the occasional group-chat message, the familiar faces in the Peel lecture theatre has become an array of faceless circles in Blackboard Collaborate or Zoom.
It’s in stark contrast to the fond memories of field trips and misadventures recounted to some of us as at a recent alumni event by Bristol Geography alumni. Many of us were intrigued to hear stories of student trips to Cheddar Gorge, PhD research in Spanish caves, fond memories of nosing around in dusty archives and map rooms before a drink in the Refectory (now Browns).
For these alumni, the recurrence of field trips, library sessions and laboratory work were a recurring theme when asked how they remember ‘doing’ Geography. The key spatial nodes of their learning experience were field days and trips out and about to locations around Bristol or further afield.
It’s this contrast that leads me to consider how for all of us the study of Geography has now become a distinctly ‘indoor’ phenomenon.
Of course, the study of Geography is by no means a ‘man on the land’ discipline, inherently requiring such aspects of practicality that traditionalists such as William Morris Davis believed in – and we should also recognise that the distinction of ‘man’ here bears no resemblance to the post-Grace Reeves world of Geography at Bristol…
“We find ourselves realising how much Geography can be ‘done’ without stepping a foot into the field“
However, I wonder if our current experience of Geography, confined to our chairs, desks and homes, spread all across the world, marks a new turning point for a generation of Geography graduates, as we find ourselves realising how much geography can be ‘done’ without even stepping a foot into the field.
For this year’s round of dissertations, not one sample has been taken, not one interview conducted outside of a home or house. Instead, we have committed ourselves to the internet and the space in which we conduct Geography is likely instead a spatial network within our own homes. In this environment, key spatial nodes may include the office/bedroom, the loo, the sofa, or for me, the space you wait as the kettle boils for the umpteenth time in the day.
How we occupy the online spatial/social networks may have changed to a lesser extent, but might feature an intensification in use of virtual breakout rooms, online study spaces, forums, messageboards and search engines. Discussions, analysis and interpretation all move to an online space, and the option to more readily remain faceless and voiceless inevitably alters the dynamics of who speaks up, who writes, who suggests and who drops out of communication.
“In contrast to the potential levelling of the playing field provided by an ‘indooring’ of Geography, this new way of studying invariably poses questions regarding unequal access to and the opportunities within the online space in which we now practice Geography”
Indeed, such a change may further entrain or create new imbalances for those who can’t access such online spaces due to issues with technology, or those whose living space and commitments has implications for the way they operate online. For example. young carers, those with intermittent wi-fi connections or those without access to the technology that online study demands. Their physical space is intrinsically connected to the online space in a way that may remain invisible to their peers and staff, and severely limit the level to which they can engage with the course.
In contrast to the potential levelling of the playing field provided by an ‘indooring’ of Geography, this new way of studying invariably poses questions regarding unequal access to and opportunities within the online spaces in which we now practice Geography.
For those who would doubt the extent to which a generation of geographers could be affected by a year indoors, I would point you to the skills that many have had to develop in GIS, remote operations and communications. If they choose not to set off on a Master’s programme, then the skills they have developed (and take to the workplace) are likely to be profoundly different to that which they may have otherwise made use of.
Thinking back to that first essay we all wrote in first year and how we trace the threads connecting different interpretations of Geography over centuries or more, it makes me wonder how the ‘indooring’ over the past year might indeed have set the course for another century of Geographical thought.
Whereas past Geographers battled the dilemma of what happens to Geography once every contour or border is filled in on the map, I would argue that following this year, the question becomes what happens to Geography now that what we might choose to write about the world is now out there on a web page, in an archive, or extractable with a well-written R script.
Plenty of information still lies out there in the field, but as Universities and Governments entertain the possibility of facilitating more work-from-home and study-at-home schemes, then I wonder if Geographical thought and practice will linger in the online spaces and continue to occupy new virtual networks.
How will that play out? Well, regardless of what we think, perhaps only the geographers at Bristol writing their ‘Mayhew essays’ in 2121 will be able to answer it. Well, provided they turn up to the lectures in those abominably hungover, quite terrifying and madly exciting first few weeks at University.
Header image: Emile Perron // Unsplash