Summing Up Geography @ 50 Research Forum, 8 Oct, 2010
A few remarks to round off an excellent day of talks on geographical topics by our alumni and staff.
I arrived in what was then SAGES in 2004, from the USA. I have worked at many different universities, and at each of them, geographers have had their challenges. For example at Brunel University in London in the 90s, our small group lacked enough students or status, and the Department was sadly axed. I have also been in Departments in important universities with too many large egos working in a poisonous atmosphere. At Arizona for example, where my first planning day was chaired by a conflict mediation specialist, disagreements across the positivist divide continued for some years (and have only recently been overcome).
At Melbourne, the major problem over the last 50 years seem to have been overcome, but they have been serious. There have been frequent changes of name and organizational unit. In restructuring the university over the last five years, senior administrators and consultants were unsure what to do with a discipline that straddles the natural and social sciences. Where should it be housed and what should geographers be teaching? After I arrived, and after a few months of normality, from 2005 to 2007 SAGES saw many changes (our name changed twice in this time, as well as our Faculty), and sadly there have been many departures and retirements to accompany these changes. Despite all the diversions, which were traumatic for those involved, there are several reasons that Geography has endured and prospered at the University of Melbourne.
1. Being Good
The prime reason is that we have kept up good research and teaching, as well as promoting international recognition of the Department. The discipline has never been large on campus, but it has always been well known, and it needs to remain so. Also as Michael Webber – himself instrumental in geography’s status and reputation since the 1980s - once told me, international recognition is particularly important when you are based so far from the North American and European axis where many colleagues reside. Excellence also supports the discipline closer to home, among our university decisionmakers and key local partners. The reputation of the Department, past and present, its illustrious alumni including several award winners, professors and Rhodes Scholars, and the reputation of the University itself, have all played a part in this. Our international reputation has also been boosted by actually conducting research overseas, branching out from the local; today we have experts on geographical topics in Vietnam, China, the Anglophone and francophone Pacific, East Timor, the UK, Indonesia, Turkey, francophone West Africa, Cambodia, North America, and New Zealand, to name just a few.
2. Being cross-disciplinary
Geography cannot thrive if it is taught and researched in isolation from other disciplines. In Australia this is because of its small size and junior role in school curricula, and this is reflected in university student choices where we get good, but not all that many, undergraduates. Despite ample skills and knowledge among its practitioners, geography has not emerged as a central discipline for policymakers. Even environmental and climate management are multidisciplinary fields, and geographers have to jostle for recognition despite their visible expertise and large number of PhD graduates. To overcome this, geographers have to ask questions beyond their own academic purview, and maintain strong transverse links to boost research and teaching programs. This has been particularly evident at Melbourne, with strong and established links on campus to Engineering, to Economics, Architecture and Planning, to Science and the Arts. Staff members have also served in a variety of important university management positions. Research collaborations have been forged around issues like river health and hydrology, urban studies, industrial restructuring, adaptation to climate change, the contemporary Chinese economy, and coastal processes – rather than resting on more insular disciplinary topics. Our publications in the recent ERA exercise and funding achievements reflect such areas. Recently the University has developed cross-disciplinary Institutes for research that actively promote interdisciplinary collaboration – this is a model for the future, as issues like climate change and energy systems dominate our thinking. We now host national research networks, particularly for climate change adaptation. Michael Webber established a successful interdisciplinary Development Studies masters program. I currently run the interdisciplinary Master of Environment, now the 11th largest Masters program on campus and geography plays a major role in teaching our postgraduate subjects.
3. Being nice
The range of research presented at Geography’s 50th Anniversary event, and the reminiscences from alumni, remind us of the range of geographical expertise and just how broad our curriculum and training has been over the last 50 years. Great thanks are due to the organizers of these events, particularly Ruth Fincher. It is an old adage that all academics are clever (at least we hope so), but unfortunately only a few are consistently pleasant and consultative with each other, particularly in research institutions like ours where personal rewards come largely from individual research success. But being “nice” is the “hidden factor” in Departmental success. It established trust with outsiders and insiders, helps recruit students, and actually enables good group and individual reputations. It may also increase workloads of course, but that is another story. Geography at Melbourne has endured many organizational changes in part because the staff have chosen to work together, rather than to prioritise their own careers and interests in isolation. This is vital, and it is also financially viable, if you examine our successful group teaching and research funding. The collaborative record of the last 20 years, and certainly since I first came to Melbourne 6 years ago, is very positive and we have all remained on good terms, even if some of our previous alliances outside the group have not been positive. We have also kept up, though thick or thin, a range of events that keep communication open. These include a Department seminar series, as well as a weekly social gathering. In the human geography reading group, vitriolic remarks about fellow geographers tend to be reserved for the authors we are discussing, rather than each other!
I hope we continue to make progress on all three of these areas above over the coming years. Happy Anniversary.