Simon Batterbury - Current Staff 2010

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.