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A message to new geography undergrads from a university lecturer: ‘In this time of crisis, there is opportunity’

  • Written by  Dr Frances Darlington Pollock
  • Published in Opinions
A message to new geography undergrads from a university lecturer: ‘In this time of crisis, there is opportunity’
16 Jun
2020
Dr Frances Darlington Pollock, a lecturer in population geography at the University of Liverpool, shares her thoughts about the opportunities facing new geography undergraduates despite these disruptive times

Many of you have faced significant upheaval and disruption to your studies and for some, you will be looking to the beginning of your university career this autumn with more than a little of the usual trepidation. But in this time of crisis, there is opportunity. Opportunity that may, as aspiring geographers, be welcome.

We are living in unprecedented times, sparked by a global health crisis and the threat of impending global economic recession. Issues of social and racial justice have surged into the forefront of public and media attention and for some, the possibility of change glimmers. So what does this mean for you as an aspiring geographer? Your studies may have been disrupted, but the opportunity to critically engage with geographically relevant issues has not. 

So what is a geographer? Someone who wants to understand the world around them, the physical, the social, the interactions between people and environments, people and politics, people and places. Contrary to what some might say, we know you have been taught more than how to colour in maps, and you know far more than how to describe this river bend, or the population size of that city. But now is the time to practice some new skills, ones that do not need either your old teachers or even your new lecturers.

As the geographers of tomorrow, you will be the ones structuring and defining debates of real world issues. You will draw on the experiences over your life to inform your opinions, themselves shaped and moulded by the new ideas, theories and arguments you will be exposed to. But in this time of flux, why wait for tomorrow to begin to dissect the world around you? What sort of questions are you burning to ask and how can you develop an informed opinion on the matter?

There are a number of ways you can do this. First, get critical with the information you are exposed to. Every day, we are flooded with information: Twitter, Facebook, the radio, blogs, magazines, newspaper articles, documentaries, and even the conversations you have with your friends and families. Your day-to-day interactions with the internet can be an invaluable source of information, offering insights into key geographical debates about inequality, environmental change, activism, population change, and culture. But what, if anything, can we take at face value? Is there a hidden agenda to the tweet you just liked, the blog you shared, or the documentary you binged? So how can you begin to interrogate the information you are exposed to, and start to think like a critically engaged geographer?

At University, your lecturers will begin to show you how to read academic journals. It is not a passive act of absorbing information, but an active, responsive, and challenging process. Who wrote it? When did they write it? Why did they write it? Where does it apply to? Who agrees with them? Is there sufficient evidence to support their conclusions? What is the alternative argument? Are there obvious or indeed hidden biases? Though you will have begun to do this sort of thing in your A Levels, this is the sort of activity that should become routine when faced with new information.

Second, ask big questions. Through the course of your A Level studies, you have been introduced to some of the key areas of debate in geography. Climate change, development, cities, environment, inequality. The breadth and relevance of the discipline is what makes it so exciting. Use the knowledge you have already begun to gain to start questioning current events in the world. Build on the critical engagement you now routinely practice as you read the news, listen to podcasts, and browse the web to ask why. You already have some of the building blocks to start understanding, but now use the wealth of information freely available at your fingertips to really delve into these geographical debates. At university, much of this reading will evolve around equipping you with the theoretical tools with which to engage with space and place. But for now, use your continued reading to inform the sorts of questions you want to ask of the world as a geographer.

Finally, think again on what it means to be critical. What kind of world do you want to live in? As you begin to engage more critically with the world around you, interrogating streams of information and asking big questions about core geographic issues, think about what you would do to change it. Through your studies as a geographer you will be exposed to a range of injustices in the world, operating at different spatial scales. Current events are illuminating many of these injustices. Whether it is a few months or a few years before you begin your academic career, you can already begin to imagine the sort of geographer you might want to be. But whether this year or the next, you will have already started to think like a critical geographer.

Dr Frances Darlington Pollock is a lecturer in population geography at the University of Liverpool

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