Outside edge

  • Written by  John Barker & Emma Wainwright
  • Published in Opinions
University lecture hall University lecture hall Matej Kastelic
06 Mar
2015
One of the most likely outcomes of the recent results of the 2014 UK Research Excellence Framework (REF) – the system for assessing the quality of research in UK higher education – is institutional reform and reorganisation

The location of geography in universities – in terms of both teaching and research – will not be immune to these changes

Geography is a continually evolving discipline, both in relation to its subject content and its institutional configuration within schools and higher education. Although debates about the state of geography are as old as the discipline itself, evidence from UK university departments has highlighted its vulnerability. Undergraduate recruitment to UK geography programmes has fluctuated, linked closely to the subject’s perceived economic and disciplinary value, as well as its place and popularity in the national curriculum. A number of geography undergraduate programmes and academic departments have closed in recent years, while others have faced being merged into larger units. These shifting fortunes of academic geography are not limited to the UK, with the USA, Australia and elsewhere experiencing the closure of university-level programmes.

Complex and multiple reasons for these developments in the discipline include the fluctuating interest in geography in schools, focus on the REF, and an increasing focus on interdisciplinarity, and changing political and economic contexts. The ‘neoliberal’ university’s emphasis on marketisation and pervasive audit culture, epitomised in the UK by the REF and National Student Survey, have dramatically changed the terms of engagement in academia and have transformed what it means to be an academic.

Geographers, with a broad range of ways of working and seeing the world, are uniquely positioned to contribute to a variety of other disciplines

As we deliberate here, the ‘neoliberal’ university has increasingly become a place of uncertainty and insecurity for many geographers. Frequent institutional reorganisation means it can no longer be assumed that academics reside in their disciplinary unit of training and research.

Following restructuring, geographers at Brunel University London, for instance, are now located within, and have contributed to, a broad range of subject areas, including Civil Engineering, Education, Social Work and Environmental Studies. Successive rounds of reorganisation have meant some of us have been located in three different subject areas over a ten-year period. Like us, many other geographers are having to define their place in higher education at a time in which their identity cannot be drawn upon by their institutional location as they are not employed within named geography departments.

In our experience, this presents numerous opportunities as well as challenges. Geographers, with a broad range of ways of working and seeing the world, an expertise of a variety of local, national and global contexts, and a wide variety of technical skills, are uniquely positioned to contribute to a variety of other disciplines. Many universities have promoted interdisciplinarity through cross-disciplinary research units, centres and programmes. While this is often encouraged, the crossing of disciplinary boundaries can prove unsettling for individuals. One challenge is to combine these institutional pressures while defending and reaffirming our identities, and developing disciplinary capital as geographers. Our dilemmas relate to where to publish (geography journals or publications in other disciplines?), which conferences to attend, and how we might contribute to teaching on non-geography programmes.

Our institutional position outside of geography has enabled us to obtain funding and work collaboratively with youth workers and education scholars to evaluate secondary school and further education provision, and to shape local educational policies. The career paths of numerous other academics are examples of this, including Professor Tim Hall, a geographer at the University of Winchester, who is located within Humanities and Social Studies, teaches sociology, and writes on pedagogy and education in geography journals as well as publications from other disciplines.

We urge the discipline to recognise and engage with the increasing number of academic geographers who work outside of formal geography departments

The Economic and Social Research Council has identified that human geography research is used by a range of disciplines as well as organisations outside of academia, and that its interdisciplinary nature makes it ideal in allowing ‘for the exchange of innovations beyond the discipline’s boundaries’.

These examples show that geography is not only practiced as an academic discipline through named geography departments and is not just taught through geography degrees. We urge the discipline to more fully recognise and engage with the increasing number of academic geographers who work outside of formal geography departments. This requires greater acknowledgement of the innovative and cutting edge work that is done ‘beyond’ its conventional disciplinary borders, academic departments and programmes.

Wherever you are in a university, there is a geographer near you.

John Barker and Emma Wainwright are lecturers at the Centre for Human Geography, Brunel University London.

This story was published in the March 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine

Share this story...

Submit to FacebookSubmit to Google PlusSubmit to Twitter

Related items

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox every Friday.

Subscribe Today

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth UniversityUniversity of GreenwichThe University of Winchester

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

DOSSIERS

Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • The Air That We Breathe
    Cities the world over are struggling to improve air quality as scandals surrounding diesel car emissions come to light and the huge health costs of po...
    The Nuclear Power Struggle
    The UK appears to be embracing nuclear, a huge U-turn on government policy from just two years ago. Yet this seems to be going against the grain globa...
    Diabetes: The World at Risk
    Diabetes is often thought of as a ‘western’ problem, one linked to the developed world’s overindulgence in fatty foods and chronic lack of physi...
    National Clean Air Day
    For National Clean Air Day, Geographical brings together stories about air pollution and the kind of solutions needed to tackle it ...
    REDD+ or Dead?
    The UN-backed REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) scheme, under which developing nations would be paid not to cut dow...

MORE DOSSIERS

NEVER MISS A STORY - follow Geographical

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in OPINIONS...

Opinions

Taking a wider look at Brexit from a geography standpoint

Opinions

The blockade of imports into Qatar by its Gulf neighbours…

Opinions

Is it time for a new and radical approach to alleviating…

Opinions

Plastic-free aisles in our local supermarkets may just be key…

Opinions

As reports of tourists being fed dog meat in Bali…

Opinions

The idea of rewilding boar into the UK’s landscapes is…

Opinions

2017 is the Chinese year of the chicken. This year, the…

Opinions

Despite the many claims of authenticity, modern filmmaking is still…

Opinions

With medical (and especially dental) tourism on the rise, Vitali…

Opinions

More drugs than you might think are derived from, or…

Opinions

The growth of cities is one of the defining challenges…

Opinions

On a long-awaited return to Ukraine, Vitali Vitaliev finds a…

Opinions

The world is changing, but one thing stays the same…

Opinions

We live in an age where awe and wonder at the…

Opinions

$150million. That is the estimated black market value of the…

Opinions

How many other species do we share our planet with?…

Opinions

Geography – both physical and human – can help people…

Opinions

Whether anthropogenic climate change began over 8,000 years ago or within…

Opinions

Could artificial dams, placed at the heads of glaciers be…

Opinions

What does a life outside the European Union mean for…