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Geography’s unique appeal

Geography’s unique appeal Gumpanat
13 Nov
Geography is one of the broader disciplines when it comes to higher education, as demonstrated by this examination of some of its most interesting and distinct undergraduate modules

As they fill in their UCAS forms, students can choose from both the science (BSc) and arts (BA) routes for a degree in geography. Geography is so broadly interdisciplinary; it can qualify as a field for science or art or even serve as a bridge between them.

Nonetheless, geography’s ambiguity can often work against the field – the reorganisation of institutions and departments often annexes the subject to larger, more defined departments such as Environmental Studies, Social Studies and Civil Engineering. Such can put the geographer’s academic identity in question.

Here at Geographical, we laud the multifaceted nature and widespread relevance of geography as a discipline. To celebrate, we have compiled a list of six of the most unique modules available to undergraduate geography students who are starting in the field.


1. Inspiring Landscapes – Keele University

Caspar David Friedrich - Wa
Friedrich's ‘Wanderer above the sea of fog’ is a well-known painting from the Romantic era, when many artists explored human interactions with landscapes (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

It was Proust who said ‘the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes’. The idea of new eyes is central to this cross-curricular module at Keele University. Bringing different disciplines of art together, Inspirational Landscapes encourages students to look at the world through the eyes of geographers as well as the eyes of artists, novelists, poets and explorers. Made for creatives, the course is purely project-based and students are free to draw aspects from their own interests such as music, film and literature into their work.

‘So far, I have not managed to push the envelope to breaking point’ says Dr Peter Knight, the module's convenor. ‘The students have to tie their mountain biking or music or dressmaking somehow back to the key themes of Geography and to the existing Geographical literature, but Geography is a broad church. Nobody has yet come up with a topic in which we can't find Geography’. The module is taught with several sessions run by a practising artist to inject a completely different perspective on landscape, and all the guest lecturers are asked to emphasise how the world can be seen in different ways from different points of view.

Module convenor: Dr Peter Knight, course code GEG-30014


2. Social Geography of Outsiders – University of Glasgow

Barbed wire to keep out syrian refugees (Image: Zoltan Major)

This course offers a geographical perspective on the worlds of those outside mainstream society. Who are outsiders? On this course, outsiders can be individuals or groups who are physically isolated, such as islanders or crofters, or people who are more socially isolated from the mainstream. ‘One message of the course is that anyone can potentially be an outsider depending on the time, space and social circumstances’ says Dr Christopher Philo, the module convenor.

‘Obvious markers of such difference would be based on skin colour, migrant status, gender, age, physical disability, mental disability, sexual orientation, and so on. Some of these "outsiders" might be effectively shunned across all spaces of a society; others might only be shunned in particular spaces’ says Philo.

Social outsiders become the main study of the course. ‘Many outsiders may be subject to more or less overt, more or less savage exclusionary pressures’ says Philo, ‘where the will to exclude can take the form of pushing them away.’ The spatial geography of their exclusion then becomes important, students explore how ‘isolation can be a geographical outcome - a mechanism for managing an outsider who is seen as somehow threatening’.

Module convenor: Dr Christopher Philo, course code: GEOG4066


3. Images of the Earth – University of Exeter

rsz 1113newThe image of the whole Earth from space is perhaps the most obvious contemporary emblem for the ‘Anthropocene’ (Image: NASA)
A picture is worth a thousand words, but what if there are thousands of pictures? In light of the explosion of new ways to visualise the world – such as the use of drones for many kinds of surveillance, or the proliferation of satellite images across all media forms – Images of the Earth explores how geography is a profoundly visual discipline. It is a deconstructive module, with the aim to show how these visual representations can reflect as well as shape our understanding of the world.

‘Such a perspective helps reveal how images of the Earth have never been ‘neutral’ depictions of an already existing world,’ explains Dr Pepe Romanillos, lecturer in human geography and convenor of the module. ‘Rather, it shows how images actively bring worlds into being, whether in the case of maps that helped create colonial territory for 19th century British and French empires or, in the case of photographic institutions like National Geographic (itself a product of colonial times), that package and exhibit ideas about world culture.’

Module convenor: Dr Pepe Romanillos, course code: GEO3129


4. Martian Landscapes – Durham University

av2ccA landslide of ice and dust on Mars’ north polar scarp in 2008 (Image: HiRise, NASA, University of Arizona)
There are landslides on Mars and polar ice caps not unlike our own. This unique module harnesses geographical knowledge of Earth systems towards a richer understanding of the glacial and fluvial processes which have shaped the red planet. To this end, Martian Landscapes gives students the opportunity to input NASA data into GIS frameworks and to study the ‘large’ features of Mars’ surface, such as shapes of valley cross sections and volumes of sediment flushed out by hypothetical megafloods.

A fascinating aspect of this model is the quality of the imagery compared to Earth. ‘It is true and incredible that we can get free imagery of Mars with a resolution of 25cm,’ says module convener Dr Patrice Carbonneau. ‘But the only reason that surpasses what we can get for Earth is geopolitical. There are ethical and privacy issues when Earth-image resolutions drop below 50cm. Obviously this isn’t the case for Mars.’

Module convenor: Dr Patrice Carbonneau, course code GEOG3897


5. Globalisation from Above and Below – University of Leeds

globalisationGlobalisation: the worldwide spread of capitalism (Image: f9photos)
‘Globalisation’ has become one of the most familiar words used to describe the 20th and 21st century. However, this two-part module – Globalisation from Above and Globalisation from Below – are about defamiliarising students with what appears to be a ‘given’ concept. Globalisation is not new and it is not unidirectional.

For most people, globalisation is about the supremacy of large transnational companies over the politics of single, individual states: economy before politics, corporates before countries. ‘In this module we challenge this understanding by asking whether globalisation should be seen primarily as a discursive construct or as an empirical reality,’ explains module convenor Dr Paul Waley. ‘If the former, then we can see globalisation as a rallying cry for contemporary neoliberal capitalism; if the latter, globalisation needs to be considered a long-term phenomenon that has accompanied the historical expansion of European capitalism.’

Globalisation is not the only way, there are less Western alternatives, anti-globalisation and globalisation of the subaltern, too. It is with these alternatives in mind that students then study globalisation from ‘below’. ‘We use China and Chinese activities in Africa and elsewhere in the world as a means of de-centring the North Atlantic focus of so much writing and speechifying around globalisation,’ explains Waley. 

Module convenor: Dr Paul Waley, course code GEOG3025


6. Time and Space – Royal Holloway, University of London

rsz shutterstock 90293944Circular Mayan calendar (Image: Brandon Bourdages)
Together, the words ‘time’ and ‘space’ rarely point towards anything simple. Without a doubt, this module has a challenging and thought-provoking syllabus which encourages students to reconsider seemingly simple assumptions of social life and experience; to question the contemporary ideas about time and space that are taken for granted. It is structured as a survey of changing conceptualisations around a ‘series of episodes’ which have shifted the ways in which time and space are perceived.

‘It is very difficult, for example, to convince students that it is simply not natural to want to know the precise time as expressed in hours, minutes and seconds. That time was not always seen as linear and irreversible,’ says module convenor Dr Mustafa Dikec. ‘These conventions are products of social, cultural, economic and political beliefs and processes, and they, in turn, affect them. Once we start questioning them, rather than taking them for granted or as natural, the importance of space and time for social life becomes evident; we see how the modern world is built upon a set of conventions about time and space; and other possibilities of thinking about space and time open up.’

Module convenor: Dr Mustafa Dikec, course code GG3079 


7. Hollywood and the Post-Industrial City – King’s College London

rsz shutterstock 141740062Derelict automotive factory, Detroit, USA (Image: Linda Parton)
Cities must evolve to survive. As a city stops producing and manufacturing primary goods, it must move into secondary services in order to keep its economy afloat. After the 1950s, most US cities made this transition – consider the fall of Detroit, Michigan, following the slump in car manufacturing and compare it to the post-industrial ideas factory of San Francisco, California.

This is a module which uses film as a close-reading resource as well as an avenue to study the changes in class structure that accompany changes in industry – touching on yuppie, ghetto and gentrification as well as urban social movements such as race representations, feminism and LGBT.

‘Throughout, we will focus on how new trends in on-location shooting, technical innovations (with regards to sound, lighting, digital animation, lighting equipment and so on) and changes in the distribution of film (TV, video and online) have resulted in novel modes of representing the city,’ explains convenor Dr Johan Andersson.

 Module convenor: Dr Johan Andersson, course code 6SSG3074


8. Food, Culture and Society – University of York

beans2Last month, the two food companies Heinz and Kraft merged to a create food giant with sales estimated at £28billion per year (Image: Paul Daniels)
Where does the balance of power lie in the global food chain? What has globalisation done to change our food culture? How is food related to non-communicative diseases and childhood obesity? It is questions like these that Food, Culture and Society will explore in order to plot the broad changes brought about to the food industry in the last few years.

Students explore how these changes in the food industry have impacted the landscape, water cycle, and biodiversity on a global scale as well as the future impacts of increased land competition with biofuels and non-edible resources. Then, the module turns to the consumer. Students look to the impact of the food chain on consumption patterns and health. ‘On the one hand, climate change, population growth, energy production and economy closely interact with food chain activities and food security at large,’ explains module convenor Dr Samarthia Thankappan. ‘On the other hand, the per capita consumption of food – in China for example – is rising significantly especially due to the increased consumption of meat-based diets.’

Module convenor: Dr Samarthia Thankappan, course code ENV00011I 

Are you studying or teaching an interesting Geography module? Let us know by email at [email protected] (include the Subject line ‘Education modules’), or by Twitter at @GeographicalMag

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