A Radical Geography Community
“…left-wing academics…never test themselves against the market…no matter how much they write for each other, they never find themselves writing for anyone else” (Alan Wolfe, 1996: 25 – Marginalized in the middle. Chicago: University of Chicago Press)
This statement doesn’t ring so true today. Increasingly over the last 20 years left-wing academics have been expected to ‘test themselves’, to ‘get out there’, ‘go to market’ and speak to others, and, what’s more, to be able to demonstrate the impact their research has on those audiences. In 2012 it’s far from axiomatic for the state – still the principal funder of higher education research – that knowledge is valuable, in itself. Knowledge, so it goes, becomes valuable when, and only when, some public, somewhere beyond the academy, puts it to use. And thus we’re all (to borrow a line from The Communist Manifesto) ‘exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market’, now, and out there, in the cold beyond the academy, is where strange audiences, unfamiliar publics, and all manner of daunting threats to our autonomy brood. But is it not also where great opportunities for engagement reside? All this ‘impact talk’ is a threat to some sorts of scholarship, to be sure. However, it’s an opportunity for others, an opportunity to discuss ‘broader questions, of accountability and value, and audiences and publics’.
So say Nicky Gregson and her co-writers. The point of departure of their paper, ‘Building bridges through performance and decision-making: Schools, research, and public engagement’, which was recently published in Antipode 44:2 (March 2012), is the contention ‘that the specification of schools as an audience for research council funded research provides an opportunity to think about questions of accountability and value, and audiences and publics. It is an invitation to university-based researchers to think about schools as an audience for their research; about how (their) research might speak to this audience; and about how to engage with schools in the conduct of research. Simultaneously, it is an opportunity for teachers to think about the value of university research, both in the classroom and for their school. Beyond this, the identification of schools with research provides the scope to think about the school-university-geography interface, at least as this is tacitly understood within the research-led and research-intensive universities within the UK’.
Below we catch up with Nicky et al. and speak with them about their paper, and the year-long research-based collaboration with school teachers and their students (involving performance work and the development of decision-making curriculum materials) which it draws on…
1. Why did you decide to write ‘Building bridges’?
Nicky Gregson (formerly at the Department of Geography, University of Sheffield, now at the Department of Geography, Durham University): Hmmm: I would say for a whole slew of reasons. But there wasn’t a decision, as such, to write it, more a question – ‘Was it possible to write something about this process?’ A process which I think I’m right in saying that we all felt mattered a lot for a long period of time. Part of what this paper was about, in the writing, was to make sense of that process. So writing was a means to that – which I don’t think is different to most of the academic stuff I write.
That said, writing an academic-facing paper (which this one is) presupposes that there are certain things one wants to say either to, or which have purchase with, academic audiences. In this instance, that audience is people working in Geography departments in universities – mostly in the UK.
If I think back to when I started to draft it, then, my primary motivations were about saying to that audience that this kind of activity, involving sustained collaboration across the school-university divide and between Geography and the performing arts, is hugely valuable. Not just in and of itself – although there is no doubt in my mind that this was the case (as the buzz of the performance showed), but also to research as process and as product (as we argue). Part of the motivation for saying that, of course, is that this kind of collaboration is still, unfortunately, a minority interest. And if such activities get labelled as purely ‘dissemination’ or ‘public engagement’, rather than Impact, then things are likely to remain like this.
Julie Mackenzie (a geography teacher at High Storrs School, Sheffield): I think it was important to write something about the experience of working out of a school subject department’s comfort zone. By this I mean the opportunity to work with pure Geography, something which had not been experienced since graduate days, was an attractive proposal and then to develop and translate this experience into an applicable format for a school setting was challenging. For geography teachers, we are used to dealing with and adapting diluted teaching materials, but to work more closely with original research which forms a remote basis for those materials is far more exciting. The collaboration was risky in the sense that we did not know where it would/could take us, and in fact it took us into areas well out of the school department’s comfort zones with fantastic results. So it was important to write something about the experience to demonstrate to other school teachers and their departments that collaboration with Higher Education is very much a valuable experience. Indeed, we engaged in another collaboration with the Waste of the World project the following year, and following that other members of the department have engaged with other projects.
Juanita Shepherd (the coordinator of the Sheffield and District Branch of the Geographical Association): I took my lead from the academics and Julie at High Storrs School as my role was primarily as ‘matchmaker’. I am incredibly proud of what the teachers and the academics did and I had no hesitation in becoming involved in the writing of the paper as it reinforces the impact of the intended and unintended outcomes from this work. Now this paper is published I fervently hope that others will be inspired to cross the academic divide and bring their work in to schools. Persevere, don’t give up at the first hurdle, make the most of any contact that you have in schools and make your work known to a wider audience.
Helen Watkins (formerly at the Department of Geography, University of Sheffield, now at the Glasgow Museums Resource Centre): I’m not sure that there was a specific moment of ‘deciding’ to write this article. We were thinking through and writing about a number of aspects of the project and, from what I recall, this paper seemed a fairly natural next step. The ship breaking project generated some really positive and creative relationships – not just between the university and High Storrs School, but also with the ex-servicemen’s association and demolition companies. It became a very meaningful collaborative project as a result, so there wasn’t much question for me that that would be worth exploring in more detail. I guess it mattered personally to reflect on this strand of the project in particular because of the level of personal and emotional investment it inspired. As a researcher who had a high degree of engagement with the various organisations on the ground, writing this paper felt like a way of acknowledging the openness and generosity with which the participants, many of whom were taking something of a risk by working with us, let us gain an insight into their worlds during the course of the research. The motivation for the paper was not just that the project and the partnerships had been tremendous fun (though that was certainly the case), but also that it was important in political and intellectual ways. Research can and does happen in all sorts of places beyond the academy, by all sorts of people, and cross-sector collaboration, though sometimes challenging, can have tremendous payoffs, not just as some kind of optional ‘extra’ to a project but as integral to the conceptualisation, rigor and relevance of a piece of research. This remains the case now that I have moved into the museum service where I continue to work with academics, but this time from the other side of the table as it were!
Nicky: I don’t think there’s one central concern – it’s more layered than that, and the layering of those concerns, or how we see them, is likely to vary between us. For me, the ‘top level’, if I can call it that, is about the value of working with a school in these kinds of ways – and that is part of a much broader commitment to wider public engagement. So – and this is shading into question three already – that’s about a much wider politics of the relation between the academy and the wider world. Part of this is a matter of responsibilities. The work on which this paper is based is funded, ultimately, by the tax payer. I strongly believe that receiving such money to conduct research carries responsibilities of engaging publics in that research, where possible, and that there is an obligation to communicate this research not just in an instrumental or utilitarian or didactic way, but in ways that are accessible and that enable everyone to engage in it and to explore the questions the work might raise. So for me, the importance is that this goes right to the heart of what the academy and universities are (and should be) about – and if that isn’t important right now, I don’t know what is!
Julie: I think the central concerns changed position as we went along. For us initially it was the opportunity for pupils to be involved in fieldwork and looking at the central topic – recycling – on a different scale. However this changed as it became apparent that the research project was very much alive and involved non academics in it. It was then quite an organic process in which two subject areas – Geography and Performing Arts – came together to explore this research through the eyes of the pupils. Then the central concern was about ‘humanising’ recycling as a concept and this involved a wider range of people. For me this involvement of a wider range of people in the project – pupils, support staff, LEA support, teachers, academics, employees at the site and ex naval members – gave the whole venture a bigger community dimension in which barriers were broken down. At the end of the project recycling as a topic definitely had soul and this was communicated to a wider non academic audience.
Juanita: I agree with Nicky that as a tax payer it is extremely important to me that I understand (though not necessarily agree with) where my money is going. I was also concerned to provide a school in the city of Sheffield with the chance to do something truly innovative. So much of what is taught in schools is changing for the better too slowly for numerous reasons. One reason is that teachers gradually lose touch with academic geography as they concentrate on pedagogy. The Princes Trust runs a summer school for teachers where re-engagement fires up innovative teaching and learning. I felt that Waste of the World was a topic (recycling) which schools like to work on (it ticks lots of Education for Sustainability boxes). Once the introductions were over I could just leave the academics and High Storrs School to it. The whole thing took on a life of its own and it was a very powerful experience for me.
Helen: Finding value is one of the central themes for me. I see parallels between the business of ship breaking and our reflections on this collaboration between a university and a school – both are about looking for value in places, and/or through practices, where it might not ordinarily be recognised.
The economic value of materials is the critical value in the business of breaking ships. Some materials are easy to extract, while others need to be winkled out in more laborious ways, but it is often those hard-to-reach elements that make the whole enterprise profitable. The various surveys, tests and calculations that ship breakers rely on are always estimates, and sometimes wildly inaccurate ones, so they try to triangulate between different methods – ultimately, this line of business relies on a fair amount of guesswork and a willingness to take a bit of a gamble. Likewise, our project drew together different ways of understanding a vessel in its life and its death to create a kind of composite view, a triangulation, if you like, of different approaches and perspectives, from the disciplinary perspectives of geography and performance art, but also from the varying viewpoints of academics, educators, children, commercial companies, demolition workers, and ex-servicemen. We discuss how this led to stronger research and show what can be gained from engaging with teaching at secondary school level.
Our approach to public engagement was not about communicating findings that were already ‘done and dusted’ at the tail end of a project, but about entering into an open-ended conversation, uncertain of where exactly it would lead, to explore mutually interesting questions together. Outreach and public engagement are two-way processes in which the academic partners can learn a lot from their collaborators. Working with teachers from different disciplines forced us to think more expansively about the varied ways people engage with the world to make it meaningful, as well as about how to make research relevant, interesting and intelligible to non-academic audiences (something academics are not always very good at). The children also brought fresh insights, particularly with lines of questioning that were sometimes odd, occasionally awkward, but often very illuminating. Theatre techniques breathed life into a topic and made it possible to articulate and communicate ideas in ways that are hard to do in a written form – after all, the vast majority of human communication is neither linear nor textual.
This project came to matter to a lot of people within and well beyond the academy. In many ways it was in the ‘unknowns’ that the best stuff lay – getting at that required flexibility, a bit of lateral thinking, and the willingness to take a risk in order to follow a hunch! We have no doubts that it was worth it.
Nicky: I think I’ve probably already covered the politically bit in the previous question, though it goes beyond that, to include the Verbatim Theatre part of the project, issues of Widening Participation and Community Participation. Personally and intellectually (I find those hard to separate out), it’s also important to draw attention to the topic – recycling – and the object around which, and in relation to which, so much activity occurred. Part of the reason why we sent this piece to Antipode is not just because of what we’ve mentioned so far but because Antipode is not where you’d expect to find a paper that is, in part, about a naval vessel – albeit an old one in the throes of being scrapped. Helen and I both struggled with this at the start of the project. Here we were, doing all this stuff around an object that so many of the readers of Antipode would probably label as a materialisation of British military power and dismiss as an object for research. But we didn’t so much choose this object as have it attach to us – for this is what ship recycling in the UK is about, old military vessels. There is a long complicated story behind that statement, which folk will have to go and read other stuff to find out about. What we wanted to do here though is just what that audience participant says in the paper – to challenge, or at least trouble, nice comfortable, left-leaning views about this. That’s what the Verbatim Theatre project did, through its capacity to bring into view post traumatic stress disorder, military masculinities, and everyday life at sea – the boredom, monotony, violence, fear, and its spatial rhythms. If anyone wants to read any more about this, there’s another paper in Journal of Material Culture (2011) that may be of interest (see here).
Juanita: I care very much that every child in Sheffield is given a quality geographical education. Being able to present cutting edge academic work to them was going to be challenging but worthwhile. The added benefit of being able to reach out beyond each child and into their families and communities was a complete coup!
Helen: I felt drawn to this topic in a number of ways, though, again, perhaps it is more accurate to think in terms of there being a couple of different ‘topics’ under discussion here: one, ship breaking as an industry; another, creative ways of collaborating with schools and other organisations. Learning more about the business of waste was intriguing, as well as sobering. Materials sorting and reprocessing is fascinating – dirty and destructive and, at the same time, ingenious and productive. How dependent all of this is on global market conditions was an eye-opener and raised all sorts of free-market versus interventionist policy questions for me about what is right in political, economic and ethical terms, what is viable for companies operating with tight margins, and how heavy the hand of the regulators should be. No easy answers there.
On a personal level, the project was a real adventure! It exposed me to all sorts of unfamiliar places and lifeworlds – I visited demolition yards around Europe and North America, got access to military bases and government departments, toured floating graveyards of ‘ghost ships’ and even got to have a (short and singularly unimpressive) go at driving a crane. Hanging out with the Navy, with scrappies, with blue collar workers in a heavily male environment brought me into contact with people who, under normal circumstances, I would have little or no contact, and to my surprise and delight I have even stayed in touch with some of them.
In methodological and intellectual terms, the nature of this collaboration, the participatory process and the desire by all the team involved in this paper to explore creative outputs aligned closely with ways of working that I feel instinctively drawn to, so much so that it made me question some of the norms and limitations of academia where these approaches are not always embraced or valued.
4. How does your paper relate to current affairs and matters of concern?
Nicky: Hmmm: well I think I’ve probably already answered that one – and at the risk of giving some of our other work a ‘plug’, there are other papers that look directly at ship recycling as a matter of concern.
Julie: Community Cohesion is an agenda item which schools must demonstrate proficiency in. As to how we do and what it actually means to people is a different thing altogether! However the journey of this project and the performance outcome must surely go a long way to meet this government diktat. At the final performance the audience was made up of pupils, parents, teachers, support staff, industrialists, ex naval employees and their families, and university staff. The overwhelming response was ‘I never realised that this is what happened…It really makes you think…How lucky they are to be studying geography in this way…’ and these conversations were between all different members of the audience not just within the afore-mentioned groups.
Juanita: OFSTED are still concerned that in too many schools children are receiving a sub-standard geographical education. The Education White Paper wants to put geography back at the heart of a good rounded education. If teachers don’t take on board what is happening in geography at higher education they cannot possibly hope to enthuse students and help to create future academic geographers. This paper shows how much more than enthusiasm a project like this can bring to a school and university.
Helen: It is about the value we put on different materials and processes – both in the sense of the physical materials in the scrapyards and global markets of our study, but also the educational materials and pedagogical methods that are used in different spheres of learning. It (or at least the broader project, and the topic at the heart of the performance and teaching pack we discuss) is about the dirty but necessary work of disposal and recycling, about how economics, politics and environmental regulation determine the viability and location of these activities, and why geography matters. Equally, it is about education, about thinking and working in and across different intellectual registers, about who academics might benefit from collaborating with, and about questioning what counts as research ‘outputs’ and ‘ impacts’.
5. What are your paper’s implications for praxis? How can the knowledge you have generated help change or shape the world in progressive ways?
Nicky: two things I’d say here. First, it joins with the participatory tradition, to show how projects with schools can generate research knowledge. In so doing, it shows, I hope, how a more inclusive style of researching can go beyond inclusivity per se to constitute knowledge. That, I think, links the paper to a wider and newly emergent tradition of participatory working which seeks to go beyond engagement for engagement’s sake or activist work. Secondly, this is a co-authored piece in which everyone who contributed to the shaping of the project figures as an author of an academic paper. There is a politics of authorship and the academy which this speaks to, which is still visible – ‘thanks to x and y for research assistance’. But more than this, what I hope this paper signals is that a more inclusive process of authoring and researching can generate better understandings of the workings of the academy; of the value of the academy; and of how schools and universities might connect.
Julie: Before the National Curriculum was brought into schools, subjects had far more freedom to work together. This project allowed this to happen. Other staff who knew about the project and indeed saw the performance wanted to take up this kind of collaboration, albeit on a small scale. So Art and Geography worked together on another recycling project with the university, but this time with a member of staff who had rather a cautious approach to this way of working. The success of this project spurred that member of staff to take up an opportunity to work with another school and another university in real high risk project –community personal geographies as defined by the pupils themselves! Another member of the department also got involved with the BBC on a creative project. Within our Humanities faculty a History teacher secured European funding to work with pupils and members of the community on a photography project. I think the project we did showed people in my school that it is possible to work outside of your comfort zone and that if you do there are great rewards and personal satisfaction for yourself and also your pupils.
Juanita: I had to look up a definition of praxis. I never used that term when I was studying at university. This shows how disconnected I am from academic geography these days. If what we have written here can help other teachers and academics to start working together then we’ll have rather grandly changed the world for the better.
Helen: It is very powerful watching an ‘output’ from a research project – a project on recycling steel, moreover – move people to both laughter and tears (for entirely the right reasons, I should add!). This was certainly the case with the performance by pupils at High Storrs School. Both cast and audience were highly engaged, found it thought-provoking and went away with new knowledge not only about recycling, but about the broader interconnections between industrial processes and people’s lived experience. It was an openness to a genuinely collaborative way of working and a willingness to take risks that allowed this to happen.
Although I’m not holding my breath for this article to make the world a better place, grand as it might sound, I do think involvement in this particular project did change many of the participants’ lives – in modest way for some, but in ways that were significant and lasting for others. Those involved in a professional capacity, particularly the team who wrote this paper, have found their own working practices and priorities shifting as a result – I think we all went away feeling invigorated and inspired, determined to do more of this kind of work in the belief that it represents a beneficial and progressive way of doing research. We hope others might feel inspired to do the same.
6. What sort of reaction do you hope your paper will get, both within and beyond the academy?
Nicky: That’s a hard question for an author to answer. Papers, as we all know, have a life of their own. And who can tell what reaction a paper is going to get – it just depends. I guess academically it’s pretty humble: that it works as something that’s ‘food for thought’ and ‘thought for practice’. My hope though is more that it encourages others to go down this path. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, it takes oodles of time. But would I do it again? Unequivocally, yes. Actually though, it’s the ‘beyond the academy’ reaction that I’m more interested in – and particularly how a journal such as this one can help a paper’s praxis. Does this kind of ‘talking heads’ medium do it? I’m not sure. Maybe it’ll work for academics, but so often in the writing of this I feel like I’m interviewing myself and in the process typing out a bad interview transcript! And the question I have here about the questions is that they seem to presume an academic writer, an academic audience and the world beyond – so the separation is built in already. Maybe what we should be giving you instead is just a hyperlink to the video of the performance? Or the DVD of the teaching materials that were prepared?
Juanita: I shall be using the citation on my CV and future job applications in the hope that I can be offered a permanent contract and so make future plans for my family!
Helen: Oodles of adoration! Or, more seriously, I hope that readers enjoy it and maybe go away thinking more about why research of this kind and the kind of work it deals with both matter. I hope it makes people pause for a moment the next time they see a ship and wonder about the life, and death and afterlife of objects of this kind. And, I hope it quietly lodges in the back of some people’s minds and encourages them to consider working in partnership with schools … I for one hadn’t realised prior to this how much of a chasm there can be between school geography and university geography. Much as I’d like academics to engage with, reflect on (and, who knows, even be inspired by?!) our experiences, realistically I don’t imagine this paper will have a much of a readership beyond the academy. If I’m honest, what matters for me is less the reaction to this paper either within or beyond the academy, and more what these participants, and potential participants in future collaborations, did and may get out of the process.
7. What sort of audience did you have in mind when you wrote it?
Nicky: a range I guess (although all of them practising academics). For the most part it’s aimed at the sceptics out there – who do think this kind of activity is a waste of time, and/or who think that academic value lies only in the latest paper/book. But it’s also speaking, I hope, to those who have tried to bridge the schools-university divide. Mostly, recently at least, that’s been done in relation to teaching activities or by writing articles aimed at a schools audience. A lot of this has a Big G agenda, if I can call it that. As the paper argues, there are other ways of doing the cross-over – in ways too that are collaborative with other subjects and specialisms.
Juanita: I agree, you’ve said it all.
Helen: It is inevitable that the article assumes a primarily higher education geography audience, simply by virtue of it being written for this journal, but my hope was that it would also be accessible to a broader readership of non-geographers with an interdisciplinary bent (or even a few brave non- or ‘lapsed’ academics, in the unlikely event that any might stumble across it). As well as the importance of trying to speak to the sceptics, as Nicky emphasises, and the likelihood that this would appeal to ‘the converted’ who are already interested in exploring more creative and interdisciplinary ways of working, I’d also be delighted if it had an influence on the ‘mildly curious but slightly hesitant’ who may not have ventured down this kind of path before but a few of whom might just be emboldened enough to take a chance and give something like this a try.
8. What’s your current project? What’s next?
Nicky: finishing the wider project of which this is a part! This is starting to sound like The Guardian’s Saturday supplement! So, tongue in cheek, I’ll tell you when I know!
Juanita: I’m currently working with my job share partner in a local school. We are desperately trying to prove to our head teacher that we are indispensable and that she did the right thing to take such a ‘high risk’ by employing us to cover the extra class for the English Baccalaureate and a part-timer who has left the school.
I am also still heavily involved in the local branch of the Geographical Association and have a few things coming up on the horizon which will involve creating curriculum materials and working with other schools.
Helen: I have moved into the museum sector and am now in a research environment where there are multiple projects on the go, feeding into a wide range of exhibitions, events and publications. Public outputs, collaborative research and community knowledge production are core to most of these projects, though scholarly research and publication remain important strands of the museum’s work too. Both the blessing and the curse of this kind of work is the sheer number of weird and wonderful projects underway at any one time. The down-side is that I don’t get the opportunity to get immersed in a single project in the way I could with this one, or have the same kind of adventures galloping around the world, but the plus, as someone with diverse and eclectic interests, is the variety. Projects I am involved in to varying degrees include documenting the demolition of high rise flats, the history of ultrasound technology, C18th urban growth, contemporary South Asian folk art, Egyptian animal mummies, the ethics of collecting birds eggs and caring for human remains, C17th religious practices, the history of toys and modern bathroom suites. The difficulty is knowing where to start as the museum can be a bit of a sweetie shop and there’s a risk of getting overwhelmed by wanting to study everything.
9. The Joker – what question would you like to be asked?
Julie: Would you do it again? Yes, most definitely.
If so, how? Don’t know I’d change that much – the spontaneity of it provided so many spin-offs that would be unimaginable at the start…
Perhaps being privy to research as it happened and changing your teaching perspectives by looking at a much bigger picture; working with Performing Arts specialists and understanding their way of working, and now using that in my classroom; understanding film making and trusting others to lead-support staff and pupils; and building relationships with the academic world, once tried repeated wherever possible.
Juanita: How do academics and non-academics manage to co-write a serious piece of academic work such as this?
Use an online dictionary to look up the more unfamiliar words!
Helen: Did undertaking this research made you question what you do for a living?
For me, absolutely. I really enjoyed getting kitted out in my hard hat and steel toe-cap boots and spending time with the guys and big machines on demolition sites, which actually made me ponder for a time whether to consider a career in the demolition industry. But in the end, the most important thing this project affirmed was that I wanted to do research targeted at broader audiences than academic research tends to be and I wanted to have more opportunity to communicate that in creative ways. Articles are very much the currency and the measure of the academic, but I am keen to explore other less linear and textual forms of communication too, such as exhibitions, installations, video, performances and workshops. I also want to be able to approach these as methods that are recognised as important in their own right, not just as ‘extras’ or side projects to the bread and butter work of publishing scholarly papers. This proved to be a significant prompt in my move from academia into a museum environment where research is taken seriously but where interdisciplinary collaboration and especially public engagement are the norm rather than exception.
Nicky: A final question: Does your funder value this type of research activity? Answers – offline only!