A geographical inspiration

A PhD is very much a marathon and, no matter how interesting or ground-breaking your research may be, maintaining momentum over three, or even four, years can be difficult.

Geographical inspiration - a Santorini sunset (Picture source: author's photograph).

Geographical inspiration – a Santorini sunset (Picture source: author’s photograph).

I began my university ‘career’ as a mature student, only embarking upon a BSc geography degree in my early/mid thirties, going straight onto an MSc in Environmental Management and Sustainable Development and, after a slight hiatus, embarking upon my PhD.

I recall one lecturer imploring us callow 1st–year Bachelors during one of those group lectures attended by the entire year’s intake – BSc physical geographers, BA human geographers, BSc geographers, BSc environmental scientists, BSc GIS-ers – that, during the course of our degrees, ‘you’ve got to do what you’re interested in, otherwise you’re wasting everybody’s time, especially yours’. Or something along those lines, anyway.

So I did. I managed to pursue several interests during the course of my geography degree, covering everything from cultural geography to post-socialism to vulcanology to quaternary environmental change. My dissertation was about the semiotics of the car.

It was during my MSc that I became further interested in, and pursued subjects on, the environment, climate change and low carbon mobility, with my thesis concerning the environmental impacts of football supporter transport.

I am currently in the final throes of writing up my PhD on socio-cultural regard for the car and the potential impacts of this upon an uptake of low carbon vehicles. Writing about cars and the environment, washed down with a large slug of philosophy – marvellous. At least, in theory.

Actually, it is marvellous – I wouldn’t swap it at all. I’ve spent the last three-and-a-bit years thinking, reading, writing on and around subjects I’m passionate about and, looking back, it’s been brilliant; throw in all the conferences and the contacts with other academics and postgraduates – in person and via the twittersphere – and it’s been a cracking experience. It hasn’t all been plain sailing though.

All postgraduate researchers struggle at some point, hitting practical, philosophical and analytical walls. These walls can take some climbing, and no matter how capable we are, or how immersed or interested in our research we may be, doubts can rise, morale can flag and confidence can wane.

I’ve suffered bouts of that recently, feeling a bit thick at times. I’m sure I’m not the only one. When you live 120 miles away from uni, it can all feel a bit solitary too.

Anyway, a week or so back, a picture appeared in my twitter timeline. It was a retweet by Bangor University’s geography department (@BUGeography) of a tweet posted by the geography department at St. Edmund’s School in Salisbury (@Stedsgeography).

And repeat... (Picture source: @BUGeography @Stedsgeography)

And repeat… (Picture source: @BUGeography; @Stedsgeography)

I retweeted it too. I don’t know where St. Edmund’s got the picture from, whether it was sourced or created, but thanks anyway guys. For some reason, @BUGeography’s retweeting of it woke me up a bit. Just in time for a run of colloquia and conferences, I’m adopting it as a mantra during my writing up – ‘this is my new jam’, as some would say.

So begone, doubt! I am a geographer. I am encouraging others to think a bit differently. I do know my stuff.

And, despite what you may feel sometimes, so do you.

I’m getting on with it – first full draft here we come!

Black and white and read all over

Last weekend, I joined 27 postgraduates and academics for the Royal Geographical Society Social and Cultural Geography Research Group’s ‘Reading and Writing Weekend’, held at Gregynog Hall, approximately 6 miles north of Newtown, in Powys.

Gregynog Hall - a place to read and a place to be read (Pictue source: author's photograph).

Gregynog Hall – a place to read and a place to be read (Pictue source: author’s photograph).

Having booked my place late, I would also arrive after most of the attendees on the Friday, due to my presenting at the Regional Studies Association Early Careers Conference in Manchester that afternoon. No matter; with Manchester Piccadilly station only two minutes walk away from the conference venue, I could easily pop onto a train down to Newtown (and grab some reading time too!) before then getting a taxi to Gregynog Hall itself. However, somewhere between Welshpool and Newtown, a huge bang followed by a massive shuddering of the carriage and the sound of cracking brought the train to a halt, seemingly in the middle of nowhere.

Blimey. What the hell was that!??!!?

It transpired that we’d hit some cattle on the line, ultimately stranding the train for over an hour and a half. While obviously a far from ideal situation (livestock and rolling stock aren’t a good mix), it must be said that the Arriva Trains Wales staff were tremendous, doing all they could to both keep us informed and get the train moving again. Having tweeted about the accident so as to let others already at Gregynog know that I’d be later than planned, I was also able to provide updates to our progress via twitter – despite an intermittent phone signal – to a stranger who was meant to collect someone on the train from a station further down the line and who’d picked up on my tweet. Alighting at Newtown just after 10pm, I tweeted a final update when the train departed and, with my good deed for the day done courtesy of the wonders of the twittersphere, I finally managed to reach Gregynog Hall where supper had been kept warm for me. And the bar was still open too!

I recommend the Blayney’s Ale, by the way.

A civilised reading space (Picture source: author's photograph).

All very civilised (Picture source: author’s photograph).

The reading on this weekend wasn’t just limited to academic texts. With acres of dark wood panelling, big leather sofas, stone-walled spiral staircases and a brilliant library, Gregynog Hall is a marvellously evocative building, invoking a real ‘affect’ that can be perhaps best described as somewhat ‘Agatha Christie’ – a cue for lots of references to candlesticks and lead piping over the weekend.

Having ascended said stone spiral staircases for the introductory seminar after breakfast, we were placed into four groups to discuss the sets of journal papers we’d all been assigned to read, before reconvening to discuss them more widely; fittingly, my group – led by Peter Adey from Royal Holloway University – was despatched to the library for the Saturday reading sessions pertaining to ‘Identity & Interaction’ and ‘Mobility & Migration’. These sessions were interspersed by lunch, afternoon tea (and cake!) and seminar sessions on academic writing and on the philosophy and rationale of the Social and Cultural Geography Research Group itself, entitled Why Social and Cultural Geography?

It was during this session that the clock on the wall of the seminar room sprang a surprise as we all noticed that the hands had begun to rapidly spin around the clock face of their own accord. Was this a corollary of a long day’s reading and thinking or, as had been earlier mentioned by some, Gregynog’s apparently haunted reputation? Either way, Saturday evening was a thoroughly civilised round of supper, academic natter, some drinks and a large Jenga.

Gregynog Hall library (Picture source: author's photograph).

Gregynog Hall library (Picture source: author’s photograph).

After a bleary (for some) Sunday breakfast, the rounds of reading discussions continued, this firstly on ‘Pedagogy & Place’ and then on ‘Sustainability & Food’, with another seminar on academic writing in between; however, the logistics of Sunday taxi availability coupled with one train every two hours meant that the latter reading session was missed by some (including myself) who left Gregynog just after lunch, musing on the weekend’s events and encounters as we went.

PhD research can be a lonely furrow to plough, and one of the reasons I (belatedly) decided to attend this reading and writing event at Gregynog was to somehow try and rediscover my academic ‘mojo’ after a recent creative lull. Events like postgraduate conferences and this weekend’s reading and writing session are always uplifting and reaffirming, and are a great way to meet with other postgraduates and learn about their research. Many thanks must go to Sarah Mills from Loughborough University and Rhys Dafydd Jones from Aberystwyth University for organising a great weekend, and also to everyone who attended for making a great weekend.

We must do this again sometime.

Gregynog Hall front elevation (Picture source: author's photograph).

Until next time…? (Picture source: author’s photograph).

A conference pair

I’m not sure if academia has a conference season as such but I’ve had the pleasure of attending and presenting at not one, but two postgraduate events over the Easter period.

The first of these events was the Royal Geographical Society Postgraduate Forum (RGS-PGF) Mid-term Conference, which was held at the University of Birmingham from the 25th-27th of March. An early highlight was being greeted with “You’re the car guy!” at registration – I must have made some kind of impression at last year’s RGS-PGF. Post-registration, the first evening of the conference consisted of a wine reception, plenary welcome speeches and an impromptu curry somewhere in Selly Oak, which went some way to setting conversations and affiliations for the next couple of days.

On the day of the conference itself, a quintet of Coventrians represented both the Department of Geography, Environment and Disaster Management and the Applied Research Centre for Sustainable Regeneration (or SURGE). My presentation about the background and some early findings of my research was one of five in the Transport, Mobilities and Movements session and, thankfully, was seemingly quite well received, prompting a couple of questions and the odd chuckle too. It’s the way I tell ’em, apparently.

The conference must have taken some planning, with 81 presentations over 19 sessions on the day itself, plus a session with 15 poster presentations. With so many presentations and posters, there was something for everyone, which is as it should be – after all, geography is everything and everything is geography. With up to five sessions within each of four ‘blocks’ throughout the day, some clashing was inevitable, though there were plenty of interesting presentations to be had over the day, ranging from Confucian environmental philosophies to the human, material and natural geographies in Svalbard.

Huge thanks and congratulations must go to Megan Ronayne, Colin Lorne and their team – it was a frankly corking postgrad conference, and it was great to catch up with folk from last year’s RGS-PGF again, and to meet new people too. Next year’s hosts have got a very hard act to follow.

The second event in this conference mini-season was the Tyndall Centre ‘Climate Transitions’ PhD Conference, held at Cardiff University on 3rd-5th of April, and was a very cosmopolitan affair with students from universities all over Europe in attendance. Proceedings were opened with a brilliant lecture by Professor James Scourse of Bangor University on observations and evidence of climate change, which was followed by a session of 26 poster presentations. With 11 paper and 15 speed presentations taking place over just 4 sessions – Land & Water, Energy & Emissions, Coasts & Cities and Governance & Behaviour – it was possible to attend every session, three of which were held on the second day, along with a talk about science communication (particularly blogging) given by Dr Warren Pearce of the University of Nottingham. The second day culminated in a dinner debate about fracking, with speakers from Friends of the Earth Cymru, the Tyndall Centre and a pro-fracking body called No Hot Air, which was … interesting, shall we say. In the end, hands raised in favour of, or unsure about, fracking were rather in the minority.

A souvenir of my adventures (Picture source: authors photograph)

A souvenir of my adventures (Picture source: authors photograph)

My turn to present opened the final day of the conference in the Governance & Behaviour session, where I gave an ever-so-slightly amended version of presentation I’d given at RGS-PGF the previous week. I was pleasantly surprised by the number of questions asked and comments received afterwards, and really quite chuffed at my presentation being one of four ‘best in session’ winners at the conference prize-giving afterwards, netting me a £25 Amazon voucher. The ‘best in conference’ prize deservedly went to Alexandra Gormally from Lancaster University for her presentation about community-owned renewable energy generation in Cumbria.

It was great to meet lots of new people at Climate Transitions and, again, thanks and congratulations must go to the organising committee at Cardiff University – Catherine Cherry, Erin Roberts and Sam Hubble – who, under the auspices of the Tyndall Centre, organised a brilliant and wide-ranging event. An imaginative aspect of the conference was the provision of dedicated mugs to be used during breaks between sessions, and which we were told we could take home afterwards – a brilliant idea!

PhD research can be a solitary experience (especially if one lives 120 miles away from uni…), and I find that the great thing about conferences like RGS-PGF and Climate Transitions is meeting so many other students to learn about each other’s research, share experiences and chew the academic fat, even if I do feel a bit thick sometimes. As postgrads, we’re perhaps all kindred spirits, with the same problems and same joys inherent within PhD research, and coming together at conferences like RGS-PGF and Climate Transitions is palpably uplifting – indeed, the ‘fizz’ of ideas and potential around Birmingham and Cardiff was almost tangible. It was all very inspiring, reassuring and (re)affirming; re-energising, even.

And so, suitably re-energised and with morale duly boosted after two conferences in a fortnight, I feel like I’m more than ready to get back to work – well, maybe just after this next brew in my new mug…