Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Undergraduate classrooms as sites of impact at Royal Holloway

The toolsets described below are meant to give undergraduates (and graduates students as well, in the Practising Sustainable Development and ICT4D streams) at Royal Holloway confidence as they step forward to make claims about the social implications and effects of geospatial technologies.  The combination of the two is a means of counter-mapping hegemonies, powerful mapmaking interests, and negative stereotypes in a series of efforts often aimed at ‘changing the world.’ 

Beyond ‘bums in seats’ and the known quantity of tuition that brings in, what is the impact of a manual used in teaching an undergraduate class?  I was approached one year by an administrative staff member asking me to quantify the amount of ‘stuff’ undergrads were taking away from my class, measured in terms of pages.  I could quite happily point to all of the following (at 140 students per year in the first two years; and half that in the third year, you can do the 'impact' math):

My “Manual of Counter-Mapping” (https://www.academia.edu/8361097/MANUAL_OF_COUNTERMAPPING) is mandatory reading for all third year undergraduates enrolled in my course Critical GIS and the Geoweb.  I’ve been approached by some of my students in recent years telling me that they’re often now administered tests of their GIS skills before being granted admission to postgraduate programmes (e.g. MSc in spatial science).  Several others have obtained gainful employment in industry in part through demonstrated knowledge obtained through three years of GIS practical sessions at Royal Holloway.

Written in response to demand for more maps in undergraduate dissertations is “GIS for dissertations”
(https://www.academia.edu/15030342/GIS_for_Dissertations).  This manual is required reading for students considering dissertation topics in their first or second years, but some use it in the third year as well.  The manual goes through increasing levels of sophistication for the use of geospatial technologies in support, and as drivers of, answering undergraduate level research questions.  GIS can thus be seen as a tool ‘after the fact’ for adding maps, or it can be seen as a methodologically sophisticated mode of critical thinking for weaving the very fabric of the dissertation (its data, observations, and findings) itself.

The GPS handbook
(https://www.academia.edu/17308958/GPS_handbook) is another I wrote after conducting a walking ethnography of Egham, the village in which Royal Holloway is situated.  The purpose of the manual is practical, with tips such as the use of GPS, camera, and notebook in conjunction for producing rigour and rich qualitative data towards generating research questions.  It covers several aspects of mapping, including the use of Google Earth for visualising traversed routes in the landscape; alongside suggestions for loading qualitative data into industry standard GIS software.

How to make a map
(https://www.academia.edu/17309008/How_to_make_a_map) is a general purpose guide intended for those who might knock on my door in a rush, stating that they need a map for their paper, book, conference presentation, or what have you.  The guide explains what it takes to make a map, pointing out that ‘quick fix’ solutions such as Google maps often contain no cartography at all.  The cartographer has been announced as dead in recent years (e.g. by Denis Wood), but we demonstrate conclusively in our undergraduate classrooms that not only is this false, it is part of what is becoming a damaging stereotype of the cartographer as someone suspicious, marginal, and at best a ‘hopeful monster.’  Think Ben Whishaw in Skyfall, or the cartographer in the movie Spy Game (Kent, 2015).

We have physical geographers joining the efforts, taking political stances on terrain mapping, tracking, and securitising geospatial technologies. 


Kent, Alexander.  2015.  A Profession Less Ordinary? The Life, Death and Resurrection of Cartography.”  Bulletin of the Society of Cartographers.  48(1&2).  7-16.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Determinism, Environment, and Geopolitics (Hardy v Windfarms)

Anticipating the upcoming Determinism, Environment, and Geopolitics session at the Royal Geographical Society meeting in Exeter, I post some notes and slides stating my position.  The session is structured such that conclusions must emerge through consideration of possibilities discussed in situ, which motivates a certain pre-loading of content.

See Philip Conway's blog post introducing our session for some background on the debate.

My part of the contribution I have entitled "Hardy versus the Windfarms: Tess, Necessity, and the Geopolitics of the Anthropocene"

I begin with consideration of names as expressed in two publications. The first is Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles.

Consider Hardy's map of the fictional 'Wessex' below, a map that is included in all of his major novels.  

It has been noted of Hardy's novels that they map the 'real' territory very closely: 

"Hardy’s Wessex is so familiar that it is hard to realize how odd it is that a novelist should have tied himself by so many strings to a particular tract of territory.  Many novelists have set their scenes in real places, or have written with some features of a familiar landscape always before them.  But Hardy has done something different.  Almost every step taken by his characters is taken along real roads or over real heaths; the towns and villages, the hills, even many of the houses, are identifiable. It is as if Hardy’s imagination could not work unless with solid ground under its feet, with solid objects to be seen around it.  Many of the characters, there is little doubt, contain more or less of one real person, more or less of another, with elements drawn purely from imagination or from the accumulated layers of experience, which comes to much the same thing.  But with the topography, Hardy was rarely satisfied with anything less than a one-to-one correspondence between the fictional and the real"

The slide below reproduces the list of places found in Hardy's novels, mapping them onto their 'real' names.  It also reproduces an inscription found at the beginning of Tess: "A PURE WOMAN: '...Poor wounded name! My bosom as a bed Shall lodge thee.' -- W. Shakespeare"

Tess, the idealised woman, is also the landscape of Wessex, stretching from Reading to Oxford to Bristol to Exeter to Southampton.  The larger area contains a smaller theatre of action that includes Stonehenge and Casterbridge (Dorchester):  

"This fertile and sheltered tract of country, in which the fields are never brown and the springs never dry, is bounded on the south by the bold chalk ridge that embraces the prominences of Hambledon Hill, Bulbarrow, Nettlecombe-Tout, Dogbury, High Stoy, and Bubb Down.  The traveller from the coast, who, after plodding northward for a score of miles over calcareous downs and corn-lands, suddenly reaches the verge of one of these escarpments, is surprised and delighted to behold, extended like a map beneath him, a country differing absolutely from that which he has passed through” (Hardy, 1978, page 48)


"The forests have departed, but some old customs of their shades remain.  Many, however, linger only in a metamorphosed or disguised form.  The May-Day dance, for instance, was to be discerned on the afternoon under notice, in the guise of the club revel, or ‘club-walking’, as it was there called” (Hardy, 1978, page 49)

Proposals for windfarms for this part of Dorset have incensed locals. The one-to-one mapping of places like Dorchester have caused concern for its inhabitants that the places Hardy talked about will be ruined because the integrity of the landscape is threatened by the presence of machinery intended to address human induced climate change (global warming) brought on by fossil fuel consumption.  

They are, in other words, motivated by Hardy's map, the ultimate representation of their home as a place of tradition extending back to a more innocent time (albeit one that Hardy demonstrates repeatedly is about to be ruined by human avarice and greed).  

I posit that senses of Anthropocene, that named thing for representing all of human-induced change in one fell swoop, directly challenge Wessex and especially 'things' like the fictional Tess.  For all her lack of existence, Tess (and the Mayor of Casterbridge for that matter) directly challenges, albeit through conservative reaction, the idea that urgency around climate determines actuality.  

In what possible world would humans not have influenced the climate to such disastrous degree?  Equally in what possible world would Tess (or for that matter Jude) not have fallen so tragically?  

I argue that names, their referents, and accumulated encyclopedic meanings and associated knowledges, are very important in discussions of possibilism such as the one represented by this session.  The last slide condenses my questions for the chairs:

The second publication is, as noted above, Lewis and Maslin's 2015 article "Defining the Anthropocene" which is at one (very important) level, a question of naming, with a history and origin story of its own (quoting from my forthcoming book The Geography of Names):

"The ‘baptism’ of an epoch of earth-time defined by human influence can be traced to a theologist, Jenkyn, and a Reverend, Haughton, who called the present time the Anthropozoic, in which the very geology of the earth can in its essentials be defined by the presence of a human signature in its strata (Lewis and Maslin, 2015, page 172).  At present, there is no agreed-upon start date for the Anthropocene, but it is certain that it is a human-created term for referring to an epoch that both exceeds humanity itself, and that is defined by that humanity, for better or for worse.  The very idea of named divisions in earth-time indicates a very human need to name temporal phenomena expressed across geographic space and in the depths of the earth’s strata.  The idea of the Anthropocene is therefore both reflexive and subjective, when the subject is defined as the human species itself.  Other species do not have this notion of the Anthropocene nor, presumably, did proto-human species.  Would a future race of post-humans define things the same?  What about a Martian species?  These are matters of pure speculation, but they are serious questions, to be considered by philosophers and geologists/geographers alike.

For the present, should the Anthropocene, as a name, come to pass, it will be a particularly acute tool for political change.  The start date itself will cast judgment upon countries associated with, for example, the start of the industrial revolution, or on the other hand, it could end up playing into the hands of climate change deniers should the date be set early enough before modern-day humanity (Lewis and Maslin, 2015, page 171)


I finish with a poem and some suggestions for extending geography's concern across disciplinary lines.

The Call (Geography)

we need a new poetics
of the name
to better represent
Anthropocene realities
in all their complexity

we need new rituals
and performances for
actualising geological time

new symbols and counter-maps
for demonstrating 
another world is possible
its properties, belief

a remapping of possibility
engagement with the arts
and sciences of medicine, engineering, and law

(possibility determined
through insularity
necessitates a possbilism

ensuring the normative 'should'
has won

the demi-monde of the physical
cut off, the human becomes
a self-contained 
possible world of one

a self-identical set, porous
talking to itself across a divide
half-human, post-natural

the name of the new geography
the thousandth plateau
self-similarity, looking to itself
as a re-presentation of the possible)

let's have a go instead
at seeing, feeling,
speaking outside the realm, the ultimate
climate-controlled discursive 
comfort zone 


In the spirit of the above I offer suggestions for engaging with medicine, engineering, and law, in the spirit of the Anthropocene/Hardy:

medicine -- contagion -- epidemiology of ideas
-climate determinisms
-'fixing' the earth as mental health -- e.g. Tess

engineering -- geo-engineering security
-roping the earth into conforming with human desires (the 'rodeo' 'can do' attitude)
-'fixing' the earth as technical -- e.g. windfarms

law -- of the air, of space, verticality
-atmospheres of environmental justice/justice for the atmosphere
-loopholes -- legal, territorial, cultural --

e.g. how do we 'get around' the Wessex-fixated/Hardy crowd: aren't their claims as legitimate as ours?


With these comments 'pre-loaded' I look forward to engaging in a very interesting discussion this Friday (4 Sept 2015) in the Peter Chalk rooms at 2.20 pm

Friday, August 14, 2015

PARISH 14: Devils Lane

Lying between the M3 and M25 (orbital) motorways on the extreme western edge of London, and a ward of Runnymede Borough, Egham Hythe is north of Thorpe and south of Staines, to the side of Thorpe Lea (which is also a suburb of Egham).

(Hythe means landing place, and sure enough, Egham Hythe is very close to the Thames river, just across from Laleham on the Staines side.)

I walked to Egham Hythe today, visiting Devils Lane along the way.

In the morning I had gone for a run up from the direction of Thorpe and its lovely Hay Meadow Protected Area (where one can find the very rare flower Carex filiformis), emerging on Devils Lane, running from the meadow to Thorpe Lea Road.

There one finds The Compasses Pub and Hythe Fields Gospel Hall (on Tempest Road).

I'm wondering why do we have Devils Lane, Tempest Road, The Compasses, and the Hythe Fields Gospel Hall all at one intersection?  What is going on here?

Another interesting thing about Devils Lane is the number of crumbling walls and interestingly shaded garage doors.  There is a certain 'future archaeology' feeling to it, with crumbling brick underfoot, and multiple layers of paint, thorn, flower, shard, board, brick, and parapet all along this back alleyway in Egham.  Seriously, it's like a Rothko exhibit back there (in no particular order, but all along Devils Lane):

I'm certain there's something going on in Devils Lane, with its compasses, tempests, gospels, and mysterious bricks!

Monday, July 27, 2015

British Library to Hampstead Heath walk

Today I was working from the British Library on my new book, The Geography of Names.  In the third chapter, which is now almost complete, I analyse modern day rogation practices, including a description of beating the bounds from a pamphlet called Beating the Bounds of Camden.  Having walked from Hampstead Heath to the British Library before, I though I could, this time, have lunch up at the park and do some reading once I'd arrived.  As it turns out I ended up buying a book at Daunt Books along the way (I had discovered this great little bookstore right at the edge of the park a year or two ago the first time I did the walk, but in the other direction, coming down from Hampstead Heath after grabbing a coffee at the McDonald's at Hampstead tube station).

Source: Amazon.co.uk

Armed with my lunch, Jones's Holy Wells of Wales (my reading material for the day, a book that is heavy on toponymic lore relating to, well, holy wells in Wales), London A-Z, lots of water and my notebook I started up St Pancras Way into Camden, walking past the St Pancras Church, where we are told the River Fleet used to run visibly across the land.  It is now submerged beneath infrastructures, churches, train stations and the like.  It is also very close to part of the Regents Canal at this point.  I continued up to the Costa coffee where St Pancras Way meets the Regents Canal, and where once before when I was having a coffee there, a few months ago when I was doing a canal walk, a man borrowed my (mini) London A-Z to consult it.  I felt like a real Londoner then.  Today I was carrying my 'full-size' A-Z, in my hand so I didn't have to stop every time to pull it out of my bag when trying to figure out if I was on the right road.

Source: dauntbooks.co.uk

Eventually things smoothed out once I got on to Highgate and eventually South End Road, where Daunt Books sits.  At this point I went into the store for about 45 minutes, pre-lunch, and had a look around.  At least five books presented themselves to me as either: essential, a must-read (now), or something I've been meaning to get for quite some time.  The selection there is marvellous, bringing the word 'curated' to mind.  You could probably pick up any book in the store, go home, read it, and be completely satisfied, the store is that good.  I left without buying anything, feeling completely overwhelmed, planning in the back of my mind to come back but not really being honest about it yet.  I was feeling (unrealistically) virtuous for having left without making a purchase (I've already reached my budget limit for the month, with three days left).

At this point it was lunch time so I walked just a bit up South End Road and broke out my Costa roasted chicken sandwich, smoky bacon crisps, orange, apple, and yogurt, and ploughed in for a bit.  Then I walked uphill into a field with fireweed and looked out over the city, especially the cluster of buildings that includes the cheese grater, walkie-talkie, shard, and others.  It was a wonderful stroll with a cool breeze and sunshine coming through fair-weather clouds at intervals.  I found the boundary path and went along it for a while, all this time thinking about my Beating the Bounds of Camden pamphlet, and the writing I had just been doing on this area.  I found that some of the things I had read were overlaying with my experience quite nicely, but I was wandering a bit too much for everything to line up perfectly.  It was perfect in its way.

Daunt Books pulled me back down into its gravitational force and I ended up getting a paperback of Karl Ove Knausgard's My Struggle (reviewed in The Guardian) which I'd somehow heard about through another favourite author's review, namely that of Zadie Smith, whose novel N-W is, I believe, about the very area I'd been strolling through.  If that's a bit of a stretch, it's not so much because it promises to be a great book, and if I really end up loving it, there are several more in the series to look forward to.  After getting my literary fix, I was out the door again, now with a Daunt Books cloth sack, and hellbent on getting some reading done.   Which I spent the rest of the day doing in the fabulous summer weather, soaking up the lore of the holy wells, their ritual, magic, boundaries, and names.  By the end of the day I was back on my bicycle, having made this fabulous link up to Hampstead Heath by way of the tube from Heathrow Terminal 5, where I'd locked up my bicycle for the ride home.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Heads of Geography: "see him cycling through the streets of London..."

Jeremy Corbyn evokes (or has created) a 'head of geography department' meme.

From The Independent, Saturday, 18 July 2015, page 18, in an article by Adam Lusher:

"To see him cycling through the streets of London, bearded, trousers safely tucked into bicycle clips, jacket allegedly from circa 1983, is surely to wonder whether somewhere, a school might be missing its head of geography"

He is radical, old-school, and not good for the Labour party.  There seems to be some consensus on this point amongst various writers in papers across the spectrum from The Independent to The Guardian to The Daily Telegraph.

A couple of the same writers point out that whoever takes the leadership role now is surely not the person who will be running for Prime Minister in five years.  Some on the right go further, making the point that the reason for this is that the party will for all intents and purposes cease to exist in any meaningful way under Corbyn's leadership.