End of the ride (but not of the road)

I gave my last UBC lecture on 2 December (below), but I shall – of course! – continue my research and writing. So this isn’t retirement yet – and my tenure as Peter Wall Distinguished Professorship isn’t up yet either – but it does bring me to the end of a long teaching career.

I’ve been lecturing full time since I was appointed a University Assistant Lecturer at Cambridge at what now seems the incomprehensibly early age of 22. It was a strange moment; I was barely one year beyond my BA, and had gone straight into the PhD programme – the usual route at that time, though it was hardly a “programme” since there were no graduate courses, only (!) the requirement to submit a thesis.

I had wanted (very much) to be supervised by Jack Langton, but since he was leaving he was not available and my new supervisor was Tony Wrigley. A brilliant historical demographer and co-director of the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure, I still remember my first meeting with him over lunch at Peterhouse. He talked enthusiastically about his family reconstitution project, an ambitious team effort to reconstruct the population history of England before the Census using parish registers. He described the possibilities of studying a parish in the Midlands, but all I could see was the bleak prospect of three years tracing three lines on a graph: births, marriages and deaths.

Rudderless, I turned to what has always been my first love – theatre – and spent the rest of the academic year acting and directing. At night I would make my way home from rehearsals to the house I shared with three friends, and as I crossed the bridge over the Cam I would tell myself that it was high time I settled down to some serious academic work. But these conversations always seemed to take place on a Thursday, and who turns the page on a Thursday? Much better, I told myself, to make a fresh start at the beginning of a new week.

Monday would find me walking home from rehearsals, having much the same conversation – except that it was the 29th of the month, and I convinced myself it would obviously make more sense to start my research on the 1st of the month. New month, new beginning.

The mathematically gifted among you will have realised that by the time the 1st arrived, it was inevitably a Thursday.

I could keep this up ad infinitum – I suspect I could hold a chair in Procrastination Studies if only I could get around to applying – and eventually I decided to withdraw from the PhD programme and go to drama school. I was in the attic office in Downing Place that I shared with Neil Wrigley and John Carney (the most unlikely of combinations), packing up my books, when H.C. Darby, Head of the Department of Geography, telephoned and asked me to come down to his office.

It was a summer evening, and as I went down the stairs I was thoroughly alarmed: convinced Darby had somehow discovered my future plans, I thought I was about to be booted out before I could withdraw in a seemly fashion. My alarm increased when I found him standing in his doorway holding a bottle of sherry and two glasses. I can remember little of that conversation – sherry still has that effect on me – but half-way through the bottle I realised that he was offering me a job.

I was dumbfounded. It seemed (and was) absurd: I knew that an assistant lectureship had been advertised, but I hadn’t applied – 12 months after my BA and with no research to my name, published or otherwise, it had never occurred to me to do so. All I had to show was a starred First and my contributions to discussions at Department seminars and at Alan Baker‘s legendary Occasional Discussions in Historical Geography held in his rooms at Emmanuel College far into a Friday night. I’d never presented a paper to either forum – how could I? – but I wasn’t shy in joining in the discussions.

I subsequently learned that it was Alan (who soon became one of my closest friends) who had recommended my appointment to Darby, but all I can remember of that sherry-sodden conversation is asking Darby why me – and him telling me that he wanted someone with “fire in their belly”…

I asked for the weekend to think it over. My girlfriend told me that I would be mad to turn it down, and assured me that all I had to do was teach for a few years and then I could devote myself to the stage (she was perfectly clear that it would never, ever work the other way round). She also told me that lecturing was just like acting – except that I got to write the script and mark the audience.

When I went back to accept the post it was a Monday – and (in my dreams, at any rate) the 1st of the month.

That same week I was elected a Fellow of my college, Sidney Sussex, and – to my consternation, though by now I was rolling with it – Director of Studies in Geography. Dick Chorley had been awarded a personal Chair, so I had to take over the college reins from him: an exceptionally tall order, but Dick too became a good friend and a wonderfully kind and supportive mentor. We were very different in all sorts of ways, but we shared a knockabout irreverence (I’m not sure how else to put it), a strong sense that we could take ‘our’ geography wherever we wanted to go, and a conviction that whatever else teaching involved, it had to involve performance.

For the next several years I threw myself in to teaching – lectures on historical geography, college supervisions (small groups of undergraduates who would each write an essay every week, to be discussed but never graded), and field courses – so my research had to be confined to the summer months and my thesis (on the transition from a domestic to a factory system in the Yorkshire woollen industry: I never did get to that Midlands parish) was postponed time and time again.

But I did eventually complete it (in fact, I wrote it in three weeks: as improbable as everything else in this saga, but none the less true). In the interim I’d published Ideology, science and human geography, and after my thesis had been examined by Brian Robson and David Smith and I was heading out of the door, they expressed surprise that I’d published a philosophical-theoretical critique of human geography and yet there was no trace of it in my thesis. A wise person would have politely agreed and left; but I turned round and said that my research would have been impossible without using social theory (not testing it, not ‘applying’ it, but using it).

Asked to explain, I sketched out what an analysis based on Althusser’s structural Marxism would have looked like (the subject of the very first paper I ever presented at an academic conference; it was greeted with baffled silence, apart from the redoubtable Professor Eila Campbell who bellowed “Young man, I’d like to congratulate you on the quality of your visual aids!”). Next I outlined an alternative analysis based on E.P. Thompson’s humanist Marxism (I’d become entranced by Thompson’s work, especially The making of the English working class). I’d followed neither approach, I said; instead, I had drawn on Tony Giddens‘s structuration theory to bring ‘structure’ and ‘agency’ together (how dated these formulations seem now).

I finished by saying that for me the best theory is carried in solution: if you know the theory, or better yet theories (since there’s no single body of theory capable of asking all the interesting questions or providing all the credible answers) you can recognise it, but if you don’t that’s no barrier to following the substantive narrative. At that point they declined to pass the thesis, but asked me to add an introduction explaining what I’d just told them. I did so, and when the thesis was eventually published several reviews praised the book – apart from the unnecessary introduction.

I taught at Cambridge for sixteen years before leaving in 1989 to become Professor of Geography at UBC.

Tethered to my new “standing desk” and lecturing remotely from my study at home was not how I’d planned to make my exit (still stage left) – and lecturing is performance – and I’ve missed not exactly the roar of the crowd and the smell of the greasepaint but that extraordinary shiver up the spine that inheres when you’re flying in front of a class.

For all that, I didn’t want to go out with a whimper, so I spent much of the summer attending a series of in-house workshops and figuring out how to deliver lectures remotely (UBC, to its immense credit, made that decision early so that we all had time to prepare properly, and it has been exceptionally supportive of faculty, students and staff throughout the pandemic). I rejigged both my courses (you can see drafts of the revised programme under the TEACHING tab, which involved making sure that all the readings are available online and adding a section about ‘Studying under Covid’ to help my students as best I could); and thinking how to conduct examinations in a manner that is rigorous and fair but also mindful of the exceptionally difficult and different circumstances encountered by students (many of them in different time-zones).

At first I was dismayed at how Canvas/Collaborate Ultra – the platforms used by UBC – threatened to dumb down university education: provision for taking attendance (I’ve never done that in my life and had no intention of starting now); ‘quizzes’ instead of examinations, and with an evident bias towards multiple-choice questions rather than the essays I think essential in a Faculty of Arts. I’ve stayed with the essays.

But there have been upsides. The intensity of online teaching is exhausting, as I’m sure many readers will know only too well, and yet there is (as part of that intensity) still an intimacy to it: the obligation to engage audiences through effective images and visuals – ever since Professor’s Campbell’s response, I’ve laboured hard over the design of my slides – and through speaking to create light and shade still holds, whether the audience is in front of you or scattered around the world. However remote the audience, and no matter if they are sitting at their laptops or curled up in bed in their jammies, it’s still a performance. I delivered each lecture “live”, and was pleased (and surprised) at how many students joined me: it created a sense of occasion for me and, I think, a sense of community for them – desperately important in these straitened times. I didn’t want them to feel they were entirely alone. The use of the Chat function also empowered even the shy students to ask questions that I suspect would have gone unasked in normal circumstances.

The lectures were recorded, so that those in other time zones didn’t have to struggle to the screen at 3.30 in the morning (though some did), and I had many more (and much longer) video conversations with students who wanted to discuss the course and their term papers. Sometimes I sensed that these conversations were as much pastoral as intellectual – perhaps not surprising in a pandemic, but that was a first for me at UBC on such a scale. At Cambridge, with its tutorial and supervision system, there was always an intimacy to teaching, and with it a sense of trust and support, which encouraged intellectual risk-taking in ways that I’ve found hard to maintain in a large, corporate university (apart from graduate supervision, to be sure). So one of the upsides in my final term has been re-discovering and reaffirming the joy of being able to help students in every way I can.

And, as always, I learned so much from my conversations with them.

That hasn’t changed at all. Throughout my teaching career I have – honestly, genuinely – learned so much from my students at Cambridge and at UBC. They have challenged me with ideas and issues I hadn’t considered, brought to my attention readings and sources I’d passed over, and forced me to clarify things I’d never been clear about in the first place.

As I write this, it’s neither a Monday nor the 1st of the month. I may be turning a page on my teaching career, but – as I said at the outset – the research and the writing will continue apace. I have two books in prospect. Reach from the Sky will bring together my work on genealogies and geographies of aerial violence, and Purple Testament – a title I’ve taken (if you’ve read this far, you will know how doubly appropriate this is) from Shakespeare’s Richard II: ‘the purple testament of bleeding war’ – which extends my work on trauma geographies and woundscapes from the First World War to Afghanistan and Syria.

So I hope you’ll keep watching this space. And my heartfelt thanks to everyone who has helped me fill it thus far.

Happy New Year

The new term starts today, and while I’m determined to hang on to summer as long as I can – even as I feel it slipping between my fingers – there is something perfectly wonderful about starting a new year in September.  When I was in Cambridge there was something even more wonderful about starting in October, but either way I much prefer it to January when most (I originally wrote “normal”) people have to start their year.  At least it’s warm, even in Vancouver, there are still sunny days to linger over, the soft light is still there in the evening, and people are still relaxed enough to have time to talk.

I’ve been teaching full-time since I was 22, and honestly still enjoy it – particularly when I see the enthusiasm (mixed with trepidation) on the bright faces of new undergraduates and graduate students (I enjoy working with graduate students very much, but I prefer teaching undergraduate courses and, to be honest, I’m still unpersuaded of the value of graduate ones).

I’m teaching two third-year undergraduate courses this term, each one twice a week: Cities, space and power, which is a quirky historical geography of urbanization, and Theory and practice in human geography, which is an even quirkier attempt to combine what is usually (and I think mistakenly) taught separately, the history and the philosophy of human geography (what is sometimes called “Geographical Thought”: yuk).  If you’re interested you can download the course outlines and readings under the TEACHING tab.

I don’t use textbooks for either.  In fact I’ve never taught from one.  I don’t see the point: if a textbook covered the same ground why would I need to lecture?  I can see the need for reference books, not surprisingly, and in literature-based courses you obviously have to work with the texts.  I know too that there are subjects where there is such a premium on learning “the facts” that a textbook is indispensable.  I should say that my courses aren’t flights of fancy, but for me the trick is to show students that it’s about so much more than “the facts” – the crucial thing is what you do with all the information, the sense that “I never realised they were connected” or “I hadn’t seen it like that before”.  That’s why the two of the most important things to learn at university – I’m serious – are reading and writing: the ability to read sensitively, constructively, critically, and the ability to write rather than cut and paste.  And that’s not confined to courses in the Department of English.

No doubt all this is a hangover from my Cambridge days, when the formal teaching load was very light but  you were expected to develop your own reflections, ideas and research not just parrot other peoples’.   That teaching style seems to work just as well at UBC but, just as relevant, textbooks are inordinately expensive.  Students are already shouldering enough debt – I find it quite shocking that so many graduates of my own generation, in the UK at least, who paid no fees and were eligible for grants of various kinds, should so readily impose burdens on young people that they never had to endure themselves.  I’ve never been inspired by a textbook, but given the new ones pumped out each year by academic publishers I’m obviously in a minority.

This is all made more difficult than it should be by the absurdly large number of courses undergraduates are required to take in North American universities.  Since so many of them are also working their way through college (I still stumble over calling it “school”),  it’s often difficult for even the most dedicated to find time to read carefully and thoughtfully.  The result is that, much of the time, they necessarily resort to “skim-memorise-repeat” – a practice facilitated by textbooks with their high school parade of boxes and quizzes – so that we end up instilling a culture of coping rather than nurturing a properly critical intellectual culture.

Things are no better when it comes to helping students learn to write.  I grade my courses using a combination of written examination (essays not multiple choice) and term papers.  One of the wonderful things about the highly privileged Cambridge system was that students wrote essays each week that were discussed in small groups (“supervisions”) with faculty or graduate students, and – since no marks were given – they  were free to make mistakes, and to learn from them (and one another).  It made learning a properly collaborative not competitive venture.  And the supervisions were genuine occasions for experimentation: there was no centralised roster of topics, no approved reading lists, and our inquiries were set free from the constraints of any syllabus.  But it was, and presumably remains, an intensive process, and the course-loads here ensure that faculty and students alike are constantly pressed for time.

Shoe Factory

Shoe Factory (Photo credit: stevegarfield)

I do understand that this is no different from the rest of the workaday world, but universities ought to be places where we also learn to slow down – not only to enjoy that soft, late summer light but to feel ourselves think.  That’s increasingly difficult in the corporate university where, for all its slogans and marketing campaigns – UBC once had the truly dire “Think about it!” plastered on baseball caps – efficiency and effectiveness are measured by numbers.  That in its turn is part of a comprehensive withdrawal of trust.  Our contemporary audit culture places such a premium on accountancy – not the same thing as accountability – that everything must be tabulated and minuted.  I’m sure that universities can learn from the commercial world, and vice versa, but we might try to learn the right things from the right companies while insisting that there are also vital respects in which a university isn’t a shoe factory.

Ah me: I started out saying how much I was looking forward to all this…..

But I am.  Really.