Thesis acknowledgements are a chance to say thank you to everyone who has supported you through the long, arduous process of a PhD. I am under no illusions of how many people are actually going to read my thesis, however, and I wanted to make my appreciation a little more public. So I have reproduced my acknowledgements here. If my PhD was an Oscar, this is what I would say in my acceptance speech:
First of all, I would like to thank my supervisors, Professor David Gilbert and Dr. Innes Keighren. They agreed to supervise my PhD when my original supervisory team fell through during my Masters, and I will always appreciate that. Since then, they have guided me through the PhD process with skill and wisdom. They work well as a team; their expertise complements each other, and they always made an effort not to offer contradictory advice. I will always be grateful for their knowledge, feedback, and support. I would also like to express my appreciation to my advisor, Dr. Mike Dolton, who has always been ready to provide a second (or third, in this case!) opinion.
I owe an important debt to the Economic and Social Research Council, for funding my PhD, and for trusting me with the freedom to change the project as my research evolved. I am also grateful to the staff at the various archives I have consulted during my PhD; their knowledge and advice has been invaluable. I would also like to thank my examiners, Dr. Briony McDonagh and Professor David Green, whose feedback helped me to produce a better thesis.
The Department of Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London, has been an encouraging and supportive intellectual home for me over the last eight years, I am grateful to everyone there for contributing to such a nurturing environment. The Social, Cultural, and Historical Research Group has been particularly important to me during my postgraduate career. The Landscape Surgery seminar group has been a lifeline over the last four years, making me feel part of a community in what can be a lonely experience. I am also grateful to the organisers and attendees of the London Group of Historical Geographers seminar series. The meals afterwards in the Olivelli restaurant on Store Street were integral to the development of my networking skills—they helped me to feel like I belong in the world of academia. I would also like to thank my fellow PhD students, at Royal Holloway and elsewhere, with whom sharing experiences has given me strength.
Lastly, I could not have got through this without the support of my friends and family. Rachel Taylor has shared my achievements and setbacks with equal enthusiasm, even from the other side of the world. Daniel Dougherty has always believed in me, even when I haven’t believed in myself. My cousin, Theo Hardcastle, has made my Wednesdays a joy and has been a wonderful distraction from all things PhD. My sister, Emily Awcock, is unfailingly positive, unless you try and make her go for a walk. My Mum, Tricia Awcock, from whom I could not ask for more. My Dad, Graeme Awcock, who showed me what an academic looks like. I am grateful to you all.
This thesis is dedicated to my Nan, Olive Awcock, who always supported me, even though she never understood why a nice girl like me would want to study protest.
I recently attended the 17th International Conference of Historical Geography (ICHG) in Warsaw, Poland. I had a brilliant time– it was a week full of exchanging ideas, meeting new people, and catching up with old people. The conference is held once every three years; it was last hosted by London in 2015 and I was there, heading towards the end of the second year of my PhD. Someone commented that the cycles of the ICHG feel like markers in your career, which got me thinking about how far I have come in the last 3 years, between London 2015 and Warsaw 2018.
I have certainly got ‘better’ at big conferences; in 2015 I co-organised one session at the ICHG, in 2018 I organised 2 on my own. I am better at networking, and I have learnt that it is not just about meeting new people, but also about developing relationships with people that I have met before. I’m less afraid to use the opportunity to ask more experienced academics for advice; I have finally convinced myself that they won’t think I’m stupid and/or annoying for asking.
There are other areas of academic life on which I’m making good progress. Whilst I was in Warsaw I got word that my thesis revisions had been accepted by my examiners. I won’t technically be a Doctor until I graduate, but I will be a Doctor, it’s definitely happening. In 2015, the only geography department I knew was Royal Holloway. It is a fantastic department, but it meant my experience was rather limited. Since then I have also taught and worked at Oxford Brookes University and the University of Central Lancashire. I have learnt to give lectures, run tutorials, and write and mark assessments within a variety of different academic cultures.
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing, not by a long shot. I had moments during my PhD when I thought I would never finish it, and there were chapters that didn’t come together for months. I’ve had conference papers rejected, and for the jobs I got, there have been many, many more that I did not. I think it is important to acknowledge our failures as well as celebrate our successes in academia; it is all part of the process.
I am only at the beginning of my academic career; I still have a long way to go. By the next ICHG in 2021, I will have published some journal articles, and be on my way to securing a permanent academic job, if I haven’t already. 3 years ago, I would have qualified those goals with ‘hope’ or ‘might.’ Now, I am more confident in myself and my abilities. Of course, I still have my moments of fear, insecurity, and doubt. But they are becoming less common.
This blog post is not meant to be a big old boast (although I do think that female academics in particular could do with being more confident about expressing our achievements). It is meant to be a message of hope. I spoke to a lot of PhD students in Warsaw, and I recognised in many of them the same insecurities I felt back in 2015. There is a lot of discussion about how hard academia is to get into, and it is. But I can also give you loads of examples of people who have succeeded, in all kinds of ways, including outside of academia. So I guess the purpose of this blog post is to say to those PhD students: don’t be too hard on yourself. It might take you longer than you think, and it might not look like you imagined, but you’ll get there.
The second annual symposium of the Royal Geographical Society’s Digital Geographies Working Group (or RGS-IBG DGWG for short) took place on the 6th of July 2018 at the University of Sheffield. The theme was Justice and the Digital. I am Events Co-ordinator for the group, and I was on the organising team for this event, so it was a pretty stressful day for me. Everything went really well though, if I do say so myself, and I had a fantastic time!
The day started with a panel entitled “What’s justice got to do with it?” A combination of academics and practitioners (representing Oxfam UK and the Good Things Foundation), discussed the relationship between justice and the digital. Whilst it might be quite obvious that inequality shapes who has access to digital tools such as the internet, the panel discussed the ways in which injustice and inequality can play out even once access is gained. The digital is not a silver bullet that can instantly relieve inequality, it can also make things worse if it is not used in the right ways.
After the opening panel, the day split into three parallel strands. I convened the strand on Citizenship, Protest, and the Digital. We had talks from two excellent speakers, digital shorts (I’ll explain later!) and a really interesting discussion. The first speaker was Dr. Sam Hind from the University of Siegen, who spoke about his research on Sukey, an app developed during the Student Tuition Fee Demonstrations in 2010 to help protesters share information and avoid police kettles. The second speaker was Professor Karen Mossberger, who joined us via Skype from Arizona State University. She spoke about place-based projects were used in Chicago to improve digital citizenship and create a culture of technology use.
It is important to the DGWG committee that the group is accessible to, and supportive of, postgraduate students and early career researchers. This ethos extends to the events we organise, so we introduced digital shorts. These are 2-3 minute presentations, with or without slides, about a research project. Generally this project is a Masters dissertation or PhD thesis, but it is not compulsory. They are meant to be informal and low-stress, although it can be difficult to summarise your research in just a few minutes! In the Citizenship, Protest, and the Digital strand we had five great shorts of topics ranging from Eurovision fandom to the Paris terrorist attacks, via protest in Turkey, Libya, and Dublin.
After the stands, the groups came back together for a closing panel to discuss what geographers can bring to the study of the relationship between justice and the digital. Speakers from the three strands responded to the topic, and we came to the rather satisfying conclusion that there is something unique geographers can offer, due to our specific methodological standpoints that differ from other academic disciplines.
No academic event is complete without a trip to the pub, so that it where we headed after the final panel. The next day, some of us met up in Hathersage in the Peak District for a ‘walk-and-talk,’ which pretty much does what it says on the tin. It was a great opportunity to carry on some of the discussions that had been started the day before, and to walk off some of those conference biscuits!
See how the day unfolded on Twitter by looking at the Wakelet story generated by the wonderful Sammia Poveda, which can be accessed here.
As part of my thesis revisions, I had to read as much academic research on the historical geographies of protest as I could get my hands on. To keep track of it all, I made a database using Zotero, an open-source referencing programme. For those of you who aren’t familiar, Zotero is a wonderful free-to-use (unlike EndNote or RefWorks) referencing software that I have used to keep track of all my academic reading since I started my PhD. It occured to me that I might not be the only person that would find this list useful, so I have made it publicly accessible. You can view the database here. Each book or journal article is tagged with key information such as the time period and location of case studies, as well as key themes, ideas, theories, and thinkers addressed.
I will keep adding to the list as I find more. I am sure that I have missed things out too, so please do let me know and I will add them in. For example, the list is quite Anglo-centric so far, it would be great if we could get some more references about non-English speaking places. Or even some literature that is not written in English! I would really like this to be a resource that lots of people both contribute to and benefit from, so please do get in touch if you have something to add.
The Protest Memory Network is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and brings together archivists, curators, activists, artists, and researchers to think about how memories of protest are preserved, materialised, recirculated, and utilised. The Network is organising three workshops and a conference between 2018 and 2020, amongst other things. I was invited to take part in the first workshop, on the subject of Researching Protest Memory, at the University of Sussex on the 30th and 31st of May 2018.
The workshop was a combination of paper sessions and workshops exploring the methodological opportunities and challenges of researching such a broad and frequently intangible topic. A whole range of research methods were discussed, ranging from the conventional (oral histories, archival research, mapping, social media analysis) through the creative (film making and artistic engagements), to the rather unconventional (embroidering interview quotes onto handkerchiefs and baking them into empanadas). My contribution was a paper on my work on protest stickers.
We had workshops run by: the TAG Lab, (Text Analysis Group), which conducts research into the analysis of text and language by computers, and applies it to social media and other forms of communication; the Business of Women’s Words project, which explores feminist publishing in the UK during the 1970s and 80s; and the Mass Observation Archive, which is a fascinating collection about everyday life in Britain in the twentieth century. The workshop was also supported by the Sussex Humanities Lab, which looks at the ways in which digital technologies are shaping society and culture. Over the two days, I was reminded of just how many options there are when it comes to selecting a research method, and the importance of considering your options when embarking on a research project, rather than just falling back on what is easy or familiar. The workshop was a chance to learn about unfamiliar methodologies in a supportive environment, where I didn’t feel stupid asking potentially obvious questions.
Invariably, it is difficult to think of research methods without also thinking about research outputs. Over the two days, the topic of research outputs came up often, particularly in terms of how to make research more accessible and engaging for those outside of academia. The alternatives that came up ranged from working with cultural partners such as museums and libraries, to creative outputs such as documentary films and even board games. On the Tuesday evening, we were treated to a radical history of Brighton walking tour. It was fantastic, if a little fast-paced, and highly informative; I learnt a lot even though I have lived in Brighton for most of my life. There are a number of researchers who make use of walking tours as a form of public engagement, and I think they are a great way of
I have written before about how much I value the academic communities I am a part of (see Parts 1, 2 and 3), and the Researching Protest Memories workshop was a nice reminder of that. It was much smaller than most of the conferences I am used to (20-30 people), which meant I had a good chance to get to know everyone and their work. I came away feeling like I was part of a new (to me) academic community of supportive, creative, and energetic researchers, and as far as I’m concerned, the more communities I am part of, the better!
I don’t think I would be alone in saying that the Researching Protest Memory workshop was a resounding success. I went home exhausted, but with my head buzzing with thoughts and ideas. I would like to thank the Protest Memory Network, particularly Pollyanna Ruiz, for organising the workshop and inviting me to participate.
In April I attended the 2018 Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers (AAG) in New Orleans. In July I will be going to the International Conference of Historical Geographers in Warsaw. I am lucky that my career gives me so many opportunities to travel, but it does come with downsides. As an early career researcher, I have to fund many of the conferences I attend myself (whether I should or not is perhaps a conversation for another day). As such, I need affordable accommodation, which can be very difficult to find. Increasingly, people are turning to Airbnb and other short stay accommodation platforms in order to help manage the costs of conference attendance. However, opposition to websites such as Airbnb is growing, supported by arguments that it drives gentrification and negatively affects local communities. Geographers have frequent discussions about the environmental implications of flying to international conferences. Perhaps we should also be discussing the ethical implications of what we do once our flights land?
I have always wanted to visit New Orleans, and I loved getting the chance to explore the city whilst I was there. However, a huge number of tourists visit the city every year, and there were several occasions where I felt uncomfortable about the impact of this vast influx that I was part of. In 2016, the number of tourists visiting New Orleans reached 10.45 million, the highest they had been since before Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005 (FQBA, 2017). This is compared to a permanent population of about 400,000 (Nola.com, 2018). Whilst this undoubtedly has benefits, not least the $7.41 billion spent by tourists in the city in 2016, it also brings challenges.
One of the most hotly debated issues of tourism recently has been the rise of short stay accommodation websites such as AirBnB. They have been blamed for rapid increases in rents and house prices in popular tourist destinations; a recent article for the Independent blamed AirBnB for 23% rent increases over three years in some parts of Barcelona, a city which has seen an increasing backlash against mass tourism in recent years (Bryant, 2018). Short stay accommodations have also been criticised for damaging local communities, in a number of ways: it is difficult to get to know your neighbours if they are changing once a week; businesses cater to the needs of tourists rather than residents (souvenir shops replace supermarkets); and tourists on their holidays tend to be louder and more raucous than locals that have to get up for work the next day. AirBnB argue that short term rentals have a negligible effect on the housing market and provide a valuable opportunity for people to make money from their spare rooms. The fact remains, however, that many short term rentals are for the whole property, and some ‘hosts’ own and rent out multiple properties.
This new kind of Airbnb-powered gentrification comes with all the downsides of traditional gentrification — home prices and rents are going up, lower-income residents and people of color are moving out — but with fewer upsides. Tourism and gentrification typically bring cleaner streets and less crime, but tourists don’t stick around to clean up the neighborhood, vote in local elections or lobby for better schools.
There have been various attempts to fight back against the damaging impact of short term rentals around the world. Some resistance is legislative. For example, in October 2016 it was made illegal in New York City to rent out flats for less than 30 days (Ashley Carmen, 2017). AirBnB often opposes such measures, however; they attempted to sue New York City for passing the law, eventually backing down on the condition that only hosts would be held liable, not AirBnB itself (Benner, 2016). Different cities have different levels of restrictions on short stay accommodation, and enforcement also varies, so it is not necessarily an effective response.
Inside Airbnb is a not-for-profit organisation that provides tools and data for analysing the impact of Airbnb on housing markets. The data is publicly available from Airbnb, and you can either use the tools provided by the website or download the data and analyse it yourself. Data isn’t available for every city in the world, but quite a few are covered, particularly in Europe and North America. Inside Airbnb is a kind of ‘knowledge is power’ form of resistance to short stay accommodation; such data can make arguments about the negative impacts of Airbnb and other similar platforms more persuasive.
Others are taking an ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ approach. Fairbnb is a group attempting to build an ethical short stay accommodation platform based on four main principles: collective ownership, democratic governance, social sustainability, and transparency and accountability (Fairbnb, n.d.). Part of the profits will be reinvested into local projects that counter the negative impacts of tourism and gentrification. There is no launch date for the platform at the moment however, so it might be a while before it gets off the ground, if it ever does.
So where do we as academics fit into all this? Geographers in particular are supposed to have an awareness of our own impact on the world around us, and take ethical considerations into account as a result. Some universities (including Royal Holloway, where I did my PhD) do not allow staff and students travelling on university business to use Airbnb. This is not out of a sense of social responsibility, but because Airbnb do not enforce sufficient health and safety requirements (Royal Holloway, 2017). For those of us who are self-funded, or who’s funding allows the use of Airbnb, it can be an enticingly cheap option. Perhaps we should think twice about this in future.
Academic research posters are something most people have to produce at least once or twice during your PhD. They can be a good way to present your research at conferences, particularly if you are nervous about giving a paper. However, they are a quite particular medium, that requires an approach unlike anything else. If you get it right, they can look great, and communicate your research in an effective and concise manner. If you get it wrong, then they look a mess. I recently designed a poster about protest stickers for the 2018 Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers in New Orleans. Below are some of the resources I found helpful when putting my poster together. I would also like to acknowledge the input of my Dad, Dr. Graeme Awcock, who is a bit of an expert on academic posters, and taught me how to design them when I was an undergraduate.
I have collected some resources together that I found useful below, but my own key tips would be:
Give yourself plenty of time to design the poster. Unlike other academic outputs, it is not the writing, but the design that takes the most time when designing a poster.
Detail matters. It can feel petty, and be very frustrating, trying to make sure that all your columns are the same length and the same distance from each other and the poster margins, but it does make a big difference.
Produce several versions, experimenting with different layouts and colour schemes. You can then ask family, friends, or colleagues for input about which works best.
Proofread your poster carefully. Twice. I have noticed typos in posters before, and it must be an awful feeling to display your poster and notice a mistake.
Build time for printing into your schedule. Some printers need several days to print a poster. Make sure you have accounted for that, so that your poster will be ready on time.
Buket Gundogan, Kiron Koshy, Langhit Kurar, and Katharine Whitehurst, “How to Make an Academic Poster,” Annals of Medicine and Surgery 11 (2016); p 69-71. This contains some good advice, particularly relating to what to do when you’re actually presenting your poster–the work doesn’t finish when you pin it up.
I spent last week at the Annual Conference of the Association of American Geographers (AAG), a mammoth event with hundreds of sessions spread over 5 days and 3 hotels in New Orleans, Louisiana. I had a fantastic time at the conference, and I loved exploring New Orleans in my time off. I have attended the conference before, in Chicago in 2015, so I knew what to expect from this epic exchange of knowledge and research. But I also had some new experiences, including participating as a panellist in an Author Meets Critics session.
Author Meets Critics sessions are odd. Primarily designed to publicise recent books (I think!), panellists speak about the book, and the author(s) then respond to those comments. Most of the time, the majority of the audience has not read the book, so it can be hard to formulate questions when the floor is opened up to audience discussion. The number of critics depends on the length of the session, but can range from 3 to 5.
At the AAG, I was taking on the role of critic for Revolting New York: How 400 Years of Riot, Rebellion, Revolution, and Uprising Shaped a City, which attempts to document almost four centuries of contentious history in one of the most famous cities in the world. I really enjoyed reading the book, and I had an idea what I wanted to say about it, but I had never actually been to an Author Meets Critics session before, and I wasn’t sure if what I wanted to say was appropriate. So I went to two other Author Meets Critics sessions before the Revolting New York one. The critics in the two sessions took very different approaches, and I liked one much more than the other.
The first session I went to was for Paul Routledge’s new book, Space Invaders: Radical Geographies of Protest (2017). Routledge, and most of the panellists, have published work that has been influential on my understanding of the geography of social movements and protests, so that was a second reason for me to go along. I haven’t read the book, in fact I wasn’t aware of its existence until I saw the title in the conference programme. All of the critics (and there were five of them!) talked about what they liked about the book, and what they didn’t like. It was effectively a verbal review. Times five. With the author in the room. Whilst none of the reviews were overwhelmingly bad, it still felt pretty brutal. I felt quite uncomfortable during the session, and I also found it quite difficult to engage with the discussion.
The second Author Meets Critics was for Tear Gas: From the Battlefields of WW1 to the Streets of Today (2017)by Anna Feigenbaum. I have read this book, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I also got a lot more out of the discussion of the book. There were only three critics, which gave Feigenbaum the time to briefly outline the book for those who hadn’t read it, as well as responding to the critics at the end. In addition, rather than reviewing Tear Gas, the two critics built on it, discussing which elements they found most interesting and how the book fit in to contemporary academic debates. As an audience member, I found this approach much more engaging.
Luckily, this was the approach I had decided to take in my role as critic for Revolting New York. I do not think it is perfect, but I didn’t feel comfortable pointing out what I didn’t like/agree with when the book’s editor, and several of the authors, were in the room. This doesn’t mean I wasn’t critical, however; it is possible to critique something without being negative about it. I instead discussed the elements of Revolting New York that got me thinking, the issues it throws up that I think are worthy of further discussion. The two issues I focused on were: comparisons between New York and London; and the impact of terminology and whether we study events alone or as part of wider social movements. I think it went pretty well, if I do say so myself, and the terminology issue in particular carried on through the audience discussion.
I suspect that not everyone will agree with me on this, some people might not have a problem with pointing out a book’s weaknesses with the author in the room; it can even be argued that it is more fair than publishing a review to which opportunities for response are limited. For the audience however, I think it is downright awkward. I personally think the constructive approach is more engaging for the audience, particularly if they haven’t read the book yet. I would definitely take this approach again if I get asked to participate in another Author Meets Critics panel.
On the 8th of November 2017, I gave the Postgraduate Voices talk at the Historical Geography Research Group’s (HGRG) annual postgraduate conference, Practising Historical Geography. I talked about my experience of academic communities, because of how important they have been to me during my PhD. I have decided to turn my talk into three blog posts, which I will publish here over the next few weeks. Part 1 was the about the various groups that make up my academic community. Part 2 was about the various activities I have taken part in to build and maintain that community. Part 3 is about the challenges I faced whilst building those networks.
The Dreaded ‘Networking’
I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone that actually enjoys networking. It can be awkward and embarrassing, particularly if you think of yourself as lacking natural social skills. However, what have I been talking about today if not networking? So instead of thinking about networking as a way of making connections that might further my career, which I think makes most of us feel slightly callous and uncomfortable, I try to think of it in a different way, based more around the idea of being part of a community. If I think of networking as meeting like-minded, interesting people who are overwhelmingly friendly and supportive, I actually start enjoying it, as weird as that might sound.
I’m going to ask a question now and I’d like you to be honest: have you ever felt jealous when a colleague or fellow PhD student has had something published, won an award, got a job, or achieved something similar? I think it’s very common, but it’s hard to know because it can be a hard thing to admit to. I personally struggle with jealousy, and it’s not a part of myself that I’m proud of. It has sometime even caused me to cut myself off from my academic community, at times when I most needed support. I desperately want to be happy for my peers when they achieve something wonderful, and part of me is. But another part of me starts to question if they are just better than me, and whether I will ever reach the same milestones.
There are multiple theories around what causes jealousy. Many argue that it is a defence mechanism, causing us to protect things or relationships that we value. For those of us pursuing a career in academia, it has to be something we value, or we would probably choose a different career. For other researchers, jealousy is linked to low self-esteem; and what is imposter syndrome but a form of low self-esteem? Journalist Dawn Foster contends that capitalism exacerbates the issue, arguing that “Capitalism mandates that everyone be in perpetual competition with each other. This naturally spills over into personal, as well as professional, lives.” I think there is something to be said for all of these arguments, but they don’t really help us to find solutions.
Whenever I feel the green-eyed monster rearing its ugly head, because a contemporary has got a job, or had something published, or submitted their thesis, I have a set of mantras that I repeat to myself. These include:
Every PhD is different and progresses at different paces, so making comparisons is futile.
You should publish or present when you have something to say, not because you need to tick a box on your CV.
To be perfectly honest, sometimes this helps, sometimes it doesn’t. So, like the other problems I’ve encountered during my PhD, I’m trying to talk about it more. As with most challenges, realising I’m not the only one that sometimes feels this way has been incredibly helpful.
My academic community has been incredibly important to me over the course of my PhD. The people I have met and got to know have given me opportunities, advice, and support. Just as important is that I’ve had a lot of fun along the way. In the last three blog posts I have tried to convey that, as well as explaining what I have done to become a part of that academic community. I’ll acknowledge it isn’t easy, particularly at first, but it is most definitely worth the effort. Being a postgraduate can be a lonely existence, but only if you don’t make the most of the opportunities you are offered to be a part of something. Grab those opportunities, take part. I did, and hopefully as these three blog posts have conveyed, I’ve had a wonderful time.
 David De Steno, Piercalo Valdesolo, and Monica Y. Bartlett, “Jealousy and the Threatened Self: Getting to the Heart of the Green-Eyed Monster,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 91, no. 4 (2006): 626–641.
 Mark R. Leary, Lisa S. Schreindorfer, and Alison L. Haupt, “The Role of Low Self-Esteem in Emotional and Behavioural Problems: Why is Low Self-Esteem Dysfunctional?” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 14, no. 3 (1995): 297–314.
 Dawn Foster, Lean Out (Repeater: London, 2016): 10.
On the 8th of November 2017, I gave the Postgraduate Voices talk at the Historical Geography Research Group’s (HGRG) annual postgraduate conference, Practising Historical Geography. I talked about my experience of academic communities, because of how important they have been to me during my PhD. I have decided to turn my talk into three blog posts, which I will publish here over the next few weeks. Part 1 was the about the various groups that make up my academic community. Part 2 is about the activities I have taken part in to build and maintain that community.
Just as there are probably different types of people in your academic community, there are different ways in which you can extend and strengthen it. Seminars are not just a way to hear about new research, they are also a way of participating in various communities. Attending departmental seminars are a good way for PhD students to be part of an academic department, particularly if you don’t have an office or desk in the university. The Social, Cultural and Historical Geography Research Group at Royal Holloway have a bi-weekly seminar series in central London called Landscape Surgery, for postgraduates and staff. It is a forum for Landscape Surgeons to share our work and ideas, and also sometimes features external speakers. Landscape Surgery has been a lifeline for me during my PhD. The Human Geography postgraduates at Royal Holloway are quite geographically dispersed—most of us don’t go into the department on a regular basis. So Landscape Surgery was frequently my only contact with an academic community. It helped me to maintain my connection to the staff and students of the Royal Holloway Geography Department.
However, seminars can also introduce you to communities that go beyond your department. Another important seminar series for me is the London Group of Historical Geographers, which also meets every other week in central London. The seminars, and the trip to Olivelli’s Italian restaurant for dinner afterwards, have really helped me to develop my academic social skills over the years. The dinners in particular have introduced me to a range of historians and historical geographers in a less formal setting, which made it easier for me to actually carry on a semi-intelligent conversation.
I have been to quite a few conferences during my PhD, from small-ish ones like Practising Historical Geography to massive international conferences like the RGS Annual Conference and the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers. Like seminars, attending conferences is a brilliant way of meeting other academics. If you are presenting a paper, people will often come and introduce themselves to you, and it also serves as something to talk about, thus helping to avoid awkward silences or introductions. I have found organising conference sessions to be even more helpful. Putting out a Call for Papers connects you with people who have similar research interests. Or, you can invite people to take part in your session, providing you with a reason to get in touch with that Professor that you’ve always wanted to talk to. I’m convening a session at the International Conference of Historical Geographers in Warsaw next year. The prospect that I would get silence in response to my invitations and Call for Papers was a scary one, but I actually got a fantastic response. So I’m making new connections and extending my academic community, as well as building on my pre-existing connections with excellent academics and the conference is still months away.
The point that conferences help to maintain and develop pre-existing connections as well as making new ones is important. There are a number of my peers from all over the country that I only ever really see at conferences, so they represent a good chance to catch up. Being part of a community isn’t just about making new connections and meeting new people, it’s also about staying connected to people you’ve already met but don’t see very often.
Research Groups are open, welcoming, and often actively encourage the participation of postgraduates. They also organise events that give you the chance to participate in academic communities.
Research groups also give you the opportunity to give back to your academic community. For just over a year, I have been a member of the committee of the Digital Geographies Working Group. Serving on a Committee provides you with the opportunity to meet new people, and work with those you already know, but it also allows you to develop new skills, such as organising academic events, managing budgets and accounts, or running a website. I helped to organise the first annual Digital Geographies Symposium last year. It was a steep learning curve, but it was also great fun.
Not every academic makes use of social media, but I have found it to be very beneficial. I am active on Twitter, and I also run this blog. Twitter has allowed me to make new connections, and stay in touch with people in between conferences. Twitter can also act as a sort of leveller, making it less intimidating to approach and start a discussion with a big name.
As well as being something that I really enjoy doing, and allowing me to toy with the concept of impact, my blog gives me a presence on the internet beyond your normal Twitter account or departmental webpage. If someone wanted to, they could get a good sense of who I am and what my research interests are from Turbulent London. I am also keen to publish contributions from guest authors, which is another reason to make connections with people that you perhaps otherwise wouldn’t. Although not universal, there is no doubt that social media has changed the way that academics interact. I personally think it is a great way to participate in the academic community.
Participating in academic networks can be time consuming, but it is incredibly worthwhile; you can learn new skills, cement your place in academic communities, and it is great fun. In is not all plain sailing however; in Part 3 of The Value of Academic Communities, I will talk about some of the challenges I have faced whilst building my academic communities.