23rd Practising Historical Geography Conference

The 2017 Practising Historical Geography Conference was held in Manchester (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Last week, I went to Manchester Metropolitan University for the 23rd annual Practising Historical Geography Conference, organised by the Historical Geography Research Group (HGRG).  It was my fifth time attending the conference (I wrote about the last one I attended, in 2015, here), but my first time presenting. As always, I thought it was a great day, well organised, with really interesting speakers.

The day involves: two keynote speakers; two methodological workshops; a Postgraduate Voices presentation by a recently completed PhD student; and a paper by the HGRG undergraduate dissertation prize winner. This year, I gave the Postgraduate Voices talk. It meant a lot to be asked, as the Practising Historical Geography conferences have been a really important part of my PhD. I have valued the time spent with other enthusiastic researchers who have been unfailingly supportive over the last five years. Because of how much I have gotten out of these conferences, I decided to use my Postgraduate Voices presentation to talk about my place in the academic communities that played such an important role in my PhD. Doing a PhD can be a lonely experience, so I think it’s really important to take a bit of time and effort to participate in academic networks when you get the chance.

The Royal Holloway contingent at the 23rd Practising Historical Geography conference. Left to right: Ben Newman, myself, and Ed Armstron-Sheret (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

In her introduction to the conference, President of the HGRG Dr. Briony McDonagh said that the field of historical geography was in “rude health.” By the end of the day, I couldn’t help but agree. The keynote lectures, given by Professor Jon Stobbart and Dr. Kimberly Peters, were both fantastic, and they highlighted the diversity of research being conducted in the field. Professor Stobbart discussed the construction of ‘comfortable’ homes in Georgian England using material objects, whilst Dr. Peters talked about the development of maritime ‘motorways,’ shipping lanes designed to minimise the chance of large container ships colliding head-on. I never thought that I would find maritime trade so interesting!

The two workshops were also excellent. The first, organised by Dr. Sarah Mills, was about the ethics of archival research. I must admit I generally fall into the trap of assuming that I don’t need to think too much about ethics because I research the past, but the workshop made me realise it was something I should pay more attention to. The second workshop, run by Dr. James Kneale, was about the merits and challenges of time capsules for historical research. During the recent demolition of the Temperance Hospital in London, two time capsules were found, and Dr. Kneale was asked to consult on their contents. Whilst it seems unlikely that many historical geographers will find themselves in a similar situation during their careers, we had some great discussions about the nature, meaning, purpose, and use of time capsules.

Practising Historical Geography is always a brilliant event, and this year was no different. I drove home feeling energised, with a renewed enthusiasm for my own research. I would like to say thank you to the HGRG committee, particularly Dr. Cheryl McGeachan and Dr. Hannah Neate, for organising such a wonderful event.

The RGS-IBG Annual Conference: A Social Nexus

The Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers Annual Conference took place this year at the RGS-IBG in Kensington (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

I spent most of last week at the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers (more commonly known as the RGS-IBG to save time!) Annual Conference in South Kensington. It is the fourth big international conference I have attended since I started my PhD, and apart from being more familiar with big conferences and how they work, I noticed one big difference from my previous conference experiences: I know people now. During the tea breaks, lunch breaks, and drinks receptions, I could be fairly confident that I would find someone I know to talk to. Not that there’s anything wrong starting a conversation with a stranger; I did a little of that too. But knowing that I could probably find someone I already knew to talk to make the prospect of networking less intimidating.

The overarching theme of the conference this year was Nexus Thinking. One of the latest buzzwords in geography, a nexus is a space of connections, of junctures, and of interaction. It got me thinking about the way in which conferences bring people together from a wide range of geographical locations and subject areas- they function as social nexuses (see what I did there?).

I saw lots of people that I know at the RGS-IBG, many that I haven’t seen in quite a while. There were previous Royal Holloway students who have now moved on to further study at other universities; current Hollowegians who I haven’t seen since the end of the summer term, or who I don’t normally get to talk to in the day-to-day life of my PhD; and people that I only really see at conferences.

Myself with some fellow Hollowegians during a lunch break. From left to right: Ben Newman, Rachel Squire, Innes Keighren, Hannah Awcock (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Many of them were fellow PhD students, whose PhDs I have followed via conference papers and chats over tea and biscuits, lunch, or a drink in the pub at the end of the day. I have watching from afar as their research has developed and progressed, and it was really nice to see them last week, as we all come in to the final stretch.

The RGS-IBG Historical Geography Research Group too, have been an intermittent presence throughout my PhD, particularly at the annual Practising Historical Geography conferences. The more established members are so supportive and generous with their time, never seeming to get tired of the incessant questioning from postgraduate students.

Sometimes when I am sat at home at my desk staring at a computer screen for hours on end, a PhD can feel quite lonely. Last week I was reminded that I have become part of a community; a group of people who know and understand what I’m going through, and that feels really nice. It might be a largely long-distance community, that requires a social nexus like the RGS-IBG Annual Conference to bring us together, but it is one that means a lot to me. And I am now confident that I will always be able to find someone to eat with during the conference lunch breaks.

Practising Historical Geography

Last Wednesday (the 28th of October), the 21st Practising Historical Geography conference took place at the University of Sussex in Brighton. The conference is organised by the Historical Geography Research Group of the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers (or HGRH and RGS-IBG for short!), and is aimed at undergraduates and postgraduates. This was my forth year attending the conference (previously held at the University of Bristol (2014), University of Central Lancashire in Preston (2013) and the University of Hull (2012). I first attended as a Masters student (all those studying the MA Cultural Geography at Royal Holloway are encouraged to attend), and even now, in the third year of my PhD, I still found it to be a beneficial and enjoyable experience.

The Royal Holloway contingent at the 21st Practising Historical Geography conference at the University of Sussex (Photo: Innes Keighren).
The Royal Holloway contingent at the 21st Practising Historical Geography conference at the University of Sussex (Photo: Innes Keighren).

The conference combines keynote speakers, workshops, and chances to network. The first keynote was given by Dr. Simon Rycroft (University of Sussex) and was entitled ‘Mid-century Representation: John Latham’s Cosmos.’ Using the work of artist John Latham, Dr. Rycroft argued that it is important to be alert to the changing practices of representation. Representations reflect the ways we think about materials, which changes over time. Academics need to take such things into account when analysing representations.

Dr. Simon Rycroft talking about the work of artist John Latham (Photo: Hannah Awcock).
Dr. Simon Rycroft talking about the work of artist John Latham (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

After the first keynote is a section called Postgraduate Voices, where someone who has recently completed their PhD gives advice based on their experiences. This year, Dr. Jake Hodder talked about the 3 major crises he faced during his PhD, which roughly align with the 3(ish) years that a PhD takes:

  1. Imposter syndrome:  The fear that someone will realise you are not good enough to be here, and tell you to go home, in a very public and humiliating way.
  2. Project isn’t coming together: At some points it can feel like you will never be able to make a coherent whole out of all the work you have done.
  3. Uncertainty: Particularly in the third and fourth years, financial insecurity and a sense of ‘what the hell am I going to do next?!’ can take its toll.

I found myself agreeing with everything Jake said. It is always reassuring to know that others are facing the same difficulties as you, and knowing that Jake overcame them to become Dr. Hodder is a welcome confidence boost!

Every year, the Historical Geography Research Group runs a competition for undergraduate dissertations in the field of historical geography. This year, the prize was won by Victoria Bellamy (University of Cambridge), who told us about her research on Victoria Park in East London in the second half of the nineteenth century. Parks are ideologically contested spaces; there is constant debate about their purpose and how they can be used. Victoria’s research explores how some of these debates played out in Victoria Park, surrounded by some of the most deprived areas of Victorian London. She did a fantastic job of presenting her work.

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Victoria Bellamy summarised her prize-winning undergraduate dissertation in just 10 minutes (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The middle section of the day is taken up by 2 workshops, which focus on what it’s like to actually do historical research. Previous workshops have involved all kinds of things, from taxidermy to the Preston bus station, but this year they focused on extreme weather events in Britain (run by Dr. Lucy Veale, University of Nottingham) and the spatial politics of British households in the nineteenth-century, particularly the relationships between domestic servants and employers (run by  Dr. Fae Dussart, University of Sussex). Chances to discuss the practice of researching the past with other researchers are rare, so I always look forward to this part of the day. It is an opportunity to talk about the difficulties of historical research, as well as explore some methodologies that may be unfamiliar.

Lucy Veale running a workshop about researching extreme weather events in the archive (Photo: Hannah Awcock).
Lucy Veale running a workshop about researching extreme weather events in the archive (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The day was rounded off by the second keynote speaker, Dr. James Kneale (University College London), who spoke on the subject of ‘Looking for Drink in the Archive.’ Dr. Kneale has been researching alternative approaches to Victorian understandings of alcohol. There is plenty of evidence of the moral debates surrounding alcohol in the archives, but the Victorians didn’t just talk about alcohol, they experienced it in a whole range of other ways. Dr. Kneale has been using the archive to investigate practice, which is no simple task.

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James Kneale discussing looking for evidence of alcohol in the archives (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

If all goes according to plan, I will probably be too busy putting the finishing touches to my thesis to attend the 22nd Practising Historical Geography conference next year. This is a shame, as it is a great event. I would thoroughly recommend it for any Masters or PhD students whose work even remotely relates to historical geography, especially if you are relatively new to academia. The atmosphere is friendly and welcoming, and it would be an ideal first conference. I have learnt a lot over the past four years, and met people who have become both colleagues and friends. Thank you to the Historical Geography Research Group (particularly Lucy Veale, who has organised the last 3 conferences) for putting on such wonderful events.

The 2012-3 MA Cultural Geography cohort in a pub in Hull the night before the 18th Practising Historical Geography conference (Photo: Innes Keighren).
The 2012-3 MA Cultural Geography cohort in a pub in Hull the night before the 18th Practising Historical Geography conference (Photo: Innes Keighren).
The Royal Holloway contingent in a pub in Preston the night before the 19th Practising Historical Geography conference in 2013 (Photo: Innes Keighren).
The Royal Holloway contingent in a pub in Preston the night before the 19th Practising Historical Geography conference in 2013 (Photo: Innes Keighren).
The Royal Holloway contingent at the 20th Practising Historical Geography conference in Bristol- we don't spend all our time in pubs! (Photo: Innes Keighren).
The Royal Holloway contingent at the 20th Practising Historical Geography conference in Bristol- we don’t spend all our time in pubs! (Photo: Innes Keighren).

#RGSIBG14: Twitter @ an Academic Conference

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A Presentation at the RGS-IBG 2014 Annual Conference (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

I recently attended the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers (RGS-IBG for short) annual conference in London. It was my first major conference, and it was also my first academic event since I began using Twitter in earnest. I tried to engage with Twitter and the conference hashtag (#RGSIBG14) as much as possible during the week-long event. As a result I felt that my experience of the conference was enhanced. In addition, I  gained around 10 new Twitter followers,  and this blog was even mentioned on the Eventifier social media summary of the conference due to my shameless self-promotion.

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Some of my tweets from the conference (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Tweeting during events is not something that feels natural to me. I mostly tweet using my phone, and it goes against a lifetime of my parents’ scolding to use my phone whilst talking or listening to someone. Particularly when listening to someone present a paper, tweeting just felt a bit rude so I tried to do it as surreptitiously as possible. The boundaries surrounding the live-tweeting of academic events should perhaps be a topic for discussion. Not everyone uses Twitter, and the last thing I want is for people to be put off or upset because I appear bored by their paper, whilst actually they have just said something that I thought was interesting enough to share with others. Is it rude, or is it just extending the debate into another format?

There are obvious benefits to using Twitter at conferences. If I like someone’s paper, I can follow them on Twitter to keep up with them and their work as it progresses. I can get the gist of sessions that I don’t go to as other people tweet about them. Through my use of Twitter, I have also raised my profile as an academic. Several times during the conference, I had the surreal experience of someone that I had never met coming up to introduce themselves, because we had communicated previously through Twitter. It was nice to put faces to Twitter handles, but it also proved to me the merits of Twitter as a networking tool. I am better known amongst the academic community than I otherwise would be because of my participation in the twittersphere.

I know that Twitter is not everyone’s cup of tea, and I think there needs to be more discussion about it’s use amongst the academic community, but I also think it can be an incredibly useful tool. Please comment on this post with your own thoughts and experiences on Twitter, I would love to get a discussion going!

RGS-IBG Annual Conference 2014

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South Kensington Station, which became quite familiar over the week (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Although I have been to conferences before, I have never been to one quite as big as the RGS-IBG annual conference. With around 2000 delegates, and 414 sessions to  choose from, I couldn’t really comprehend the size of it until I saw it for myself. Over the course of 4 days, I went to 13 sessions, and listened to 40 papers. I have had a great week, although I do feel like I need another week to recover (It’s a good thing I’m on holiday as I write this!) I have met some great people, and listened to some fascinating papers on a range of topics from war, conflict, protest and fascism through to music, cold war bunkers and gay bars.

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The Chair’s opening panel discussion on co-production (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The overarching theme of the conference was co-production, the idea of producing knowledge and other outputs in collaboration with others. As a historical geographer, it was not something that I thought really applied to me. However, during a panel discussion at the conference on co-production, it was pointed out that all knowledge is co-produced. No knowledge, or anything else for that matter, is produced in a vacuum, it always involves other people to some extent. When I do archival research, I am working with the people who wrote the sources, the people who chose to preserve them, and the people who look after and organise them. I think it is important to be aware of these other actors that contribute to your research, not only in order to give them the credit they deserve, but also to ensure that your research is as informed and considered as possible.

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My RHUL colleague, Mel Nowicki, presenting her paper (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

One thing that was really brought home to me over the course of the conference was how far I, and the other PhD students who started at Royal Holloway with me, have come. We started almost a few weeks short of a year ago, and we’ve all achieved a lot since then. I was surprised at the number of people I knew at the conference, I didn’t realise how many interesting and engaging people I have met at various events since last September. I did not present, but many of my colleagues did, with a few even presenting two papers. I only saw one of them, but it was lovely to see her (Mel Nowicki, @melnowicki) research taking shape. It can sometimes feel like a PhD will never end, so it was really reassuring to realise that I am making progress.

So I think it’s safe to say that my first major academic research was a resounding success. I have had a lot of fun, a lot of ideas, and some interesting thoughts on the process of PhD. Roll on next year!