What does it mean to be a Geographer?

In January 2016, PhD Students, Leonora King and Marc Tadaki hosted the first ever graduate student “workshop to discuss human and physical geographical identity”. An interesting and unique initiative, I read the blog post that accompanied the workshop invitation which highlighted the difficult question of what it means to be a geographer, especially in a department where community members are often categorized mainly as either “Physical Geographer” or “Human Geographer”, labels that carry very different ideas of identity.

From the blog post, it sounds like this separation between the physical and human geography communities has existed for a long time; it’s the status quo. How did this particular initiative begin? Are there similar initiatives in the department’s history?

From what we have learned, this has been an ongoing conversation within the department and the discipline at large that ebbs and flows with different generations of Geographers. Historically speaking, physical and human geography diverged significantly in the 1970’s when human geography became ‘critical’ and physical geography continued to analyze earth surface processes with increasing use of math and models. This led to very different priorities relating to theories, methods, and politics, making it harder to see the two halves of geography as part of a related whole. Here in our department, interest in the issue comes and goes, and although implicit in many conversations and initiatives, there is no explicit discussion of Geographic identity. Elsewhere in the world, many Geography departments have been and continue to be dismantled into either more specialized (e.g. earth sciences) or more generalized (e.g. environmental studies) institutional arrangements.

Our motivations for the current initiative emerged from reflections with grad students and faculty about whether we do (or should) constitute a departmental ‘family’, and what that might mean. As grads, we find ourselves feeling ignorant of the ‘other half’ and often find it difficult to articulate what ‘being a Geographer’ means, and what sets us apart from other departments that have a lot in common with our particular sub-disciplines. However, we are both increasingly recognizing the value of Geography, and think that much can be done to foster both social and intellectual identification and solidarity across physical and human geography.

I understand from the article that one of your goals is to foster a better understanding of what it means to be a Geographer (Physical or Human). What do you think being a Geographer means?

Marc: I think there is plenty room in our discipline (and department) for a range of ‘geographical imaginations’. For me personally, I quite like Robert Kates’ (1967) idea of mugwumps. Mugwumps are a particular breed of geographer, who “sit astride the social and natural sciences, mug faced toward one and wump solidly planted in the other.” When I think about environmental policy, I find myself honing in on issues of place, history and power. Geography helps me to relate biophysical science to environmental politics by thinking about the ‘production of environmental space’. Whether I focus on water quality regulation, collaborative environmental governance or ecosystem services, at core I care about how historical and unequal social relations interact with the dynamic and contingent biophysical processes in a given place to produce geographies of ecological flourishing (or degradation) and environmental justice (or injustice).

Leo: This is a big question for me and I am not sure I quite have an answer yet. My interest in Geographic identity is new and is something that has resulted from the slow percolation of ideas throughout my PhD, rather than as an explicit result of my research or classroom learning. In a sense, I think that I have moved further away from a Geographic identity through my PhD, now reading mainly geophysical literature and seeking feedback from outside of the department. However, with this meandering research interest has come a deeper appreciation of the way in which Geography requires you to not only conduct rigorous and defensible research of the natural world, but also to maintain an awareness of the social context of your research topic as well as the context within which you do that research. That awareness of context is generally lacking in geophysical research and is what I think sets Geography and Geographers apart from other Earth Scientists.

You list a lot of strategies in the article to cultivate cohesion in the community; which strategy do you think will be the easiest to implement? The hardest?

From an institutional perspective, formal changes (such as changes to undergrad and grad courses) will be difficult to implement as they are often costly and usually met with (often legitimate) resistance. Informal things such as gaining support for home seminars should be both easier to implement (in theory) and help garner support for more formal initiatives. However, we are cognizant that grads already have so many commitments and demands on their time, and it is hard to find the energy to attend an additional workshop or seminar, especially when the benefits of participating are unknown in advance!

How was the first workshop? Did it change/influence your ideas of how you want to approach this initiative?

We had a really valuable and engaged discussion with a small group of grads in the workshop session (there were 7 of us), and we also managed to talk about these things with a dozen or so grads who couldn’t attend the workshop. A few things have come out:

  • Human and physical geographers have different feelings about disciplinary identity
    • human geographers appear to be more comfortable articulating what is ‘geographical’ about their work/approach and why that is valuable. However this geographical imagination rarely (if ever) stretches to include the biophysical environment or physical geography
    • physical geographers tend to identify more with the biogeosciences and are less confident in articulating why being a ‘geographical’ biogeoscientist is a virtue rather than a weakness
  • People polarize around the issue of ‘breadth versus depth’. When talking about core grad courses, there is (legitimate) disagreement about what the work of GEOB 500/GEOG 520 should be. One argument is that these courses should be about developing specialized skills and subdisciplinary knowledge, to accelerate intellectual development and as a way of preparing grads most effectively for competitive job markets. On the other side, however, is an argument that the main function of these courses should be for 1) situating grads’ work within an intellectual tradition and 2) socializing grads and producing a geographical ‘common sense’.

What difficulties have you anticipated in starting this initiative? How do you see the community overcoming these difficulties?

We have encountered three main types of resistance and to the current initiative. Here we will respond to each.

i. We have tried this before… and failed.
This may be true, but does that mean it is not worth trying again? What we need to do is learn from experience – why hasn’t this worked before, and how can we work toward conditions that can help us to realize the value of being in a Geography department?

ii. One must sacrifice depth in order to emphasize breadth.
Does creating a ‘shared’ geographical identity mean that we may need to adjust our priorities in teaching and grad studies? Yes. Will prioritizing physical-human solidarity mean there is less focus (all else being equal) on specialist knowledge and skills? Probably.

But: can we do ‘breadth’ in clever and deep ways that bring unique value to our particular sub-disciplines, while developing valuable social and intellectual foundations? Yes! Should this be a part of being a geographer? Yes! Can we also work on acquiring depth through a range of means, such as a mixed-model of GEOB 500/GEOG 520 or the addition of specialist grad courses? Yes!

iii. The problem of voluntary effort
It is a hard to get people to put voluntary effort in to ‘realizing the value of geography’ when no one seems to know what that value could be (physical geographers) or when people feel comfortable in their own identity and don’t have a burning desire to broaden their disciplinary identification (human geographers).

This is why, while we will be pursuing a range of voluntary initiatives, there needs to be some institutional effort (eventually) to embed some new priorities across a range of activities.

Cultivating geographical identity across human and physical geography in our department is going to be difficult, but we contend that it is necessary if we are going to continue to be a geography department and not disband into something else!