VR has been the next big thing for a very long time. Back in 1993 confused TV audiences in the UK got to see Craig Charles hosting Cyber Zone – a short-lived attempt to bring VR to the masses. Cyber Zone sticks in my mind mostly because one of the challenges involved navigating around Cyber Swindon, the real version of which my parents moved to the following year.
In recent years large technology firms have revisited the idea of VR as dramatic advances in processing power, sensor technology, screen resolution and refresh rates have allowed for the creation of a much more convincing immersive experience. Facebook (owners of Oculus), HTC, Microsoft, Samsung and others have all had a swing at VR with varying degrees of success. Although the tech is considerably more advanced than in the 1990s it still feels somewhat unrefined and very much a solution in search of a problem.
I’ve got a VR setup that I use for demonstrations, open days and the like. Assetto Corsa, a racing sim, looks graphically unremarkable when viewed on a screen but seen through a headset it’s really quite compelling. Indeed, using the headset in combination with a full steering wheel and pedal set, I’ve ‘driven’ the course of Trento-Bondone, a 17km hill climb. I ended up every bit as exhausted as the time I drove up a switchback alpine road to Breil-sur-Roya north of Nice. Admittedly driving my virtual Fiat 500 the course took me over 22 minutes, compared to the lap record of 9 minutes but it was sufficiently convincing that when I finally reached the end of the course I ‘stopped’ the car and automatically reached for a handbrake that wasn’t there.
So how does this involve my parents? Well, a few months ago I discovered that Google Earth is now available in VR and had a play around. It made me think about a conversation I’d had with my mother where she talked about the fact that her knees were starting to play up which meant there were hill walks she could no longer attempt. I wondered whether VR would be a good substitute allowing people to visit spaces they could no longer access. Virtual flying up to the top of the Old Man of Coniston in the Lake District was quite satisfying for me because of the several times I’ve climbed that hill I’ve never actually seen the view from the top because of low cloud. The view in VR seemed to me to be really quite convincing.
Maybe there’s a project here, I thought to myself. Heading up to see my parents in December, I packed up some of my VR gear to get them to have a play with Google Earth. My parents are both from Liverpool originally and moved back to the north west a few years ago. I gave both of them a go in the headset, starting from Liverpool and, in my mother’s case, also having a virtual walk around Coniston.
While neither of my folks are massively techy, they do enjoy playing with Google Earth on their computers, my mum in particular using it to have a look at places she reads about. Neither of them were therefore taken aback by the existence of Google Earth itself but both were very surprised by how different it feels when you are in those virtual landscapes rather than just looking at them on a screen. I had my mum walking around a little whilst in the headset – I’m using a Samsung Odyssey which has camera-based motion tracking – though this can be quite awkward because it’s easy to get tangled up in the wires and you can feel rather wobbly and disorientated. She was quite delighted at being a giant able to walk across a miniaturised central Liverpool. Less convincing for her was the virtual climb up Coppermines Valley in Coniston. The closer you get to the ground surface in Google Earth, the more it becomes obvious that it’s a somewhat pixelated aerial photograph. As she later told me, when she goes for a walk, for her it’s not about the view from the top, it’s about the detail of the flowers and grass right next to her.
My mother had initially struggled a bit getting to grips with the controls to fly around the virtual environment, so I spent a little more time explaining them to my father before he put the headset on. Immediately he started zooming down the Old Dock Road in Liverpool and I assumed he’d very quickly get disorientated but within about ten seconds he’d got complete control over his virtual movements and was happily flying across Liverpool giving a guided tour to us both. When he was younger, he was a flight instructor for gliders – a fact I must admit I’d not thought about when I put him into the headset. Talking through the experience he said that he’d immediately felt that he was in an aircraft and that the controls, involving tilting the controller up and down, had felt incredibly intuitive. Later he took great delight in flying underneath the Runcorn bridge and then landing his virtual plane at Speke airport – or Liverpool John Lennon as it is now known – just round the corner from where he grew up.
It was a really interesting afternoon that got me thinking about the intersection of virtual landscape, memory and experience. I think there’s a project to be done there, but it still needs a bit of pondering. Possibly this will involve building a smaller, but more detailed environment of the kind that Bob Stone’s team have been doing for years. Admittedly my initial efforts to learn Unity last week in order to do this have not progressed very quickly, though I’ll admit I was childishly delighted to create a walkable ‘landscape’ based on a crude import of terrain data for Snowdonia. If I get any further along with this I’ll write another post…
Just as we are heads down in the final run to the end of term and Xmas I've finally managed to regain access to my website after several months of password-based shenanigans. What better way to celebrate than to upload the piece that I intended to post at the end of the summer about eye tracking...
One of the things I promised myself while I was in Australia was that I would hack together an inexpensive eyetracker this summer that I could give my students to play with. What I’ve done is buy a Tobii 4C – basically a toy that is designed to be used with certain video games to pan the screen around via eye movement. This cost me £121 on Amazon. It’s a small bar that attaches to the bottom of your screen and plugs into your computer via USB. All the clever stuff is done onboard the eyetracker itself (which is essentially a camera that can see your eye movements) so it will run very happily on a low-powered laptop.
Tobii explicitly prevent you from using their API to capture the datastream from this device so that you can’t use it to record the raw eyetracking data for research purposes. This is fair enough given that a lot of people who don’t need clinical grade eyetracking would probably find this device ‘good enough’ and thus not pay the hefty subscriptions to use Tobii’s more accurate equipment and software.
Tobii do, however, allow you to create a representation of your eye movements across the screen using their ‘Ghost’ software from which you can undertake what we might refer to as descriptive eye tracking. You can then connect this to streaming software (they recommend OBS Studio) which can either record or live-stream what you see on your screen to services like Youtube and Twitch. Thus you can record a video with an eyetracking overlay showing the researcher what their participants were looking at when viewing the screen. This can work with movies, games, websites, or simply a collection of images in PowerPoint. In the image below you can see me playing around with a heatmap style representation of where I’m looking on an image of a fantasy city.
In no way is this good enough for doing advanced psychological work. Indeed, such a set up would be rightly dismissed as ‘descriptive’ by anyone who works in this field. It is, however, quite cute and a cheap way of showing the principles and possibilities of work using this kind of technology. And sometimes ‘descriptive’ work is good enough to highlight potentially interesting research questions that you might want to investigate through other means.
I used this setup at the RGS ‘Digital Landscapes’ event co-organised by my excellent PhD student Tess Osborne in August. Again, it’s more about starting a conversation than doing anything approaching ‘science’ with this kind of tool. I've since given it to the third year students taking my Geographies of the Body module to see what projects they'd come up with. They've done some quite cool stuff looking at representations of London and New York in cinema, a project looking at Asian beauty standards and a comparaison of green versus white (snowy) space. It’s very exciting seeing what the students come up with when you give them the opportunity to play around with different methods – a point I made at our last open day when I was getting applicants (and their parents!) to play with this eyetracking set up, as well as a VR driving experience.
A few years ago when I was running the Human Geography Research Theme at Birmingham with my colleague Julian Clark, we sat down to try and cook up a way of reintroducing study leave. Although the University’s procedures for this were still in place, as a School it had largely stopped except where people had secured a fellowship to buy out their teaching.
Julian and I introduced a system whereby colleagues could coordinate with us and with the programme leads to make space for taking a semester out to have study leave; other research themes in the School subsequently copied our system. Obviously, because I’d helped re-introduce study leave I thought it would look far too self-interested if I tried to go on leave myself right away. But fast forward a few years and having secured a Universitas 21 travel grant, I found myself in a position to have my first period of study leave in the 15 years that I’ve worked at Birmingham.
The time I’ve spent in Melbourne has been tremendously productive. The School of Geography at the University of Melbourne is an excellent department, with some really top-class scholars. Melbourne as a city has a number of other really good universities, so there’s a fantastic intellectual climate here. I am immensely grateful to all the people who’ve taken the time to meet with me and particularly to Birmingham’s International Office for making the U21 funding available to come here.
For the U21 Fellowship I worked on projects around map collections, the management of interdisciplinary urban studies and the potential for running an undergraduate fieldcourse to Melbourne. But I’ve also had targets to achieve for my Head of School and College. I had forgotten the simple joy of simply sitting down, undisturbed, writing without email pinging, without admin tasks to do and without people knocking on your door. I’ve not had that experience since I finished my PhD in 2003. Things that might otherwise have taken me months to finish off have been turned around in matter of days.
Obviously, there’s a lot to be reflected on here in terms of decluttering academic life and trying to resist the fragmentation of time that has become a major part of the job these days. As a colleague here put it “slow down to speed up”. Indeed, since my study leave started in January, I’ve written two grant applications, the case for support for a third, I’ve been assembling the manuscript for an edited book, done the corrections on a paper that has since been accepted and even, in the last few days, drafted a book proposal.
On one level, then, I’m nervous about returning to the normal academic fray once I get back to the office in Birmingham in a week or so. But on other levels, I have missed my colleagues and my students. There’s a lot of fun and satisfaction to be had in those other parts of the job away from the secluded cloisters of study leave. Nonetheless, it’s been a hugely productive couple of months for me that will doubtless show up as a purple patch in my CV. The challenge facing many departments in the UK is in making sure everyone is able to maximise their opportunities for developing ideas, researching and writing alongside their other responsiblities. Defragmentation of time and protection from mundane and routine tasks is the only way to make this a part of the everyday academic experience.
As I’m coming to the end of my stay in Melbourne, I’m going to take the opportunity to reflect on some ideas I’ve been having about the possibilities for geographers presented by eye tracking technology.
In collaboration with Jodi Sita from the Australian Catholic University, I’ve written a grant proposal while I’ve been here which seeks to use eye tracking glasses to examine how cyclists engage with urban spaces. These glasses overlay a record of where you’re pointing your eyes onto a video recorded from a front facing camera mounted at eye level. These devices used to be a little Heath Robinson, but are now very slickly packaged with a similar weight and appearance to sports sunglasses, making them suitable for field-based use.
Meeting with a couple of eye tracking specialists while I’ve been here has given me the chance to think through some ideas around how geographers can engage with these technologies. The majority of work in eye tracking is lab-based, asking participants to look at a screen and recording how long they spend looking at different elements of images displayed on the screen. Again, this used to be a technology that was very expensive and complex, but which has tumbled in price and rocketed in usability over the last few years.
Jodi has just published an edited collection looking at what eye tracking can bring to film and TV studies. I had a fascinating conversation with Angela Ndalianis of Swinburne University of Technology about her collaboration with Jodi examining some of the assumptions made by film studies scholars about how audiences watch movies – what elements filmmakers intend to draw the eye vs. the parts of the screen that audiences actually look at. A fascinating opportunity to debunk some long-held theories and confirm others. Jodi has also run an amazing project examining how people respond to green space, showing them film of walks through parks to see what elements they pay attention to in the landscape.
In conversation with Adrian Dyer at RMIT, he revealed his concerns that a great many studies being undertaken with eyetracking these days (not including those described above) are insufficiently rigorous and overly descriptive. This is doubtless a fair point. But there’s something about this moment with the technology that allows for research to emerge that might not meet the standards of rigour of conventional approaches to eye tracking, but which can nonetheless give new insights into a variety of different areas.
One can buy a basic screen-based eye tracker for less than £200, although this unfortunately lacks the specialist software that allows you to do the automated analysis. That specialist software gets quite expensive quite quickly – about €2500 for a year’s subscription – but allows you to start identifying how much time people spend examining different elements within an image.
At high levels of sophistication, eye tracking can give insights into people’s decisionmaking. Market researchers use this to determine things like how the design of packaging can make people more or less likely to buy a product (there’s a group at Monash working on this). One of the things I intend to do when I get back to the UK is see if I can hack together something relatively crude to allow students to do basic analysis using a cheap gaming eye tracker. From a scientific point of view, this would be entirely without rigour, but for demonstrating the principles of how one could start to use this technology, I think it could be very useful. Once something usable falls below £1000, however, I can see that there would be serious interest among geographers in what this technology could do. Scholars working on, for example, place, mobilities, landscape etc. could gain some fascinating new insights working with these techniques.
At the University of Birmingham we have a very large map collection held within the School of Geography, Earth & Environmental Sciences. It’s an eclectic mix of maps used in the field, teaching sets of ordnance survey and geology maps, large scale topographic maps for regions across the globe, a treasure trove of historic items and fascinating oddities such as fire insurance plans. More and more of the everyday maps that we use for teaching are now digital, however. In common with map collections elsewhere in the UK the balance is therefore shifting from being a working collection toward being more of an archive collection. Archives are, of course, fantastically important and useful things – well I would say that, given that I used to be an historian – and so we’re looking at how we manage the long-term future of the excellent collection that we have at Birmingham.
I’ve been in Melbourne for just over a month now and have been working on a number of projects in parallel. One of my reasons for being here is to look at Australian practice in terms of managing map collections. I’ve spent the last few weeks talking to experts in the field about how they manage their maps, having meetings with University-based map librarians and collection managers based at the Victoria and New South Wales State Libraries and the National Library of Australia in Canberra.
In meeting this group of passionate and fascinating individuals, a couple of themes have become clear. First, as in the UK, university map librarians are starting to retire and when they do, institutions are having to make difficult choices about how they manage those collections. The library team at one university are currently doing a piece of research attempting to figure out what to do with what has become a somewhat orphaned collection. The library building in which it’s housed is under great pressure to expand the number of study spaces as student numbers climb meaning that storage space is at a premium. Some of the map material has been passed to other institutions, some will go to offsite storage, some may be disposed of.
The future seems to be in digitisation – perhaps no surprise. Scanning maps is a lot of work, but in some ways is the relatively straightforward part of the problem. The key challenges would seem to be:
Fundamentally these are library and database management problems which means that securing the future of the collection at Birmingham will need much closer coordination with our central library team. There are a lot of things to put in place before we can start simply scanning the maps, even if we can get volunteer labour to help offset some of the costs of this. We also need to look carefully at what is already available online at archive grade before doing any scanning. The National Library of Australia, for example, get a great many inquiries from people in the UK because they’ve made freely available a great number of high quality scans of Ordnance Survey maps of Britain.
There’s quite a bit of work for us to do at Birmingham, but from what I’ve seen operating here, I think we can be optimistic about securing the future of our collection. This will require an investment of time and money but, based on this trip, I feel much more confident in knowing what we need to ask for and who we need to talk to in order to make this happen.
I need to say a big thank you to everyone who took the time to meet with me here in Australia, but particularly to David Jones, the Map Curator at the University of Melbourne who has been incredibly generous in opening up his little black book and connecting me with colleagues across the country. If you are interested in maps and find yourself in Melbourne, do look David up - he's a thoroughly good bloke and looks after quite an amazing collection.
I’m relatively new to modern console gaming. The first time I played Assassin’s Creed: Unity there was a moment of genuine shock where, seeing the sheer size and detail of the landscape being represented I wondered to myself “do geographers even know about this stuff?”. I laughed out loud when, walking away from a representation of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in 1789, I found the River Seine, exactly where I would have expected it to be from my knowledge of the real city.
As Monica Degen, Clare Melhuish and Gillian Rose (2017) have discussed, virtual environments are more than just representations, but are intended to do work in the material world. This is something that I’ve been writing about with Tess Osborne in relation to video games. Hopefully that paper should see the light of day shortly, but in the meantime while I’m in Australia I’ve been hit by an odd sensation of familiarity. I have physically been to Australia before, but that was back in 1987 and my memories are somewhat blurred by time. Much more recently, however, I’ve been to a virtual Australia courtesy of Turn 10 Studios’ Forza Horizon 3.
For those unfamiliar with the Forza franchise, these are Xbox exclusive games that come in two flavours. The main Forza series is about creating a minutely detailed racing simulator, with real race tracks laser scanned for maximum accuracy, incredibly careful reproductions not just of the look of different cars, but their driving characteristics. It’s a labour of love, incredibly nerdy and – if you’re anything like me – almost impossible to control unless you turn all of the driver aids and cheats to maximum. Technically these games are fascinating, but perhaps not wildly fun.
Every other year, however, Turn 10 release one of the Forza Horizon games. These are open world – in that you can drive freely rather than being confined to a track – and are very much playful. You can drive a Lamborghini at high speed through a vineyard with cheerful abandon before getting back onto the asphalt and pottering toward a local town without having to call a tow truck because you’ve shattered your transmission into a thousand tiny fragments. The Horizon games are fun and silly, but at least vaguely based on real places. Forza Horizon 2 is set in the south of France and it’s strange to drive through a simplified version of Nice and recognise some of the buildings along the Promenade des Anglais looking across the beach.
Games designers, for practical and ludic reasons, fiddle with the details when real places are being reproduced. So the Australia of Forza Horizon 3 might feature real places, but you certainly can’t drive from the Great Ocean Road west of Melbourne to Coober Pedy north of Adelaide in ten minutes as you can in the game (Google Maps suggests it would take about 17 hours). Nonetheless, some of the game landscapes are simply haunting compared to the real thing. On a gravel road up in the hills north of Melbourne at the weekend, I was struck just how much it felt to me like I was in the game – empty roads, beautiful forest.
Of course, I wasn’t in a hyper car and I’m not convinced the hire company would have been impressed that I was out on a dirt track. Similarly, down on the Great Ocean Road, the scenery is uncannily like the game in places, but there was no way I was going to be doing any driving down in the surf when I visited.
The shock of recognition says something about the levels of detail games designers are now using to create a compelling environment in which we can play – partly to keep us wanting to buy the next game, the next expansion pack and so on. But, of course, designers cut out the boring bits. There’s a lot of rather dull urban landscape in material London when moving between the famous bits – but you wouldn’t necessarily know that from playing Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate. Similarly, the Great Ocean road is pretty, but the mundane realities of speed limits, heavy traffic and the need to find somewhere for lunch make it a very different experience to hooning along at 250kph in a Koenigsegg before completely losing the back end going into a corner too quickly and ending up crashing into a cliff face. Games landscapes can be consumed in a variety of different ways, but everything about them is encouraging you to have a much more ludic engagement in ways that would be deemed profoundly antisocial in the real world. And, indeed, the gamerly skills needed to engage with the virtual landscape in that way don’t really translate to the material realities of being out on a dusty mountain road, on your own, with somewhat spotty GPS reception and without a clear idea of where you’re going. But it can still be genuinely disturbing when you’re visiting a new place and think to yourself “I feel like I’ve been here before…”
Degen, M., Melhuish, C. and Rose, G. (2017) Producing place atmospheres digitally: architecture, digital visualisation practices and the experience economy, Journal of Consumer Culture 17: 3-24.
Last year I was fortunate enough to secure funding from U21 to spend a couple of months as a visiting fellow at the University of Melbourne. Leaving behind a cold and snowy UK I'm in Australia working on a series of projects, meeting colleagues and learning about best practice in a number of different areas.
My fellowship has four broad topics: urban studies; map archives; research-led undergraduate fieldwork; and creative methods. I’m excited to be meeting with colleagues from the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute to explore how they manage a large, cross-campus and interdisciplinary team. This has particular relevance for practice at Birmingham, as we have just launched a new Urban Initiative seeking to capitalise on interdisciplinary research and teaching opportunities examining the future of cities globally. I’ve also been fortunate enough to arrange a series of meetings with colleagues from different Map Libraries in the city of Melbourne and hope to use these contacts to get in touch with other map curators both here and in Sydney. The University of Birmingham’s map collection is in a period of transition and talking to experts here in Melbourne is a chance to help feed into discussions about the future of our collection.
My School has just secured funding from the University of Birmingham to implement a series of year 3 undergraduate fieldcourses, intending to reinforce our ongoing strategy to focus on students designing and implementing their own research projects. Research-led teaching is now at the heart of our curriculum at Birmingham and my trip to Melbourne allows me to do some planning for a potential fieldcourse based in the city. I’ll be exchanging ideas with colleagues here, particularly with a view to identifying topics that students can develop into field-based projects.
Finally, I’m arranging to meet with a number of different scholars working on novel and innovative arts and technology-based research techniques. There are some fascinating projects happening here in Melbourne and I’m excited to learn more about how researchers working in a range of different disciplines are integrating new techniques into their approaches to data collection. I’ll also be talking about some of my own ‘playful methods’ experiments at seminars that I’m giving during my time here.
In addition to thanking U21 for providing the funding to undertake the fellowship, I am exceedingly grateful to my School and College for giving me research leave to spend an extended amount of time in Australia. I also owe a deep debt to the School of Geography at the University of Melbourne who are hosting me, providing a desk and Visiting Fellow status during my time in Australia. I’m excited to start getting to know and working with my new colleagues over the next couple of months.
Sponsored by the Gender and Feminist Geographies Research Group & the Higher Education Research Group
The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) places at its heart the idea of research-informed teaching (RIT) arguing that ‘The learning environment is enriched by student exposure to and involvement in provision at the forefront of scholarship, research and/or professional practice.’ (DfE, 2017, p25). While TEF can be criticised for advancing the marketization of universities, the emphasis on RIT provides a useful opportunity to reflect on our practice as researchers in the classroom.
RIT covers a range of practices from communicating research findings, through teaching and assessment methods and processes, up to students undertaking research themselves (HEA & UA, 2016). Geographic research into bodies and embodiment is well positioned to engage with RIT approaches because of the emphasis on praxis within feminist and allied scholarship (Staeheli & Lawson 1995). The phenomenological understanding of bodies and worlds being co-constructed produces a range of opportunities for learning-by-doing, creativity and experimentation (Manning, 2014) as do recent reflections on the potential for deploying ‘visceral’ methodologies (Sexton et al. 2017). Likewise, there are opportunities for action learning through research activities where students ‘trouble’ (Butler, 1990) their habitual embodied performances of space and multisensory experience of everyday landscapes. Such approaches also lend themselves to enhancing student skillsets by encouraging communication beyond conventional academic essays.
We are seeking panellists interested in discussing the place of bodies and embodiment research within higher education teaching. The format would be for panellists to provide a five minute pitch about their own teaching practice, followed by an audience Q&A. Themes for panellists could include:
- More-than-content-delivery approaches to teaching the body and embodiment
- Ways of connecting academic theory with everyday life
- Co-researching with students and encouraging students to become independent researchers
- Resisting/working with student instrumentality – “How will this get me a job?”
- Students presenting research findings beyond conventional modes of academic writing
- Research ethics, integrity and student embodiment
- Teaching and assessing the multisensory
If you are interested in taking part, please get in touch with one of the panel organisers: Phil Jones (firstname.lastname@example.org), Jen Lea (email@example.com) and Nina Morris (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Butler J (1990) Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity. Routledge, London.
DfE (2017) Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework Specification. Department for Education, London.
HEA & UA (2016) What does research informed teaching look like? Higher Education Academy, London.
Manning, E. (2014) Against method, in Vannini, P. (ed.) Non-representational methodologies. New York: Routledge, pp.52-71
Sexton AE, Hayes-Conroy A, Sweet EL, Miele M and Ash J. 2017 Better than text? Critical reflections on the practices of visceral methodologies in human geography, Geoforum 82;Supplement C 200-1.
Staeheli L & Lawson,V (1995), Feminism, praxis, and human geography. Geographical Analysis, 27: 321–338
A variety of technologies have emerged in the last decade that make it easier and cheaper than ever before to make representations of everyday mobile embodiment. Increasing numbers of people are quantifying and self-tracking their everyday lives recording behavioural, biological and environmental data (Beer, 2016; Neff & Nafus, 2016) using a variety of technologies, for example:
The emergence of the quantified-self poses both opportunities and dilemmas for geographical thought. We wish to move past simplistic protests that dismiss such technology as offering another take on Haraway’s (1988) ‘god trick’, presenting partial, and highly situated data as objective truth. Instead, this session will build on the potential identified by Delyser and Sui (2013) to take more inventive approaches toward mobile methods. The focus will be on how these technologies can be engaged with by critical geographers to bring new perspectives to their analysis of everyday embodiment. Themes include, but are not limited to:
If you would be interested in submitting a paper or would like to discuss your ideas, please drop us a line informally in advance of the deadline. Full abstracts of no more than 250 words to be submitted by 14 October to the session organisers Phil Jones (email@example.com) and Tess Osborne (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Beer D (2016) Metric power. Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.
DeLyser D & Sui D (2013) Crossing the qualitative- quantitative divide II: inventive approaches to big data, mobile methods, and rhythmanalysis. Progress in Human Geography 37;2 293-305.
Haraway D (1988). Situated knowledges: the science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective. Feminist Studies 14;3 575-599
Neff G & Nafas D (2016) Self-tracking. Cambridge MA., MIT Press.
Next week I’ll be attending the ‘Soundings and Findings’ conference at UEA, intended as a platform for scholars to reflect on the intellectual advances made through engagement with the AHRC’s Connected Communities funding stream. I’m running a panel discussion called ‘Becoming inexpert’ attempting to offer a challenge to the somewhat heroic narrative of interdisciplinary working (“It’s tough but rewarding”).
In thinking about this session I have been pottering about on Google Scholar. Academia is very much about fashions – ideas and methods fall in and out of favour with alarming regularity. Right now we’re in the middle of a digital data revolution that bears an uncanny similarity to the so-called ‘quantitative revolution’ of the 1960s, both in being driven by radical technological change and being accompanied by somewhat contestable claims about what these data can tell us about people’s everyday lives. I’ve only been in the academic game for 15 years or so and even in that short time I’ve seen ideas develop, mature and fall by the wayside in the pursuit of the latest new thing.
As a result, then, it’s remarkable that interdisciplinarity still retains its power and allure, given that it has been part of the academic discourse since at least the 1970s. Twenty years ago, writing in a special issue of the Art Bulletin, James D. Herbert wrote that:
‘Everyone involved in the heated debate over interdisciplinarity, curiously, appears to be on the same side. One would be hard pressed to find an art historian of any methodological stripe who was not, in some basic sense, in favor of it.’ (Herbert, 1995, 537)
The claims for what interdisciplinarity can read like the handbill of a snake oil salesman: it brings new insights to old problems; collaboration is essential for multifaceted, ‘wicked’ issues; it’s essential to creative thinking; by breaking down communication problems between disciplines, the benefits of academic work can be more easily brought to outsiders; it will restore your hair growth and help cut down on belly fat.
There’s actually not much to argue with here in terms of the advantages of collaboration with people who have different kinds of expertise. Perhaps the reason why interdisciplinary modes of working are still so fashionable is because, in practice, it’s really very difficult to do, so there can be an endless academic debate about how to do this thing that we all agree is highly desirable. I actually wrote a piece about this many years ago about a project where I collaborated with a hydrologist on a project looking at the place of sustainable drainage systems in urban planning (Jones & Macdonald, 2007). We ended up with a nice piece of social science looking at these technologies, but in no way was the project interdisciplinary.
One of the things about Connected Communities is that it has always been more than just a funding scheme. There’s a broader philosophical project at play, which has interdisciplinarity at its heart. A group of scholars from across the social sciences and humanities are put into a room together and told to work out what interests they have in common and try to design some projects. Those conversations can be delightful, wonderful and entirely at cross purposes. As Jack Balkin put it:
‘To chance upon a discussion among persons of a different discipline can be like arriving at someone else's family reunion. Each discipline has its own ongoing controversies, its own distinctive debates to rehearse, its own characteristic points to score, and its own private demons to exorcise.’ (Balkin, 1996, 956)
Connected Communities is, in a sense, trying to create a new kind of scholar, but there’s been a Darwinian element to this – those scholars uncomfortable with this mode of working have largely fallen by the wayside. Attending next week’s conference is a hardcore of people who are comfortable working beyond their comfort zones – or at least have found ways to cope with working this way.
I’ve never been the kind of scholar who wants to become the world expert on, for example, the governance of harvesting timber for biofuels. I’ve too much of a butterfly mind to become so narrowly focussed. In many ways this makes me well suited for Connected Communities style research – I’m genuinely interested in the wildly different interests and ways of thinking I’ve been exposed to since I got involved with the programme. It does however raise important questions about what scholarship means if you aren’t really bringing specific expertise to any discussion, but instead know a little bit about a lot of things. Does this make you a dilettante? Does it hold back your career? Does it help or hinder knowledge production? Big issues, which we’ll be getting our teeth into next week.
Balkin JM 1996 Interdisciplinarity as colonization Washington & Lee Law Review 53 949-970
Jones P and Macdonald N 2007 Getting it wrong first time: building an interdisciplinary research relationship Area 39 490-498
Mitchell WJT 1995 Interdisciplinarity and visual culture The Art Bulletin 77 540-544
Phil Jones, Geographer