On the Abolition of the Geography Department

I’ve been working on the ‘online pivot‘ a lot just recently, thinking about the challenges of adjusting teaching and learning provision for the forthcoming academic year, starting in September, in the context of an ongoing situation in which ‘face-to-face’ forms of education will continue to be constrained and subject to ongoing disruptions. Thinking about teaching and learning at a distance, which is what all this is about, is a particular challenge for academic fields like geography, which are so heavily invested in forms of embodied, experiential learning not only in the form of ‘wet’ or ‘muddy’ labs, but especially perhaps that diffuse range of activities bundled under the name ‘the field’. At the same time as all of this, I also find myself sitting in university level meetings in which issues of equality, diversity, racism, harassment, and hate crime in UK higher education are increasingly described by reference to the idea of ‘decolonialising’ universities and curricula. This vocabulary has quickly found its way into the vernacular of senior management and into institutional initiatives around these issues. It’s an interesting example of how theoretical ideas make their way into worldly contexts. Somewhere in the back of my head, there’s a connection between these two strands of current debate in and around higher education.

In Geography, there has been a series of recent interventions around the theme of decolonising the discipline (see for example, pieces by Pat Noxolo, Sarah Radcliffe, and Tariq Jazeel). In these debates, connections are often posited between the current profiles of academic staff and student bodies in university-level geography departments (very white); the substance of curricula and research agendas; and the ‘origins’ of academic geography in practices of exploration and scientific analysis closely associated with colonialism and imperialism (Don’t tell anyone, but before he was a proponent of eugenics, Francis Galton was publishing accounts of his travels in Africa in The Geographical Journal).

It’s not at all clear that Geography, as it is currently institutionalised in British higher education, does actually have its origins in nineteenth-century colonial exploration and imperial science, nor by what mechanism any such putative origin is still meant to be active today. It might be better to think of Geography as it exists now being formed through a series of quite deliberate breaks with traditions of gentlemanly science. That’s what the formation of the Institute of British Geographers was about. It’s what in no small part the ‘quantitative revolution’ was about too. That’s an old argument, it’s not mine. It’s also notable that the historiography of geography in North America has paid much more attention to the post-war contexts of contemporary Geography than is the case in the UK (after all, who cares about the rise and fall of town and country planning?).

I argued long ago that there is a dynamic whereby Geography’s grubby histories are occasionally rediscovered and re-animated in order to provide scope to engage, in different ways, with theoretical ideas drawn from other disciplines (most usually from the humanities). Invoking the history of a discipline is, of course, one of the obvious ways in which the coherence of such a thing as Geography – as a singular field that can be surveyed and evaluated – is discursively constructed. Debates about decoloniality are in part examples of that pattern, in which a coherent discipline called Geography comes into view as a necessary projection that is required for the articulation of a critical perspective of some sort. Geography has a kind of fantasy coherence, conjured into existence on those plenary occasions, in print and in person, when it is necessary to ponder ‘what is to be done (with Geography)’.

The idea of decoloniality is, of course, a highly theoretical one, part of series of distinctive intellectual traditions. There is a geography to ‘decolonial’ ideas, too. As suggested, there is also a heavy inflection towards intellectual imaginaries drawn from the humanities in discussions of decoloniality. These discussions in part overlap with, in part challenge, in part support a broader family of intellectual debates, including postcolonial theory, arguments about southern theory, theory from the south, southern epistemologies, and forms of post-development thinking.

The different strands of thought that make up the emergent canon of decolonial theory certainly deserve more attention, and, one hopes, also deserve the same sort of critical scrutiny one would expect any other academic paradigm to be subjected to. For example, one might explore the degree to which decolonial theory relies upon and reproduces strongly culturalist accounts of the exercise of ‘power’. One might explore the difficult question of how ideas that emerge in relation to particular historical-geographical variations of ‘colonialism’ (associated with particular experiences of slavery, violence, revolution, and independence, for example) translate to places with different colonial histories (places, for example, where concepts of indigeneity might resonate very differently, if at all, or where very precise meanings of ‘settler colonialism’ might not be easily applicable without a certain loss of geographical and historical sensitivity). This is a well rehearsed theme in this field, for example in considerations of the extent to which Edward Said’s influential account of orientalist discourse could be applied to histories of European encounters with ‘Africa‘. It’s an issue that has a certain self-reflexive quality to it, in so far as the question of how well ideas of decoloniality translate across contexts entrain deeper issues about the ‘colonial’ legacies of practices of comparativism and concepts of diffusion. One might also consider the degree to which the recent interest in decolonial ideas reiterates a style of inter-generational trumping that is central to conventions of critique in the humanities.

What perhaps distinguishes discussions of decoloniality from previous discussions of, for example, postcolonialism, is the more assertive claims concerning institutional transformation. In this respect, it’s worth considering the lesson of perhaps the most famous example of a systematic effort at decolonizing a university curriculum – the move led by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o with Henry Owuor-Anyumba and Taban Lo Liyong to abolish the English Department at the University of Nairobi in the late 1960s. This was part of an explicit programme, the significance of which still resonates, to displace a Eurocentric canon and associated pedagogy, and to institutionalise African-centred literature and language programmes (as well as finding different exemplars for postcolonial African modernity, involving for example, reading lots of Japanese literature).

I wonder if this couldn’t be the model for Geography to follow. I say this because I suspect a large part of the problem with Geography, from a decolonising perspective, might be integral to the sense of vocation that might well be what most defines Geography as an academic discipline. To a considerable extent, Geography now exists institutionally in UK higher education as a clearing house for a disparate set of fields of research, some traditional ‘Geography’ fields (such as research into urban and regional issues), some re-framed fields (such as work on disease, or the re-badging of ‘physical geography’ in terms of Earth Systems Science or even Global Systems Science), and some novel fields (research on animal geographies or elemental geographies, for example). There’s nothing that really holds these fields together intellectually. While there might actually be some interesting ways in which concepts of relational space cross many of these fields of Geography, the distinctive thing about twenty-first century ‘Geography’ is that there is no systematic effort to project the unity of the discipline around any such shared epistemological object of analysis. Geography departments exist (sometimes really big ones) because of the saliency of the research undertaken therein to increasingly ‘challenge-led’ research agendas, and because they look like good models for that much vaunted value, ‘interdisciplinarity’. It’s easy enough to imagine quite a lot of what is currently collected under the label of Geography in British universities being distributed differently. In any given university, after all, one will likely find all the urbanists in Planning, or all the economic geographers in Business Schools, or soil scientists in free-standing research centres). None of this is a great problem, necessarily. It is not to say that geography has neither existence or future. Far from it. It does, however, raise the question of the type of existence and future Geography might have.

Geography does have a coherence at school level, as a popular subject for both GCSE and A Level study, but this coherence is not so much intellectual as it is related to a certain image of utilitarian value associated with Geography, not least as a subject that bridges the divide between school and university. Geography at schools has, no doubt, some intellectual substance to it – lots of sustainability, for example, and an implicit if not explicit sense of good (global) citizen-liness. It’s all too common for academic geographers to fall into clichés about the stereotypical Geography undergraduate student. But it is true that there is a specific sense of what Geography is good for, as a school subject and undergraduate degree, which sustains the relative strength of student recruitment to undergraduate Geography degrees in the UK. It’s that relative strength that in turn underwrites a great deal of the intellectual creativity of research undertaken in Geography departments in the UK (i.e. it’s because of a steady and predictable stream of undergraduates coming to university to do Geography degrees that the content of Geography degrees turns out to be such a surprise to those same students – all that Marxism, all that chemistry, all that politics, all those statistics).

The utilitarianism associated with Geography – the sheer weight of the idea that it’s a useful subject, beneficial to those who study it and, through them, to everyone else too – is deeply ingrained in the culture of the field at school and at university (and utilitarianism has impeccable colonialist credentials of course). And I am even inclined to hypothesise that it’s here that one would find the only significant line of continuity between geography’s ‘origins’ in Western colonial and imperial projects and Geography as a university discipline today. The continuity lies in a resilient image of what a geographical education is good for. It’s an image that is not necessarily formalised in print, but it is widely taken for granted, and very often explicitly celebrated. It is an image embedded in the centrality of the idea of ‘the field’ and of ‘fieldwork’ to geographical education at all levels; in a pervasive empiricism in even the most ‘theoretical’ looking areas of human geography research; in the willing embrace of the most instrumental aspects of the ‘impact agenda’; and in the overwhelming, inescapable concern with demonstrating the ‘relevance’ of geography – to policy, to public life, to advocacy, to activism. It’s in this related set of ideas of a Geographers’ vocation that links Geography at schools to Geography at university; it’s not necessarily reflected at all in the content of degree curricula (but it often is). It is reproduced through a set of embodied practices through which a certain sort of intellectual personae is cultivated.

In short, if there is a legacy that links Geography now, in British universities, to Geography as it emerged as an academic and school subject some 150 years ago, then it lies in the practices that reproduce the idea that knowing about other people and other places is a way of sloughing off one’s own prejudices, as well as those of one’s students, all for the benefit of those other people and those other places. In short, it is the idea of a geographical education as an edifying project, aimed at transforming the very sense of self of its subjects, that remains a constant, and which remains central to even the most radical looking strands of contemporary geography, from self-consciously activist geographies to advocacy around climate change. It’s that sense of edification that perhaps also accounts for the attraction to humanities-sourced styles of critical distinction (which are misleading in so far as they suggest that debates about pedagogy centred on a canon of texts are relevant to the varied pedagogies found in Geography departments. They’re not really). It’s an idea expressed most clearly in the recurring fascination with writing about ‘responsibility’, not as an object of analysis, but as the second-order genre through which a particular intellectual self-concept that underwrites the practices of a properly geographical personae is problematized as a work of self-cultivation. The ‘Geography and Responsibility’ genre is the primary way in which a plenary sense of Geography is now conjured into existence.

In so far as discussions about decolonizing Geography focus not just on the content of Geography teaching and research, but on the social profile of Geography student bodies and staffing, and in so far as those patterns might be strongly related to the utilitarian identity of Geography at schools and universities, and more broadly to the overwhelming emphasis on ‘relevance’ and ‘responsibility’ that shapes undergraduate recruitment as well as progression in the discipline after undergraduate level, then perhaps the most significant contribution that could be made to the project envisaged by proponents of decolonising the discipline would be, in the spirit of Ngũgĩ, to imagine the abolition of university Geography departments. In order, you understand, to see if it’s possible to re-imagine creative ways of redistributing all those things that currently fall under that label around different formations of intellectual personae. This is not, as far as I am aware, and despite the impeccably decolonial credentials of this proposal, something that has so far been entertained in debates about these issues.

And if that sounds facetious, well, I guess the only morally serious alternative would be to try to picture what a geographical education that abandoned the image of an edifying, responsible vocation could possibly look like.