My Geography Teacher

October 21, 2013


With Geography Awareness Week coming up, 17-23 November, and with a programme of events planned by Departments and also by the Geographical Society of Ireland (including a photo competition), I thought it might be worth thinking a bit about our own Geography teachers. So, in the hope that it might encourage others to join in with reflections upon, and expressions of gratitude to, their own favourite Geography teacher, let me tell you about Gwyn Bennett, for decades the Head of Geography at Cardinal Newman School, Luton. Mr. Bennett (never Gwyn to us I am afraid) was a man with a passion for geomorphology.

We went on a field trip to Wales with him. Travelling from Luton [just north of London], across lowland England into the mountains of South Wales left me with three really strong impressions. First, under my feet were rocks, and bedding planes, and evidence of a restless and heaving earth. I became fascinated with orogeny and continental drift. Second, Gwyn drew great sketch maps of the towns through which we passed and I became fascinated with town plans as an aspect of history – how did this town start, how is it changing? Finally, Gwyn, with his Bobby Charlton comb-over and his squat rotundity was a great figure in the field. We would get up some hill and his hair would trail away from him like a wind-sock at an airport. He would temporarily attach it behind his ear. He would then wriggle into the waistband of his trousers – Michael Carrol in my class said it was like watching someone try to put an inflated balloon into a sock. Then, he would start pointing at things in the landscape and we would learn to read the landscape through his eyes. In the valleys of South Wales he shared his pride in the mining communities and gave us a hint of what it meant to be a boy from the valleys descending on the Babylon that was Aberystwyth to the university student.

He communicated to me a very powerful sense of place. Of course, when we discovered that his hometown of Tredegar was in Monmouth and that this county had been transferred from Wales to England under some local government reform or other, we were merciless – “Excuse me sir, is Tredegar an English town?” “Don’t be silly boy, can the English sing? Can the English play rugby?” He of course could do both but although he promised that one day he would treat us to his favourite rugby songs, we never seemed to be yet old enough. Now of course we are but alas Gwyn Bennett died a year or two ago and I never heard him in full voice, lubricated with a pint of his favourite.

Wonderful geographer, inspirational teacher, great man. Thank you Gwyn.

Gerry Kearns

Why geographic knowledge is more important than ever

October 4, 2013

ImageGeographic education has been undervalued at American universities, which has left the workforce without contextual knowledge that would assist data visualization efforts, writes Kirk Goldsberry, an assistant professor of geography at Michigan State University. “Recommitting to a geography curriculum in both our high schools and universities will be crucial to effectively developing a generation of great data visualizers who can tackle our challenges,” he writes. Read more in the Havard Business Review online/HBR Blog Network

Pundits and Scholars

May 27, 2013

I have been thinking about the difference between punditry and scholarship. In one of his novels, Richard Jefferies wrote of an argument which was not a true discussion because each protagonist attacked only the weak points of the other’s position while only putting forward the strong points of their own. Read the rest of this entry »

This blog is four years old

March 6, 2013

Four years ago, this blog began with a post about maps, geography, and the economic slump. This is the blog’s 170th post. We’ve had contributions from many of the department’s staff, as well as some of the graduate and undergraduate students. We’ve been visited 54,000 times, even if most visitors seem to pop in only to run back out again. We’ve had some fun.

Thanks to everyone who has contributed to the blog or interacted with the contributors in one way or another.  Here’s hoping we can last another four years, if not (and why not?) more.



AIDS and its metaphors

February 3, 2013

Kearns ignite
When a new epidemic emerged in 1981. People struggled to make sense both of its novelty and of its implications. One of the ways that people tried to make sense of AIDS was to see it through the lens of standard epidemiological models of contagious disease. In this respect AIDS was seen as something that spread from an infected population into one that was at risk. It was all too easy to understand this geography of spread as something which could be interrupted either by isolating the sick or by preventing the well from associating with the unwell. AIDS was early, and wrongly, associated only with gay men or people of colour, originating or still living in Africa. Homophobic and racist understandings of the threat posed to the so-called mainstream society by gay men and people of colour were reinforced by these contagionist readings of AIDS.

In this brief IGNITE presentation I try to explain how these spatial metaphors work and and also how people tried to develop alternative spatial metaphors that would sustain more inclusive and effective policies for caring for the sick and the vulnerable. I begin with the racism of standard global epidemiologial models before sketching some of the arguments that Susan Sontag levelled at the metaphors of the official AIDS stories. I then look at the work of artists who tried to think differently about AIDS vulnerability describing some of the cultural activism of ACTUP and also of artists such as Tony Kushner, Diamanda Galas, and David Wojnarowicz. I finish with the wonderful metaphor of the AIDS quilt and explain how it manages to convey both the scale of the epidemic and the individual value of each life lost. You can watch the brief presentation below:

Gerry Kearns

Jim Walsh on the achievements of Geography at Maynooth

December 10, 2012

Anniversary Essays – Forty Years of Geography at Maynooth, 2 volumes

Remarks by Professor Jim Walsh, Vice President for Strategy and Quality and former Head of Geography Department (1995-2005) at launch of Anniversary Essays and closure of anniversary celebrations, Friday 7 December 2012.

Several months ago Alistair invited me to nominate some papers that might be included in a collection of 40 essays he was planning to compile as a contribution to the 40th Anniversary celebrations of the Geography department. Later I was delighted to receive an email that I was to be included as a contributor. A few weeks ago Jan asked to say a few words at this launch which I am delighted and honoured to do.

The two volumes provide some remarkable insights into the research of the department, even though what we have here is but a tiny faction of the hundreds of publications over the years. Without commenting on individual contributions I would like to make a few general points.

1. One is immediately struck by the breadth of Maynooth geography and the depth and quality of the scholarship of the department staff, current and retired. The papers range across a wide spectrum that includes the role of estates in historical landscape formation, and code in the functioning of modern landscapes, community development, climate change, water management, various dimensions of economic, social, cultural, political, medical geographies, poverty, information society, and geography education. This breadth of research interests contributed to much enriched teaching programmes at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels which have attracted very considerable numbers down the years.

2. The breadth of research is matched by depth as evidenced by the quality of the publication outlets – the top ranked international journals and book publishers. These publications are complemented by equally top class papers published in Irish journals, especially Irish Geography which members of the department have strongly supported down the years. Another lesser known journal in which some seminal papers were published was the Maynooth Review. Local engagement and global connectedness in many formats have been a constant source of enrichment of the research produced by members of the department.

3. The research exemplified by the selection of papers in these two volumes is also notable for the extent of inter-disciplinarily and foresight in regard to what are nowadays described as grand societal themes – these include health; water management; climate change; the knowledge society and economy; culture and heritage – real, imagined and memorised; ideology, peace and conflict; institutions, the citizen and society; place and space in neoliberalism; territorial planning; and spatial information systems. The trans-disciplinarity approach to the research is not always evident in the authorship of papers – rather it is manifested more deeply in the wide range of reference material consulted by the researchers, and the outlets chosen for publishing their research findings.

4. The direct scholarly publications are bolstered by outstanding contributions by many members of the department to the wider academy through editorship of journals, launching of new journals, the joint editorship and contributions to the multi volume encyclopaedia of human geography, and leadership roles at all levels nationally and internationally.

These achievements are the product of a particular context. Over the forty years the department grew from very humble beginnings to its current status as a leading department of international standing. The distinctive journey has been marked by:

• an unencumbered birth devoid of the clericalism that was a feature of most departments in Maynooth in their early years,
• a team culture that consistently places the collective interest of the department ahead of individual interests,
• active international and inter-disciplinary networking by all staff,
• a steadfast commitment to excellent education of students guided by the sustained research endeavour of all staff which was always tolerant and respectful of critical scholarly engagement with a plurality of orthodoxies and heterodoxies.

Journeys can be interesting but not always successful or memorable. I have been reflecting on what has made the Maynooth geography journey such a success. There are three necessary ingredients for success in my view:

• An abundance of talent and commitment among the staff and other researchers in the department. The department and the university have been fortunate in the calibre of the staff recruited at different stages. Over the past month we have had two of the highest confirmations of the talent in the department – the publication of a paper in Nature co-authored by Conor Murphy and John Sweeney with others, and the uniquely prestigious ERC award to Rob Kitchin. It is indeed fitting that the timing of these accolades coincides with the conclusion of this celebratory year.

• A capacity to make the best use of the available resources, and more importantly the ability to compete successfully for resources. Maynooth Geographers have an outstanding record in winning resources. One can think immediately of putting on new programmes to capture skills funding for postgraduates in areas such as GIS and Remote Sensing, and separately in Cultural Tourism, large equipment grants to support the Geophysical Analysis Unit, and research funding from every funding agency in Ireland complemented by large grants for European and other projects. Since 2005 I estimate Maynooth geographers have secured grants worth close on €25m, the second largest amount among the disciplines in the university – in what other university does geography rank no. 2 in success in winning research grants?

• The third ingredient is vision and strategic leadership, especially the capacity to identify opportunities and to put in place appropriate structures. Geography has this in abundance – one thinks of initiatives such as the inter-disciplinary Centre for Local and Regional Development in the early 1990s which led on to NIRSA, and from there to NCG, ICLRD and AIRO – a unique collection of established brand names. In parallel the department has spawned ICARUS, the Centre for Geophysical Analysis and the Centre for Health Geoinformatics. Leadership operates in various contexts. Over the forty years seven individuals have at times been Head of the department. I am delighted all are present this evening: Paddy Duffy, Willie Smyth, Seamus Smyth (first Professor of Geography and later President of the University), Dennis Pringle, Mark Boyle and Jan Rigby. I occupied the middle position between the first and second triumvirates. Each in their own way brought a particular vision and style of leadership. But, to borrow some key words from the title of one of the earliest department publications, there has been much Continuity and Change.

The three ingredients just described are necessary but not sufficient conditions to provide the milieu needed to support such a rich and sustained outpouring of excellent research.

The final essential factor is a collegial culture – it is the glue. It has been there from the beginning. Collegial is not to be misinterpreted as cosy. The collegial culture is built upon and has thrived on mutual respect, openness, the capacity to constructively challenge one another, and the willingness to cooperate, innovate and adapt for the best interests of the department, especially for the thousands of students that have taken geography. Together these attributes, shared among the academics and with the administrative and technical support colleagues, have provided an inspirational milieu for all associated with the department over the forty years.

The department has entered a new phase over recent times. Most of the founding members have retired from teaching but happily not from scholarship. Mark is taking is taking a well earned sabbatical and Jan has just started in her role as Head. There is much to build upon and to look forward to. I congratulate Alistair for compiling the two volumes as a fitting exhibition of the treasure of knowledge created over the past forty years. I look forward to the next ten years and reassembling to mark fifty years. I conclude by congratulating all who have participated in the outstanding scholarly contribution of the last forty years, and I wish Jan and her colleagues every success in the future.

Incongruity and Convergence

August 20, 2012

When called upon to describe the aesthetic of surrealism, André Breton (1896-1966) was wont to quote a line from the poetry of the man who styled himself Comte de Lautréamont (1846-1870). The line in question averted to the beauty of ‘the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella.’ In one of the signature works of surrealist art, Man Ray (1890-1976) wrapped a sewing machine in a woolen blanket and tied it up with string, blessing the assemblage as ‘L’Énigme d’Isodore Ducasse,’ recalling both the line of poetry and the birth name of Lautréamont. For Breton it is the incongruity of the meeting that invites him to find beauty in the dislocations that might bring a sewing-machine and an umbrella to a dissecting-table: what could be more unlikely than this meeting at that place?

I was reminded of Breton’s surrealism recently when reading Elliot Perlman’s profound and entertaining new novel, The Street Sweeper (London: Faber and Faber, 2012. First Australian edition, 2011). In The Street Sweeper, we meet four people. Lamont Williams, an African-American male working as a cleaner in a hospital, becomes the person to whom an elderly Polish-Jewish man, Henryk Mandelbrot, confides his life story of surviving Auschwitz. Henryk is dying of cancer; we learn he was one of the people forced into the horrific work of gassing and cremating fellow Jewish people in Birkenau. His oncologist is an African-American woman, Ayesha Washington, who is the granddaughter of the commander of an African-American tank squadron that may have liberated the concentration camp at Dachau at the close of the Second World War. An historian, Adam Zignelik, the descendant of a Polish war refugee and of a Jewish solicitor who had worked with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to secure civil rights for African-Americans in the United States, was trying to validate a story about an African-American unit having been involved in the liberation of Dachau. The U.S. army was racially segregated during the Second World War and Zignelik sees a real irony in the possibility of a racially-segregated unit liberating the victims of the worst act of segregation in recorded history.

Much of the action of the novel takes place at Sloan-Kettering Hospital in New York city. Some of the most significant episodes take place on the sidewalk outside the hospital where medical staff of all ranks rub shoulders with New York residents of all backgrounds, and with folk from all corners of the world who have come to visit their sick relatives. While they wait for the bus, ironically nurse a cigarette, or hustle their living, this curious assembly may talk to each other while sharing a street corner in one of the most cosmopolitan cities on earth. Yet the dislocations that have brought this cast of characters together are far from random or unconnected. The joy and skill of Perlman’s novel lies in part with the way he weaves together Jewish and African-American histories, finding links, echoes, and sad misunderstandings.
At a recent talk at the Kilkenny Arts Festival, Perlman (shown here holding the microphone, seated between Sinead Gleeson and author/musician Peter Murphy), spoke of living for a time in an apartment overlooking that very sidewalk outside the Sloan-Kettering. The novel finishes with an image that may tell us something about the difference between incongruity and fated coincidence: ‘The onlookers had no idea what it was that had led to the strange convergence of these three diverse individuals and the little girl. But if they had known the people they were looking at, if they had known where they had come from, if they known their histories, if they’d had even an inkling of the events the historian, the street sweeper with the menorah, and the oncologist had knowledge of, if they had known the whole story of everything that had got these three people to that block at that time, they might well have felt compelled to tell everyone what happened there’ (Perlman, 2012, p. 544).

In part four of the book, Perlman requires Zignelik to give a lecture on ‘What is History?’, although it might perhaps have been better termed, ‘What is Historical Geography?’ Geography is at the heart of the (fictional) historian’s argument. Zignelik asks his students whether they find plausible the stories he tells: ‘In Poland during the Hitler years, a group of German men gathered together and sang Negro spirituals’ (p. 93). He is talking of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), a Lutheran theologian who visited Harlem in 1930-1 and found there not only the activist Christianity he sought but also fervent worship quite unlike the dull rituals that disappointed him in Germany. Back in Germany he organized Christian opposition to Hitler and was hounded from public life. Eventually he gave up nonviolence and involved himself in an unsuccessful plot to assassinate Hitler. Zignelik’s point is that the connections between places that make incongruity — the Germans singing the African American gospel song ‘Sweet Low, Sweet Chariot’ in Poland — in fact offer evidence of profound connections, and ultimately the source of a hope, that might ground solidarity across space.

At Kilkenny, Perlman was asked what lessons he drew from his reflections upon racism, history, and geographical connections. His answer was about vigilance. Once you know what racism or sexism or homophobia might lead to, then, you must insist that it has no place on any scale in any place or society. In the novel, he gives the reflection to Mandelbrot who arrives at Auschwitz to see a pile of corpses:

‘Here, Mandelbrot thought, was the end of every slur, racial or religious, every joke, every sneer directed against the Jew. Every time someone harboured the belief, or just the sneaking suspicion, even when it shamed them, that the Jews, as a people, are dishonest and immoral, that they are avaricious, deceitful, cunning, that they are capitalists, that they are communists, that they are responsible for all the troubles in the world, that they are guilty of deicide, that belief or suspicion, sometimes barely conscious, adds momentum to a train on a journey of its own; this is where the line finally ends, at this mountain of corpses. The prejudices, the unfounded states of mind, that grow from wariness to dislike to hatred of the “other”, they all lead to where Henryk Mandelbrot now stood’ (p.349).

Gerry Kearns


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 202 other followers

%d bloggers like this: