My identity is my job: Messing with geographies of sexuality in/outside the classroom

There are a few moments in the last academic year that keep on coming back to me, and they all relate to gender and sexuality. The first moment took place in a discussion about PhD supervision after Geographies of Sexualities professor Gavin Brown left the department in protest. I was asked to take over two candidates who worked on the topic, despite officially being hired as an environmental geographer. The conversation started off a bit awkward, so I half-jokingly said: ‘So, you’re putting me on these teams, because of what I do in my private life…’ I was not exactly uncomfortable with this, although I did worry that the students would prefer a subject specialist, and that me taking on this role might limit the chance of a suitable replacement being hired. The reason why I do not mind this conflation of private and professional identity is that I am aware of my capacity to hold or amplify a certain space, of function as a translator in a default heteronormative space. This is also reflected in my interactions with ‘questioning’ undergraduates for whom I sometimes as a ‘sounding board’. The reason that I can be quite a safe or at least easily identifiable sounding board is because I use my identity as part of my teaching performance. This does not just include my gender and sexuality, but also other aspects of my upbringing around class and ethnicity, which I try to use as a means to challenge assumptions.

This then relates to the next moment. I inherited a lecture on ‘feminist geography’ that I immediately turned into a lecture on ‘sex’ to include gender, sex, and sexuality. I really did not want to turn this into a ‘conversion’ type session, along the lines of ‘why we all should be feminists and LGBTIQ+ friendly’. For me, this does not work to draw in the people that I want to reach. So, I begin with what is perceived as ‘hard’ geography: economics, population, geopolitics: How is land distributed in the world? Who can inherit? Who can marry? Who can inherit/gain citizenship in which country? There are always quite a few students in the classroom who have struggled with these problems or have witnessed others going through them. Others even chose Geography as a subject explicitly to grapple with these issues – they just had not thought about them as an issue of gender and sexuality. Only after showing maps, tables, historical events, photographs of protests etc do I move on to the ways in which people have resisted these legal impositions – which then translate into things such as feminist and queer theory. To me, this performance is imporant as a queer person, because it makes ‘my’ problem everyone’s problem (I use the same approach for my lectures on race). Most people are fucked over by the current methods of wealth distribution, but don’t realise how the things that they have aspired to, or protested other people from obtaining (such as heterosexual marriage), leave them off worse. Which brings me to the next anecdote.

At the moment, we have an undergraduate student, a postgraduate student and a staff member struggling with visa issues. This is unfortunately normal, but also getting worse due to UK and European hostile environments. Because the situation is getting desperate for staff and students to carry out their work, everyone, including my undergraduates, have been talking about strategic marriage to obtain rights of residence. I have a few friends who have married other friends so that they can stay in the country, and it is also a relatively common practice in the LGBTIQ+ community for community safeguarding (prevent people from being deported to almost certain death, for example), so I was not shocked by the premise – just by the scale this year. I ended up reading a brilliant article by Canadian geographer Anne-Marie D’Aoust that acerbically comments on the current UK Home Office crackdown on visa marriages, in particular its tying of marriage to a Western notion of romance (email me or the author if you can’t access the article). The scary thing is not only how the UK Home Office tries to enshrine a particular form of romance to effectively commit racial injustice, but the level into which people, including protesters against these practices, have bought into the love-marriage connection. Historically, marriages in Europe have always been legal contracts for men to obtain women and dowry as property, and to ensure that they carry biological (male) heirs. To put this crudely: marriage is the legalisation of sexual slavery for property transmission. The rather tedius (because overly didactic) film ‘The Last Duel‘ brilliantly draws out this relation, especially the final third of the film.

Because of marriage was initally an aristocratic practice, or anyone who wanted/needed to pass on property, but then the Church and the idea of romantic love came into play. There have been arguments that romantic love gave women greater leverage, but only up to a point. With the creation of nation states and borders, the state started to control people’s sexuality for its war machine and narrative of ‘internal cohesion’ (I still need to read watch this interesting round table and read the associated book!). If you look at the gender roles within citizenship laws, the technical languague barely hides how women are mainly regarded as potential rape victims, men as potential rapists. whose enemy offspring needs to be dealt with. Coming from a rather internationally composed family, I can say that my aunts, uncles and cousins have not exactly been impressed with their assigned statuses. Which kind of takes me back to the beginning of this blog post about my private life and my job. I have quite a few colleagues who completely divorce their private life from their work in order to make a point that their gender or sexual identity is not all they are, and to keep their private lives private. In my case, I prefer not to keep the distance in respect to gender and sexuality in the classroom, because of the subjects I teach, and my experience that has taught me that my performance can sometimes literally save lives. More importantly, I feel that this is also something that I am not imposing, but that I am performing as a response to discussions that are already occurring. And the fact that they are occuring gives me hope for a kinder future where there is greater clarity on geographies of relations – economic and otherwise.

Cuts, Pauses and Swerves: Stealing time to hold a space

Caesura, fermata, clinamen. Cut, pause, swerve.

Another fragment. Research leave was turned down (still understaffed), so fragments remain the method.

In the last three months, several intense conversations about punctuation took me by surprise – punctuation in the widest sense (many thanks to Xin Pan and Lewis Hatt). As a musician, I experience punctuation as a rhythmical device that orders and performs thought. I often feel like adding musical notation, especially pauses. There are many symbols for ‘rests’ or ‘silences’ in music that would look great in texts, but the fermata (𝄐) get the most excited. Originally an indication of closure of a piece of music, it became a pause of indeterminate length. Musician Don Rath Jr. has a great way of describing the fermata:

“In essence, the fermata steals time. It does not alter the notation of the score, whether by changing the time signature or by adding notes or rests to the measure. In other words no additional notes or rests are placed on the staff to compensate for the added duration to them as caused by the use of the fermata.”

The fermata steals time. I love this super power. This is what I feel I need to do right now. To steal time, To hold a space for as long as I desire. To combat feelings of powerlessness.

At the same time, the duration of the fermata is bounded. Although it extends a note ‘beyond its natural duration’, it merely functions as an intersection. It does not visibly alter the score, and the note on which it is placed is mostly held for an ‘appropriate’ amount of time, depending on factors emerging from the specific performance. One could argue, however, that the fermata alters the piece every time, though not necessarily any more than any other performed notation. Still, I keep imagining the fermata in other spaces, from text messages to gestures, or as a metaphor in geographical theory. After all, the fermata has a location as well as a duration, and this location and the space it ‘creates’ matter.

Speaking of matter: the philosopher Michel Serres loved the ‘clinamen‘. A atomic swerve that occurs ‘at no fixed place or time’. He took it from the Roman philosopher-poet Lucretius who speculated about the possibility of freedom and change. For Serres, the clinamen represented hope that something is always going to shift, perhaps not even through conscious human action.

The term has been applied to other forms of ‘swerving’, such as diverging from an original influence. As a space altering movement, it could also be imagined as punctuation. Especially since punctuation is not universal, both across space and time. There are abandoned forms of punctation, and those that may never become ‘official’. A Norwegian friend recently dedicated an album to the interrobang. Dissatisfied with the expressive limitation of conventional punctuation, the French writer Hervé Bazin experimented with alternative ortography and punctuation logic. More punctuation may need to be invented.

Source: Wikipedia

Am I swerving?

One of my undergraduate students brought up the term ‘caesura‘. He felt that this was what the geographer Doreen Massey was talking about when she wanted to look for, and expand, ‘cracks in the carapace’ of our current system. The caesura was also evoked by the French theorist Michel Foucault who used it in relation to racism – an interference in whose life was deemed living or inviolable. Sometimes such cuts or cracks are not hopeful at all.

I am not sure I underestand the literary form of the caesura. I looked it up, but I have not been able to establish a meaningful relation. In music, the caesura performs a similar function to that of the fermata – they are usually shorter and can even be paired with a fermata. They are symbolised by two short strokes, often compared to rail tracks. I think of them more as bird feet on an electricity wire. Birds pausing on a deadly current – they manage to turn it into something pleasurable. Why else would they return?

I re-read a recent commentary/experiment by geographer Aya Nassar on the function of geopoetics, because of its spatial imaginary:

“And, geopoetics, thus, might be a practice
that is attuned to the political act of destabilizing
rather than shoring off this self. By splintering and
rearranging the materiality of the world, word, or
this white page, we might come to play in an open
space of multi-vocal story that does not fail to throw
the sovereign ‘I’ off.”

To play in an open space. To destabilise.

To think of how punctuation might translate to other practices. To steal time, to hold a space. To steal time to hold a space. Sometimes, this seems impossible. Sometimes it requires a pause of indeterminate length.


PhD Studentship: The New Environmental Determinism? Transitions to far right environmentalism

This project is affiliated with the new Institute for Environmental Futures. Supervisors: Bernhard Forchtner (Media Studies), Angela Last (Geography) and Martin Phillips (Geography).

Project Reference: RI-EF-Forchtner

The project seeks to investigate the increasing prevalence of nationalist, neo-colonial and racist narratives in environmental activism in the UK. In many cases, this rhetoric emerges from self-defined ‘left’ or mainstream environmentalists who show different levels of awareness of the political orientation of their statements. These include invocations of Indigenous concepts to argue for English Indigeneity, the blaming of a ‘transnational cosmopolitan class’ for the dearth of local counter-visions (Dark Mountain, 2009), and the ‘accidental’ references to Social Darwinism by Extinction Rebellion groups (Out of the Woods, 2019). Evidence of this transition can be found at different levels such as grassroots organisations (Extinction Rebellion), prominent authors and cultural figures (Paul Kingsnorth, Morrissey) and even policy (anti-protest legislation prompted by environmental movements in particular; ‘herd immunity’ approach to Covid-19). This issue is not limited to the UK context (e.g. German Greens leaving for AfD), but remains underexamined in this country. The project seeks to address this issue in two ways: 1) by mapping concepts, practices and trajectories (e,g. transitions via concepts such as belonging, purity, indigeneity, desired authoritarian responses to environmental issues) and 2) by proposing interventions.

Complete outline and more information here. Or email me!

Hiring in the Austerity University

I am on strike this week, like many of my colleagues around the country. We are striking because of the gross pension miscalculations, as well as the grotesque working conditions in (not just) the higher education sector. No pay for half a month, but at least a brief respite from the insanity that is work. I also feel that I am on strike for another reason that academics have been discussing on Twitter, and that I have experienced as well. With the current sexual and racial harrassment cases in academia, many academics have reflected on the practices and relations that actually enable academic success. In a piece by Sara Ahmed, entitled ‘How the Culture of the University Covers Up Abuse‘, she suggests that departments have a tendency to be composed of people who have some form of prior relation, not necessarily sexually intimate, but they may include friendship or people that are known through mutual acquaintances. It is through such networks that patterns become replicated, resulting in the current employment landscape, dominiated by White middle class academics. I have seen this process in action, for example, through ‘internal only’ hires that favour people who are already known, by removing external competition. This is usually justified through policies of ‘nurturing local talent’, supporting mothers in returning to work, or simply through economic rationales (we can hire them at a lower salary than competitive external candidates). The result, however, is still ‘more of the same’. Moreover, competence becomes irrelevant, because some postgrad, postdoc or junior colleague can probably step in if things become too problematic. When you call out this practice to your local Equality, Diversity and Inclusion department, the anwer is something along the lines of ‘the process must be correct, because the HoS attended EDI training.’ As a member of the RGS-IBG RACE Working Group, it is moments such as these that have started turning my university into my field of research, rather than merely my place of employment.

But intimacy this is not the whole story, I feel. After losing three members of the department, with at least another one leaving, most of our arguments for new hires have been met with ‘economic considerations’. These considerations not only delay hires (ironically forcing research active staff to only focus on covering teaching), but actively seek to determine the direction of our research (apparently there is more money in ‘health’ than anywhere else). Looking at what I have witnessed so far, I want to ask a perhaps different question in relation to academic White middle class replication: what happens when employment decisions are taken out of the department’s hands? When the committee has no apparent relation to the candidates and purely operates by ‘economic realities’? (Or, to rephrase this, what happens when managers at a cash-strapped university are forcing the hiring of ‘predicted better returns’ who the department has no interest, or little interest in hiring?)


At first, going by purely economic criteria this may seem like a more equitable process: we are talking about ‘pure merit’, right? The reality, though, looks different. Participating for the first time in a supposedly ‘departmental’ hiring process, the experience has been shocking. At first, everything was as expected: selection criteria are established at a joint staff meeting, senior members of staff meet, look through applications, and make a decision on who to shortlist. Everyone receives a date for the presentation, including our PhD students. We all then watched the presentations (online) and asked candidates questions. The first thing that seemed weird was that undergraduates were ‘involved’ in the hiring process. After the presentations, they got to chat with the candidates – we are still not sure why they got involved, who decided this, as the teaching staff felt that it was unethical to use them as free labour. We then had a meeting as a department to shortlist the candidates. It was a lively discussion, full of enthusiasm. This felt like a special, a bonding moment after losing well loved colleagues/supervisors/tutors who had resigned in protest over forced, politically motivated, redundancies in the Business School and other departments (aka ‘union breaking’ by indirect means). In this meeting, we had to produce an order of hiring preference, and easily agreed on the order. At the end, we were confident that we had found a great colleague and teacher, and we would also be happy with some of the other candidates, if our choices turned us down. We also knew that there were interviews the next day that might change the situation.

The interviews were, like at most institutions, a more closed affair. At Leicester, however, as well as some other universities, they take place with increasing participation from central management. We found out that only one (!) professor could represent our interests. I wasn’t the only one who was confused. I was told, that, during past hires, central management had imposed candidates on the department – usually professors of whom management expected greater financial and REF return. Apparently, management found our choice(s) too ‘risky’. But no one would tell us who ‘they’ had chosen. I was furious: only a couple of weeks ago, I had been told to take students on an international field trip during a pandemic ‘because of the NSS scores’. But if NSS scores are so important, might hiring an inspiring lecturer not be a key strategy, rather than just looking at figures? Looking at the way we cobbled together the teaching for the spring term – because replacement staff did not get recruited in time, and PGRs could not, or did not want to, fill the resulting holes – the NSS score justification felt like a massive irony. Yes, the term may turn out okay in the end, but it is at constant danger of combusting, or rather, the overworked staff is (I started getting sick last week, and am still in bed with something that isn’t Covid-19).

Who the did we hire? We still don’t know after two weeks. We only know that ‘an offer was made’, likely to someone else, because why stay silent otherwise? Are they fearing protest? Also, why are we pessimistic? So far, all the ‘parachuted’ people have been White, and some have been totally absent, only existing as names on doors. Here the results of ‘intimacies’ perhaps emerge again: White people face the least discrimination when it comes to grant income, they can feed off the established networks and perceptions. This is why our School remains, apart from one soon-retiring staff member, entirely White. The department had academics of colour on top of the list twice, and both times they were turned down by central management because of ‘economic considerations’ despite stellar CVs (it’s not that academics don’t look at this – they know the score in the HE austerity landscape). The inequalities thus perpetuate under the guise of ‘best economic decisions’, even as students of colour complain about feeling uncomfortable in the Whiteness of the department (where are your NSS concerns now?). For the new staff member, this situation can’t be comfortable either, unless they plan to be absent anyway. (Actually, their empty offices remind me of the empty luxury flats in London that solely exist for investment purposes.)


With every such ‘strategic’ intervention to produce ‘excellence’, it becomes more apparent how much my institution, and other universities, represent a microcosm of the disaster that is the quasi-privatised university under Brexit Britain. Seen against this background, these hiring practices make sense. The neoliberal university is responsible for managing its finances, and it has to do this in line with current government policies. (This includes border policies, in turn affecting international student recruitment, which is another interesting disaster happening at mine and other universities). Mirroring the current government strategy, not just desperate, but deliberately harmful measures are taken – shock doctrine style. There is money around, but it seems to go towards the wrong ends (e.g. marketing, prestige buildings, cosmetic student experience enhancements). The measures are also conveniently reproducing another aspect of government policy: like museums and arts institutions, universities become a site where culture wars are seeing direct socio-economic implementation. This includes the axing of ‘uneconomic’ departments and research strands, especially those that might produce ‘unproductive’ opposition to the current reforms. Instead of practices that might help build a healthy and collegial research and teaching environment, a wrecking ball approach is applied to futher turn universities into debt and anxiety machines. In this environment, academics who remain invested in a model that values teaching and knowledge, and opposed to a cut throat form of economics, become calculated collateral. Postgraduate students and undergraduate students, faced with lack of care for their studies and relations with mentors, are equally collateral. This is why we are not only losing staff, but PG and UG students, especially from ‘protected characteristics’ targeted in the culture wars.

This may sound like a defence of the ‘intimacy’ model, but it is not. I do see a problem where academic ideas of ‘trust’ (who can we trust to work with and with our students) and ‘merit’ become cronyism and discrimination. But trying to to ‘regulate’ this through blunt application of metrics is not a solution: it only disguises unequal structures, or supplants them with someone else’s networks. Moreover, it depresses departments to such a degree that everyone who can leave, will leave, adding more and more twists to the spiral. The HE move into the direction of government ideology is brutal: last week the Economics and Social Research Council, fraught from its inception, was pushed one step further towards becoming part of Dominic Cummings’s DARPA/ARIA fantasy. How will this affect CVs and hires? Writing this from the position of a German academic in particular, there is a pressing question of where academics and managers make a cut off point. How much is too much? I am haunted by echoes of a time where many academics did not manage to make this cut and chose to appease an ultimately genocidal regime. The current situation in the UK may feel less extreme, but I feel like we are already past the point of ‘too much’. If you follow the cumulative effect of ‘little things’ that are being set in motion, the picture that emerges is rather bleak, if it is not met with resistance.

On the new Marco Polo series, or: how I binge-watched my way to an economic geography lecture

This summer, I fell down a Marco Polo shaped hole. Initially, I had merely been curious how the new series compared to the one with which I had grown up in the 80s: how was this specific history of exploration portrayed on TV, now? As a first contrast, the new Marco Polo series had a predominately Asian cast, including some of my favourite actors, so I was hoping for a tempering of the 80s ‘European bringer of wisdom’ narrative. My expectations in this regard were surpassed in this respect: Marco Polo turned out to be the most boring of all the characters – in fact, I skipped over a lot of his scenes. Moreover, in the new series, there was a huge power gulf between Marco and Kublai Khan. In the 80s TV series, the two often acted as if they were on the same level, or as if Marco Polo brought unknown beneficial ideas to Mongolia. Compare this scene…

With this scene, for example:

I actually ended up watching more behind the scenes interviews with writers, historians and actors than the series itself (I easily get bored with things like battles and predictable dialogue, of which there was a lot). If I was to summarise the series, it’s about medieval Mongolian politics spiced up with Spartacus-style sex scenes to keep (the non-medieval mostly non-Mongolian) viewers interested. Many recent historical spectacles, it seems, are so formulaic in this respect that each episode has a pre-determined succession of dialogue, battle scene, dialogue scene, sex scene, landscape porn, etc. (It’s maybe more something to watch at the end of term where your brain has turned into a vegetable, rather than during the summer, but my brain was already a vegetable from chronic brain so I had the adequate bandwidth.) Critics have blamed the series Game of Thrones, which I still have not watched, for this development. Wherever it came from, it did not help the series.

Having said this, although the series’ components feel unimaginative (the Hollywood orientalist sex clichés are particularly annoying), considerable effort seems to have gone into making the series not a total stereotype. From the interviews, it seemed as if quite a lot of historical research went into the making of the series, and there were ‘cultural advisors’ (what a cool job!). As I cannot realluy judge the historical accuracy, I focused more on what the series emphasised: political power plays, and especially of people who do not occupy the most favourable positions, such as women, foreigners, illegitimate heirs. Of these, I found the female stories the most compelling, partly, because they charted quite a few different strategies and gender performances. Looking at some of the historical commentary, the actual figures were even queerer than in their 21st century TV interpretation. Partly, this was probably an entertainment industry choice, partly, this may have been due to the difficulties of finding reliable information: both actors and historians talked about the difficulties of doing research on these women, because some much of women’s history, like in Europe and other parts of the world, had actively been destroyed or distorted.

I haven’t answered yet why this guilty holiday binge was useful for my teaching. Basically, I ended looking up different versions of Marco Polo, and found the above clip of Marco Polo introducing idea of paper money to Europe. While Marco Polo may not even have been a real person, he embodied the world altering transfer of knowledge between Asia and Europe, and other global relations that occurred at the time. In Europe, traders found it harder and harder to lug around tons of precious metals to undertake business transactions. In addition, gold and silver dumping from the new colonies had brought down the price of these currencies. The Chinese concept of promissory or bank notes, paired with Islamic book keeping, revolutionised European trade. It was interesting to talk about the travels of the concept, within Asia and Europe, in relation to different religions and their ethical codes, and how it became our current financial system. The story of Luca Pacioli, for example, makes for a fascinating parallel with Martin Luther and his use of vernacular language to bring about a revolution – in Pacioli’s case, an economic one.

Back then, when accountants had queer bohemian groupies. (Attributed to Jacopo de’ Barbari – Lauwers, Luc & Willekens, Marleen: Five Hundred Years of Bookkeeping: A Portrait of Luca Pacioli,
c. 1495–1500)

This then neatly led into further financial developments such as stock markets and monopolisation, which then helped explain how trade turned into the genocidal warfare of colonialism. However, paper money was not the only novelty that emerged from China and influenced the course of colonialism. Chinese gunpowder made a similarly extensive journey after initially being conceived as a life-extending (!) potion. Not only did it allow for the development of deadly long range military weapons, but also for civil engieering that included applications such as mining and infrastructure projects such as canals and tunnels. It helped economies scale up and speed up.

Having put this material together for teaching, I had to think of anthropologist Mario Blaser‘s critique of presenting modernity as either a project to which everyone in the world contributed, or as a ‘rupturist’ narrative that specifically resists this relation, instead, favouring a ‘pluriversal’ approach. It could be argued that I wasn’t only guilty of a Marco Polo binge watch, but also of painting an overly relational world that, together, created ‘modernity’. On the other hand, I tried to emphasise how different societies repeatedly rejected innovations such as money, although they had temporarily taken it up or even developed it. This often depended on political power plays, rebellions that followed economic breakdowns and corruption, but also on other factors such as impacts of natural disasters and epidemics. These rejections also resulted in geographical ruptures, and while this may not exactly be the rupturist story that Blaser has in mind, I think they make for thought provoking examples in terms of our (dis)connection.

Poster Turandot.jpg
Promotional poster for Giacomo Puccini’s opera “Turandot“, on 25 April 1926 (Image: Wikipedia). The opera’s concept was based on stories about the Mongol princess Khutulun.

Here, the changing entertainment-focused narratives are as interesting as their academic counterparts, because the shift to an entertainment-focused genre again highlights globalised economics. The recent ‘discovery’ of previously marginalised audiences and tastes by the entertainment industry (shocker: globalised societies may have globalised tastes/economies!) can pretty safely be blamed for the present shape of Marco Polo: the Asian cast, the complex female characters of varying ages, the queer content etc (commentary by a more qualified media theorist in this article). It’s interesting to go even further back and look at examples of how the Europe-China/Mongolia relationship has been portrayed in entertainment genres, for example, Giacomo Puccini’s operat ‘Turandot‘. So, even if Marco Polo could be considered mainstream ‘trash’, no matter in which iteration, it is still an educational mirror that reflects current power relations in a multitude of dimensions. (Did I just write an overly long binge-watching justification?!)

Teaching Karl Marx alongside Frederick Douglass

Karl Marx - Theory, Quotes & Books - BiographyWhy Frederick Douglass Matters - HISTORY

This is the second year in which I taught a class about power that is supposed to introduce students not just to key theorists on power in Geography, but also to different directions and models of power. Technically, this could be impossible, but I think I manage to do this by simplifying things for the main lecture and complicating things in the other topic lectures. For the simplified version, I present a comparison of a vertical model of power with a horizontal one. The horizontal model is exemplified by the work of Michel Foucault, and the vertical one by Karl Marx and Frederick Douglass. The Marx vs Foucault comparison is basically standard in Geography, because these theorists have dominated the discipline for some time. Although Douglass hasn’t figured in UK Geography in any significant way, at least not to my knowledge, he also works from a vertical model of power. I find it useful to think Marx and Douglass together, because, for me, it is the different geographical experiences of the two thinkers – who coincidentally share the same birth year – that shape their ideas about power.

Although both Marx and Douglass occupied marginal positions in their respective societies, they had radically different upbringings. Marx grew up in a Prussian upper middle class family who had converted from Judaism to Christianity because of anti-Semitic occupation laws. As a student, he ended up in university prison for rowdy behaviour, and his parents had him transferred to Berlin which then had the reputation for greater discipline. Douglass grew up as a slave on a plantation and was separated from his mother and then his grandmother at an early age. He was illegally taught how to read and write by his mistress, but she stopped teaching him out of fear of producing an educated slave. He then continued his education in secret. The two scholars then followed almost opposite trajectories: while Douglass eventually managed to free himself and rise as a statesman and government advisor, Marx became poorer and was not just shunned but pretty much hunted by politicians.
Image: Margaret Bourke-White, 1937.

What I find interesting about them is that they both viewed oppression and poverty as an outcome of systematic oppression – they both talked about workers and slaves as victims of objectification – but they ended up with almost opposite solutions. For Marx, the solution to ending systematic oppression was for the oppressed to rise up against their oppressors as a group. This was not to merely do away with them, but to take ownership of what capitalism was withholding from them. It was essentially about rendering private ownership common again. Douglass, by contrast, was not interested in socialist ideas – he could be described as an almost stereotypical American liberal who neither saw a problem with ownership nor with the image of the American Dream’s ‘self-made man’. In fact, at the time, there seemed to be a gulf (broadly) between White socialists and Black abolitionists because of socialism’s emphasis on the White working class, from which slaves where somehow distinct. From an American slave perspective, public ownership also must have felt crazy given the fact that the country was still very much operating like a colony where White people had effectively seized public land, made it their own, and and ensured that limitation of ownership was the only means to have power. He also lived in a supposed democracy that felt, as he stated after a visit to the British Isles, more oppressive than a monarchy.

8 facts about religion and government in the United States | Pew Research  Center

Marx and Douglass also differed in their views on religion. As Domenico Losurdo (2002) argues, Marx, despite his critique of religion as an ‘opium of the masses’, believed that Christianity was ultimately a ‘protest against real suffering’ (quoting Marx). On this, the two thinkers agree. They were, however, involved in different sets of debates around religion. Marx was part of a debate that either anxiously or appreciately associated socialism with sensous materiality. This debate followed in the wake of a growing anxiety around the increasing failure of the Church to sell suffering and the promise of a pleasurable afterlife to people in the face of modernity’s ideas about progress and equality. Against the promotion of conspicuous consumption by capitalism, the church’s teachings rang hollow, especially since growing mass consumption visibly manifested around the poor. Douglass, by contrast, was less critical about consumption and instead focused on the relation between the Church and its role in direct oppression. Here, he distinguished between the message and the performance. For example, although Douglass discussed the involvement of the Church in slavery and oppression, he seemed more invested in exposing the hypocrisy of pro-slavery Christians, and in amplifying Christianity’s liberatory and levelling message. Given the powerful role of Christianity as part of Black liberation, this made a lot of sense: in the US, religion was potential dyamite (in fact it still is).

Two unexpectedly useful effects of teaching on Douglass were his emphasis on the role of fear in oppression, providing a nice link with Foucault’s surveillance society, and his use of technology, and particularly photography, as a method of changing power relations. Douglass had experienced both vertical and horizontal power through physical and mental violence during his time as a slave. Slavery as a system tries to put in place horizontal surveillance not just through fear but through promises of rewards for keeping other slaves in check. It also requires the participation of a majority of the overall population – not just to follow laws (segregation), but to move beyond them for enhancing their own social status. The effort of challenging this system was high because alliances were difficult to make under these conditions – there was no socio-economic benefit for support. This basically undermines Marx’ belief in the liberatory action of an oppressed population group, as regularly shown by the uptake of far right ideas in favour of socialist ones.

Douglass was not inattentive to consumption, however. In fact he used it as a means of challenging power relations. A key part of his method was the consumption of images. Douglass was one of the most photographed people of his time, and this was out of his own initiative. If African Americans could circulate their own images and stories, first horizontally and then vertically, the political narrative may eventually no longer hold. This is a practice that is now widely in use in politics, as part of the aim to ‘win hearts and minds’, even if the proposed policies are going to hurt the very people they are trying to reach (see the debate on affective democracy and sado-populism). I basically turned this into a seminar activity for analysing power relations. Talking about images and power was ideal, because I somehow had to bring Geography’s obsession with ‘the gaze’ into the module. Normally, this is done through landscape geography’s relation with art history, but I feel that the Douglass link draws out the importance of the ‘gaze’ even better. Given how geographical knowledge has been produced and selectively suppressed for a long time (see the example of the Haitian Revolution), do we actually know that Douglass didn’t influence anglophone Geography’s engagement with images?

Teaching about environmental determinism during the pandemic

Evolve or die. The evolution about COVID-19 - ESCI-UPF News
Image: ESCI-UPF News

Quite a few of my lectures have been impacted by the current pandemic – not just in terms of format, but also in terms of content. The lecture on environmental determinism is probably the most interesting example. Environmental determinism revolves around the question ‘is geography destiny?’, although one could say that it is mostly not taken as a question. It is associated with racist justifications of colonisers, with Nazi Germany’s implementation of ‘lebensraum’ and with the modern far right. Because of this, the topic tends to be taught through geographers directly linked to atrocities, such as Friedrich Ratzel (creator of the ‘Lebensraum’ concept) and Halford Mackinder (imperialist, explorer and murderer of his Mount Kenya expedition crew). Sometimes, as an equal opportunities nod, the former AAG president Ellen C Semple is included through her links with the justification of the brutal Panama Canal working conditions. (German geographers would probably add Carl Ritter, because of his relations with both Ratzel and Alexander von Humboldt.) These key figures are then used to show how Charles Darwin’s ideas (rather than those of his rival Jean-Baptiste Lamarck) about biological competition added fuel to this movement, allowing environmental determinism to become the norm in the discipline. After the abuse by the Nazis, environmental determinism then became sidelined and replaced by the movement of ‘possibilism’ – that humans shape their geography and not vice versa. Today, environmental determinism mainly lives on in books such as Tim Marshall’s ‘Prisoners of Geography’, aggressively pushed by bookshops despite having been discredited by the majority of geographers, including for its abysmal writing style.

Ibn Khaldun - Wikipedia
Bust of Ibn Khaldun in the entrance of the Kasbah of Bejaia, Algeria

Although the above components make for a coherent narrative, it somehowdoes not quite work for me. This feeling has increased during the recent pandemic. I know how difficult it is to fit a lot of material into an hour or two, especially without overloading pandemic-traumatised undergraduates, but a few added dimensions can go a long way and, in fact, take emphasis and explanatory work off overexposed imperialist actors. One addition that I made is a simple historical expansion: environmental determinism is a really old concept, for example, associated with Ibn Khaldun‘s question ‘is geography destiny?’ Ibn Khaldun was an Arab scholar who worked in the 14th century, and there were others before him, as suggested by physicist Jim Al-Khalili and other scholars. It would take a bit more time to make a bitter list, to give greater support the following argument: that the basic idea of environmental determinism morphs with the context in which it is placed and with the knowledge that is available. It clearly has a political function – why do you need to know this about human-geography relations at this particular point in time? What has prompted the question? It is important to draw this out, especially when this concept is recycled over and over.

Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution (The Kropotkin Collection):  Kropotkin, Peter: 9781549909856: Books

Furthermore, the question about evolution has never just been about competition. It’s been about competition vs cooperation. Which of the two are we hard wired to perform? (Biologists might say here: it depends on what organism you are looking at and what kind of environment, but that does not disturb most environmental determinists.) Indeed, geographers have not just looked at competition, they have also looked at cooperation. The geographer in question was the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin; his concept was called ‘mutual aid’. Geographers tend to forget that environmental determinism was both a left and right wing occupation. This is, I think, partly, because the concept of ‘mutual aid’ has been de-biologised so thoroughly that you can easily forget about its origins. It is also easier to associate environmental determinism with the far right, because they have visibly abused it the most. This then absolves the left from any past abuse of science, while keeping energies focused on the actual problem. This, however, not only distorts the past, but also makes the present harder to understand. During the pandemic, concepts such as mutual aid and herd immunity have been all over the news, yet only one the concepts keeps being linked with Darwinism. For our seminar, we actually looked at news articles and how they explained the concepts. Students mostly found that mutual aid had almost totally been ‘de-biologised’ and de-linked from anarchist politics. It was in fact used to aid the state where resources were lacking. My co-teacher, French geographer Elise Lecomte, even found a BBC article on British ‘mutual aid police officers‘, a hair raising thought for anarchists, especially against the fact that practices of mutual aid have traditionally been suppressed through state violence (we looked at the example of the Tulsa Race Massacre which just had its 100th anniversary). The class then discussed how these different performances may have come to be.

The Kropotkin addition can also be linked to the relationship between research and teaching, thus adding explanatory depth to the question: how did environmental determinism become the norm in Geography? The Kropotkin-Mackinder debates have helpfully been documented by geographer Gerry Kearns who also happens to have written a dissertation on the London cholera epidemic (I would really like to interview him about this connection for my class!). Kearns explains how Mackinder and Kropotkin argued against each other at the Royal Geographical Society, and even responded to a report on British school geography (Kropotkin’s piece can be read here; Mackinder’s piece here). Both pieces have their problems, but Mackinder’s line was ultimately more supported by British politicians, even though his ‘Heartland’ theory was discredited (and, yes, I did play the Sisters of Mercy song to stress their superb commetary on British foreign policy). We can see similar dynamics at play right now, with the governments regressive influence on Geography at both school and higher education level (e.g. de-emphasising critical geography on climate change and racial inequality). This then links in rather chilling ways to the government’s recent policies against climate change and anti-racist protesters and against migrants, although I did not explicitly emphasise this. Last year, this link was made in some students’ coursework (this year’s coursework is not in yet). In many ways, Brexit could be seen as a ‘geography is destiny’ campaign (look – we geographically delinked from Europe… at least it appears so… right?).

Taking the pandemic and education relation together, this can be extended to show some of the mechanims by which environmental determinism survives. It can also be used to show where more attention is needed to this by the opposition whose distancing from environmental determinism seems to have led to the forgetting of a past challenge. Although the cooperation challenge to right-wing environmental determinism proved to be equally scientifically fraught, it hit at the heart of the problem. Today, the right wing/far right version of ‘biology/geography is destiny’ keeps being challenged, although mainly, it seems, by upset scientists who see their data/lobsters/[insert species] misappropriated (my favourite one here is Bruce Bagemihl’s tome on animal homosexuality, Biological Exuberance, with thanks to Nigel Clark for the reference, although the lesbian manatee 69 may be forever ingrained in my brain).

While this is not a call for the left to become more environmentally determinist, it may be an idea for a performative history lesson that wrestles ideas around cooperation back from neoliberal appropriation, or worse, an increasingly authoritarian state. The pandemic has made these links so blantant, as well as their functioning as part of the right wing populist machinery. Further, the explicit distancing of the left from what is essentially scientific and geographical racism sometimes makes it impossible to discuss racism as a whole, including the racism of the left (a great book on this in relation to spiritual racism by Erica Lagalisse, which also addresses the supression of spiritual/religious questions within the left, but that is for another blog post). This void is then used by the (far) right, leading to even worse reactions by the (mainstream) left. We can see this, for example, in increasingly problematic statements from members of the Labour Party about migration, policing and even the pandemic that feel more about gaining voters back from the right through right wing (oops!) populism than about presenting a smarter alternative rhetoric.

Yearning: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics : Hooks, Bell:  Books

Looking at some of the counter-proposals that engage more sensitively with this history, the hopeful words of the late cultural theorist bell hooks comes to mind. hooks’ work was a call for for honouring ‘legacies of pain’ to transform the present. The legacy of environmental determinism could be considered such a pain for the left, both in terms of its appropriation by the (far) right and the left’s own use of the concept. Following hooks, even though oppressive structures may feel as if they are immovable, confronting our relation to them may help us arrive at ‘a new location from which to articulate our sense of the world’. It could be argued that, through this relocation, the world also shifts a little bit.

Research-led teaching: who leads the research?

Last year, I was put in charge of a module after our teaching fellow Matt Tillotson’s contract was not renewed. Like other core modules in the department, the Histories & Philosophies of Geography module kept changing leadership every few years, not just due to the increasing causalisation of university labour. I had taught on the module, but not the majority of it. I had only a few weeks before the beginning of term to rewrite it and make it work for remote teaching (I ended up with a stress breakdown and on-going health consequences, but that’s another story). I did really want to rewrite the module, partly because I did not just want to appropriate content from a colleague on a fixed-term contract, partly because I wanted to change the approach of the module. What I wanted it to do is to show more of the stories that get ignored when teaching geographical ‘canon’. In Geography, there has been a progressive movement from an uncritical celebration of our discipline’s contributions to imperialism to a critical evaluation of the violence committed in this process. However, what most teaching tends to do as part of this shift is to still centre the same White men, merely with the disclaimer that they committed atrocities. What was everyone else doing, and how did that also shape Geography (and perhaps even more so)? This is something that myself and the teaching fellow had started to work on, but hadn’t completely got right yet, if there is such as thing as ‘right’ in this context.

After a lot of difficult research (British Library was still closed), I ended up with a module that I was rather happy with in terms of content. I channelled the latter into lectures, zines and seminars. Teaching during the pandemic was awkward, partly due to my complex illness, partly due to online (non)interaction. Still, some students got in touch to tell me that they appreciated the module, and most of the students submitted incredibly sensitive work. I was relieved, though not entirely satisfied. I wondered if my feelings would change after running this module face-to-face. They didn’t, but instead confirmed a problem.

What was the problem? Going back face-to-face meant a doubling of the lecture hours, away from the mixture of live lectures and ‘work book’/asynchronous approach to teaching. I was immediately stressed out again. Not only has there been no real break during the summer – lots of marking for resists and mitigating circumstances work, for example – but we again had to redesign our teaching. I made the mistake of sticking with the previous teaching model, something that some colleagues, as I later found out, had avoided. A few weeks in, I realised that the reason why the module was not working was the teaching style. It was not the transformation of student attention spans post-pandemic, as some of the students suggested in their feedback – the old teaching model did not fit with the new content.

What we do as lecturers is often called ‘research-led teaching’. The teaching comes out of, or somehow relates to, our research. This is considered a beneficial thing, because the lectures will technically represent the most recent discussions and developments in the discipline and the world, as much as we can fit in of that, anyway. I was actually very proud how much current research and debates the lectures included. What we sometimes tend to forget, however, is that the research also needs to be put into the teaching methods, and that the research should not need to just come from us.

Following the standard model of research-led teaching, I had interpreted in a way that overdetermined my lectures: I had pre-filtered too much. Worse, I had made the lectures quite dense, partly because I cannot hold attention as a speaker or audience if the content isn’t dense enough (writing helps with spacing things out, as I can edit texts over and over). As a result, the students were first of all struggling with a density of unfamiliar information (I had also assumed too much previous knowledge from school and from Year 1). Further, they were bored, no matter how interesting I might find the content, because they had insufficient opportunities to do their own research, and to co-lead the research. So far, this part was relegated to the assessment (the research log and essay), and to a minor degree to the seminars. The external examiner had already suggested to co-write the zines with my students (I use zines as supporting materials to summarise the lectures), but I had not yet figured out how to do this. I was a bit stuck as to what to do. The teaching improvements also had to work with my specific personality – I couldn’t just copy what another colleague was doing. Then things suddenly fell into place.

After a reading group meeting (anyone interested in materialism and within travelling distance to London, may want to check out the Westminster based Materialisms reading group), I ended up talking about Olivia Rutazibwa, an International Relations scholar at the London School of Economics. She described how she was teaching her module by sending off her student to do their own research on the topic, and then integrating their research into her lectures. So, basically, they have a briefing, a discussion of the research, and then she can add her own research to it. I then realised that not only could I do something similar with my students, since I had changed the module structure to weekly topics, but, also, I was already doing something similar in my other module on Research Communication. There, I brief the student with a 10-15 minute lecture, send them off on their own research, and we discuss their projects in the next workshop. Until now, I had never considered applying the same method to a theory module, because I had thought of the other module as too practice-based to be transferable in terms of structure. I thought that the issues were too difficult to research. At the same time, I had spent a lot of effort into grounding the theoretical and historical into everyday examples, which is something that I could easily transform into tasks for the students to do. This way, I could hear their examples and how this is relevant to them, and not just get a rushed assessment version of this after the conclusion of the module.

I feel that, in fact, theory and history needs to be taught as co-research, to allow for a greater multiplicity of perspectives and emphases. As Olivia said: ‘there are some things that I want to get across, but I do not want to be the one saying them’. I feel that is incredibly true, especially given the discomfort I felt during the teaching. I felt that the ways in which I was present some of the issues might put the students off engaging with them, because they were coming from me. Moroever, it is very hard to teach about ideologies when there are so many different ones in the same room. I was receiving so many different vibes that it was impossible to negotiate them, even with the best lecture material. This negotiation is something that can be done much better in smaller groups or one-to-one conversations, but it was best if students could feel represented from the start. This isn’t particulary easy to handle in the classroom either, because of clashing opinions, or students being uncomfortable representing their viewpoint, especially against a potential majority.

So what’s the plan? I am going to explain some of the above to the students this coming week, and will try to run the next week as a collaborative research project. It will take some practice on my part in terms of negotiating classroom dynamics, and also in terms of not wanting to in all of my stuff that I want them to know (I hope this comes less from egomania than from a place of care in a time of culture wars). I think it is worth trying, because I really want to see how far I can push this for my students and for myself. So, research-led teaching it is, and even more so!


The term ‘landmark’ refers to processes that include: (1) marking or desiring to mark territorial boundaries, (2) establishing navigation aids or points of reference that promises relief from feeling lost in un/familiar environments (3) identifying an attractive structure that draws wider attention, including economic benefits, (4) making a decision that signals and consolidates significant changes – a turning point. In times of crisis, people engage in processes of creating ‘landmarks’ to negotiate geographical anxieties of belonging in an unstable environment. This process of creating points-in-relation can end in familiar outcomes such as nationalist sentiments, but can also lead to an embracing of new connections. Through this inherent tension – between claiming or fixing territory, and embracing change or uncertainty – a ‘landmark’ could be considered a geographical version of the ‘pharmakon’, popularised by Isabelle Stengers, which can poison or heal.

I have been thinking about this term a lot. I am not entirely sure if it suits its intended purpose, or if it comes overloaded with problematic connotations, from touristic horrors to phallic gestures. ‘Landmark’: lack of influence on the selection of an imposing object; but also the agency to create a historic event. ‘Landmark’: easy to recognise. As a geographer, the term also feels overly familiar.

Strike Teach-in @ Leicester

Another term, another strike. This time, I am writing a zine that explores some of the history of the university. I’ll be a bit of a hackjob, as I only have a day to do it, but I think it is worth doing nevertheless. I’ve been very frustrated with the ways in which the strikes have been framed so far, so I’ve been reading up on things anyway, more specifically on universities in different countries, and on the historical and economic events that have led up to the present problems. Ideally, I would like to see a strike for a public university, as this would help relieve some of the burdens on staff and students in my view. I am aware that the public university is not necessarily as solution just by being public. Higher education is entangled with wider economic and cultural influences that cannot be changed just like that. Having said that, some of it can.

In terms of public universities, I have looked at some of the reporting on the introduction and later abolition of tuition fees in Germany. UK newspapers tend to point out that Germany does not offer students many services that UK universities do. This includes a lack of student accommodation, sports centres, welfare etc. In fact, the proportion of tuition fees that goes towards actual teaching is relatively low. This is also mirrored in the teaching style which does not involve as much ‘hand holding’ as in the UK or US. Speaking to colleagues working in Germany, there seem to be fairly similar issues in terms of grant income pressure, casualisation, teaching overload and especially lack of diversity. In their case, however, this has less to do with privatisation, but with an outdated university structure which colleagues have described as ‘feudal’. This is one reason why I have not been able to imagine working in Germany. It all seems to be about working on the project of a professor, and to get to the professorial position, you have to work lots of short contracts. There is no comparable lecturer/senior lecturer/etc hierarchy with associated autonomy and relative job security.

At the same time, because the university is funded by taxpayer money rather than individuals, there seems to be better leverage for affecting change. Right now, casualisation is being debated in the national media, partially prompted by the campaign #IchbinHanna. Academics are fighting for the introduction of departmental structures to balance the powers and duties of professors. In the UK, the progressive privatisation of universities makes public debate and also union intervention difficult. In addition, the UK relies excessively on university degrees as a gateway to even the most menial jobs. Germany, by comparison, has a strong apprenticeship culture which means that it is taking pressure off the university system in terms of providing qualifications. While university education is becoming more popular in Germany, too, the system does not yet seem to be at a point where either higher tax or fees have to be charged. In the UK, it has been proposed that business should be taxed more to co-fund education, because they are profiting from the graduate training. This is a bit similar to the German model where business are already providing some of the research income. Getting businesses more involved in university financing is likely to shift decision making power, however.

Very tired now after a day of zine writing, so not the most finished of blog posts, but, anyway, here is the zine! Feel free to comment, suggest amendments – this is the first draft.

If you are in Leicester tomorrow (Thursday), do pop into the student union at 11am for the teach-in. Appropriately meeting by Starbucks…