An experiment in teaching geohumanities

As someone whose work gets framed as ‘geohumanities’, I often get asked about my take on the field, both in terms of research and teaching. I usually answer that I feel that geohumanities is in danger of becoming a mere rebranding exercise for cultural geography or environmental humanities. Looking at articles from journals across those three fields, it becomes difficult to make out a difference. This dynamic seems aggravated by the demands of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) that evaluates research output according to discipline. Many academics have complained that, while contemporary problems (and research funders) demand interdisciplinarity, the current research (and academic career) assessment punishes discipline transgressions. Your work will always be scrutinised for sufficient adherence to disciplinary boundaries, and it seems not enough that most of your work can be accounted for in this way, and the fact that there are dedicated journals for this field in which you can publish. Although the new framework promises to pay more attention to interdisciplinarity, the paranoia around disciplinarity persists. Certainly, during last year’s job interviews, I experienced anxiety around my work and the journals in which I decide to publish. Even at interviews for geohumanities themed posts, when bringing up potential practice based or inter/cross-disciplinary outputs, the answer was often ‘no’.

Moreover, some geographers have started to define geohumanities as a meeting of geography and art, sometimes to contrast with environmental/ecological humanities, which tend to be perceived as a meeting of literature and environmental geography. Frequently, geography itself is seen as a science (in the art-science vein), and also as an already pre-defined aesthetic project in itself, due to its dealings with things such as landscape and weather. For me, this definition feels too limited, and frequently leads to a predictable division of labour: geographers write about art, while artists engage with geography. Referring to some attempts at role reversal, some sceptics have joked that it is perhaps best if geographers don’t try to ‘do art’, although there are a few successful examples around. The greater problem, for me, however, is the loss of the wide humanities spectrum, which all creatively engage with and affect geography, from theatre to history. Many of our key concepts that have altered the course of geography, in academia and beyond, come from the humanities, such as ‘postcolonialism’, the ‘nonhuman’/ ’posthuman’, the ‘subaltern’ or ‘slow violence’. In addition, there is a danger of losing the breadth within the geo, which includes all sorts of levels, layers and scales through e.g. geology, geophysics, GIS and especially geopolitics.

A related issue is interdisciplinary teaching. There are many different ways of doing this, depending on institutional logistics (timetabling, student location, connection to other departments etc), levels (undergraduate, postgraduate) and staffing. An increasing number of universities claim to have interdisciplinary undergraduate teaching programmes such as ‘Liberal Arts’, but in reality, subjects are still being kept separate and taught by specialists. The location of an interdisciplinary programme also often determines the angle. For instance, if an art and science programme is located within an arts faculty, the syllabus is more likely to be art centred, no matter how diverse the student body.

Factors that contribute to disciplinary adherence include assessment and employability. In terms of assessment, existing people need to assess work in an existing framework. Although there is some leeway in terms of content, method, tasks and outputs – usually attached to a lengthy process of approval and external scrutiny – there are considerable benefits in staying with the old system, from economic to identity-related ones. One argument that has been rolled out for as well as against interdisciplinarity is employability. Employer requirements are, of course, all over the teaching excellence framework (TEF). How is this supposed to shape teaching, according to the reports? The paper “Success as a Knowledge Economy: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice”, at first glance, emphasises student choice and flexibility, but on closer scrutiny, this mainly relates to financial issues: all students should have the same consumer choice of institution. Nothing about potential links to earlier statements in the same report such as “business problems often require rapid solutions, and are rarely focused on a single research discipline”.

With so much woolly “guidance”, institutional and disciplinary anxieties, how is one to teach an interdisciplinary geohumanities module? One way of going about this is to ask: what would I like this module to do? In my case, what I would be interested in trying is to teach geography arts and humanities style. I would like geography students to see not only where many of their concepts come from, but also how the arts and humanities are used at different sites to attempt to reimagine and overwrite geographical narratives that are at the heart of many environmental and geopolitical problems. Geohumanities work often presents itself as “crisis focused”, and it is a good idea to discuss examples of interventions that people in different positions around the world have made in the face of crisis. In practical terms, what I would be looking at is to include consideration of different humanities disciplines, different media (also to teach aesthetic literacy), geographical breadth and high-low culture dynamics. This is quite a lot to consider for one module, which probably allows for 10 sessions at the most. I do not worry too much about covering everything, as the module building process will be naturally limited by the research interests of whoever teaches it. In fact, this limitation will open up the possibility for students to bring their own examples of which they are “experts”, also often due to a generational difference, thus creating a more equal position in the classroom.

Over the last few years, I have drafted different geohumanities modules that are structured by different emphases: issue focused, concept focused, medium/output focused (not just to work on/through different media, but to perhaps also not privilege reading as a mode of knowledge transmission), discipline focused (covering as many humanities/”geos” as possible with or without co-teaching from other subject areas), format focused (non-lecture) etc. While I currently do not teach any of these modules, I integrate aspects of them (and of my “postcolonial” science studies module) into some of my current courses.

So, to liberate at least one of my full “fantasy modules” from my drawer and to put it out there for discussion, I’d like to show a hybrid medium/issue focused one. While comparatively conservative in format – it was written to pass a particular course approval system in geography – it can easily be adapted to suit different institutional and non-institutional needs. Feedback/discussion welcome! Also, please feel free to post links to other courses below. Today, I found an interesting mapping themed teaching syllabus, developed by Garrett Nelson at Dartmouth, which can be found here.


Image: Actors from Shakespeare’s Globe perform “Hamlet” at the Good Chance Theatre Tent in the Jungle, Feb. 3, 2016. Source: Al Jazeera/Getty Images/Dan Kitwood.

The main aim behind this module is to enable (geography) students to get a sense of how different humanities-based disciplines engage with pressing global environmental and geopolitical issues, and why this is interesting for geographers. Further aims include: to help students understand links between social, economic and institutional dynamics around art and culture; to map the reach of the humanities, especially the feedback loops between popular culture, ‘high culture’ and wider global (political) dynamics; to identify, challenge and perhaps contribute examples of creative attempts at challenging geopolitical dynamics and stereotypes; to study and experiment with a variety of media and formats (e.g. press release, podcast, photograph, zine, arts grant application) to improve communication of critical geographical issues; and to build confidence in engaging with difficult debates and in communicating these to different audiences.

1 Introduction to the Geohumanities

This introduction situates the geohumanities vis à vis fields such as environmental humanities, cultural geography and ecocriticism. Through a variety of examples, the session seeks to illustrate why the field has evolved and how it contributes to discourse. As part of this, it also draws attention to institutional dynamics such as issues of race and gender in academic authorship, funding, publishing and syllabus design. Further, by explaining the rationale behind this module, this introduction prompts the question:
What have the geohumanities set out to do so far and what would you actually like them to do?

Bird Rose, D, van Dooren, T, Chrulew, M, Cooke, S, Kearnes, M, O’Gormand, E (2012) Thinking Through the Environment, Unsettling the Humanities.

Cosgrove, D (2000) Cultural Geography. In: R.J. Johnston, D. Gregory, G. Pratt, M. Watts (eds) The Dictionary of Human Geography. Oxford: Blackwell.

DeLoughrey, E, Handley, G B (2011) Postcolonial Ecologies: Literatures of the Environment. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hawkins, H, Cabeen, L, Callard, F, Castree, N, Daniels, S, DeLyser, D, Munro Neely, H, Mitchell, P (2015) What Might GeoHumanities Do? Possibilities, Practices, Publics, and Politics. GeoHumanities1(2).

Other examples of works discussed: Juliana Spahr, This connection of everyone with lungs (2005) and The Transformation (2007); Vanessa Agard-Jones, Toxic Symposium (2017)

2 Is the Museum a Battlefield? Art, culture and global power

Taking inspiration from artist Hito Steyerl’s performances Is the Museum a Battlefield (2013) and Guards (2012), this session looks at the museum, the artwork and the art world as a site of geopolitical struggle. What actually makes a museum or gallery? Who funds, views and buys art and why? What are artists, curators and institutions doing to challenge problematic dynamics? This lecture also looks at geopolitical use of cultural “soft power” to garner wider support from populations, explaining terms such as culture washing, pinkwashing.

Bennett, T (1995) The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics. London: Routledge.

Puar, J K (2007) Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Sharp, J (2000) Condensing the Cold War. Reader’s Digest and American Identity. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Steyerl, H (2012) The Wretched of the Screen. Berlin: Sternberg Press.

Other examples of works discussed: Hito Steyerl, Is the Museum a Battlefield (2013) and Guards (2012); Barnard, L (2014) Hyenas of the Battlefield, Machines in the Garden. TLV in LDN. MODCaR, Imaging Detroit Festival (2012).

3 Inhuman Conditions: Documenting human rights abuses

Prompted by Pheng Cheah’s question of how the humanities can make a difference in addressing global human rights abuses, this session looks at how photographers, documentary film makers, journalists, lawyers and even architects are attempting to change the way we think about violence. This session looks at experiments with human empathy in relation to geographical and cultural distance and proximity. It also looks at the ways in which violence against humans is linked with (real, imagined) environmental factors and special practices such as erasures in the built environment.

Azoulay, A (2012) Civil Imagination: Political Ontology of Photography. London: Verso (reprint).

Cheah, P (2006) Inhuman Conditions: On Cosmopolitanism and Human Rights. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Herscher, A (2010) Violence Taking Place: The Architecture of the Kosovo Conflict. Redwood City: Stanford University Press.

O’Tuathail (1996) An Anti-geopolitical Eye: Maggie O’Kane in Bosnia, 1992-93. Gender, Place & Culture 3(2).

Examples of works discussed: Eyal Weizman, Forensic Architecture (2017); Susan Sontag, On Photography (1977); pro/anti-Refugee Campaigns; war campaigns; Ai Wei Wei controversies; debates around public monuments; apartheid architecture; cultural economy of ‘ruin porn’.

4 Shakespeare in the Jungle: Can theatre help refugees?

When the Globe Theatre in London sent actors to the Calais ‘Jungle’ refugee camp, their actions were both lauded and condemned. Of all things, do refugees need theatre, dance or music? And, if yes, what kind of performances? What can such interventions do in terms of affecting different publics, including decision-makers? This session looks at a variety of controversial but also ‘quiet’, less high profile examples of how well-meaning performances have negotiated prevalent geographical imaginaries.

Daley, P (2005) Bob Geldof and the Livingstone connection: Africa not yet saved? Pambazuka News. URL:

Nagar, R (2014) Muddying the Waters: Co-authoring Feminisms across Scholarship and Activism. Champaign: University of Illinois Press.

Rogers, A (2017) Advancing the geographies of the performing arts: Intercultural aesthetics, migratory mobility and geopolitics. Progress in Human Geography [Online First].

Salhi, K (1998) African Theatre for Development: Art for Self-Determination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Other examples of works discussed: Geraldine Pratt and Caleb Johnston ‘Nanay’ (2009); Aimé Césaire, A Tempest (1969); Live Aid (1985); WOMAD; Beyoncé’s Superbowl performance (2013).

5 “These girls are the future!’: subculture visions

‘These girls are the future!’ was an overheard exclamation by a male visitor of the 2016 DIY Zine Fair in London. The person pointed at the stall of ‘OOMK’ (One of my kind), a small independent journal primarily devoted to the creative experiences and ambitions of young Muslim women. This session looks at related examples and strategies of supposed ‘low culture’, such as DIY zine making and DIY fashion as part of experimentation with identity and geography.

Ashery, O, Sansour, L (2009) The Novel of Nonel and Vovel. Milan: Edizioni Charta Srl.

Dasgupta, R K (2015) Articulating dissident citizenship, belonging, and queerness on cyberspace South Asian Review, 35(3)

Feigenbaum, A (2012) Written in the mud. (Proto)Zine-making and autonomous media at the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp. Feminist Media Studies 13(1).

Hall, S, Jefferson, T (1993 [1975]) Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-war Britain. London: Routledge.

Other examples of works discussed: Oomk, Odd One Out, Mashalla News, Bidoun, The Henceforward (Eve Tuck), Indian & Cowboy, Skin Deep, Sticky Institute gay marriage controversy.
→ Possibility of visit to zine fair.

6 Technologies of Struggle: whose future/ism?

Afro, Asian and Arab Futurism are contemporary cultural movements that often take technology as an inspiration for re-imagining cultures and global divisions. This session looks at the role of technology (and technology censorship) in shaping global dynamics and (natural, built) environments, and at humanities based takes on dominant techno-narratives. It especially focuses on film and video games as a medium of exploration, but also makes links with interventions into geographical mapping and multi-dimensional visualisation technologies such as GIS and CAD.

Chude-Sokei, L O (2015) The Sound of Culture: Diaspora and Black Technopoetics.

Majali, S (date unknown) Towards Arab Futurism/s: Manifesto. Novelty 2

Moore, K (2007) Towards a Postcolonial GIS. In: A. C. Winstanley (ed) GISRUK 2007 Proceedings. National Centre for Geocomputation. National University of Ireland Maynooth.

Mavhunga, C (2017) What do Science, Technology, and Innovation Mean from Africa? Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Examples of works discussed: Harun Farocki Parallel I-IV (2014); Larissa Sansour Nation Estate (2013); Fatima Al Qadiri, GCC Transmission (2013); Sophia Al Maria, Black Friday (2016); Alondra Nelson (ed) Afrofuturism (2002); Simon Rittmeyer, Drexciya (2012); Wanuri Kahi, Pumzi (2009); Liu Cixin, Zhongguo 2185 (1989); Mitnick/Roddier, Off the Radar (2013); Sabine Gruffat, I have always been a dreamer (2012); Russian ‘Paper Architecture’; what3words project.

7 Geopoetics: Disrupting colonial orders by becoming geography

This session looks at how natural forces have been critically appropriated in invigorating cultural identity and movements. Students are invited to trace this strategy through examples from recent anti-colonial literature and poetry from areas such as the Caribbean and Polynesia, and are encouraged to find other examples from across the world where this strategy has been employed. This session also looks at the journeys and production conditions of supposedly immaterial art forms such as poetry and sound.

Césaire S (2012) The Great Camouflage: Writings of Dissent (1941-45). D. Maximin (ed). Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press.

Glissant, E (2010) Poetics of Relation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Hau’ofa, E (2008) We Are The Ocean. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Noxolo, P. Preziuso, M. (2012) Moving Matter. Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies, 14(1) 120-135

Other examples of works discussed: Manthia Diawara, One World in Relation (2009), Aimé Césaire, Moi, laminaire (1982), Edouard Glissant, La Lézarde (1957); Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, My Poem To My Daughter (2014); Femi Nylander, A poem that migrates through tongues; Anthropocene related works.

8 Back to the future: rewriting geography by rewriting the past

How do historians, archaeologists and anthropologists contest geographical and geopolitical narratives? This session looks at how supposedly ‘backwards looking’ humanities participate in the rewriting of the present world, for instance, by contesting existing theories about human and nonhuman cohabitation. Does it matter how old the earth is? Does it matter that there were black Romans? Does it matter that Haiti had a revolution? This session also looks at the ways in which historical knowledge is disseminated to wider audiences.

Buck-Morss, S (2009) Hegel, Haiti and Universal History. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Graeber, D (2011) Debt: The First 5,000 Years. New York: Melville House.

Tolia-Kelly, D (2011) Narrating the postcolonial landscape: archaeologies of race at Hadrian’s Wall. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 36(1)

Yusoff, K (2013) Geologic Life: Prehistory, Climate, Futures in the Anthropocene. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 31(5).

Other examples of works discussed: British slave owner database; white supremacist histories (e.g. Vinland, Mary Beard controversy, white slavery, Nell Irvin Painter’s ‘The History of White People’ (2010)); geological discovery of ‘deep time’.

9 Into Eternity: ways of working against environmental ‘slow violence’

How do we deal with long-term problems such as nuclear waste and severe environmental pollution? How are the differences in responses between developed and developing countries? Which populations are the most effected by such environmental risks? Students will be invited to research examples of how a variety of actors, including governments, businesses, artists are trying to tackle issues that will exceed their life-times.

Agard-Jones, V (2014) Spray. Somatosphere (Commonplaces: Itemizing the Technological Present) May 2014.

Nixon, R (2011) Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Teiawa, K M (2015) Consuming Ocean Island: Stories of People and Phosphate from Banaba. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Van Wyck, P C (2005) Signs of Danger. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Other examples of works discussed: Michael Madsen, Into Eternity (2011); Bodil Furu, Mangeurs de Cuivre (2016); Josh Fox, James Spione, Myron Dewey, Awake: A Dream from Standing Rock (2017); LaToya Ruby Frazier, A Haunted Capital (2013); Vanessa Agard-Jones, Toxic Symposium (2017).

10 Geophilosophy: why imagine the Earth without us?

Why are philosophers interested in imagining a world without humans? Why are some of them looking at medieval mysticism and turning to Black Metal and Noise music as part of this pursuit? This session looks at the intellectual movement of ‘geophilosophy’ and its strange nihilist challenge to environmental and social movements. Is this ‘environmental pessimism’ just a pure celebration of human and nonhuman extinction or is there a more profound challenge to rethinking how we think about ourselves in the world?

Connole, E (2017) On the Meaning of Style: Black Metal’s “Black” Or So, Black Is Myself. in P Webb, S Jacobs et al (eds.) Through the Subcultural Lens: Hebdige and Subculture in the 21st Century. London & New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Mackay, R (2010) Editorial Introduction. Collapse 6: Geophilosophy. Falmouth: Urbanomic.

Negarestani, R (2008) Machines are digging. In: R. Negarestani Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials. Melbourne: Re:press.

Woodard, B. (2013) Introduction, or, Abyss Lessons. In: B. Woodard, ‘On an Ungrounded Earth: Towards a New Geophilosophy’. New York: Punctum.

Other examples of works discussed: Wojciech Doroszuk, Festin (2013); Bela Tarr, The Turin Horse (2011); Lars von Trier, Melancholia; Black Metal, Noise Music.


New article in Feminist Review Environment Special Issue

Image: Mount Pelée on Martinique

My article “To risk the Earth: The Nonhuman and Nonhistory” is out in the new Feminist Review Environment Special Issue, edited by Carrie Hamilton and Yasmin Gunaratnam (free link from publisher here). The article was originally written for the : Decolonizing and Reinhabiting Broken Earth, curated by Kathryn Yusoff and Nigel Clark. It was prompted by a string of peer reviews and conference papers which, in my view, followed a problematic and re-occurring pattern of inattention to colonial histories in public engagement with global environmental change. I feel that, no matter what discipline we inhabit, we have to remain aware that any landscape has a history, and that this history will be differently remembered by different people. The fact that some of these papers either ignored or tried to erase particular traumatic histories speaks of a privileged position that, in all cases, remained unacknowledged. This article is a plea to sensitise oneself to geography and geology not just aesthetically and experientally, but also historically. I am expressing this call through concepts developed by Suzanne Césaire and Edouard Glissant against the white privilege of selective environmental aestheticisation.

Mutable Matter turns 10!

Apologies for the long radio silence, but a lot has been happening behind the scenes. First of all: Mutable Matter is ten years old today! I started this blog on 24 September 2007 as part of my Open University PhD research and because I wanted to communicate with OU students and people beyond academia. I also wanted to experiment with writing and communication styles, and to show how our imagination of matter manifests in different spaces. Initially, the blog focused more on the material processes at ‘invisible’ scales such as the atomic and molecular scale, and how these affect the geographical imagination. Since then, the blog has kept morphing and moving across a diversity of on- and offline spaces, and has never been short of providing me with surprising encounters. An enormous thank you is due to all my readers and subscribers. Thank you also for all the feedback over the last ten years.

What is happening at the moment?

From January 2018, I will be starting a lectureship at the University of Leicester, in the School of Geography, Geology and the Environment. The post has a focus on the geohumanities, and am looking forward to some exciting teaching, research and other creative experiments with colleagues from different disciplines. I am also working on two books, one on materialism and and another one on Mutable Matter. I am also in the process of assembling a printed zine that is based around both publications and tries to make the work that I do accessible to a wider audience. Some exciting events are also coming up: the Mutable Matter/Warwick Social Theory Centre workshop Cosmos & Crisis: Interdisciplinary Conversations (funded by a British Academy/Leverhulme Small Grant) is happening this coming Wednesday and Thursday. It focuses on challenges to the Western worldview from different viewpoints. I have also been invited to present at two other events: the second part of the Political Geology workshop at Cambridge University on 17 November 2017, and at a workshop on experimentation at Oxford on 8 January 2018. And of course, there is Curved Radio, to which I keep contributing (many thanks to Gayle Austin for having me!).

Thank you again for staying tuned – here is to future blog mutations! I am going to eat some cake now… (not the one pictured above)