Whiteboards and contingency

I approached the week with some trepidation. Three days teaching the first part of an intensive PhD course. As we don’t have PhD coursework in Australia, what is the appropriate level? What is the right balance between me talking and engendering a conversation within the group? How many authors to include on the reading list? Better to try and give a broad sweep, or a focused ‘take’ on the topic – ‘Sustainable Landscapes’? And the students themselves were at a range of different levels, from Masters coursework to some nearly ready to defend their PhDs, so it had to be accessible in different ways.

One of the good features of the Swedish PhD system is that students can include units from other universities. It makes for a great exchange of ideas, teachers and student experiences. So we had fifteen students, from universities in Stockholm, Lund, Karlstad and Kristianstad, as well as here in Gothenburg (and countries including Mozambique, Rwanda, Cameroon and Denmark, as well as Sweden). As you would expect and hope in an advanced class, everyone participated actively in discussions. And I was the only one working in my first language.

I decided there was no point trying to jam information into these students – there is any amount of fantastic research on sustainable landscapes that they can easily find. I wanted rather to emphasise the importance of concepts and embedded assumptions in how we approach the term, and the challenge. And, since they had me standing in front of them, they might as well get my conceptual cut through these issues. So it was a good exercise for me. In particular I wanted to consider how concepts that frame our traditional take on sustainability – conservation, preservation, even restoration – are going to fare in the onslaught of complex changes we are likely to experience over the next few decades. What role for understanding the past, given Anthropocene uncertainties?

One exercise that worked really well was getting the students to map the ‘conceptual landscapes’ of their projects in pairs. They were asked to explain this to their ‘interpreter’, whose job was to then explain it to the rest of the class. I can’t claim any deep pedagogical insight for this exercise – I had the broad outline in mind, but the structure was actually inspired by the fabulous wrap-around whiteboards in the lecture hall, and the profusion of coloured textas supplied. A number of really interesting motifs emerged out of these discussions; some of them would make great thesis titles so I won’t list them here. It’s always gratifying for the teacher to hear people say, ‘I’ve never thought about my project like that’.

In the end it wasn’t that different to many of the things we do in AUSCCER anyway, albeit less systematically. Intensive thematic workshops with a visiting scholar; informal chats about conceptual framing, project design, methods and writing; small groups focusing on selected readings; postgraduate student workshops at national or international conferences; lots of coffee – all of these have been on the agenda in Wollongong during the year.


Student Andreas Hansen shared his social media-inspired take (see below) on the need to reject a teleological view of human history. Jennifer Tucker has recently blogged on this topic also. And, by the way, it will be the subject of Prof Peter Hiscock’s keynote lecture at this year’s Australian Archaeological Association conference in Wollongong in December.

As I tweeted afterwards, I was totally exhausted. The students have now returned home to work on their assignments, and we will gather for another few days at the end of the month, when they will present their work and act as discussants for one another. It’s pretty intense for them too, as they have only two weeks now to produce the first draft of their papers.

This is the third in a series of posts from Sweden, where AUSCCER Director Lesley Head is currently Visiting Professor at the Department of Human and Economic Geography, University of Gothenburg.  She is on twitter @ProfLesleyHead




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