Why ask questions?

Like many, I’ve recently returned from the Institute of Australian Geographers annual conference in Canberra. I listened to some terrific research papers, especially by graduate students from around the country: well conceived, carefully planned and structured, rehearsed and timed, executed with interest and sometimes pizzazz.

But the speaker’s final word does not mark the end of the performance. It is now time for questions. There is a moment of tangible nervous energy in the room.

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What makes a good academic book?

I’ve just finished reading Tess Lea‘s new book on Darwin. It’s a wonderful, if unusual book: equal parts local history and postcolonial critique, exposé and confessional. On its back cover, the book is categorised as ‘travel/memoir’. It is those things, but also much more. There are tender touches and moments of quiet reflection, where one can almost feel the sand of Casuarina Beach in one’s feet. And there are moments of sheer horror: Aboriginal massacres; children caught in violent cyclones, their bodies torn apart by flying bits of corrugated iron; gang rapes perpetrated on local teenagers by American soldiers. The book has all the contradictions, fraught memories, traumas and emotions that come with the genre of autobiographical account, and that encapsulate Darwin, the city. The writing is crisp, fleet, sharp and yet also welcoming and warm. I wholeheartedly recommend it.

FCA_DarwinJacket.indd

Beyond the specific content of the book, reading Darwin got me thinking about a bunch of things related to the practices of authoring of books, to academic labour, and to the choices we academics make when we write. Such things have been on my mind lately, having had a book out earlier this year with Andrew Warren that sought to catalyse an audience beyond the academy, and growing out of on-going conversations with colleagues Lesley Head and Noel Castree about possible future book projects.

What constitutes ‘impact’ for books written by academics? The last book in a crossover/popular nonfiction series (in which each Australian capital city is narrated by a qualified ‘insider’ expert), Darwin looks and feels very different to what we might expect academics to write. There’s ‘field work’ in there, evidenced in interview quotes and the like, but Tess never makes a claim in the text that this is a research monograph. The empirical imperative lurks in the wings rather than being thrust in the reader’s face. Neither is Darwin a calculated exercise in ‘thought leadership’ – that growing genre of short-term op-ed writing that publishers seem to favour. Will academics read and cite Darwin as per other kinds of research output? The book is reasonably short too, small in hand, just right for carry-on baggage. This one will be on sale in airport bookstores, for sure. A different and perhaps more incisive form of public impact?

What risks do we make when we write books? Darwin is a gutsy book in many ways. It names names and white-ants many of the cherished myths of Northern Territory life. It presumably will ruffle feathers in what is still a small, one-university town.

It’s also a book that almost delightfully ignores metric-driven imperatives for academics to produce the ‘right’ kind of research outputs. For it blends erudition and personal stories, in transparent and accessible prose, with no footnotes or strings of citations. It combines local oral history with insights from entomology, planning, anthropology. Boxing this book into a Field-of-Research (FoR) code for research assessment purposes would entirely miss the point of what gives this book its quality and distinction. It’s a labour of love, the culmination of years of scholarly reflection and lived experience, the story of a place, well told, in all its complexity.

blue notesReading Darwin got me thinking too about other books by academics, recently read, that stand as exemplars outside the normative frames of the research monograph: Matt Matsuda’s grand and sweeping Pacific WorldsBenjamin Cawthra’s Blue Notes in Black and White, an engrossing excavation of masculinity and race politics in the history of jazz photography, as well as Community: Building Modern Australia, a visual treat of mid-twentieth century neighbourhood architecture brought together by a team including my friends and collaborators Kate Darian-Smith and David Nichols. All of these must have involved some risky choices and negotiations made by the authors – the inclusion or exclusion of provoking opinions or difficult material or quotes from troubling interviews, the workload decisions, the scholarly journal articles that didn’t get written by the authors so that they had time to write these books.

Why, ultimately, should we write books? Writing books takes a huge amount of labour, and precious time, working in a higher education landscape that, as Kate Bowles has been recently arguing, exhibits scant regard for creeping workloads and questions of the human cost of overwork. That same higher education system grants us less and less time in which to read books, too. Why go to all the effort, if things like journal article citations, grant income and ERA research excellence scores drive the means by which our scarce writing labour is valued? What Darwin and the other examples above affirm to me is the value of writing books for deeper underlying reasons: to document complexity in a longer and less formulaic format than the scholarly journal article, to shift the written record, to craft and to capture one’s passions or personal politics in considered form, to aspire to timelessness. To tell a good story.

What standout books written by academics have you read in 2014?

Seeking households for Warm as Toast project

Do you have some form of central heating or reverse cycle air conditioning at home? If so, please consider being part of a University of Wollongong research project called Warm as toast? Home heating and energy use in the Illawarra. We seek households who are willing to discuss their home heating practices and energy use, and have their household electricity measured over approximately three months over winter 2014.

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Illuminating wildfire vulnerability through environmental history

The following is a discussion of how environmental history recently has broadened my understanding of wildfire vulnerability. It is based on my reflections from the American Society for Environmental History (ASEH) conference in San Francisco, which together with the Association of American Geographers (AAG) conference in Tampa bracketed my recent trip to USA. The purpose of attending both conferences was to share key lessons on gendered dimensions of wildfire vulnerability and resilience as presented in my new book. Yet, the format of my input to each conference was distinctively different. Continue reading

Plunging into the Anthropocene

For geographers, discussion around the Anthropocene provides an interesting recent take on long standing disciplinary debates over issues such as ‘Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth‘, human impacts and human relations to nature. Last year I was struck by the parallels between how people are conceptualising and talking about the Anthropocene, and how the Neolithic or agricultural revolution has been discussed in archaeology over the last few decades.

I am not talking  about the debate over whether the Anthropocene started 8000 or so years ago as a result of methane emissions from rice agriculture, as argued by William Ruddiman, although that is a fascinating and important discussion. Rather it is about how phases or periods of history can become reified in public and scholarly consciousness, to the detriment of considering their spatial and temporal nuances. If we’re not careful we can end up with deterministic and teleological rather than contingent understandings of historical change. Continue reading

On ‘passing through places’, ‘so-far stories’ and movement improvisation

This post was originally posted on the ‘Working the Tweed’ site; a ‘Year of Natural Scotland 2013’ funded collaboration between artists and environmentalists in the Scottish Borders. The post is a conversation between AUSCCER’s Leah Gibbs, and Working the Tweed artists Kate Foster and Claire Pençak.

Introduction
In the project Working the Tweed, we set out to work with different kinds of specialist knowledge. This yields various ways to think about the Tweed Catchment, and make different artistic connections and new kinds of maps. We are thinking through what we, as artists, might offer in engaging with projects that deal with sustainable land-use and the realities of environmental change. We are delighted to be able to converse with Leah Gibbs, a human geographer at the University of Wollongong, whose work concerns the cultures and politics of water. Leah has considerable experience of multi-disciplinary work focusing on land management. She explains her concept of ‘passing-through places’. This overlaps with Kate Foster’s ideas of documenting ‘so-far stories’, and Claire Pençak’s thinking on improvisation as a way to investigate relationship to place through movement.

Conversation
KF: Leah, you have written about ‘passing-through places’, which is an intriguing idea and keeps coming to mind as we plan the Working the Tweed project. Can you explain why you find the concept of ‘passing through’ helpful, and how you came to adopt the term?  Continue reading

Keeping warm, keeping cool at home: new AUSCCER-SBRC project

On reading Chris Gibson’s post on wood fires in his Sydney home, my immediate thoughts were of my own wood fire memories. Being in country New South Wales rather than inner-city Sydney, they are perhaps not so surprising. At my childhood home we spent winter evenings in the living room around the fire, but more vivid memories stem from visits to my grandparents’ farm in northern NSW. During Christmas or Easter visits, one of the main jobs for anyone in the family was stocking the woodshed: finding the best fallen dry wood on the farm, sawing it up and carting logs back to the house paddock, feeding the logs through another saw and/or splitting some into smaller pieces for the kitchen stove or for kindling. Us kids helped stack the wood and collected piles of pine cones to use as fire starters. A good job was done when the shed was full. Daily chores included cleaning and resetting the fireplace. One year it was so cold we had to light the living-room fire on Christmas Day! Continue reading

‘Engaging Tactics’ – how we do what we do

I recently participated in a workshop titled ‘Engaging Tactics’ (30th April – 1st May), which explored creative methods emerging in the social sciences. Engaging Tactics was a Postgraduate and Early Career symposium organised by graduate students of the Sociology Department at Goldsmiths, University of London, and sponsored by the British Sociological Association.

On the opening morning the organisers explained that the motivation for the symposium was in part the current push for emphasis on ‘impact’ in academic work. They were interested in asking ‘how can we think about impact differently?’ The conference did just that. It pressed participants to consider the methods or ‘tactics’ we employ when researching or communicating with the public (or with our publics – whatever they might be). To reflect not only on the substance of our work, but on how we do what we do, and what effect that has.

The workshop was remarkable for its use of spaces within and around Goldsmiths and the New Cross and Deptford area – a railway tunnel, a public library, a community project, an elevator, a University corridor, a pedestrian crossing, a local café, a lecture theatre, a heating plant room, a former police station and prison cell. The organisers did a fantastic job of designing a workshop structure and presentation format that allowed participants to demonstrate and explore the tactics we’re using.

Photo: José Borges Reis

I presented some of the work I’m doing as part of ‘SiteWorks’ – an ongoing collaborative project coordinated by Bundanon Trust, based on the Shoalhaven River. Here I’m interested in what interdisciplinary collaboration – in this case artists, geographers, scientists, local craftspeople making and doing projects together – reveals about a place or a problem. I’m struck by the extent to which how we do what we do – engage, investigate, communicate – shapes the effects or impacts of our work, whether it be in academia, in the community or elsewhere. Both SiteWorks and Engaging Tactics are teaching me about how we might think differently about the ‘impacts’ of research.

 

Leah Gibbs is a Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Wollongong. Her interests are in the cultural and social geographies of nature, and in particular cultures of water, water governance, and interdisciplinary research methods.