On August 8 I was honoured to be invited to give a keynote presentation to the Country division of the Australian Institute of Architects in Bowral. The theme of the symposium was Making Do in the Regions. The curators of the event were Illawarra design firm Takt Studio for Architecture, who described ‘making do’ as an attitude. They wanted to unpack scenarios where ‘not enough’ could be transformed into a positive guiding strategy for bringing creativity together with everyday or mundane materials, to produce richer outcomes in the built environment. The allotted hour was absolutely daunting and well outside my comfort zone. But it turned out to be a great opportunity to construct what is starting to look like a distinct path through the various research projects I’m involved with at AUSCCER.
Those attending were mainly sole-traders or directors of small firms in regional NSW. They were very attuned to their local material, social and economic contexts: from Cowra to Tathra, Wagga to Wollongong. I talked about my research with wily steelworkers who have a long history of re-purposing scrap from their workplace for home repairs or projects. They were interested in the rise of maker culture in other places, and the Global Challenges project I’ve been working on with Thomas Birtchnell and Robert Gorkin on manufacturing futures for the Illawarra. And they identified with the stories of everyday life that have emerged from all corners of AUSCCER’s work on households. Architects working on residential projects also need to understand the minute detail of how people conduct their lives. Wet or dry shave (or where do we put the bathroom powerpoint)? Do the kids play sport (or how much storage do you need)? Where do your family visit from (or do you need extra beds occasionally or regularly)?
As I launched rather nervously into post-presentation conversations, one fellow loomed with a purposeful look on his face and a clipboard full of notes. I snuck a glance at the page and saw the few theoretical references I had made were circled. He introduced himself as a retired architectural history and theory academic from UNSW and I had a sudden pang that I’d gotten something very wrong. In attempting to tailor a presentation for the audience of practitioners, my theoretical references were brief and pragmatic: just enough to illustrate a point, I’d hoped. As it turned out, we had a fascinating discussion and my fear was misplaced. But it was his parting words that left me wondering the most: ‘You don’t sound like a cultural geographer’.
Ahem. And then he left, and I was left pondering how a cultural geographer sounds. And why I didn’t sound like one.
On the bad days, the days where nothing comes together, I feel like a complete fraud. I sit in a geography department, but I’m not a geographer, cultural or otherwise. My training was in architecture and then planning. Not knowing the foundational thinking and the history of what I’ve come to understand is a very old discipline, has sometimes left me scrambling. Having to play catch up on well-rehearsed debates has pushed my reading list above and beyond. You know, just the small things: nature-culture, rural-urban, conservation-restoration, for starters. For me, coming to grips with a whole new world – new concepts, new people, and new languages and even dialects – gets right to the heart of a methodological challenge (but also an enormous opportunity) facing academia at large: inter-disciplinarity. Travelling into the territory of others, whether as a visitor, an invited guest or (my preferred method) by stealth.
It probably goes without saying that we all know the value of and are committed to bringing together and crossing between different disciplines to work on the complex issues of our time. But the reality of crossing (or lying between) disciplines is messy and often uncomfortable. It’s usually just the small things: a question that seems stupid left hanging in the air, or the excitement of uncovering a pocket of new-to-you literature (only to find it is foundational to the discipline and everyone had to read it in GEOG101). What seems de rigour in one discipline might be entirely anathematic to another, even when they appear (from the outside) closely related.
…although in hindsight, perhaps I should have been able to foresee why a thesis by publication would be an odd concept for anthropologists…
These everyday encounters with the new all magnify the ebb and flow of scholarly confidence. They become the dilemmas of finding your own way in the hubbub of academically foreign and geographically globalized circuits of knowledge. And of course there are the obviously useful guides, supervisors and colleagues, but sometimes even these conversations are difficult. It’s difficult to start asking when you don’t know what you don’t know. And these issues are just the tip of the iceberg. Publishing is a minefield for those who cross disciplines. What counts; what doesn’t; who reads what and why; how does the language change? These all become important conversations.
So I’m interested to learn more about how others do it. My haphazard approach has been to put my hand up for more things than I can comfortably handle over the last two and a half years. Reading early drafts and giving feedback – sure! Collaborating on papers – pick me, pick me! Research assisting on projects that (I thought) lied outside my thesis interests – sounds fabulous! Lecturing in subjects where I am in my comfort zone with only a fraction of the content (heritage, as it happens) – bring it on! At times I’ve felt completely overloaded and overwhelmed and floundered about, but somehow managed to keep my ‘yes’ hat on, with the thought that this paper, this project, this conversation might be the one where it starts making sense. And gradually I’ve felt slightly more comfortable in that space in between.
So no, I suppose I don’t sound like a cultural geographer. And as someone told me later that day, I no longer sound like an architect either. For now I guess I’m something in between – and maybe (for now) that’s OK. But it might be worth checking in again when it comes time to look for a job!