How fragile we are

The annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers (AAG) took place in Washington DC from the 14th to the 18th April. Over 8000 delegates. Many of these from Europe. And of course, most of these were found strandedowing to the Eyjafallajokull volcano. See the GA’s materials on

Although the prospect of another week or so in the USA may sound good, just imagine: hotel prices soared to $700 a night; uncertainty over the length of the volcanic event prevented proper planning. Also, airlines kept information ‘lite’ and refused to cooperate on rescheduling until flights were officially ‘cancelled’ – often at the last minute. And all the while, email and mobile contact with home and work became a mixed blessing. Responding to emails is not easy from a coffee shop or train station concourse … and folk do seem to expect a response. Several UK geography educationists attended the meeting. A reasonably strong education current flows through the AAG proceedings and we contributed in several ways. These are summarised below. We hope some additional comments will arise. ImpoliteGeography discussions are significant internationally we believe.

1. We arranged a whole session on our book, Teaching Geography 11-18. This was well attended and good discussion was provoked by Sallie Marston, Michael Solem, Rob Kitchen and Mary Biddulph. We hope Mary and Sallie will share their thoughts on this site in due course.

2. GEReCo also held a whole session, with contributions from ourselves plus Mary Biddulph, Clare Brooks and Graham Butt. This session attempted to trail another book coming out later this year Geography, Education and the Future from Continuum Press, edited by Graham. A recurring theme in this session was what counts as essential – or even useful – geographical knowledges growing up in the 21st century? How does geographical knowledge help us live intelligent lives? And so what kind of ‘subject knowledge’ do teachers need to teach geography?

3. Alex Standish, a British teacher/geographer currently working in the USA, chaired a session of four contributions on citizenship and geography education. Clare Brooks contributed from the UK perspective. A theme that threaded though the session was the need to be clearer about what is meant by citizenship education, and its limits. Once again, the nature of geography and its potential to contribute to a critical education became a major discussion. Arguably there is some complacency – internationally –  about ‘the importance’ of geography. This blog certainly does not treat this as self evident.

4. David Mitchell, the editor of Living Geography from Chris Kington Press contributed to a general session of geography education research. He attempted an ambitious and fascinating tour d’horizon of geography and educational relevance. In effect, he has opened a Pandora’s box of social, cultural and economic contexts for examining the future of geography in schools. This will underpin his doctoral research.

5. Fran Martin and colleagues from Exeter University led a whole session on the ESRC funded research they have just started on school linking and global learning. This session managed to dig deeply into a range of philosophical and methodological issues that will require some careful resolution as the research develops – not least, the role and place of emotional dimensions of learning in relation to young people forming intellectual frameworks for understanding global difference and diversity.

5. Mary Fargher provided a challenge to certain GIS orthodoxies in a session on the final day (a day when all of us now knew we were not going to get home any time soon). Her argument, which forms the core of her doctoral research, is that GIS operates with assumptions on how space and place are conceptualised – often emphasising a positivist scientific understanding of ‘location and links’ (the title of a school textbook series in the quantitative 1970s). More humanistic experiences are left out, she argues, and there is careful thought needed as to the particular contributions GIS can make to education: public participation GIS, neo-geographies and the ‘not-quite-GIS’ technologies now in widespread public use are all part of the mix.

We are writing these posts from Boston (where we have accommodation), not yet wholly sure when we will get back to the UK. The conference, and this subsequent ‘downtime’, provides an interesting range of perspective on geography in education. What is ever clearer is that ‘geography’ does not exist outside of various international cultural, social, political and economic contexts. Thus ‘geography’ itself is not a neutral, common language. The idea of geography is interpreted in different ways. This is deserving of continued study.


3 Responses to “How fragile we are”

  1. 1 Clare Brooks April 22, 2010 at 7:41 pm

    How fragile we are … and yet how resilient!

    It is ironic that we have used the worded “stranded” to describe our predicament of being in Washington without any idea of how we get “home” (and my god, how important that word “home” becomes!), and yet how “connected” we have all turned out to be. You scratch the surface, and nearly all of the group of geography educators had friends or family who were generous and able to accommodate us during this time. Personally, I traveled 2,500 miles in the opposite direction to get closer to somewhere where I could feel at home.

    An incident such as this reminded me of the one-sided way we often view globalisation – as being an economic concept, tied up with notions of economic interdependence development: Kenyan farmers, European airlines. We often forget it is a social and spatial concept too. Global winds and weather may disrupt air traffic, but on Friday we are planning a St George’s celebration in a small corner of Phoenix, Arizona, to make a Brit feel a little closer to home.

    I have never been more aware of the importance of global technologies – my bank can reassure me that I have enough funds to survive, my partner can rebook my flights for me whilst I eavesdrop on his conversation via Skype, and I can respond to PGCE and MA queries as though I was sat at my desk.

    David and John, you ask how important geographical knowledge is to help us live intelligent lives … maybe for me this is about living an intelligible life. Being able to understand what has happened has helped me deal with the emotional responses I’ve encountered. Does the TDA have a Standard for that?

  2. 2 Indra Persaud April 23, 2010 at 12:36 am

    Out of our comfort zones, in the face of unexpected events, we see life differently. Geography can help make sense of the emotions of ‘strandedness’ and ‘powerlessness’ and put these emotions into perspective.
    For many, the sense of strandedness is a constant feeling, trapped between a rock and a hard place, unable to secure a sense of ‘home’. ‘Home’ can end up being in front of the internet cafe computer. Home can be the telephone line. Home can be St Georges Day in Phoenix or a song on the radio. I find that, when shift happens we see our lives from a new angle and see ‘home’ for what it is, a place of the familiar. The temporary state of limbo, in which the global volcanic migrants find themselves, serves to remind us that many many more people live their whole lives in the limbo of poverty and real strandedeness.

    I am sorry if I have been one of those badgering for an email response. Given the nature of technological distance, and the nature of the ‘distance learning’ MA, I suppose we develop a warped sense of possibility. Just because emails can be sent instantly to anywhere, the person receiving emails are grounded (literally) in their own set of circumstances. Distance learning (communication), for all of its virtues, can be thoroughly insensitive, at times!

  3. 3 carlos9900 May 7, 2010 at 5:27 am

    I’m going to keep an eye on this blog…

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