Wednesday, 21 May 2014

A social scientist, a geographer or an Africanist? Researcher profile by Elsbeth Robson



Hi, I’m Elsbeth and I describe myself variously as a social scientist, children’s geographer, Africanist or development geographer depending on who I’m talking to. And that’s just at work – I juggle various identities in the rest of my life too. I joined the Department of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences at Hull in summer 2013 as a Lecturer in Human Geography. Hard to believe it’s already been almost a year! As a geographer, I have special interests in Africa having had the opportunity to work there on and off thoughout my career since a gap year in Kenya in 1987 straight after my A-levels. My expertise in children/youth geographies and feminist/gender geographies emerged later but can probably be traced back to doing babysitting as a teenager and early exposure to feminist ideas. In my research I embrace qualitative, participatory and quantitative research methods. So how did I get here?

Well, I began with my first degree (BSc Hons) in Geography at Durham University (1990) where I thrived in an all-women’s college (Trevelyan, now sadly mixed but still with intriguing hexagonal architecture). 

Durham Cathedral – awesome to be a student living in a village with a Norman cathedral in the middle used as the University’s gathering place for matriculations and graduations

The Durham years included a year studying as an ERASMUS student at Tübingen University, Germany, and an independent research project in Kenya on peri-urban land-use transformations back where I’d volunteered in an orphanage on a former sisal/cattle estate now a resettlement zone. My doctorate (Oxford University 2002) focused on the work of rural Hausa women in Northern Nigeria using feminist theories of empowerment applied to socio-spatial mobilities and inequalities. It was quite a cultural shift being a graduate student and working in West Africa. To be honest without a Masters degree as a stepping stone it was a bit of a struggle and I always advise students now to do a Masters before a PhD as it gives you time and training to be a better researcher. After five years wrestling with my doctorate in Oxford and Nigeria it was time to get a job. After 25 applications and 5 interviews I landed 2 job offers, turned the first one down and ended up as a Lecturer in Development Studies (within Geography) at Keele University. I was there for a decade after that (1995-2005). The best bits were leading regular undergraduate fieldtrips to Kenya and developing research on young people’s caregiving work within the AIDS pandemic in Southern Africa. I also undertook an MA in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (Keele University 2006) – it was fun learning to teach alongside lots of other young new lecturers from across the university.

The splendid Keele Hall – where I once enjoyed sherry at a round table on gender issues hosed by the then Vice Chancellor Prof Janet Finch

Then prior to moving to Hull I spent more than nine years living in Malawi engaged in a mix of research and consultancy that gave me chances to work on a variety of projects including a year as social research officer in Malawi’s leading theatre for development NGO called Nanzikambe Arts. Now that was even more fun – working with drumming going on outside my window, attending performances, being involved in the trials and tribulations of an expatriate-established NGO going through change to being wholly Malawian-led. My major research engagements in Malawi involved managing the in-country component of three large multi-country, inter-institutional and inter-disciplinary ESRC-DFID research grants focussed variously on children/youth, transport, mobility, mobile phones, food security and AIDS. There’s more detail about my research projects on my web page http://www2.hull.ac.uk/science/gees/staff/robson.aspx . While in Malawi I also had the chance to leading the occasional fieldcourse for UK geography undergraduates to Africa.

Royal Holloway University of London students and guides at end of a fieldcourse in Malawi, 2013
I’m trying to maintain my strong ties with Malawi and strengthening connections between Hull and Malawi. So already I have three PhD students starting research in October 2014 on colonial childhoods and caregiving youth in Malawi. A departmental Malawi fieldcourse is being revived to a field studies centre in the Likhubula Valley at the base of Mount Mulanje with a batch of third years heading off there in September this year. Other courses I teach include Children’s Geographies for final year students and Geographies of Development for first years. For the World Cities course I’ve also enjoyed preparing a couple of lectures on Nairobi in Kenya where I spent my gap year in 1985/6 and have visited many times in the intervening decades.

For the last year or so in my last lecturing post at Keele I was the only woman academic staff member in the School of Geography and Earth Sciences. So it’s nice to join a department in Hull with a better gender balance and current focus on responding to the lack of women in senior positions through the University’s engagement with Athena Swan and Aurora initiatives to promote greater gender equity in higher education. Things have changed a lot from when I was an undergraduate when there were only four female professors of geography in the whole of the UK. Now there are single departments with more than half a dozen female professors……….ours is not one of them L So there are still glass ceilings in academia for women but if we don’t tackle them they won’t crack. There are probably less stressful and easier jobs in the world than being an academic but there’s still plenty of flexibility, academic stimulation if you like reading and ideas and finding out. Oh and still a few battles to fight as well.


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