Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Why Place Matters: Imaginative Geography and International Student Mobility (My Area Paper)

By Suzanne E. Beech (@suzanneebeech)

A little background…

Over the last ten years (or so) lots of research has looked into why students choose to come to the UK (or go elsewhere), including my own. This isn’t surprising as international students represent a key part of our student body in the UK. In fact during 2012/13 just under 20% of the students studying in UK institutions were non-UK domiciled (i.e. they did not hold a UK passport) (check out the HESA website for more information). International students are important for lots of different reasons but often research has tended to focus on the economic benefits. This isn’t surprising either, in the UK international students from outside of the EU can pay over £30,000 a year in fees (depending on where they study) and can therefore be an important financial support for some universities. However, this is only part of the picture as they can also make significant contributions to the wider economy, in 2012 the University of Exeter, together with Oxford Economics published a report which suggested that the 5,000 international students at the University of Exeter supported some 3,280 jobs throughout the South West of England (see here).

However, it is important to recognise that international students are not only important financially, they are also important culturally. We live in a world where the job market is no longer local, it’s global – so it’s really important that students leave university with an understanding of how to communicate with people from a range of different social and cultural backgrounds, international students provide a way of bridging some of these cross-cultural divides (in an ideal world). All of this means that universities (and you) have a vested interest in supporting the international student community here in Hull or wherever you are!

Imaginative Geographies and International Students

My work has tended to look at the motivations for overseas study and I have recently published a paper in Area on how international students use different imaginative geographies to decide where to study. In a nutshell these imaginative geographies come out of the perceived power relations between two nations. The term was originally proposed by Edward Said in his seminal work of 1978 Orientalism (well worth a read) in which he demonstrated how the West created an imagined, exotic East and how these perceptions spread through literature and art, as well as stories from those who had travelled to these foreign destinations and so on. We still have imaginative geographies today, and they don’t just have to be in terms of the West looking on the East, but rather anything that compares the familiar (‘Ours’) with the unfamiliar (‘Theirs’ or ‘the Other’). Think about it - we are constantly bombarded with information about the ‘Other’ – friends’ holiday photos on Facebook, television programmes which allow us to ‘experience’ somewhere else, books, travel brochures, the incredible wealth of information we can find on the Internet – all without even leaving your home.

So what (imaginative) geographies do we like to send out to our potential international students? The British Council and Education UK are responsible for promoting the UK to prospective international students and on the 28th September 2012 they published this YouTube video entitled ‘The Adventure of a Lifetime’. 

It follows a typical, female international student who is 'hard-working', 'friendly', 'intelligent' and 'fun-loving' from her arrival in the UK until graduation and all of the experiences she has along the way. It portrays the UK as exciting and diverse, a place where you will get a top-class education, but also have fun along the way. In my opinion one of the most interesting things about the video is the lack of differentiation between different regions in the UK. The British Council is usually good at this, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here. The video also does something else that is very important in terms of international students’ imaginative geographies – it reiterates the ideals of academic imperialism. The UK is the place to study.

There are lots of different aspects to imaginative geography, but three in particular matter when it comes to international students:  ideas of power and postcolonialism (academic imperialism comes in here); the importance of community and shared imaginative geographies; and the evidence that imaginative geographies are not necessarily accurate they are, after all, ‘imagined’. To give you an example I will introduce you to one of my research participants, Rafiah (not her real name). She came from Trinidad and Tobago and had chosen to study in Nottingham, she was about 20 when we first met. Rafiah commented that coming from Trinidad and Tobago the UK  had seemed almost “magical”, she felt that people at home sometimes had a bit of an “inferiority complex” and that there is often a real desire to study and live somewhere else. This did not mean that Rafiah did not like her home country, but rather that her schooling, education, upbringing, and so on had encouraged her to think of studying overseas as an important alternative to studying at home. This was something that was common in her home-country, she told me that when people got the opportunity to study overseas they almost always decided to pursue it. So, here we can see how this is reflecting in part those (post)colonial ideals (the UK is better than home) and also how this is also a shared or community process (everyone who can does it). 

However this is really only part of the story, what also matters is whether all those years of dreaming lived up to the reality. Well, Rafiah was more than a little surprised when she arrived in Nottingham – the city was not as she thought it would be. This is not unusual, many international students won’t have visited their universities before they arrive and they can be shocked when they get here. Rafiah had visited London, but she had never been to Nottingham before, and she was taken aback at how different it was to the hustle and bustle that she had experienced in the capital. In fact she had believed that Nottingham would be very like London in some ways, she was a bit disappointed almost that it was a “quiet little place”. This is just one person out of the many that I spoke to, all of them had similar stories to tell – dreaming and imagining their experience was a key part of becoming an international student.

So why does this matter for us? Well, as I mentioned at the beginning, international students are a really important part of our student body. They are a financial asset to the UK’s universities but equally they are a cultural asset as well. It’s important to understand how and why they choose to study overseas and to consider what makes us an attractive destination. So where should our research go from here? I’m currently considering some new research directions, away from international students themselves and towards those who do the recruiting. Understanding how universities and the UK promote themselves will provide greater insights into how they mobilise imaginative geography when selling the ‘place’ of the university. And what about you? Well, research has suggested that contact between international and local or host students is often limited – if you are studying or working ‘at home’ why not try to make some extra efforts to befriend someone from overseas and get to know a bit more of their story.

You can find a link to my paper here:

Beech, S.E. (2014) "Why Place Matters: Imaginative Geography and International Student Mobility" Area, 46(2):170-177.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Searching for palaeoecological clues to the rise and fall of the Maltese Temple Culture

by Michelle Farrell (@DrM_Farrell)

Now, I've done my fair share of the type of fieldwork that Karen recently blogged about here. I've spent long, miserable days with my wellies full of cold, smelly bog water, being tormented by seemingly thousands of midges trapped on the inside of my midge veil. There were actually quite a few sunny days on many of my previous field trips, but in most of the places I worked sudden changes of weather frequently occur, meaning that waterproofs and fleeces could never be left behind. So when I was offered a job as a research fellow on the FRAGSUS project at Queen's University Belfast, I was very excited - not only was it a really interesting project based in a great department, I would get to do fieldwork in Malta. Sunshine! Warmth! No more lugging around a ridiculously heavy rucksack stuffed full of clothing to cover all eventualities of cold/wet/wind/sun/hail/snow/hurricane (perhaps I exaggerate a little).

Fieldwork of the cold, soggy variety in Orkney: cleaning a peat section prior to sampling, and coring at another site

FRAGSUS (Fragility and Sustainability in Restricted Island Environments: Adaptation, Culture Change and Collapse in Prehistory) is a multidisciplinary research project funded by the European Research Council. The project involves archaeologists, palaeoecologists, geoarchaeologists and numerous other specialists, and aims to explore the relationships between changing environments, natural resources and the rise of complex human social systems. We hope to be able to understand more about how and why people invested in the construction of substantial monuments, such as the UNESCO World Heritage status Maltese Temples, in what was presumably a relatively resource-poor, small island environment. It is also hoped that the project will provide insights into the processes, be they socio-economic, environmental, or a combination of factors, that ultimately led to the collapse of the Temple Culture at around 2500 BC.

The Neolithic temples of Ggantija and Mnajdra

My role, working with other palaeoenvironmental specialists, is to reconstruct the past vegetation of the islands via pollen analysis, and to search for evidence of past environmental change and human impact on the environment throughout prehistory. This will be a challenge - pollen is generally best preserved in acidic, wet environments such as peat bogs (hence the reason for all the wet, muddy fieldwork) - and being situated in the Mediterranean and composed almost entirely of limestone, Malta is very dry and alkaline. However, previous work has shown that pollen does survive in Maltese sediments and, more importantly, that the assemblages recovered can be interpretable. I will need to make some adjustments to the methods that I use to process the samples in order to maximise recovery of pollen from them, and I'll need to get used to identifying degraded grains that have not been preserved under optimum conditions. There are also a few new taxa to learn, so I'm looking forward to it!

Several sediment cores had already been recovered by my colleagues before I began work on the project, so my trip to Malta in June this year didn't involve any coring. I had two tasks while I was there. Firstly, I needed to collect samples from various archaeological contexts at the Neolithic settlement site of Tac-Cawla on Gozo, where the archaeological team have been excavating for the last four months. Archaeological pollen samples can often give insights into the ways in which structures were used, and into the range of economic activities that were carried out, so I'm looking forward to getting stuck into those when they arrive back in Belfast at the end of July.

The second aspect of my work in Malta involved collecting modern pollen assemblages in order to aid interpretation of the subfossil assemblages contained within the sediment cores. This was tricky for a number of reasons - firstly, where to sample?! Although it is thought that large areas of Malta were probably once covered with Mediterranean sclerophyllous forest, characterised by Holm Oak and Aleppo Pine, it is doubtful whether any of this remains. Agriculture accounts for 51% of the land area of the Maltese Islands, with urban areas making up a further 22%. The remaining area is made up of small patches of semi-natural vegetation such as maquis, garrigue, and steppe (see here for descriptions of these habitats). Despite the lack of woodland, I still needed to sample these other habitats as they presumably would also have been present in the past. Large enough patches were often difficult to locate, and were usually to be found in remote areas that had somehow escaped cultivation.

Garrigue vegetation with typical agricultural terraces in the background

The second problem to overcome was what to sample as the pollen trap. There are traps specifically designed for the purpose of sampling the modern pollen rain ('Tauber traps'; essentially plastic containers sunk into the ground so that the top is at ground level, with a hole in the lid to allow the pollen rain to be collected). Since there can be large variations in pollen production from year to year due to variations in seasonal temperature and precipitation, at least ten years' worth of data from these traps is required in order to provide an average, and I will only be working on this project for two years. To get around this problem, most researchers doing this type of work in northern Europe would sample a moss polster as these tend to preserve the last few years' worth of pollen rain, but unsurprisingly mosses are not particularly abundant in Malta! I had to sample the top few millimetres of soil (and even soil was hard to come by at some sites) - not ideal from a pollen preservation perspective, but pollen has been known to turn up in some surprising places, so fingers crossed that it will do in this case!

I soon discovered that my dreams of ditching the heavy rucksack were just that - in the intense heat of the Maltese summer, the amount of water that I had to carry with me more than accounted for the weight I'd got rid of by discarding all the cold and wet weather field gear! I had to adjust my fieldwork schedule to cope with the heat - normally I'd get out into the field relatively early, have a brief stop to eat a packed lunch, and then carry on until the work was finished and be 'home' for tea at a reasonably early hour. In Malta I'd be on my way by 7am and work until the heat became unbearable, then take myself and my helpers off for a long lunch and cold drinks in the shade somewhere (one of the advantages of working on small islands is that you're never far from a cafe!) before heading back out for a few hours in the late afternoon/evening. Luckily though, views like the one below and snacks of pastizzi (small pasties containing either cheese or peas, sadly not both together or the temptation to link to a certain Fast Show sketch would be too much) more than made up for any discomfort!

In spite of the challenges and adverse weather conditions, I generally consider fieldwork to be the best part of my job. It usually takes me about a week to recover from a trip and forget about all the problems, and now that I've been back in the lab/office for a couple of weeks, I often find myself wishing I was out in the field again. Unfortunately for me, a few weeks in the field can generate enough lab work and data analysis to keep me going for a year or more, so fieldwork isn't something I get to do an awful lot of! So for now, it's off to the lab to process all the samples I collected, then I'll be spending weeks at the microscope counting several thousand pollen grains...

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

FoodCloud goes ‘Botton’s up’

By Deborah Butler & app; DE:FT (@deftfood)

My blog is a further update on the DE:FT research project ( which is investigating whether digital tools such as apps can be used as a way of promoting more sustainable production and consumption through reconnecting consumers and producers, but we need to know more about best to involve diverse users, what information they might need and in what form and how to promote new technologies in the face of information overload and increasing public distrust.  In order to try and achieve this we have created three prototype apps,  FoodCrowd, ShopStamp,and FoodCloud and are in the process of testing FoodCrowd in schools and the other two apps on farms and in the countryside.

Last week I had the opportunity to try the FoodCloud app out on a ‘Food Trail’ courtesy of Sue and Aiden Nelson, the joint brains behind Yorkshire Food Finder ( We have customised Food Cloud so it can be used to provide a background description of some of the different places that trails go to.  Let me explain further.

Sue and Aidan have devised a series of themed culinary trails linking Yorkshire food producers and Yorkshire restaurants.  Participants on the Food Trail get the opportunity to experience at first hand how some of Yorkshire's quality foods are created, bred or grown which can then be sampled on specially themed menus at some of the best eating places in the county.  So, you may ask, where does FoodCloud come in? I must admit, when I was at The Star, Harome eating my twice baked Yorkshire Tome cheese soufflĂ© or sipping a half pint of the Great Yorkshire brewery’s best porter in the New Inn, Pickering, I was half thinking the same. 
One of the objectives of the Food Trail is having the opportunity to learn something about the environment and cultural history of the locations the trail passes through.  At the moment this is delivered courtesy of a very informative commentary given by Aiden as we passed various places and points of interest, and this is where the FoodCloud app could be used to great advantage in adding to the information available. 
Initially FoodCloud was created to work when out on a farm walk for instance.  In order for the app to work successfully, however, the farmer needs to have created data about the farm and the crops being grown, adding information into what we call the ‘back end’ of the app.  The data inputting process is quite straightforward as we wanted a data base (the back end) which was simple and easy to use where the data added is displayed once the app is activated and opened up (the front end).  Although the Food Trail is not a walk, Sue and Aidan were able to input data about some of the key places on the food trail in the same way descriptive data could be added about a crop, which was then visible when the front end of the app was opened up. The following section describes how this worked in practice
‘Botton’s up’ Food Trail
The trail started off at The Star, Harome (, worth a visit just to look at the amazing private dining room with its painted gabled ceiling.  The app gave a brief description of the pub and what was available there which Andrew Pern, the proprietor of The Star could then elaborate on in more detail.  From The Star we drove up onto the North York Moors, passing through managed moorland, black face sheep and the occasional red legged partridge.  It was my first ever visit onto the moors and I was blown away by the vast expanse and the brown, green and purple hues of the landscape, before negotiating a precipitous descent down to Botton and the Camphill Trust Community (  The Camphill Community at Botton is one of nine rural and urban communities run by the Camphill Trust, a long established UK charity supporting adults with learning disabilities, mental health problems and other needs, supporting people in their home life, work, social and cultural activities.  The Botton centre is a rural community made up of five farms, two of which are dairy farms which supply the milk for the Botton creamery which we were lucky enough to be given a tour of by their resident cheese maker, Alistair.  We even got to taste some of the delicious hard and soft cheeses made and aged on site which can also be bought at the creamery shop and which complement some of the dishes prepared at The Star.  Next stop after lunch was a tour of The Great Yorkshire Brewery, a micro brewery located in the garden of the New Inn, Pickering, where their beer can be sampled and is on tap at The Star.  One of the brewery’s largest markets at the moment though is Japan, to where beer is shipped in kegs to be consumed by discerning Japanese beer drinkers.
Last but by no means least the trail ended at The Star where Andrew Pern gave us a guided tour of the pub, the guest rooms and the kitchens explaining how he had built the success of the pub on being able to source and use local Yorkshire produce which together with his culinary expertise had given The Star its award winning status.
Future developments.
Whilst the version of FoodCloud I took on the trail was designed more for farm walks rather than longer linear trails there is great potential to create a bespoke version of app drawing on our fieldwork ‘in the wild’ plus a little computer re-programming. In this way FoodCloud can enhance established connections between producers and consumers and help showcase the cornucopian foodscape of Yorkshire.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

How I became a historical geographer

By Briony McDonagh (@BrionyMcDonagh
Hi all! This is the latest blog in our series about how we came to do what we do. My name's Briony and I'm a lecturer in human geography here at GEES in Hull. My research interests lie in historical and cultural geography, and I’m particularly interested in how issues of power, space, identity and gender have been played out in the British landscape over the last 1000 years.

Like many of my colleagues I certainly didn't know I wanted to be an academic as a child, but I did like old and ruined buildings, Time Team and trying to figure out why the landscape looked like it did. My friends and I spent considerable amounts of time exploring an abandoned group of farm buildings not far from school (below), which it later turned out were 16th century in date and built from the ruins of a medieval monastery. For some reason I've long ago forgotten, I chose not to take History at GCSE, but ended up taking  a combination of A-level subjects which included both Geography and Classics. I applied for degree courses in a range of subjects but finally settled on a BA hons in Geography at University of Nottingham with the intention of applying for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office when I left.

Haltemprice Priory Farm © Mr Gareth Parry LRPS
That didn't happen, of course, principally because I got bitten by the research bug. I took second year courses which included classes on ancient woodlands, urban histories and the mappa mundi and third year modules which involved fieldwork on Italian environmental histories and the urban plan of Revolutionary Paris, along with archival work in the University of Nottingham's Manuscripts and Special Collections. I was hooked. I chose to stay at Nottingham to complete a Masters in Landscape and Culture – which included training in standing buildings and landscape archaeology – followed by 3 years writing a PhD on the historical geographies of the Yorkshire Wolds before c. 1600. It was during this time I developed my current interdisciplinary approach to the landscape combining documentary research, maps, landscape archaeology and theoretical perspectives drawn from cultural geography and elsewhere.
The day I submitted by PhD I was offered a job with the Victoria County History contributing to a volume on the history of Howden and the surrounding region. I did this for 7 months before securing a longer-term post-doctoral position working on an AHRC-funded project researching the long-term impacts of parliamentary enclosure on the landscapes and communities of Northamptonshire (you can find out more about the project here). As part of my post, I also taught in the History department at the University of Hertfordshire, teaching a second year social history course and a third year module on the history of the English landscape, something I absolutely loved doing. Whilst working through endless boxes of archival materials at the Northamptonshire Record Office I came across Elizabeth Prowse, a committed agricultural improver who radically remodelled her estate during her 43-year widowhood (for more on Prowse, see my chapter on her here). It was as a result of researching and writing about Prowse that I began to wonder about the contribution made by other elite women to managing and improving landed estates in Georgian England. We know many male landowners pushed forward enclosure and introduced agricultural improvements on their estates, but we know almost nothing about the part female landowners played in the changes which transformed the English landscape in the century after about 1730. Women certainly owned property as widows and heiresses and sometimes even wives, but how involved were they in its management and improvement?

Wicken House (Northamptonshire), the home of Elizabeth Prowse
These are the questions that my current research project sets out to answer. Whilst still working as a post-doc in 2009, I secured a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship for the project which I then undertook at the University of Nottingham between 2010 and 2014 (the end date for the project was twice extended as a result of the arrival of two little people in my life). Running my own project was a great experience and I later managed to secure additional funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to write a book from the project. I transferred this grant to the University of Hull when I took up my post here in early 2014, and I’m now about halfway through writing up the book (to be published by Ashgate, hopefully in 2015).
So after almost 7 years of post-doctoral and fixed term posts, I finally have a permanent job. I have to admit that when I was completing my PhD, I never imagined I would spend quite so many years in post-doctoral positions. But those 7 years have given me the real luxury of being able to conduct a huge amount of research on a wide range of topics. In addition to my book on elite women, I'm currently working on projects on late medieval popular geographical imaginations, early modern anti-enclosure protest (see, for example, and the land rights movement in the 21st century (you can listen to me talk about the latter project here). I'm hoping having got all this research under my belt will stand me in good stead in my new job given all the demands on my time that a larger teaching role and increased departmental administration are likely to bring. All in, I’ve certainly got plenty to keep me busy for the next 7 years! 

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

#madwriting in the real world – write-ins and writing workshops.

By Rebecca Williams (@volcanologist)

One of my favourite Twitter things is the #madwriting hashtag. Got 45 minutes you want to dedicate to some paper writing? Tweet it, set goals, get some allies and then dedicate 45 minutes to uninterrupted writing. Get that abstract written, that paper started or even do some #madediting and get a manuscript ready for submission. Our ever increasing workloads mean that writing up our research for publication gets shunted for delivering lectures, designing lab practicals, endless admin tasks, long, drawn out meetings and often, even more meetings. Yet, publishing papers remains one of the most important outputs of our work – grant money aside, it’s what academics are most judged on. #madwriting helps find some time to get some writing done.
Recently, I’ve been involved in some real-life #madwriting sessions. I’ve been to THE GEES Network Writing Workshop and a GEESology Writing Group Write-In. Ultimately about academic writing, both had different aims and both were successful. 

THE GEES Network is a network that I got involved in when I was working as a Teaching Fellow. It is a support network for teaching-focussed academics (either those on teaching-only contracts, or those who identify as teaching-focussed). The recent workshop was part of a two-day professional development event where I was talking about taking the step from teaching fellow to getting a teaching & research lectureship. The writing workshop aimed to get together some people who were writing papers on pedagogy in GEES, or themes around teaching in Higher Education. Before the workshop participants expressed an interest in a theme and then joined up with other participants who wanted to write on the same theme and put a draft paper together. Some were already working together, others forged new collaborations. It was particularly aimed at helping those who were publishing in this field for the first time. We read each other’s drafts (in vastly different states of completion, but that didn’t matter), discussed possible destinations, research methods and how to present our data. This was particularly useful for those of us used to discipline-specific publishing.
The GEESology Writing Group Write-In is completely different. This is more like a real-life #madwriting session. We’ve done two write-ins now – one was a full day write-in and one was a half day. What we do is book a room OUTSIDE of our department. We don’t go far, just to the Student Union building who have some nice rooms with decent views across campus. We gather together and set our goals for the day. Some people need to start papers, others need to get them ready for submission, others need to write grant proposals. Goals are normally a word count, or a page count, or a section. We then get going on a set period of time of uninterrupted, no talking, no email checking, non-distracted writing. Normally we do 45 minutes, or an hour. Then, we take a short break (15 mins), review how it’s going, maybe grab a coffee or eat some of the goodies that some good soul has normally baked for us (thanks Jane!). Its important here to celebrate achievements,  no matter how small.
Then repeat. Then repeat again, and continue repeating for however long we have. At the end of the day, goals are reviewed and stickers given out to the successful. Reflecting on what we’ve achieved is motivating and helps the momentum spill out into the rest of our day or week. We find that getting a good, quiet, airy room away from our department with access to coffee works best. Going somewhere specifically TO WRITE certainly helps concentrate the mind. Sticking to the blocks of time and making sure everyone has a break after each block prevents writing burn out and helps make writing enjoyable. It also helps to celebrate those small goals – each paragraph contributes to an eventual paper!
I have found both of these workshops really useful. One actively used the group to help discuss our manuscripts and improve our papers. The other used the group for support and motivation. Both achieved their aims equally well and I’d recommend either approach though I think that the writing workshop is most suitable for research groups. The GEESology write-ins have proved so popular that we’re planning on running half-days weekly through the summer....we’d better get baking!