I am starting a new category within this blog to house posts for a new writing project. So if you see anything new with the “The Places We Have Known” category you will know it is part of that project, and if you decide to follow that project then you can just look up everything in the “The Places We Have Known” category! If it takes off, I’ll move it into a new blog. If it dies the death, it may as well do so here, quietly, while nobody much is watching. Whether this is part of the empire or part of the termite army remains to be seen. Watch this space but, as always, avoid holding your breath. Why is it called “The Places We Have Known”? It’s from Proust: “The places we have known do not belong only to the world of space on which we map them for our own convenience.” Like everything, it is about Geography, History and Memory.
Here’s a funny story. Many years ago, way back in the mists of time, I started a painting. Here’s a picture of it.
I never finished it, and it got shoved away in a pile of junk under a bed in the spare room. It was forgotten. It stayed forgotten for a long time, and then I stumbled across it and was seriously impressed with what a great idea I’d had to invent such a painting. The idea that if we poke our head through the curtain of the sky we will see the clockwork that drives the environmental system: the clockwork of climate change. Look at that clever graph of the long-term climate-change signal! How clever I was.
I got the painting out, dusted it off, and I think I even tweeted a picture of it to show the world my genius. Then I put it back under the bed and forgot it again.
Time passed, and then this week I saw a Twitter tweet in which @JDProuty had posted up a picture alongside one of his haiku.
This picture looked familiar and suddenly I remembered mine again. For a moment I thought – my picture! Somebody must have stolen it from when I put it on Twitter! Then I looked closer and saw that this picture was much, much better than mine. Of course. How unfair, they stole my idea and did it better – the injustice. Then I thought: this is unlikely. I asked @JDProuty where the picture came from, and he kindly sent me some information and a link, demonstrating that this was an old picture, of which there were many versions floating around on the internet, and which had a long and interesting history. Certainly it was not mine. It’s even up there in Wikipedia!
What must have happened, of course, is that long ago I must have seen the original picture and decided to make one of my own. I then forgot the original. I then forgot my own. I then discovered my own. I then failed to recall the original. Whoops.
Another reminder that where memory, imagination, belief – in fact more or less anything – is concerned, you can’t really ever be quite sure of what comes from where, or of what you have ever really done, or that anything is really new, or that any idea is in fact your own.
Did somebody once say “there is nothing new under the sun”? No, I’m sure that’s one of mine!
I’ve heard a lot of colleagues lately complaining that they can’t teach some particular lesson in exactly the way they used to or exactly the way they want to because this year the room is wrong, or the number of students is wrong, or the weather is wrong. These people seem to depend on the happy conjunction of a precise set of circumstances for their teaching to work, and their teaching plan crumbles into dust if things turn out to be different.
Me, I have a different approach. If the room turns out to be a sloping lecture theatre instead of a bench lab, or if it turns out that there are loads more students than I anticipated, or if lightning storms mean I can’t use the surveying kit, well, we’ll just make the most of it, find a workaround, and do the best we can. Teaching a Geography class is not the same as building a nuclear power station or launching a rocket ship to Mars: it’s ok sometimes to use your professional imagination and make it up as you go along. Is the class too big for you to run your planned seminar session? Break it into buzz groups for a bit. Can’t use the big metal poles for surveying in a storm? Dig out the old-fashioned tape and compass kit and let the students learn a new approach. Projector malfunction? Excellent, you’ll have to improvise with the whiteboard and a piece of cheese!
For example, I decided this year to up-scale my “looking out of the window” exercise from a small-group tutorial activity to a large-group lab exercise. The exercise essentially involves students looking out of the window and making a series of observations about the world outside. Well, I got to the room and found that the windows were all blocked off with security screens, so there was no chance of looking through the window. A disaster? Not at all. If you can’t look through the window, just look around the room instead. Improvising with the unexpected constraint made the exercise more engaging for me as a teacher, and since the students didn’t know what was “supposed” to have happened there was no negative impact on them. They thought they were doing the old “let’s look around the room” exercise!
As a University lecturer, and no doubt in many, many other lines of work, you have to assume that your best laid plan will be laid low by some unexpected circumstance, and you need to be adaptable at zero notice to change what you are doing, invent workarounds, and make the best of whatever you find yourself working with. It’s much like everything else in life: if you spend the available time regretting all the things you don’t have (windows, smaller groups, more equipment…) then you won’t spend it making the most of what you do have.
When you walk into the lecture room, come prepared with a few back-up plans, an open mind, and a willingness to improvise, experiment or explore. After all, that’s what you would expect the students to do, isn’t it?
When we do these exercises where I ask the students what they see through the window, or what they notice in the room where we are sitting, they often ask me what I see; what I notice. I am reluctant to say, in case they think that they should be taking what I see as some kind of a model, which it is not. But of course the exercise is always as instructive for me as it should be for the students. We have just done the exercise where I ask them to list what they notice about the room we are in. What might I write? What did I notice this time around?
First, as always, I notice myself, looking out at the world from inside my body. I am conscious of the familiar window through which I always look. Next, I see the room in its context: a particular, tiny location surrounded by a huge framework of space, and a particular tiny moment surrounded before and after by a huge framework of time. I make a deliberate effort not to be side-tracked into a discussion of Proust. Seen in that overwhelming context of history and geography the room reminds me instead of the “Total Perspective Vortex” in Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, which is a device that shows the person connected to it exactly where they are in the huge totality of the Universe – a tiny, tiny dot in space and time, so utterly insignificant relative to everything that ever has existed or ever will exist that the human mind cannot survive the confrontation. I see the room in context with its surroundings as the smallest inside edge of everything that is beyond it, and as the tiniest moment of time swamped before and afterwards by the rest of history. It is as though I am inside a tiny bubble surrounded by an infinite fog. All I see is the inside edge of the fog but I know it stretches out to touch everything else – all the space and time that I can’t see from here. And so, by touching the fog, I touch all of that.
Mervyn Peake wrote a poem “Is there no love can link us?” in which he referred to “this hectic moment, this fierce instant striking now its universal, its uneven blow… this sliding second we share: this desperate edge of now”. When I look out into the room that is what I see – the sliding second, constantly slipping to the next and leaving itself behind. A moment surrounded by, and connected to, all the other moments.
Having drawn on Mervyn Peake to provide an illustration of the room’s historical context I think of another of Peake’s poems for a spatial context to describe how I notice the room as a tiny part of a bigger whole. In “Suddenly, walking along the open road” Peake describes how – while walking amongst the “banal normality” of the houses and fields and trees of Wiltshire – he becomes intensely aware of his place on the surface of a ball spinning through space: “the world below my feet became a planet”, “a marble spinning through the universe wears on its dizzy crust, men, houses, trees…”. As I look out into the room, I notice – and pay attention to the fact – that the room is situated on that marble spinning through the universe, and I remember how I often used to say that a Geographer should be able to feel the world spinning.
Do I say all that to the students? No, not really. I say: “try to see the room first of all in its broader context. See the big picture. Try to think at different scales.”
Then, having thought a little bit about the big picture, I can move on and start to consider the more local, human scale… Of which, perhaps, more in a later post. Perhaps then I’ll use Proust, or at least a madeleine… or a small piece of fairy cake.
I tried a new exercise in the opening lecture with my final year “Inspirational Landscapes” undergraduates this week. It was actually a modification of the exercise I’ve written about previously where students have to list the things they see out of the window and we then discuss how we can learn to notice more in the world around us.
In this year’s modification of the exercise I asked the students, who had never done the original exercise and so were approaching it without any prior training, to make a list of the things that they noticed about the room in which we were all sitting. After they had made their own lists I asked them to imagine what I, their geography lecturer, might be noticing about the room: what did they imagine my list would include? Interesting issues arose both from the students’ own lists and from their guesses about my list. Both sets of lists give me something to work with over the remaining weeks of the module, and in the final week I will ask them to repeat the exercise and see if their lists have changed: whether they are noticing more in the world about them after they have done the course and whether they are any better at imagining how the world looks from a different point of view.
The exercise will also serve as a bit of background if I decide to talk to them later on about Xavier de Maistre (1763-1852), who wrote a travel book about a single room, “Voyage Around my Room”, during a period of confinement. That could form the basis of an interesting project in this module, if a student were to pick up the idea. In fact, I already feel a project of my own coming on! Alain de Botton writes about this notion, and discusses de Maistre’s work, towards the end of his own “The Art of Travel” (2002). [see The Art of Travel at Amazon]
The students’ lists of what they noticed in our lecture room were all remarkably similar. More than 90% of the group listed only items such as lights, chairs, whiteboard, projector, and so on. Almost every item on every list was visual – not many listed anything about the sounds or the smells, let alone the emotions or the social politics. Not many set their observations into any kind of framework or context – nobody pointed out that this was a room with a specific purpose, that it was part of a University, that it was designed in a European style, that it was built specifically at a human scale to accommodate particular human activities. These things were taken for granted and therefore ignored. The students chose not to notice them or, if they noticed them, they chose not to record them on their list. Not many organised their list into a hierarchy or drew it as an interconnected system. Not many started with the big picture and worked down to the detail, or vice versa. Not many compared the room with any other room to help define its essential nature, or its volume, or its history, its comfort, its temperature, or what was happening to them in it. Nobody included themselves in their list of what was in the room. Nobody thought to calculate its weight. But, then, why would they? Nobody mentioned Xavier de Maistre.
Asking the students to list what they imagined I was noticing about the room was a new exercise. I had imagined that asking them to try that new task might push them into thinking of some new things that they had not noticed until I suggested looking from someone else’s point of view, and would therefore enable them to expand their original lists of things they noticed by importing observations that they dreamed up by imagining my view. I thought that even if they only translated their own view of a learning space into what they might imagine was my view of a teaching space, that would be a step in the right direction. I was actually quite interested to see how students at this level would imagine their lecturer’s perspective.
Their lists surprised me.
Other than that they had me looking (and I use that word literally and deliberately) from a different angle, and therefore, for example, had a better view of the windows, the new lists were more or less the same as the lists that the students made for themselves. They thought that they and I, and presumably everybody, would notice the same things about the room. On my behalf they listed again the rows of seats, the projector, the whiteboard… Some of them suggested that I would notice the faces of the students, looking variously interested or otherwise, but for the most part they imagined my attention to be focused on the carpet, the ceiling tiles and the clock. The room they imagined me inhabiting sounded very dull, and from their descriptions I do not recognise the room. I wonder, if they think those are the things that I notice in the world, why do they think I am there talking to them? What could I have to say? My colleagues often ask why students don’t seem to pay much attention to their advice. Based on what these lists indicate about how students imagine their tutors’ perspectives, the ideas or insights that their tutors might have to offer, I think we have the answer. The students don’t seem to imagine that we see much more than them. Perhaps they are right. It is hard to know for sure.
Seeing things well, even from our own point of view, is difficult. Seeing things from somebody else’s point of view is even harder. Realising that the students seem to have no idea what I see when I am in the room with them is quite scary. On the one hand it clarifies for me the distance they have to travel in this module about seeing more in the world around them, but on the other hand it makes me think that when I am talking to them about all the exciting and fascinating things around us they probably have no idea what I am talking about! These things that I am explaining, these things that have inspired me – have the students noticed them? Of course, to the “educator” in me this makes me think of learning opportunities, teachable moments and the need to recognise the perspective of those with whom I am working. Do not take it for granted that they see the same world that you do when you start to explain the world to them.
Me? I see rainbows and unicorns, of course. Doesn’t everybody?
How about this for an idea? I’ve written previously about “blackout poetry”, inspired by the work of Austin Kleon. (Here’s that previous post) The idea is that you make a poem by blacking out most of the words on a printed page of a newspaper, leaving just a few words behind. Previously, I tried it with the first page of a Geography text-book as a way of teaching. Now I’ve had an idea… rather than just doing odd pages, how about doing a whole book? Blackout Kerouac. Blackout Hemingway. I could do a separate little poem for each page of the book, or perhaps they could be tied together into a blackout poetry epic stretching through page after page. As with my idea for using blackouts to help students find deeper meanings in text-book pages, I could make the blackouts into a book-within-a-book, telling a deeper story, or a counterpoint story to the one originally printed. So… what book to use as a starting point? I’m thinking something from classic literature like Moby Dick or Anna Karenina. But, then, that would be a mammoth task. Perhaps I want something smaller. Heart of Darkness? Death in Venice? Yes, there’s an idea. Watch this space but, as ever, don’t hold your breath.
I worry occasionally, of course, like most people, not only about whether there is such a thing as truth but whether, if there is, it matters anyway. Perhaps I worry about it more than some. When there is more than one truth available (yours and mine, the one seen from here and the one seen from there), should we choose between them or should we just leave them both out there? I usually find myself coming back to my old anecdote about T.E.Lawrence’s house in Dorset. I grew up believing that he had the inscription “Nothing Matters” over his door, and that notion made a deep impression on me over many years. Subsequently I became unsure as to whether that inscription really was there, but I decided that, in fact, it didn’t matter whether it was or not. What mattered was that I had spent all those years living with the notion. In a way, now that I am in doubt, I prefer not to know for sure.
Recently I have been reading again, a lot, John Keats’ poem “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” – the one that begins “Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold, And many goodly states and kingdoms seen…”. In that poem Keats uses a couple of examples to illustrate a feeling of astonished discovery. One of his examples, the idea of discovering a new planet, makes perfect sense, ties well into historical fact and would have been especially topical for Keats because he wrote the poem only a few decades after the discovery of the planet Uranus. Keats’ second example, the one that ends the poem and keeps bringing me back, is the one about “Stout Cortez”. “Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men Look’d at each other with a wild surmise — Silent, upon a peak in Darien”. The story that Keats had in his mind, apparently, is the story of Cortez crossing the Isthmus of Panama to make the first European sighting of the Pacific coast, telling his men to hold back as he went to the crest of a hill and looked out at the Pacific for the first time. His men, from below, could see Cortez’ reaction, but could only imagine what he must be seeing. It’s a great story and a great example of that kind of moment of discovery, but it turns out Keats got it wrong: the conquistador in question was not Cortez, but Vasco Balboa. One commentary that I have read suggested that Keats was quickly made aware of his mistake, but decided to leave Cortez’ name in the poem and to leave Balboa out of it. Perhaps the name was harder to scan or rhyme. Clearly, Keats didn’t think it really mattered. For a long time I took Keats’ story at face value and believed that Cortez “discovered” the Pacific. I only recently found out about the Cortez / Balboa mixup. What should I do with that? The poem is now seriously, deeply flawed in a matter of historical fact. The Cortez reference has no truth in it… or at least the truth has been thoroughly garbled. Does it matter? What would Lawrence of Arabia have said?
While I was embroiled in all this over the last few weeks, the Chief Executive of the Environmental Protection Authority of South Australia threw another spanner in my works. I tweeted, combining references to Elton John and John Keats in what I thought a pleasing way: “I feel as though I live my life in wild surmise upon a peak in Darien”. The Chief Executive tweeted back: “Ah, that failed Scottish overseas experiment derailed by capitalists and climate change….?!”
One of the great things about Twitter is the way that in 140 characters, or fewer, somebody can cast your own point of view into an entirely different light and throw open a whole new book, a whole new Realm of Gold, of which you were previously ignorant. If I ever knew much about the 17th Century Scottish Darien Scheme, then at some point it leaked away and deserted me entirely. Evidently it is historically very important. Some people see it at the root of Scotland’s acceptance of the Act of Union with England, and others at the root of Scotland’s subsequent emergence internationally as a business-oriented economy. Others, such as myself, have ignorantly developed our personal world views largely (ok, entirely) unaware of the facts of Darien. But looking now closely into those facts, one fact in particular catches my Geographer’s eye: the fact that the events on the frontier were deliberately misreported so that a false impression of what was going on would make a particular desired effect when the news reached home. It reminded me of the North American Agrarian Myth, the (mis)naming of Greenland, and many other geographical deceptions in the name of propaganda. Truth is a slippery thing, and may not be the thing which makes the difference in the end.
For now, however, I struggle on through these difficult weeks, wrestling with Cortez and Balboa, Keats and Lawrence… and the Myth of Fingerprints.