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Archive for April, 2010

It’s a Complicated World

The world is a complicated place. That’s easy to say. I could hear people saying that to me when I was a first-year undergraduate. I could even say it myself. But I didn’t really see then how complicated the world is. The older you get, the more you see, the more complicated it becomes. And so we have schemes that help us to make sense of the world. Ways of organising all those complicated things and ideas and places and history and uncertainties and contradictions. Science is one scheme that gives us a way of making sense of the world.  Religion is another. There are lots to choose from. And you don’t just have to choose one. You can mix and match. You can make your scheme, your system, your way of looking at the world as complex as you like. It can be really complicated, if you want. Of course that might defeat your original goal of having a system that cut through the complexity, if that’s what you were looking for. On the other hand perhaps you were just looking for a scheme that recognised the complexity. Perhaps you just wanted to see it and acknowledge it. Perhaps then you don’t need a scheme, you need a vision.  And then everything becomes much more simple. The world turns out not to be so complicated after all. The world is a pretty straightforward place.

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“…getting to know Proust is not the acquisition of a bundle of facts, it is familiarity with a world of the imagination in which one gradually feels at home…”
Richard Bales, Introduction, The Cambridge Companion to Marcel Proust.

Getting to know Physical Geography is not the acquisition of a bundle of facts, it is familiarity with a world of insight and appreciation in which one gradually feels at home. Learning Physical Geography is a bit like getting to know Proust. Or perhaps that’s just me. Richard Bales, in the chapter from which I took the quotation at the head of this post, goes on to say that getting to know Proust is “the growing realisation that humanity is subject to an enormous range of vicissitudes, but obedient also to recurrent laws. It is the recognition that life, drab though vast swathes of it may be, can be transfigured in rare moments of insight. It is above all the acknowledgement that what is humble and what is sublime cohabit in indissoluble symbiosis. For if there is just one lesson one retains from a reading of Proust it is that what seems trivial is often what is most significant and revelatory.” I need to think about this in the context of Physical Geography. Of course, getting to know anything is about becoming familiar with its world, not just about compiling the bundle of its facts. This isn’t just about Physical Geography. But it can be about Physical Geography, if Physical Geography is what you are getting to know. Subject to enormous variability but obedient to recurrent laws. The ordinary transfigured in moments of insight. The mundane and the extraordinary in indissoluble symbiosis. Yes, that’s Physical Geography. But isn’t it everything? And isn’t that the point?

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Teachable Moments

When I started as a lecturer, it seemed to me that the job involved teaching students about Geography, and it was made easy because most of the students seemed to want to learn about Geography. I was selling what they wanted to buy. There was an item on the news this week that gave me a nice label to illustrate something that now feels different. The item was about the way that people who have accidents and get injured while they are drunk can have the error of their drunken ways pointed out effectively to them by medical staff while they are being stitched back together, because at that moment they are particularly open, or susceptible, to advice. It is what is called a “teachable moment”. What occurred to me was that whereas in the imaginary good old days we spent our time teaching students who were eager to learn, nowadays we spend it engineering teachable moments: points at which the students, who generally are closed and impervious to learning, might be tricked into it. Of course I’m putting this in an unduly negative way. It might not be that the students have changed so much, and it might not be that they are really closed and impervious. The idea of finding or creating “teachable moments”, though, is a useful one as I embark on the redevelopment of courses for next year. How can we help students to learn? By creating Teachable Moments for them. So, what is the Physical Geography equivalent of Accident and Emergency?

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