Geography breaks out of its borders

July 21, 2006

The future is bright, the future is young and the future is interdisciplinary. Tony Tysome reports

At first glance, something slightly odd seems to have been happening to the recruitment strategy of Durham University's top-rated geography department.

It might appear to outsiders that some of the department's recent staff appointments, along with student admissions, suggest a sudden loss of interest in, not to put too fine a point on it, geography.

Instead, experts in philosophy, politics and hazard and risk, as well as students with no geography qualifications, have been taken on as the department's notable growth over the past ten years continues.

But far from being cause for alarm, this is evidence that the discipline is thriving at Durham, as head of geography Antony Long was quick to explain.

He said: "This is symptomatic of the way we see the discipline moving forward. Geography is becoming a much wider and more interdisciplinary subject. That means that many of the issues we are interested in require perspectives from other disciplines to make advances.

"One of the interesting things is that we now have staff who have little if any conventional geographical background. It makes for a very interesting environment for research, because it means we have people who can bring different perspectives on the world."

Over the past decade, Durham's department has built a reputation as the place to be in geography. In the 1996 research assessment exercise, it returned 33.5 full-time equivalent academic staff. Next year, it expects to return 50.

A large number of retirements have allowed the department to buy in new blood. It has appointed 25 academics in the past five years, with some of the growth centred on a new Institute of Hazard and Risk Research.

Competition for posts is still keen, so it is expected there will be no shortage of candidates for a geography research fellowship. The post will shortly be advertised and will lead to a permanent lecturing position on completion.

Professor Long admitted that his department's energetic recruiting had drawn some catty comments. But, he said, it seemed to be paying dividends.

He said: "Some other departments have described us as the Chelsea FC of the geography world, going around signing everyone up with a big transfer budget.

"But we have a strong core of young staff now, and we are just trying to create a vibrant research environment."

Keith Richards, professor of geography at Cambridge University and vice-president for research at the Royal Geographical Society, commented that geography thrived on input from other disciplines.

He said that in his own department there were 11 people whose first degrees were in subjects other than geography.

"One of the ways in which we might explain it is that there are a lot of people in non-geography disciplines who have begun to realise that what they are doing has lots of resonances with what geographers are doing.

"There is enormous opportunity for collaboration and feedback."

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