Grumpies survey field's slag heaps

September 1, 2006

Academics at RGS meeting launch 'impassioned rant' to halt advance of postmodern obscurantism, reports Mark Rodgers

A debate by a group of self-styled "Grumpy Old Geographers" on the "pomposity" of their colleagues looked set this week to steal the show at the annual Royal Geographical Society conference.

Alongside papers on climate change, globalisation and sustainable tourism, the call for an "impassioned rant", organised by Nottingham University lecturers Roy Bradshaw and Bob Abrahart, was attracting serious interest.

"Grumbling can be a positive thing," said Dr Bradshaw, convener of the Grumpy Old Geographers session, due to take place after The Times Higher went to press. "It's often by grumbling that things are brought out in the open."

Dr Bradshaw and co-convener Dr Abrahart feel that many geographers have strongly held views about the future of the discipline, but expression of these views in journals and conferences often ends up "passionless".

James Derounian, senior lecturer in community development at Gloucestershire University, planned to use the opportunity to rage against the "wanton obscurity of postmodernist writings" in newer fields such as cultural geography. Looking through last year's RGS conference abstracts, Mr Derounian found what he considered to be "a lot of lazy and deliberately obscure writing".

He gave the following example: "Differences in thinking about the multitude arise, however, in its connection to praxis - whether we are linking an already-imagined revolutionary struggle to a now-identified class or whether we are open to the possibility of 'its' engagement in a range of practices, resistances, refusals, and redirections, successes and failures that are as yet unknown."

He likened reading such articles to mining: "You have to chip away at tonnes of slag to get to a few nuggets."

The use and abuse of language seems to be a major frustration. Alan Gilbert, head of department and professor of geography at University College London, said: "When I pick up the journals I read stuff that sounds wonderful but it doesn't actually mean anything. Instead of talking about geography, we talk about 'geographies' or 'spatialities'.

Dr Abrahart said that improper use of language harmed academic debate. "There seems to be a lack of proper argument and respect in papers," he said.

The "grumpies" were not being cantankerous for the sake of it, they insisted. Paul Longley, professor of geography at UCL, said that student participation was in decline partly because of a failure in the field to tap into enthusiasm for computer-based mapping programmes such as Google Earth.

"If the punters don't get what they expect from geography, they don't apply to study it," he said.

Jonathan Breckon, head of policy and public affairs, RGS-Institute of British Geographers, said: "A conference of 1,300 delegates needs to let off steam. We might consider providing some group therapy in future. In the meantime, we can recommend a talk this year by a team at Sheffield University on the geography of happiness in Britain. This might cheer them up."

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