In a discipline sensitive to power, Olga Wojtas meets a woman geographer whose lack of arrogance inspires
There is a popular belief that students are reluctant to spend time on topics that are not directly examinable. Not in the feminist geography reading group at Edinburgh University, pioneered by geography senior lecturer Liz Bondi. The informal 90-minute lunchtime meetings attract about 20 female postgraduates, eager for a discussion beyond regular coursework.
Feminist geography not only tackles gender in human geography, it also examines, for example, how researchers treat their subjects and how they should respect their interviewees. Bondi has an international reputation. Her research includes an investigation of the links between women's changed position in society and geographical changes such as gentrification. She is also noted for work on different types of knowledge and she has offered the reading group a draft paper on the concept of academic authority.
While the postgraduates clearly admire Bondi, they are not in awe of her. The atmosphere is friendly and relaxed. And while the students are punctilious about not interrupting one another, there is a lot of joking and laughter. They have their copies of Bondi's paper, highlighted and annotated, and they show no reluctance to discuss it in front of its author.
It refers to a three-day workshop, whose papers may lead to a book. Bondi suggests that while she did little beyond suggesting the workshop, her belief in the project had produced a form of academic authority that helped the students in preparing and presenting the papers.
But the students are not convinced that Bondi fits the standard academic template. The first comment is: "I get a sense that you've oversimplified the notion of academic authority. In a lot of ways, you're transcending it because you're acting in a way the institution doesn't expect you to act. In certain circumstances, that makes you very vulnerable and weak, so to say you're just drawing on academic authority is simplifying that notion out of existence."
Another student praises Bondi's metaphor of teaching being a dance. One partner seems to lead and the other to follow, but the continuing movement depends on a frequent, if brief, reversal between who is leading and following. "At times, you're more powerful and you do have more authority," she tells Bondi. "It seemed you were a bit uncomfortable with your own authority. I found that a bit odd about your paper."
Bondi leaves the students to debate what they want. They praise her international research reputation, but say one of her strengths as a teacher is her willingness to admit when she does not know something. One student challenges Bondi's comment in the paper that she does not want to encourage students to accept her point of view. "I thought, how genuine is that?" Bondi says she believes it is up to the students to decide their points of view. She is unimpressed by essays that seem to try to please her by reproducing her perspective. She adds that students may put teaching failure to "brilliant use". She herself was influenced by a "lousy" teacher because she was spurred to carry out her own studies. "I think you might be a little exceptional," one student says drily.
As the group disperses, the students praise Bondi's teaching. "I think one of the great things she brings is a sense of humility," says third-year postgraduate Hannah Avis. "Even in feminist geography, which is very sensitive to the nuances of power, people tend to become strident in expressing their views. But Liz has the confidence to be uncertain. She's not authoritarian."
"But she doesn't lose her authority," adds fourth-year postgraduate Amanda Bingley. "She's not hiding behind an arrogant know-it-all stance. She's always honest about what she does and doesn't know and is open to debate. She has a presence."