Conference of Irish Geographers 2013 – Galway

This may well have been the last Conference of Irish Geographers that I attend. That is not because I don’t like spending days talking about geography with lots of interesting people but because academic conferences have two characteristics which make it difficult to sustain involvement. Firstly, they offer rarefied atmospheres within which a vision of what it can be to be a geographer paid from the public purse can be realised. Secondly, they are a luxury when the work you do is not directly connected with a university department or a research unit. I am wading my way through a PhD but as you will know I also work as a full time researcher with the Catholic Bishops’ Conference. My employers are understanding (of this at least) of my need for engagement with academic communities more broadly. I have made it clear to them that this engagement feeds into the labour I produce on their behalf. This weekend’s conference in NUIG’s engineering building offered me a glimpse of the kind of geographer I would like to be. Although conferences are not the sum total of an academic’s life, this conference was excellent. I felt like I owed no one there anything.

I had two scheduled contributions to make to the CIG this year. The first was a paper to be delivered on the dereliction mapping project that Stephen and I have coordinated since January. Over pints and walks this last five months, we have managed to build some momentum around this fruitful project. More of this later. The second contribution I made was to take part on a panel discussion on the final day of the conference about Ireland After NAMA, the public geography project based in NUIM. Philip Lawton, Jane Ruffino, Rob Kitchin were the panel’s other members which was convened by Cian O’Callaghan. It was an attempt to gather some new ideas for the blog within the academic geography community. My contribution was to reflect the social media user’s views and cast a critical eye on the purpose of IAN in light of a series of papers (behind paywalls of course) on public geographies. Had it not been the last day of the conference, the audience might have been bigger but who comes to choir practice, right?

The panel was taken in a different direction from that which I expected but that’s OK  It spoke of the use of public data and of the consequences of putting blog posts online which don’t conform to the kind of rigour that is expected of academic papers. That rigour of course is notional, it cannot be abstracted from the everyday politics of academic publishing, much of which has been written about elsewhere. Blogs do not so much represent a ‘step down’ from academic publishing as another means by which you can engage with self-creating publics at the same time. I argued that the broadcast model of academic publishing is dying slowly with the likes of Springer, Sage and others trying in vain to appear relevant by hosting blogs of their own. I compared them with the early attempts by television stations to engage with the online. I also argued that IAN does not do enough to cross platforms, with no activity on their twitter feed, a form used effectively by other blogs of a similar nature. As far as I know, audiences are built not merely spoken at. The Religious Studies Project is an example of this. I think, and I hope I get to blog about this on IAN, that the blog needs to build something decent around several themes and then share it around, with the Spectacle of Defiance and Hope for example. It needs to be porous.

The earlier paper session that was convened  by Stephen and me on community geographies was stimulating, if only for the fact that it combined papers on fishers in Ireland and France with Maori mapping and the political economy of Dublin’s derelict housing. None of these topics are of concern to my doctoral work but I could see how a geographical perspective can be brought to bear. It reminded me again, and this is a personal reflection, that this is where I would like to be: making the work of geography more politically engaged. It is good to do the Show and Tell geography where we marvel at unusual landscapes and cultural formations and say “Wow Geography!” It is better to bring people to the point of being confronted by a geopolitics (on all scales) that cannot be ignored. I think we achieved that with the two papers on derelict sites and houses in Dublin’s north inner city. Like we said in the podcast for Unfinished Business, these places are the spatialised class relations of the city we live in. To see them as places of memory and story telling is one way to look at it. But I always want to ask the deeper question of ‘why here and not there?’

I want more of this please.