When thinking about putting a blog together for Geography, I have been very mindful that, as of January this year, I’ve been in Sheffield for fifteen years. FIFTEEN YEARS. Now, as a closet geologist I’m perhaps more keenly aware than some of the passage of deep time. Thus, I thought that it was important to take this opportunity to dig back through the stratigraphy of the last decade and a half to see if I could come up with any summary thoughts (and perhaps pearls of wisdom) about my time in the Department of Geography, University of Sheffield.
I moved to Sheffield in the year 1999. OK, so what does 1999 trigger in my brain? Initially “….let’s party like its 1999 (Prince)” and “Space 1999”. However, that song was actually released in 1982, and the TV series was made in the 70’s. So, to begin with, I think it’s appropriate to provide a selective guide to what actually happened in 1999.
- Economy: The Euro was born, unemployment reached the lowest levels for 20 years, the minimum wage was introduced, RBS took over Nat West, Midland Bank became HSBC.
- World Affairs: Lots of trouble in the Balkans, world population hits 6 billion (now > 7), Bill Clinton avoided impeachment.
- Disasters: Columbine Massacre, Ladbroke Grove rail crash.
- Politics: The Scottish and Welsh Parliaments were born.
- Football: Manchester United won Champions League, Tottenham Hotspur finished mid-table, Glen Hoddle was sacked as England manager, Bobby Robson returned to Newcastle.
- Cricket: (Sheffield’s) Michael Vaughan made his test debut.
- Computing: Napster was launched, Windows 98 was released, and Internet usage was approx. 4 % of world population (now 40%).
- Other: The Gruffalo was published, Star Wars Episode 1 – Phantom menace was released. We looked forward to the Millennium (and the bug), and we did party on New Year’s Eve.
Arriving at Sheffield Prior to arriving in Sheffield I had cut my teeth at the Universities of Reading, and Stirling – where I had already completed postdocs and had a lectureship. So, when I moved from Stirling to Sheffield in 1999, it was a pretty big deal. Sheffield was a large and vibrant city, the University was well regarded, and the Geography Department had a great and long-standing reputation. At that time, Dave Thomas was my Head of Department. He had (and still has) a fairly unique approach to life – and left me in no doubt that in coming to Sheffield I was expected to both work hard and produce results; but also to enjoy the processes as much as possible. Only a few staff still remain from that first year in Sheffield: Paul White, Steve Wise, Chris Clark, Peter Jackson, Andy Hodson, Mark Bateman (appointed at same time), Deborah Sporton, and Chasca Twyman (who was a postgrad/postdoc), Charles Pattie and Peter Bragg. Hopefully I’ve not missed anyone out.
What was the Department Like?
Well, for the first few months I initially lived in Hillsborough (at the house of Giles Wiggs) and from my bedroom I could see the football ground. At this stage, most weekends were spent zooming back up to Glasgow to visit my partner – which meant for a fairly busy schedule. Nevertheless, I certainly received a very warm welcome when I arrived, and remember spending a lot of time in various pubs and enjoying myself enormously on field-classes and fieldwork in North Africa. My office [E19] was then a bit of a museum piece (1970’s lino abounded), as was my computer (x486, running – only just – windows 3.1.1). On the shelves and in the draws of my office were interesting reminders of past tenants (Sarah O’Hara and Nigel Bridgewater). In the rooms opposite and next door were Rod Brown, Peter Smithson, David Grigg and Andy Hodson. A motley and sincerely entertaining bunch. There were lots of quirks about the Department of Geography at that time. For example, having a carpet in one’s office to replace the 30 year old lino was only possible if you were either: (a) a professor, or (b) were prepared to buy and fit it yourself. Printing and photocopying were strictly rationed and phone calls were monitored (for cost). A new computer on one’s desk was relatively unheard of. Indeed when staff occasionally left the department to pursue a career elsewhere it was “normal” to ransack a recently vacated office for anything that had been left by the previous incumbent that was worth nabbing. This included anything from computers to random bits of stationary, chairs and desks. Anything other than carpet really, as – if it existed – it was often stuck firmly to the floor.
Well, in 1999 a Library was a room full of books and journals, and we were lucky to have a very good one in the Geography Department – which was well used. Lecture theatres were set up for slides and overheads only. As someone who had been using PowerPoint and Windows 95/NT for a number of years, coming to Sheffield effectively meant that I had to revert to technology that I had thrown away (literally) four years earlier. On a more positive note, in 1999 we were able to sit out in the summer on the roof of the Geography Building to soak up the sun (or smoke a cigarette), and often took a long lunch in the Star and Garter. Other memories include a rather entertaining trip to North Africa with Giles and Dave, which involved – shall we say – a slightly larger dose of hedonism than would be the norm today – as well as some truly memorable driving experiences involving mind-numbingly rapid transit through Gafsa at night. It was clear, therefore, that I had arrived at Sheffield at an interesting stage in the development of the Department of Geography, but also a point where Department/University funds were quite limited, and spending on University Buildings (and indeed the staff within them) was almost unheard of.
Pearls of wisdom?
John Peel commented on all beloved recordings by The Fall in the following way: “Always the same, always different”. This also sums up my perspective on academia, and generally it’s what makes it a fun profession to be part of. So, over the last 15 years it’s not surprising that a lot of things have remained constant, and quite a few things have changed. So, here are some examples:
What’s the same?
- Sheffield is and remains a great city. It’s a stunning place to live and work. Once I had overcome the initial surprise of men calling me “luv”, adopted Henderson’s relish for my chips and worked out where the Leadmill was – all has remained good. In addition, Sheffield also has some of the greatest Parks and Pubs in Britain, and has the Peak District on its doorstep – things that are all very close to my heart. I’m now experiencing Sheffield afresh through the eyes and experiences of my kids. According to them it’s “right good”.
- It’s fair to say that I remain inspired by both my colleagues and the students that I teach. It’s hard to summarise simply here the positives of working with both. Sure, there have been some tricky times, but the thrill and emotion of both research successes and various graduations remain special.
- Geography is still a great degree subject study at the University. Geography as a subject is extremely broad in terms of scope and delivery, but at its core offers unique balance of interdisciplinary science, a clear research ethos and plentiful geospatial/modelling/field working-skills. Career options are therefore wide and often interesting. Geography is also a fun degree to take.
- I still love researching and visiting Drylands. They are important, beautiful, challenging and under-researched in equal measures. When travelling to drylands, I need to wear a hat nowadays though.
- In terms of things that are constant but which could be categorised as “nagging issues” – when discussing the nuts and bolts of how academia operates and how we organise our teaching, I do find myself saying “we actually tried that in 2004…..”. To my eyes, the abundance of déjà vu moments in this job is a fundament. I also still find it hard to tell people what I actually do. It may be me, but although I’m immensely proud of what I do and what I’ve achieved, I feel that being an academic is still not a particularly well-regarded profession.
- In terms of research, (from my blinkered Physical Geography perspective) things have really changed. We don’t just look at rivers, coasts or glaciers (or drylands for that matter) any longer. We now regularly address large cross-cutting scientific questions or themes. Changes to funding/journals/attitudes and a significant influx of researchers (and their methods) into Geography from a range of other disciplines means that our efforts are often collaborative and form a significant component of ongoing advances in Earth System Science.
- Well, the Higher Education Sector has changed a lot since I was a student, mostly for the better. However, the significant recent impacts of sector-wide marketisation have caused some further fundamental and perhaps unpalatable change. Students as customers? A pretty unfortunate and uncomfortable situation. As a Director of Teaching and Learning in the Department of Geography, I can see the immediate impact of these changes first hand. Importantly, the outstanding educational experience that we offer our students remains driven by factors other than financial gain and profit margins. Through our research we continue to provide benefits to society/industry that are tangible, real and enduring.
- Metrics now underpin the life of an academic. The job of a lecturer/professor has always encompassed an intriguing balance/blend of research, teaching, leadership and other stuff etc. In the last 15 years, however, each of these has gained a large suite of metrics and associated targets (e.g. The Research Excellence Framework – REF, The National Student Survey – NSS, and performance related pay). Most are fed into league tables, and the (often arguable) statistics used as guidance for performance management (e.g. as Key Performance Indicators – KPIs). It’s not all bad, but at times the reliance on metrics alone is sometimes unfortunate.
- It’s hard to ignore the fact that students, on the whole, are working quite a bit harder. That we now award the vast majority of our students a degree at 2.1 and above is therefore not particularly surprising. I also see that our students are increasingly likely to be involved in volunteering and actively helping others. I’m sure they also feel a lot more pressure to succeed, as these are challenging times, but they remain a hard-working and close-knit community. I think, however, that they still have a lot of fun.
- University buildings and facilities have received significant investment. The Geography Department has recently been the recipient of millions of pounds of investment, and I can confirm that we now have carpet in our offices and a decent IT infrastructure. Our laboratories and lecture rooms are also really impressive. In summary, changes to our working environment in the last 5-10 years have been really significant.
- Finally, I’ve put on a few pounds, lost a lot of hair and seem to be unable to write legibly. Otherwise, I’m looking forward to the next 15 years.