In October 2003 – I attended my very first Landscape Surgery – as a PhD student and member of Royal Holloway’s Social and Cultural Geography Group. It was in this fortnightly meeting of the SCG that staff and students shared experiences, interests and research in the areas of cultural, historical and social geography. Landscape Surgery would start just after 2pm in RHUL’s buildings in London, either Bedford Square or Gower Street. The session would commence with a ‘newsround’ – an opportunity for each member (seated around a very long table) to update the rest of us on what they’d been doing in the last few weeks – attending conferences,
attempting to write, or out in the field. Some people have suggested this must have been intimidating, we aren’t all productive all of the time, but for me it was one of my favourite bits of Landscape Surgery. Sharing the excitement of what was going on in cultural geography and now – looking back – the freedom and time I had as a PhD student to attend conferences, read interesting things and get stuck into fieldwork. Today we have more opportunities to ‘share’ via Twitter and Facebook etc. but nothing beats actually sitting down in a room together and sharing our enthusiasms (quick plug here for my new paper in Area on emotional geographies of enthusiasm in group settings – don’t worry, it’s not based on Landscape Surgery). During this time, the ‘red folder’ (I hope it still exists) would be passed around – this contained various bits of information regarding forthcoming events, conferences, cfps, publications etc., and hidden at the back was a list of former/current Landscape Surgery members. For a newbie like me in 2003, it really made me feel part of something. Names I had heard and seen during my MA year and now I was sitting where they had sat years before. I know – I’ve made myself feel a bit queasy with the nostalgia.
Then came the BEST bit. Prior to each meeting, a reading or draft chapter would be circulated and then introduced by a PhD student in the main part of the Landscape Surgery session. It would usually be a 1st year’s PhD proposal, a 2nd yr’s transcription or piece of archival material, or a 3rd or 4th year’s draft PhD chapter. This was an opportunity to present our research in an informal and friendly setting, but with constructive and incisive feedback from peers and staff. Occasionally sessions involved a reading of some description – theoretical -methodological – empirical, there were also guest speakers – I remember Mona Domosh visited us once. Conversations would spark new ideas, give surgeons the confidence to move ideas forward or generally offer a space for debate, entertainment and good humour.
My own experiences of presenting at Landscape Surgery were brilliant – and I’m a nervous public speaker. I presented my work several times. Surgeons may remember a very “drafty” chapter on the material geographies of technology enthusiasm. There was plenty of empirical material, but it was a bit light on where it was going. The response was brilliant – with colleagues and peers asking the right questions and moving my ideas on. But I must thank one fellow PhDer at the time, who told me I was very brave to circulate the chapter I did. It was the feeling that I’d made someone feel better about their work and also learnt a lot about my own work in the process that was the joy of Landscape Surgery.
I’m still a member of Landscape Surgery – well, lifetime honorary member, but I’m not sure you ever really leave. In 2012, current Surgeons have launched a Landscape Surgery Blog– I recommend you visit it. I don’t think the blog will ever replace the important connections and sense of belonging surgeons have when they meet, but it will raise the profile of the group – founded by the late, great Denis Cosgrove (for an account of this see delightful paper by Luciana Martins on The making of `landscape surgery’ at Royal Holloway Cultural Geographies January 2009 16: 21-22, doi:10.1177/14744740090160010110). I hope the blog will also serve as an opportunity for other departments and institutions to reflect upon their own ‘Landscape Surgeries’ if they have them, or if not, consider how valuable it is to a PhD, postdoctoral and academic community to make connections in place beyond individual meetings, specialist seminars/workshops and giant (but fabulous) international conferences.