Landscape Surgery

From my Landscape Surgery days in 2004 – geek chic (or not). Not sure what I was doing standing in a bookcase for that photo.

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.

7 thoughts on “Landscape Surgery

  1. The surgery sounds exactly the right thing to do, to help and fold in students at all stages of their PhD and help ‘normalise’ some of the rough and readiness, the reaching and the openness to suggestions within the process. If only this could continue when you jump over that hoop! Is there anything comparable now for postdocs and early career researchers that you know of? The Historical and Cultural Research Group at Exeter some years ago circulated peoples’ draft papers and discussed upcoming grant proposals, but then fizzled. What else is there for you and us now?

  2. I’m part of small group of geographers who regularly share our work – however – the danger is that because we are ALL early career we need a mixture of experience levels to ensure we’re avoiding early pitfalls and that the geographers further on in the process also get to test their new ideas in return. I’ve noticed Nigel Thrift – amongst others – have cited conversations with young colleagues and students as integral to their work. What next? I am about to start a new adventure at UCL in October, I wonder what they have going on there. I think I might instigate something – a researcher love-in. Another – quick and dirty – yet successful option is the #acwri #phdchat hashtags on Twitter – they have regular discussions about moving forward BUT we are limited to 140 characters. Yes, the Brimpt’s Farm model at Exeter – I’ve only been once – but I believe it is now serving a different function – completing department business is the emphasis, focussing on papers, proposals, projects as time permits. Not a criticism but perhaps a mark of a changing system.

  3. It’s interesting to read of something of this sort working so well – and with such enthusiasm (and I’m a complete cynic). Whenever things like this are suggested as good things for research institutes to be doing they never seem to even get off the ground because of the age-old academic excuse of “we’re all too busy”.

    When I was doing my PhD at Glasgow my research cluster tried brown bag lunches which worked well:

    In fact I might just send an email now and see if I can get one started here!

  4. Peter, Thanks for your comments. I agree – it does require a commitment from department/research group members at all stages of academic career. Without the dedication and encouragement of senior staff members – I am sure Landscape Surgery would have fizzled out a while back. It has to be mandatory for students AND staff – even if it is an informal ‘brown bag seminar’. The same goes for research seminar series – if supervisors don’t attend, then students do, sadly, find other things to do. It then becomes less a case of being ‘seen’ and actually a focus on making a contribution and difference to the group. I know – people couldn’t make it to EVERY landscape surgery – but they made it to most of them. There was also a nice “apologies” moment during the ‘newsround’ – where we found out why some staff couldn’t make it – a nice touch. Hilary

  5. Pingback: Research Groups, Interviewing and Writing Collaboratively | The Culture of Enthusiasm

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