I often argue that Geography has to be defined not only by its subject matter but also by its approach. The subject matter of Geography is vast; potentially limitless. There is little, if anything, to which you cannot Do Geography. That idea struck me last week while I was presenting the “Course Overview” lecture to a group of about two hundred visiting applicants and their parents on one of our Open Days. This is a lecture that I give repeatedly, two or three times on each Open Day, so perhaps twenty times a year. It is essentially the same talk every time, but slowly, a little with each repeat, it drifts. An old joke starts to feel old and is dropped; a new idea occurs to me; a fresh anecdote is supplied by the adventures of some comical student. I don’t usually make deliberate changes in advance of each Open Day… I just roll up and give the talk, but as I am talking, winging my way through the slides, new lines slip in and the talk just turns out a little different. This time I said, when explaining the breadth of the discipline, that “there isn’t a lot that you can’t Do Geography to” and it just sounded right. I think I’ll use it again. I think it will get a place in my student lecture about defining the scope of Geography, too. You can do geography to glaciers, shopping centres, or the history of attitudes to art. Geography isn’t defined by what you do it to, because you can do it to anything.
The same idea underpins one of my final-year modules, Inspirational Landscapes, in which students are encouraged to take a hobby or personal interest as the basis for a geographical project. Students have proposed some quite obscure and remarkable ideas over the years, and I have never yet had to say “you can’t do geography on that”.
I often wonder what project I might embark on for Inspirational Landscapes if I were one of my own students. After dismissing as trite the obvious choices of favourite holiday destinations, I sometimes find myself coming back to something to do with model railways and maps. I can spend inordinate amounts of time poring over layout diagrams and station plans, not only for the images they conjure up of the imaginary railways but for the loveliness of the little maps themselves. I’m sure there is a project in there somewhere.
I was reminded of that project idea today when stumbling around a bookshop and discovering “Mapping the Railways” by Julian Holland and David Spaven. This book focuses on the real-life railways of Britain, not the model variety that I play with, but nicely demonstrates my point that you can do Geography on more or less anything that interests you. Train spotter? You can do Geography on that! And that, of course is one of the joys of Geography and one of the sources of its enduring popularity. You can turn it to your own passions. Recent student projects in my Inspirational Landscapes module have included Star Wars, skateboarding, Johnny Depp, angling, Jane Austen, dressmaking and, yes, even one on train spotting.
If you have a student who does not enjoy Geography, simply suggest that they do it on something else.