Unformed thoughts on doing ‘work’ – 1 August

I was sitting in my office, which I actually really like (for reasons which may be explained in a bit), when I began writing this post – thinking about the tendency at present for sitting alone in an office to be the sort of ‘everyday’ norm. I suspect this is a common experience for many academics. I also recognise that it is actually a privilege to have my own office, something I really do value, but that’s not the focus of this post. I am also near certain that others have written much the same thing before in different guises. What I want to do is argue for the keeping or reinstating of ‘common rooms’, not for nostalgic reasons but for pragmatic ones.

Summer working in a building that is mostly empty, and so sitting alone quite a bit of the time, makes me think about the nature of my job at present. It also prompts me to remember what it was like five years ago when I started the job I currently have. It makes me think of the stripping away of things that some might think of as quaint, old fashioned, out-of-date and superfluous but I tend to think might actually be really important to the efficient functioning of academic institutions.

We used to have a “Senior Common Room” at the end of my corridor. It was just the one, shared, PGR/staff ‘common room’ for a very large building (the Amory building, in Exeter, is a warren and is home to about seven departments) but it had a little café, the people that worked there were nice – you knew them by name, and it meant that colleagues would gravitate there.

This was a space colleagues would choose to go to. Where possible, patterns I had become used to in other institutions were sort of observed – people would go for coffee around 10:45, some still do, and often arrange to be there for lunch too. This was a room in which you would feel comfortable to take a visiting academic, you may well bump into colleagues. You could learn what others are working on, maybe share tips about mundane teaching issues (the speakers in that seminar room still don’t work etc). Some years ago I doorstepped a colleague at a London university whilst killing time in advance of an event and was taken to a nice, if well-worn, common room and we bumped into colleagues and I learned things I do not think I otherwise would have.

Now, this post is not merely the yearnings of a privileged white male academic pining for a time that only really existed, and was sent up, in campus novels by Bradbury and Lodge. Neither do I want to rehearse that peculiar line about how academic life is special and different. I think many of the issues here are relatable to other kinds of work. Nevertheless, I do think that the kinds of work we do are made better, work better, if we are able to talk and share ideas in ways that are conducive to that communcation taking place. While I think they help – I do not think that a social media channel or email list is sufficient. I guess, this post is also prompted by an anecdote that I’d like to relate, something I observed a while ago but that has stayed with me.

I was looking for our relocated administrators, now no longer ‘geography’ but paired back and blitzed together into a ‘hub’ for the whole building (yes, all seven departments). I was dithering along an unfamiliar corridor on another floor of my building, following room numbers, when I happened across a group of academics talking. Mugs in hand they were stood speaking in semi-hushed tones, somewhat conspiratorially. As I came closer and overheard their conversation it was the usual sort of mix of teaching and research chat. I passed on, in search of the elusive administrators. Having completed my task and returned down the corridor I again passed the group of colleagues stood in the same place talking. Around 15 minutes later I needed to return to the admin office and so strode more confidently back down the same corridor to find the group of colleagues had been augmented by a couple and an impromptu, semi-casual, research meeting was taking place.

I suppose the reason this brief, fairly unremarkable, episode has stuck with me is that this is the reality of working in my building. You talk in corridors, there is nowhere else to go. The ‘common room’ is still sort of there. It has shrunk to accommodate further offices and has been redecorated in the soulless corporate style you will recognise if you work in a university. There are no facilities – so you need to find one of the small kitchens to make your own tea or coffee in advance. We can book seminar rooms for meetings, but that requires notice and you’re told off if you are caught taking in your coffee. Of course teaching rooms are not necessarily conducive to certain kinds of discussion either, with rows of tables and so on.

In the meantime, the building is subject to wall-shaking redevelopment to accommodate the new student ‘hub’, taking the place of our departmental offices. There will be a café and social space for the students. So, many of us drink coffee and eat lunch at our desks and will continue to do so. Some go to the cafés on campus, but I find them rather expensive and it wastes a lot of time with crossing campus and queuing. It is also tacitly clear that these facilities are not intended for staff, they are really for students.

Quite a lot of colleagues work from home when they do not ‘have to’ be on campus. This is difficult for me. We no longer have a ‘spare’ room and so I sit at a desk in the corner of the kitchen. I have no space to store work-related things and so when working from home I have to remember to bring books etc. back and forth in my bag. It is by no means terrible but I find it hard to work from home. I like having an office – all of the things it enables. I would like to bump into colleagues more too. Sitting alone in an office is helpful for concentration and ‘getting things done’ but it is not helpful if it’s the only thing you do. It can be isolating. I value those times when colleagues take the initiative and knock on the door to chat but it can also be an inconvenient moment, with a crying student etc.

Space to meet is, I think, important for a happy and effective working environment in a university department. It also requires a commitment from us, the ‘workers’ to perform the function of commonality – we need to make the time. A common refrain is that there is no time, and I suspect that really is true for many, but even if it’s just once a week, or every so often, I’d like to think that taking the time to be with colleagues and to learn about what they’re doing is an uncontroversially positive thing to do. If we also argue for a little more time to enable this, then all sorts of positive research collaborations, teaching innovations and so on might actually arise – not because of top-down pressure from a person with “chancellor” in their job title but because we actually like to do our jobs.

I am not arguing for the reinstatement of some sort of peculiar system in which a particular class of academic staff can remain aloof in their “Senior Common Room”. I am arguing that, given the kinds of work we do, providing a space to talk, to connect – actually makes us more healthy and more productive. I would also argue that, as lovely as they can be, sometimes you just need to do this away from the students.

For all we might (perhaps rightly) castigate and deride companies like Google, they do understand and take seriously that people work better when there are common spaces and facilities to support less-formal ways of being together. It leads to more productive workers, I am confident that they wouldn’t be doing it otherwise – however ‘cool’ it might look.

So, a modest plea – fight for your common room and use it. I don’t think I’ve taken that seriously enough, so I’ll try too. We don’t know what we’ve got til it’s gone.


A huge array of overhead wires on a street

From the footnotes of Dan Ross’ introduction to Stiegler’s Neganthropocene comes this limpid definition (p. 271):

‘Transductive’, here, refers to an approach to thinking processes in which the terms of a relation cannot be understood as preceding the relation itself.

There is a danger with much ontology talk we encounter, especially in geographyland, for the ontological category of the thing to stand, almost static, in place of the necessary engagement with what is encountered in the world. In this sense, to think transductively, I suggest, is to follow a counterflow to the monolithic ontology talk that, for all of the appeals to vitality and the lively effervescence of the world, tends to fix things in catch-all concepts (such as ‘affect’, ‘atmosphere’ and other ‘a’s) without really engaging with the relations of the stuff of/under study. To ‘do’ transduction then might involve more than merely pointing it out – of which I am rather guilty.

That’s my quick and not very coherent take at the moment… I think this is actually a constructive form of critique – I believe there is a way forward in this kind of deconstructive thinking but it needs much more fleshing out.

In the mood for a comeback…

Foggy illuminated pier

So… not been blogging for a little while.

Finally feel like I can return to this now though. I’ll try and build momentum up again. Maybe even write more of my own thoughts rather than just curate things but we’ll have to see.

I have had a lot going on outside of work. I am not keen on the apparently  modish ‘confessional’ style of telling the world details of things that are uncomfortable or difficult so I’m not going to. Suffice it to say that since December things have generally been hard for me. I’m not asking for sympathy just explaining why there’s been no blogging. Work stuff for many of us has also been fraught. In some UK universities we’ve been on strike to attempt to protect our pension benefits, which the organisation supposedly representing our employers is attempting to change to our detriment. You can read more on this through the excellent ‘USSBriefs’. The strike deeply affected my teaching. My students were excellent but I have found it an emotionally fraught time.

I have tried to keep on top of things and I do have some stuff to talk about, but I confess it really is hard when my head is not really in it. Having said this, here’s what I’m thinking about…

Automation is still on the agenda for me. I am convening a double session at this years RGS-IBG conference. This will include me basically giving my pitch for a book: “The Automative Imagination” — there’s some text below [1] to give you sense of what that means. I had grand hopes of beginning a podcast this year to build on the ideas I had swirling around my head/laptop but with all that’s been going on – it seems like it’s all of sudden April and I’m still where I was at Christmas. I’d still like to do this though. If you’re interested in being a ‘guest’ please feel free to get in touch. I am keen!

How we theorise digital mediation in terms of spatial experience is something I will revisit in a talk next month. I will be speaking at the 2018 IRS Spring Academy on “Virtuality and Socio-Materiality”, which is the second of three ‘Spring Academies’ organised by the Leibniz Institute for Research on Society and Space (IRS) together with different academic partners and supported by the Volkswagen Foundation, with the overall title “Current Theoretical and Methodological Approaches”. I’m really grateful to Oliver Ibert and Karina Böhm at IRS who invited me and have been incredibly supportive. I have copied below my abstract [2]. I’m sort of interested in thinking about this a bit more with a view to maybe writing something about what theorising ‘the digital’ and ‘mediation’ means or can mean for geographyland, which, it seems to me, has a fairly peculiar way of doing that theorising at present.

[1] The Automative Imagination

Automation is imagined as much as it is planned and enacted. There are various kinds of cultural, economic and social forms of imagination that are drawn upon and generated when discussing how automation works and the kinds of future that may come as a result. The concept of an ‘automative imagination’ is proposed as a means of articulating these different, sometimes competing – sometimes complementary, orientations towards automation. The neologism ‘automative’ is not used here to assert discursive authority but rather as a pragmatic tool – to speak of an ‘automated’ or ‘automatic’ imagination does not describe the characteristics of automation but suggests the imagining is itself automated, which is not the argument I am seeking to make. My aim is not to validate/invalidate particular narratives of automation – but instead to think about how they are produced and what they tell us about how we tell stories about what it means to be ‘human’, who/what has agency and what this may mean for how we think politically and spatially.

[2] Worrying realities: Spatial theory and digital geographies

As practitioners of a ‘spatial science’ geographers frequently espouse forms of ‘spatial’ theory, yet the ambiguities of mediation through technologies produces enduring disagreements over the nature of that mediation. While prominent geographical theorists have asserted a relational nature of space on the one hand, on the other hand binaries of ‘real’/’virtual’ worlds remain common currency in the study and theorisation of ‘digital geographies’. There is a sense in which geographers concerned with ‘the digital’, or ‘the virtual’, continue to both worry and worry about the nature of ‘reality’. This talk addresses forms of theorising and problematising ‘the digital’ for geographical research. Rather than asserting a ‘correct’ form of theory, the concern here is to attempt to tease out productive ways to theorise whatever it is that we variously address as ‘cyberspace’, ‘the digital’, mediation and ‘the virtual’. The aim is to think about what it means to ‘do theory’ in relation to such concerns. Thus while there is necessarily an abstract side to such discussions, the kinds of theorising addressed will be grounded in examples taken from contemporary research and popular culture.


P.S. Title of the post comes from this…

A break from Twitter


I’m not going to be on Twitter for a while. I’ve decided to take a break- a proper break, not lurking-and-not-posting-because I think my use of it has been instrumental in how I feel at the moment, which is less-than-positive.

I’m going to carry on blogging here because I find it a helpful way to process things. I also feel positive about sharing ideas here, which is sort of the point of my job(!), although that can also sometimes provoke anxiety.

Reblog> Shift/work: Roy Ascott’s groundcourse

Roy Ascott's Syncretic Sense

Thanks to dmf for sharing this. Roy Ascott was a formative influence for me, via Mike Phillips & Chris Speed and the CAiiA+STAR (Centre for Advanced Inquiry in Interactive Arts [Wales] and Science, Technology + Arts Research [Plymouth]) crew, some of whom constituted the institute for Digital Art & Technology at Plymouth which ran the Bachelors course I took, the wonderful BSc MediaLab Arts (for a flavour see this characteristically [1990s] low-res video of a student show). I still have a copy of a Reframing Consciousness book on my shelf that I ‘borrowed’ from Mike in about 2001… and I basically became a geographer because of Chris, especially his piece Spacelapse.

In the best possible taste? or the intimate geographies of training the mouth as a technology

Someone clutching their neck because of the bad taste of a cup of coffee

I’m undertaking some new research, for which I have received a small pot of funding from the University of Exeter. So, exciting stuff! This combines my theoretical work on understandings of technology and mediation and my near-obsession with ‘speciality’ coffee. I hope that I will be able to say something interesting about the kinds of intimate geography of taste (of aesthetics, of gustatory experience) that are performed through ‘speciality coffee’. Please find below a brief outline. Of course – I’d very much welcome any comments, suggestions or opportunities to chat about the themes here and things you think I’m missing or getting wrong, so please do get in touch!

In the best possible taste?, or the intimate geographies of training the mouth as a technology

Taste is something we pay for. We can pay more for food and drink we think are ‘delicious’. In turn, this creates ways food and drink we find pleasurable comes to market. This project will explore the growth in ‘speciality coffee’ and its contingency on particular kinds of taste, which I posit have a range of subsequent economic and cultural consequences. I will explore the central role of techniques of tasting, known in the coffee trade as “cupping”, in the commodity chains of ‘speciality’ coffee. Claims have been made within the coffee trade and in the popular press (in particular by Jay Rayner in The Observer, 8th June 2014) that a shift in tasting practices and thus how coffee gets roasted and prepared has created a very specific taste experience. The hypothesis of this project is that an increasingly technical and quantitative approach to measuring what we call taste is affecting the gustatory experience of coffee.

The aim of this project is to investigate how this particular taste experience has been constituted: to ask how do professional coffee tasters reflect upon the training of their sense of taste? And: do specific technical gustatory practices of tasting create orthodoxies in judgments about taste? – if so, how?

The methods for this pilot project involve undertaking two empirical activities: (1) undergoing tasting training with the London School of Coffee and documenting this ethnographically; and, (2) interviewing and tasting coffee with key speciality coffee roasters to examine how tasting techniques are used in practice.

The unacknowledged (professional) expense of books

These are just some rough thoughts…

Reading is a significant part of academic life. Staying up-to-date with debates, excavating the lineage or context for certain arguments or ideas, diving into new areas – all these things, and more, more or less require us to regularly read… journal articles, books, book reviews, and perhaps (increasingly) blogs and other online texts.

The thing is… most of those texts are free to access, for academics, through institutional access (we can login through Athens or Shibboleth). The exception (most of the time anyway) is books. While universities remain committed to stocking their libraries there are, of course, limits to what can be bought. We often want to foray into very particular areas that other colleagues or students won’t and so we cannot reasonably expect the university to pick up the tab, especially when budgets are only being reduced.

This leaves many (especially early career) academics in a quandary. Resort to the increasingly creaky inter-library loans system (and then probably have to break copyright by photocopying substantial portions of a book), or buy a book with your own money. Inter-library loans is an excellent system and I have no wish to denigrate it – it’s just sometimes you need to keep a copy of the whole book and copyright doesn’t allow for this (and photocopies can be unsatisfactory too).

Now, I know that academics are certainly not badly paid (and I do not wish to moan about that), but those of us early in our careers are not wealthy by any means. Many colleagues, I am aware, give themselves a book budget and prioritise – some simply splash out. Nevertheless, this is a professional expense – we arguably need the books to inform our research (the aspect of our jobs most highly prized by our employers and government) but we must cover it out of our ordinary remuneration. This may well be the case for other professions too(?)

Until I had a family I did not think about this. I didn’t buy every book I fancied but there were book purchases most months. Now, with a tighter belt, there isn’t the room for this in my family’s budget. I was lucky to receive a small start-up pot when appointed to my post and I have used a little bit of that to pay for some essential books (I don’t think that’s what it was for!). I have also made use of the SCONUL system to join other universities’ libraries to broaden the range of books to which I have access.

Nevertheless, and I really do not wish to whinge, but the fact remains that academic books can be really expensive (e.g. Routledge and Ashgate routinely publish hardback-only editions and they cost £60+ per book) and we have to meet that expense ourselves.

I’d be interested in what others think…

Three things that inspired me to apply for postgraduate study in geography

It’s an open day for our Exeter campuses, I’ve finished marking exams and we’re preparing for exam boards etc. next week, capped off by our departmental barbecue… I still wonder at how I got to where I am. I really enjoy my job, I feel extremely lucky to be in a fantastic and supportive department and teaching about and studying the things about which I have a real interest.

I did not do a bachelors degree in geography. I was one of an eclectic mix of students that studied the BSc MediaLab Arts programme at Plymouth, now called Digital Art & Technology. We were taught to programme, to build things, to read theory and to ask lots of questions, in many cases by Geoff Cox, Joasia Krysa, Dan Livingstone, Mike Phillips and Chris Speed. My peers were, in many cases, as interested, passionate and challenging as the tutors. It was utterly brilliant.

In my final year I took an option module convened by Chris Speed called ‘Production of Space’, à la Henri Lefebvre. I read lots of human geography and got hooked. So much so that my coursework for that module, my dissertation and my final year project were all, in one way or another, about spatial experience.

I wanted to share three things amongst all of that which inspired me to apply for postgraduate study with the inimitable J-D Dewsbury.

1. Rob Shields’ Places on the Margin, and especially the chapter “Alternative Geographies of Modernity“. This was a massive influence on getting me to think about how to think about space and place and got me excited about geographical thought.

2. Chris Speed’s Spacelapse – a beautiful film that offers a really nice exposition of the inter-relations of space and time and urban experience.

3. The ‘Arch-OS‘ project by i-DAT. “An ‘Operating System’ for contemporary architecture (Arch-OS, ‘software for buildings’) … developed to manifest the life of a building and provide artists, engineers and scientists with a unique environment for developing transdisciplinary work and new public art.” As final year students we got to play around with this as it was built into the newly completed Portland Square buildings. In many ways this pre-saged my interest in ubiquitous computing, pervasive mediasmart cites etc. etc.

I went on to discover Anne Galloway’s blog, Howard Rheingold’s Smart Mobs, and received encouragement from quite a few generous people, including Anne and Howard, and Alex Pang – for which I remain grateful. I hope I now have the opportunity to encourage people myself to begin their own careers in research.

Provocations of the Present: What Culture for What Geography?

I will be participating in the joint OU/RHUL workshop, which is the 6th annual Doreen Massey event, concerning how we can continue to think about how we bring together issues of culture and politics through the engagement between geography and social theory. Should be a stimulating day!

Provocations of the Present: What Culture for What Geography?

Friday, 6 June 2014, 10:00 – 17:00 The Open University, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes, MK7 6AA

The Geography Departments of the Open University and Royal Holloway, University of London are delighted to announce that the 6th Doreen Massey Annual Event will take place on Friday 6 June 2014 at the Open University in Milton Keynes. This year’s theme is the role of cultural geography in the contemporary moment.

In his book Maps of Meaning (1989) Peter Jackson set out an agenda for the ‘new cultural geography’ that was firmly committed to bringing together issues of culture and politics through an engagement between geography and cultural theory. In the 25 years since its publication cultural geography has, arguably, come to dominate human geography. Theorisations of production of culture as production of space have formed the basis for addressing a variety of ‘issues’ including race, gender, nation, nature and culture.

Today those provocations for culturally attuned spatial thinking have been significantly reframed. Issues such as the environment, mobility, globalisation, liberalisation, security, sexuality and cultural intolerance have become more prominent political issues while other concerns have faded away. Cultural geography has also transformed, as too have the media and modalities of politics and political debate. How do we understand culture within this context and what is the role of cultural geography in the politics of the present? How will geography as a discipline be shaped by cultural geography? This event brings together some of the key thinkers in cultural geography in order to address these questions. As Peter Jackson said back in 1989:

If cultural geography is to be revitalised, … , ‘it cannot be by the defensive reiteration of well tried and by now well worn formulae. It can only be by an engagement with the contemporary intellectual terrain – not to counter a threat, but to discover an opportunity’(Jackson 1989: 180; Stedman Jones 1983: 24).


10.00 – 10.30: Coffee and registration
10.30 – 11.30: Panel presentations (Societies/Economies/Cultures)
11.30 – 11.45: Coffee
11.45 – 12.45: Panel presentations (Histories/Technologies/Environments)
12.45 – 13.45: Lunch
13.45 – 15.00: Small group discussions
15.00 – 15.30: Tea
15.30 – 17.00: Plenary
17:00 – 18:00: Wine reception

This is an opportunity for students to meet and exchange with key figures in cultural geography today.

Confirmed panellists include: Peter Adey, Phil Crang, Anindita Datta (via webcast), Mona Domosh (via webcast), Claire Dwyer, Isla Forsyth, Peter Jackson, Sam Kinsley, Pat Noxolo, George Revill, Gillian Rose, Anna Secor (via webcast), Divya Tolia-Kelly.

Parts of this event will be streamed live (the morning panel sessions and the afternoon plenary) and accessible through the Open University’s Webcast page. Those who are unable to attend in person will be able to join the live streaming and have an opportunity to submit questions that may be selected for discussion.

Registration is free, but we ask that everyone confirms their place by filling in their details on this registration form.

Blogger apathy, the death of Bloglines and missing links

This year I have been mostly… blogging on the variety of sites attached to the Digital Cultures Research Centre’s network of events and projects – not least our recent conference Paying Attention which addressed the issue of the ‘attention economy’ (see the website for more details). The conference was held in Linkoping, in Sweden, and funded by the European Science Foundation. We were fortunate to have a varied and interesting collection of speakers including Tiziana Terranova and Bernard Stiegler, who were both superb.

Having written the above, I doubt anyone will read this, not least because I don’t really blog much at the best of times and its been even quieter of late. However, I have been spurred to action because of the announcement of the imminent demise of Bloglines, for which I have remained a faithful user for around five years, mostly due to laziness! I’m probably going to avoid the obvious move to the big “G” (as in the internet services company not ‘him upstairs’!) and switch over to NetVibes. An immediate cause for reflection in this circumstance is the number of ‘saved’ blog posts from the feeds I follow which I intended to write about here and haven’t got around to discussing. So, for want of a better strategy – I’m posting them here as a sort of archaeology of my Bloglines account [continued below].
Continue reading “Blogger apathy, the death of Bloglines and missing links”