Welcome to the blog for Geography at the University of Liverpool. Follow this blog for regular updates on our work including our research activities, comments on news stories and updates on what our staff, postgraduate and undergraduate students and alumni are doing. We hope this will help give an insight into the dynamic world of geography at the University of Liverpool and that the blog will become a space for conversation about what we do. If you have any questions or comments, please leave a comment or email us.
Post by Alexandra Guy, Year 1 BA Geography
When I told people I’d be spending my summer break between A-Levels and University teaching English in a summer camp in Romania, I was met with more than a few shocked expressions and raised eyebrows. I tried to keep an open mind, however – the chance to travel to somewhere you don’t often hear about, other than the negative stereotypes, was as exciting as it was daunting, and I had no idea what to expect. My experiences were rewarding, and gave me first hand experience of geographical issues that I am now studying at University.
After a lengthy application process, I was selected in January 2013 to volunteer with Tabere Engleza, which is a lot smaller than many volunteer programmes. There were only 8 volunteers, most of whom, myself included, had been told about the programme by a friend of a friend who’d been the previous year and had loved every minute of it. It gave me something to look forward to while sitting my final A-Level exams.
After months of preparing lesson plans and making travel arrangements, we arrived in Bacau, northern Romania, in late June 2013. We were greeted at the airport by our boss for the next four weeks, English teacher Ina Dorneanu. She had 15 years experience in education, and became a really close friend in a very short time. She made us feel like we were not only part of her family, but also part of her country. I thought I was well informed and prepared after reading a variety of travel blogs, tourist guides and websites, most of which are filled with horror stories that are almost always unfounded, but living and working with Ina gave me a new perspective on Romania, and the significant progress that has been made there in the past 25 years, because of inspiring people like her.
The summer camp we stayed in, a 3 hour drive from the airport, was completely isolated – the only places nearby were a small hotel and some kiosks selling food. The nearest city, Buzau, was almost two hours away by bus. After a good night’s sleep and the morning spent getting used to our surroundings and preparing our materials for a week of classes, we were introduced to our first group of students. We spent the evening with them, dancing with the little ones and getting to know the older ones, who had so many questions about us and our homes and families.
Undoubtedly, the most rewarding part of the whole experience was working with the children. It took me a while to get used to teaching my own classes, so in the first week, I had the help of another amazing teacher, Cristina, who gave me plenty of lesson ideas and made the children really enthusiastic. At first, it was so intimidating, having 22 faces looking up at you, expecting to so much from you!
Every Monday, when the new groups of students arrived, we were filled with anticipation – would they like us? Would they be able to understand us? Some children’s teachers had requested they keep a diary of their experiences, and it was so rewarding reading these, most of them going into detail about how they enjoyed the activities we’d planned for them and how they loved getting to know us.
We taught for around 3 hours every morning in ‘formal’ classes, although these were outside and very relaxed, usually involving the children writing stories or having class discussions about their ambitions. In the afternoons, we really got to know the children better, doing art and craft activities with them or taking them swimming. The highlight of the second week was a huge impromptu water volleyball game that lasted all afternoon and got dangerously competitive. The evenings were full of new experiences for us, such as a weekly night of traditional Romanian dancing. It was amazing to see how the children understood the traditions of their country, and were eager to share them. They were shocked when they asked us about British traditions and were met with long pauses and confused looks while we tried to think of something to say.
At the end of every tiring week, Ina rewarded us for our hard work, which was completely unexpected, this included a trip to the ‘vulcanii noroiosi’, a geological site, predicted to soon become a popular tourist attraction and one of Buzau’s biggest sources of income. Travelling around Romania was a really strange feeling – the country is almost untouched by tourism, so people showed a lot of interest in us, and it was surprising how difficult the language barrier was. The children had returned our favour and had started teaching us some Romanian, although success was limited, especially in my case.
On our final night, we entered the dining hall and were surprised by sight of all the Romanian teachers applauding and coming to hug us, thanking us for everything we’d done. We then all enjoyed a barbecue together before a final presentation where we received certificates from the local County Department of Youth (the Romanian equivalent of a Local Authority), and said some very emotional goodbyes.
At the end of my trip, I was privileged to spend a few days living with Alina, one of Ina’s colleagues, another English teacher who showed me more of Bacau. I stayed with her in her mother’s apartment, in a Communist-era high rise block overlooking the city, complete with antique furniture and stunning views of the city’s Romanian Orthodox cathedral. She took me to the school where she worked, and I was lucky to meet the school counsellor, who has to provide emotional support to 800 students, as well as giving careers advice. Unsurprisingly, the classrooms lacked the resources and modern technology of British classrooms.
Since returning home, I’ve stayed in touch with almost everyone I met in Romania. I’ll hopefully be returning next summer and I’m now working to recruit more volunteers, giving presentations in schools and colleges about my experiences. I’m also putting the teaching skills I learned into action, by volunteering with Student Action for Refugees, teaching English to refugees and asylum seekers at Asylum Link Merseyside. It’s benefitted my studies, too – I’ve been selected for the UK Department of Business and Innovation’s Study China Programme, and the time I spent in Romania formed an integral part of my application.
When I started my studies at University of Liverpool in September, I was pleased to discover that international development was a key part of one of my first semester modules, ‘New Horizons in Human Geography’ – this was the aspect of my A Level Geography course that I enjoyed the most. Studying this in depth at University has allowed me to understand the role that smaller organisations, like the Romanian children’s charity, play in reducing poverty, and I have now been able to compare this to the importance of IGOs, like the UN. Witnessing international development at a local level, and then studying the theories and approaches behind, it has given me a valuable insight into an area of geography which is not only vital for the international community, but could also become a future career option for me.
If you want to know more about my experiences, or are interested in applying for the programme, applications for ‘Tabere Engleza’ 2014 close 20th December. For more information, visit www.tabereengleza.ro or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Post by Dr Alex Nurse
A few weeks ago, Pete North and I ran a seminar with the first year students taking the ‘Living With Environmental Change’ module. Following discussions about what makes a sustainable city, we wanted to see what the first years themselves thought about what Liverpool was doing both right and wrong, as well as what it could do moving forward.
To help us, we used the World Cafe model of discussion, breaking into seven groups, each with a specific topic. They were decided by the key areas for action identified in the recently published Environmental Audit of Liverpool, which in turn became key focus areas for the city’s new Green Partnership.
Those areas were: Energy, Transport, Green Infrastructure, CO2 emissions, Eco-Innovation and Waste/recycling. We also added an extra table discussing the City’s overall priorities.After that, we set the students to it – taking ten minutes on each table to discuss their thoughts, writing down their best ideas for those who would follow.
We felt that there some excellent ideas and some great examples of forward thinking that could really benefit the city. One example included a shift to consider wastefulness alongside traditional conceptions of waste/recycling, with the group suggesting greater use of clothes/food banks. Whilst the students weren’t fans of the recent move by the City Council to suspend Liverpool’s bus lanes, they were excited by the prospect of the Scouscycles bike hire scheme. Similarly they had numerous ideas that the city could adopt to encourage the more efficient use of transport such as car-pool lanes and they were very keen for the rollout of Merseytravel’s Walrus Card (the Liverpool equivalent of the Oyster Card) to be completed.
In the coming months, Low Carbon Liverpool will have the opportunity to present evidence to the upcoming Mayoral Commission on the Environment, as well as continuing to feed into the activity of the Liverpool Green Partnership. We plan to use some of those best ideas to help shape the evidence that we present, and hope that some of them may be realised.
For more information on Low Carbon Liverpool, or to find out how to get involved, please visit www.lowcarbonliverpool.com
Blog Post by Dr Paul Williamson
Fred Pearce, author of PeopleQuake, has recently argued in the Conservation Magazine that the spread of television is closely linked to falls in fertility rates, citing evidence from countries as far flung as India, Brazil, Jamaica and Mexico.
If this sounds a bit far-fetched, he is not alone in these views. For example, did you know that the British Government’s Department for International Development, along with Marie Stopes International (a charity that promotes sexual health and family planning) co-sponsor a TV soap in Kenya called Makutano Junction, which fosters an understanding of family planning issues.
The link between television and fertility rates is contested. It could simply be that television ownership is a proxy for local levels of economic development, with more affluent households and societies tending to opt for fewer children and own more TVs. Or it could be, as Fred Pearce argues, that TV shows model more affluent, emancipated (and childless) lifestyles for women that have a direct bearing on the attitudes and behaviours of those watching them.
Either way it is intriguing that TV shows appear to be seen as suitable recipients for ‘development’ aid; and equally intriguing to consider the relative importance of persuading the poorest people in the world to have fewer children versus, say, addressing the inequities in global trade that help keep them in poverty in the first place, or persuading those in the rich world to consume a less unfair share of the world’s resources… all debates that are covered as part of our geography degree programmes.
For the last year, we have been working with young people from KCC LIVE, a youth-led community radio station in Knowsley, on a participatory geographies project, funded by the British Academy, to produce a radio documentary about the riots in Liverpool in 1981 and 2011. In October 2012, 10 young people aged from 16-22 were recruited to take part in the project, a year later, a core of 6 young people remained involved, seeing the project through to the end.
As a participatory project, our aim was for the young people to drive the project. To begin with, we used a variety of focus group and participatory techniques, such as mind mapping, and participatory diagramming (and lots of post-it-notes), to explore the volunteers’ opinions of previous documentaries, work out what this one should be like, who they would like to interview, and what questions they would like to ask people who were associated with the 1981 and 2011 riots in Liverpool. Using their experiences as presenters and producers at KCC Live these themes were shaped into ones suitable for a radio documentary. Themes developed during these discussions included race, racism, community identity, policing, poverty and deprivation, and, media representations of young people.
Beginning in early 2013, the volunteers began interviewing people associated with the riots, including members of Merseyside Police, BBC Radio Merseyside and residents of the Liverpool 8/Toxteth area of Liverpool. The young people from KCC Live were responsible for conducting the interviews. In total 5 interviews were conducted, collecting around 4 hours of audio material.
Over the summer of 2013 the volunteers then analysed these recordings, working together to map out the key points from each interview and to identify themes that were important to discuss within the documentary. They then edited the recordings and in doing so coded the clips according to content (training us in how to use the audio software at the same time). They then worked with a senior member of the radio station who has experience in producing documentaries to work out music for the production, to record their own reflections and discussion that would form part of the final documentary.
The final 30 minute documentary is available via the youtube link at the top of this page or by clicking here. It includes extracts from the interviews, music and discussion by the young people themselves reflecting on what the interviewees were saying and providing commentary on what they thought were the main issues in 1981 and 2011. The documentary was broadcast on KCC LIVE with an accompanying discussion by other volunteers at the station. This full, hour long show including the documentary and subsequent discussion can be listened to by clicking here.
3rd Year BA Student Becy Ainsworth is the latest student to write about her dissertation research for the LivUniGeog blog.
“This summer I spent two months in Jodhpur in northern India volunteering for a local NGO whilst conducting my dissertation research. I was able to combine my desire to volunteer and travel with my academic work, each of which benefited the other. Having the basic knowledge of India’s politics, economy and society from various modules allowed my research to delve deeper into issues, which at the start of my trip I would probably have overlooked or misunderstood. Coming from the ‘western’ world, it was extremely challenging for me as an outsider to grasp the complex and diverse values in India that were so alien to me. As someone who loves travelling and understanding local culture, I found that combining that with my research abroad changed my entire understanding of the country.
My research was a response to the horrific gang-rape of a woman on a bus in Delhi in December 2012. Shocked that such an act could occur on public transport, I decided to investigate wider practices of mobility – which is do, how and why people move around on a day-to-day basis. I particularly focussed on how women used public and private space and public transport systems – as a country that is strongly patriachal, Indian women often have many challenges in their daily travels around urban areas like Jodhpur. I conducted interviews and focus groups, and kept a detailed research diary noting my conversations and interactions with local people and my own experiences of mobility in the city. The language barrier was only an issue for the focus group (everyone else spoke perfect English) and I needed a translators during and after the group (when transcribing the recording) – both translators had quite different interpretations so that was my greatest challenge during the research process. The women were so open, enthusiastic and willing to share their experiences and opinions with me, which made my research a really insightful process.
My role in Sambhali Trust was teaching English and maths to low-caste women and children, and to run workshops that would help with the empowerment of women. I was fully absorbed into Indian culture, which meant my daily interactions with the men, women and children of Jodhpur were valuable for my research and more general understanding of Rajasthani society. I was fortunate in that my everyday conversations revealed mobility to be a prevalent issue in women’s lives, as it was important to me that my area of research was relevant and addressed serious problems.
Working with and researching in another country with a completely different culture to my own was a challenge and a very steep learning curve. In India, things tend happen very ‘last minute’, which was stressful for my western mind-set at times. For example, Sambhali Trust organised a conference on child sexual abuse, which is an incredibly taboo subject throughout India. We invited 60 local professionals and dignitaries related to the field, but only began doing so five days before the event (which we had spent six weeks planning). This was obviously very nerve-wracking for the European volunteers used to planning events far in advance, however most people invited to the conference attended and it was a real success, with Sambhali Trust establishing a new project two days later. Another example is how I tried to interview someone that I was living with; we set a time and place every day for my final two weeks but only on the morning before I left did we both find the time for the interview to actually happen. I definitely learned the art of patience!
I kept a blog during my time at Sambhali Trust explaining about the charity’s projects, campaigns and workshops if anyone has an interest in women’s empowerment or development work.I would really recommend students to consider researching abroad. The endless possibilities of the research subject, the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of another culture, and the skills you develop from the daily challenges of the research have made it an incredible experience that I would love to do again (minus the dissertation write up bit!).”
The four-year DYNAMITE project (DYNAmic Models in Terrestrial Ecosystems and Landscapes), a teaching and research cooperation programme between the School of Environmental Sciences, University of Liverpool, UK and the Departments of Geology and Physical Geography and Ecosystem Science at Lund University, Sweden, recently ended with an excursion for PhD students, postdocs and academic staff from both institutions to western Ireland in September 2013 and organised magnificently by Prof Richard Bradshaw (University of Liverpool).
A brief report from the trip offers an excellent overview of the breadth of Quaternary Science as a discipline, illustrating how we integrate geomorphology, archaeology, geology and palaeoecology, to foster better understanding of local- to global-scale environmental change at varying temporal scales through the Holocene and Pleistocene.
Our trip began (Day 1) in The Burren, an extensive karstic landscape composed of remarkable limestone pavements and that supports many rare species. Michael Gibbons guided us around a number of fascinating archaeological sites, many of which feature in this detailed report from the Burren Landscale and Settlement Project. We visited impressive hill forts, court tombs and exposed oyster middens, many of them dating from Neolithic, and in some cases Mesolithic age. Many sites in the Burren have yet to be excavated, including these stone piles in the tidal zone; what was their purpose and when were they constructed remains to be discovered.
The trip also ended (Day 6) discussing archaeology, specifically the Céide Fields Neolithic complex at Ballycastle, County Mayo. These field systems enclosed by stone walls represent the most extensive Neolithic Stone Age monument in the world, dating to 5000 – 6000 years ago, and is today mostly covered by extensive blanket peat except for a few isolated areas currently undergoing excavation. The age of the walls is determined by applying radiocarbon dating to fossilized pine stumps preserved in the bog. Seamus Caulfield (Archaeology, University College Dublin) who has focused much of his research career on these sites led an extensive guided tour of the excavations, where the peat has been removed at various intervals revealing the abandoned stone walls.
While individually the piles of stone do not initially appear tremendously impressive, when the spatial extent (>10 km2) and perfectly parallel construction of the walls is considered, the enormous scale of Neolithic agriculture in the region is unveiled. What is also of great interest is the rarity or lack of preservation of a monument of similar age elsewhere in northwest Europe. It appears most likely that a regional decline in pine forests (indicated by pollen reconstructions) meant stone walls were constructed at great effort, instead of the log walls constructed from forest timber at the time elsewhere in Europe.
A short boat ride on Day 2 took us to Inis Oírr, the smallest of the Aran Islands, led by Karen Molloy (National University of Ireland, Galway). The small field boundaries struck me as unusual but apparently such land division has a long history in western Ireland (as we discovered at the Céide Fields). Karen presented the impressive lake sediment sequence of An Loch Mór; the unique setting of the lake means the >13 m of sediment deposited here records a fascinating story of palaeoecological change (e.g., Holmes et al. 2007, QSR) through the late-Glacial and Holocene periods, including insight into local ice retreat at the end of the last glaciation, sea-level and salinity changes, vegetation history and phases of exceptionally high windspeed due to its exposure to the Atlantic Ocean.
Later in the trip (Day 4) we tracked down a small exposed organic deposit exposed in a fluvial terrace at Derrynadivva that contained many large plant macrofossils. It turns out these deposits are not Holocene in age; rather, they are remnants of plants growing during a previous Pleistocene interglacial. It remains uncertain which interglacial is represented here however based on analysis of the pollen and plant macrofossils, the deposit possibly represents Oxygen Isotope Stage 11 (Hoxnian; e.g., Coxon et al. 1994 JQS).
Glacial Geology and Geomorphology
We visited a number of sites around Co. Galway, Co. Mayo and Connemara (Days 3 – 5) with Professor Peter Coxon (Geography, Trinity College Dublin) and Dr Richard Chiverrell (Environmental Sciences, University of Liverpool) to examine the complex, fascinating and still-unresolved history of Late Glacial ice-retreat in western Connemara. The stunning landscape of Connemara bears vast evidence of ice-sculpting during the last glacial period, including the elongated fjord of Killary Harbour, the Twelve Bens mountain massif that rises almost directly from the sea and the partly submerged drumlin field at Clew Bay.
The Ballyconneely Bay drumlin was particularly impressive with excellent coastal erosion exposing the innards of the feature with a length-wise cross-section through the middle of the drumlin. One can thus walk along the beach examining its internal sedimentology in great detail. The sharp contact to angular facies at the head of the drumlin, suggesting coarse debris flow / meltwater processes that occurred in a cavern beneath the icesheet, was especially neat.
We visited quarries at Tullywee cut into a subaqueous fan fed by a series of anastomosing eskers related to ice retreat from the last glacial maximum (~25 k years ago) that imply a water-surface of 60-65 m above IOD. In addition the large ice-contact deltas at Leenaun at the fjord head of Killary Harbour and exhibit a classic Gilbert-style structure implying a high shore-level of 78 m IOD. Further deltas were visited at Srahlea Bridge and in the Glennacally Valley, you can never have too many deltas. The causal mechanism(s) for this high water-levels have yet to be fully deciphered, but probably relate to ponding of lake waters in and against the mountains of Connemara by more dominant ice orginating the Irish Midlands and penetrating through and around the Connemara Mountains via Galway Bay, Killary Harbour and Clew Bay, whilst the mountain glaciers were in a reduced state during deglaciation (~20 – 18 k years ago) . This hypothesis seems more plausible than the alternate glacio-marine hypothesis which requies much higher local sea-level than models or other reconstructions possibly suggest. More discussion of these implications can be found in Thomas & Chiverrell, 2006 Quaternary Science Reviews.
Many pristine examples of glacial geomorphology were observed during the trip, for example the eskers at Tullywee, as well as much smaller features such as this ‘dropstone’ in a small exposure in the Leenaun delta. One could easily stroll past and not realise the significance of this cobble; the deformed sediments indicate we were adjacent to a calving margin and this cobble exited the iceberg as it floated seawards and was deposited in the soft sediments. The precise timing and rates of ice retreat in this part of the world are the subject of on going research in the NERC Consortium Project BRITICECHRONO.
It was a wonderful trip, tremendously educational and certainly a place I’d love to visit again for its visual beauty and ideally for the purpose of research as there is much yet to be understood about the Quaternary environments of western Ireland. For interested readers, the Quaternary of Central Western Ireland (edited by Professor Pete Coxon, 2005) contains a wealth of further information on many of these sites and other case studies.
Mostly written by Daniel Neame Schillereff