The uneasy academic and the importance of dipping outside your discipline: reflections on The Urban University conference

Uneasy Academic 20141011_144756

It’s important for academics to occasionally move out of their disciplinary comfort zones and to interact with academics and practitioners from beyond their own silos, experiencing approaches that are alien and hearing voices that are not repeating the normative values of their own subject area.  Time spent in this way can be both stimulating and mundane, enlightening and boring, exciting and frustrating.  Above all, unpredictable.  At an ecological conference I know what I will experience; drop me into one devoted to the arts or social sciences, and anything can happen.  It’s an uneasy experience.

With that in mind I spent the end of last week attending a conference at which I was the lone scientist speaker, and indeed one of the very few people with a science background in the audience, as far as I could tell. The Urban University was sub-titled “Universities as place makers and agents of civic success in medium sized towns and cities” and was largely aimed at urban planners, architects, policy makers, and social geographers.  Not muddy boots ecologists.  However I’d offered the organisers (the University of Northampton’s Collaborative Centre for the Built Environment) a 30 minute talk about the monitoring work we’ve been doing on the bird assemblage at Northampton’s new Waterside Campus, which I discussed in an earlier post. The abstract for my talk is below, co-authored with my colleagues Janet Jackson and Duncan McCollin, plus two of our undergraduate students, Jo Underwood and Charlie Baker.

I had hoped that providing a very different perspective on the role of an urban campus, one focussed on the biodiversity it can potentially support and the ecosystem services that stem from it, might be of interest to this broad-based audience.  In the back of my mind I also thought it might be fun to reverse roles and, for 30 minutes, make them the uneasy ones.  It’s always hard to judge but I got the impression afterwards that the talk was well received and it elicited some discussion and questions.

Overall it was a stimulating couple of days and (I think) I’ve learned a lot, or at least learned more about the approaches and priorities of academics and practitioners beyond my immediate field. The talks ranged from the rather abstract to the very practical, from theoretical discussions to local activism. Particular highlights for me were:

John Goddard‘s overview of the relationship between the university and the city, and the fact that many academics don’t feel a personal link, or responsibility, to the urban centre in which they work.

Allan Cochrane discussing the unintended consequences of a university’s economic and social power, including gentrification and studentification of local residential areas.

Robin Hambleton on universities as a corrective to “placeless power”, i.e. multinational firms that can facilitate enormous social and economic change in an area despite having no geographic connection to the place.  Of course the internationalisation agenda of most UK universities means that they may themselves be in danger of wielding placeless power overseas.

Michael Edwards recounting how UCL academics and students have engaged in local activism in North London, for example fighting destructive planning applications, and sometimes positioned on the opposing side to the university itself.

Wendy Cukier on the experience of her Canadian university’s role as a “changemaker”, and the value of the Ashoka U Changemaker Campus programme, to which the University of Northampton is committed.

Cathy Smith on the medieval origins of the original University of Northampton, which was dissolved in 1265.  By happy coincidence 2015 is both the 750th anniversary of that dissolution and the 10th anniversary of the current University of Northampton’s full upgrade to university status in 2005.

The conference strongly impressed upon me the fact that academics sometimes take their institutions for granted in the sense that they don’t reflect on, or even challenge, the role of higher education within their geographical location. There may even be a danger of this becoming more pronounced as, in the rush to internationalise and chase overseas student fees, we in fact forget the physical and historical roots of our institutions.

Above all the two days I spent trying to navigate these unfamiliar waters reinforced my belief that it can be very dangerous for academics to isolate themselves within their disciplines, no matter how comforting and familiar that may be.  If the only voices that you are hearing (audibly and on the page) are the ones that are telling you stories that you already know and understand (even if you don’t agree with them) then it can be very easy to drift into a kind of disciplinary complacency in which you take the (self) importance and role of your own subject area for granted, without any external perspective on how it might be perceived by those beyond your academic boundaries.

Taking the occasional disciplinary leap could involve as little as going to a seminar in another department, or widening your reading to include areas beyond your subject.  Attending and presenting at a two day conference involves a greater commitment of time and energy, but it’s worth the effort.  It’s an approach to academia that I’ve tried to follow over the past 25 years and I’d recommend it as a way of broadening perspectives.  Sometimes it’s good to feel uneasy.

Many thanks to the organisers of The Urban University conference, particualrly Sabine Coady Schaebitz and Bob Colenutt, for their hard work in putting together such a great couple of days.  Here’s the details of my talk:

Biodiversity monitoring on urban university campuses

Jeff Ollerton, Joanne Underwood, Janet Jackson, Charles Baker & Duncan McCollin

Biodiversity, the variety of species and habitats to be found in a defined area, is a critical component of the natural world, and the ecosystem services that it provides supports modern society in economically tangible ways.  Urban campuses have long been acknowledged as supporting significant biodiversity, as evidenced by the many universities that have written biodiversity action plans.  However there has been relatively little quantitative research published on the biodiversity of British urban campuses, and how that diversity changes over time, particularly with respect to large-scale infrastructure development.  Academics and students in the Department of Environmental and Geographical Sciences have been collecting data on the biodiversity of Park and Avenue Campuses for more than 20 years, including plants, invertebrates, mammals, and birds.  This talk focuses on bird diversity as birds are an indicator group for assessing ecosystems, and are arguably the best understood group of species in the UK.  We present data on the birds that have been recorded on these campuses from 1993 to 2015, assessed in terms of their UK conservation status.  We then discuss the potential impact of the new Waterside Campus on the existing bird assemblage of the site, and present preliminary data showing how bird diversity has changed since building work began.  We end by discussing whether it is possible to maintain or even enhance bird diversity and abundance at the new campus.   The location of Waterside Campus, within the Nene Valley Nature Improvement Area and in close proximity to internationally important wetland bird sites, means that the University of Northampton has a civic duty to maintain the biodiversity of its campuses.

Note: in the end I actually didn’t include the data from Park and Avenue campuses, there wasn’t time to fit everything in!

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6 Comments

Filed under Biodiversity, Birds, University of Northampton

6 responses to “The uneasy academic and the importance of dipping outside your discipline: reflections on The Urban University conference

  1. Oh yes, best to push the boundaries of one’s comfort zone. Doing that gives better perspectives and more rounded outcomes.

    Universities can definitely be forced for good but I am concerned about the impact globally (says she who teaches International Students).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. We give a talk every year at the grower meeting and it’s always interesting to be the only scientist among a bunch of farmers. At least we all have dirty boots!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I absolutely agree. Keeps us balanced

    Liked by 1 person

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