School of Geography

QMUL People – Professor Alastair Owens

11 April 2018

Professor Alastair Owens is an historical geographer and social and economic historian, and was recently appointed the Head of the School of Geography. We speak to him about his hopes for the School, getting his research out to the public, and going viral on Twitter.

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You have recently been appointed Head of the School of Geography – congratulations! What sort of things will you be focusing on during your tenure?

Well, above all, I want my colleagues to really enjoy working in a collegiate, friendly, and intellectually-ambitious school. Of course, a key priority will be the next Research Excellence Framework (REF), and indeed, the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), which will move down to a subject-level focus over the next few years. These assessments present some challenges, but I also see them as opportunities to show off some of the School’s many strengths.

One of the things I want to work on with my colleagues is to further develop a positive culture around student learning, and to work on student engagement in the classroom. We get brilliant students and I want them to come out of Queen Mary thinking ‘wow, I’ve really enjoyed my time at university. I’ve been intellectually challenged and have developed personally, and I’m ready to take on whatever life is going to throw at me’.

I also want to sustain and develop the School’s culture of collaboration and partnership-working – especially with external organisations; it’s one of the things that makes us distinctive as a Geography department.

A lot of your work as a historical geographer is centred on London. What sort of projects will you be working on over the next couple of years?

One of the projects I recently got funding for with my physical geography colleague Professor Geraldene Wharton, is a PhD studentship titled ‘Staying Afloat: Making Home and Creating Place on London’s Canals’ in collaboration with the Canal & River Trust and the Geffrye Museum. It’s estimated that there are in excess of 10,000 people living on the city’s waterways. The growth of liveaboard boaters is a major metropolitan phenomenon which reflects the current rising costs of housing and renting for many people. That’s partly why we are interested in it, but equally for some people it is about living a different kind of more sustainable lifestyle, and liking the flexibility and mobility of it. The Canal & River Trust are very interested in knowing what they can do with their relatively limited resources to improve canal-side environments for people to live there. As part of this, we are in the process of getting Queen Mary to adopt a section of the Regent’s Canal, so watch this space!

I’m also working on a new study with Dr David Geiringer and Professor Alison Blunt that will be looking at the role of Anglican vicarages in late 20th-century Britain, focusing particularly on inner-city communities. It will examine how the role and function of the vicarage – as a centre point of parish life within Anglican communities – has changed over that period, often in response to wider political-economic, social and cultural transformations, like growing unemployment, increasing secularism, or greater religious diversity. Again, it’s a project with the Geffrye Museum and will initially focus on the Diocese of London. Vicarages are fascinating domestic spaces which often perform a wider social and spiritual role within a community. I grew up in one during the 1980s in a very poor part of the north, which has given me some insights, as you can imagine! Particularly during the 1980s the Anglican church and many of its clergy were very engaged with ‘inner city problems’; I was surprised to learn that there had been limited academic research on these themes.

Your work means that you collaborate a lot with researchers in other disciplines – what’s the most unusual project you have worked on?

Perhaps one of the most interesting and slightly quirky projects I’ve worked on was with a group of archaeologists from Museum of London Archaeology. In essence, the project was centred around the examination of objects thrown away into Victorian privies! When sanitary reformers hooked up households to new sewer systems in the 1850s, the privies, which were effectively just a big hole in the ground, fell out of use. They were filled up with broken bits of crockery, cutlery, glass, clay pipes and so on that potentially tell us something quite interesting about people’s lives in Victorian London, particularly the poor. We looked at a series of privies in a deprived part of Limehouse and one of the insights they gave us was of the incredible mobility of people; objects being left behind and discarded because London was a city where people were constantly on the move. So interestingly there are parallels with my canal dwellers today, people often living quite precarious mobile lives, but in this case in a Victorian context.

I recently took some of my undergraduate students to Boston in the US to do some similar research with a colleague from Boston University and the City Archaeology Lab. We looked at objects that have been excavated from a brothel privy, dating from the 1850-70s. Objects are very interesting, because on the one hand they are really tangible: you pick them up and you feel a connection with the people that probably once used or owned them. But on the other hand, it’s very difficult to interpret what they mean and what they really tell us about people’s lives. You have to work hard to try to understand what that evidence might suggest about the experience of female sex workers, or immigrant poverty, or whatever it is that you are interested in. My students made a brilliant podcast based on their work!

What advice would you give to your younger self, just setting out on an academic career?

Have more confidence in yourself. Early in my career, when I had a succession of quite temporary contracts, I never felt very confident about what I was doing. The second thing would be to say “no” a bit more often. It can be quite hard to sustain the level of commitment required when you’re working on a lot of different projects and partnerships. So, I think my advice would be to try to be a bit more focused and strategic in terms of what you decide to do, or the people you say “yes” to. Particularly for new colleagues, I would stress that really.

I would also say don’t feel constrained by the walls of the university, and to actually get out there and talk to people who you are interested in collaborating with, they are often more receptive than you think. It’s been very exciting and enriching working with all sorts of different people in different professions.

You’re an avid tweeter at @AlastairHackney, have you found it useful professionally?

I’m not sure I would say I was an “avid” tweeter, but I do tweet a bit. I have found it really helpful professionally. It’s enabled me to connect and collaborate with lots of different scholars interested in many of the themes that interest me.

There’s this slightly funny story around Twitter that really got me into it. It was the summer holidays in 2012, and I was on the Emirates Air Line with my kids and their friends. The cable car started its ascent, it was very new at this point, and it suddenly stopped and it didn’t move. We sat there waiting and nothing happened, so I tweeted something about dangling mid-air over the docks. It was a week before the Olympics, and I didn’t really know how Twitter worked at this point. Unbeknown to be me, the media had picked up on this tweet and started mentioning it on radio and TV, and they took my picture and published it on the BBC. Eventually, it became global news. Actually, it was a bit silly because the thing hadn’t really broken down, it stopped for about 30 minutes, and I tweeted maybe two or three times, but it created this story that then got reported all over the place.

You work hard to get your research out to the general public – why is that important to you?

We have what sometimes feels like a very privileged job. It would seem almost a bit of a shame if the research we do can’t be communicated in some kind of way to a larger audience.

I’ve been lucky over my career to work collaboratively with organisations which, perhaps more so than universities, exist to engage with the public. In Humanities and Social Sciences we have exciting partnerships with the Geffrye Museum and the V&A Museum of Childhood, and I’ve worked with other of London museums including the Museum of London, The Ragged School Museum, and various other organisations often with the heritage dimension. These institutions have large and often diverse followings that can provide us with the opportunities to reach out to a bigger audience.

I’ve done one or two things with TV and so on too. I think that sometimes academics don’t appreciate how much those working in the media want to engage with people in universities, and want to have rigorous research underpinning what they do. For me it’s just part and parcel of what is a very varied job, alongside writing articles, journals, or publishing academic books and so on. This is just another dimension of communicating the work to a wider audience.

How do you like to spend your time outside of work?

I enjoy being a governor at a brilliant sixth form college in Walthamstow called Sir George Monoux, which actually has quite a close relationship with Queen Mary. They are also supported by the Drapers’ Company and they send about 20 students to us every year. I’m also a trustee at The Ragged School Museum, which is just down the canal from our Mile End campus. We’ve recently received a grant of £4.3m from the Heritage Lottery Fund, so we’re undertaking a major project that refurbishes the museum, and also creates some things that will be exciting for Queen Mary. There will be a new restaurant that will open out onto the canalside; so ten minutes’ walk from the campus will soon be a new place to go and eat!

I have family, so we try to make the most of theatre, music, the arts and all that in London. I’m also very fond of Baroque music, particularly Handel. For those people, and maybe there aren’t that many at Queen Mary (!), who are Handel fans, then London is one of the best places to hear fantastic, often period instrument performances of his work. Handel wrote around 80 operas and oratorios over his lifetime, so he was an incredibly productive musician. I have a sort of ambition that before I die, I might try to go to a performance of every single Handel opera and oratorio, although some of them are so rarely performed, that’s pretty unlikely. But I’ve been to 34 so far. Nearly all performances have been in London, and sometimes in amazing, quirky spaces. People might think of that sort of music as being performed in concert halls or very formal spaces, but you know, listening to live period instrument Handel in some grimy basement in Dalston drinking craft beer is, well, that’s heaven.

More information:

  • Learn more about Alastair and his research on his webpages, and follow him on Twitter @AlastairHackney where he tweets in a personal capacity.
  • Alastair recently held his inagural lecture at the V&A Museum of Childhood – read about the event and listen to the podcast of the lecture here.