Saturday, January 29, 2011

Belshaw's World - UNE bridges regional-international gap

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on 19 January 2011. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011.

I learned from last Wednesday’s Express that Professor John Pigrim had died. By coincidence, I was re- reading the commentaries to the 1977 Atlas of New England that he edited along with David Lea and Lesley Greenwood.

You cannot properly understand the history of an area without understanding its geography. For that reason, I am presently trying to increase my understanding of the geography of the broader New England.

I have a reasonably good base knowledge. However, it’s just not good enough for my present purposes.

Based on my reading of the various essays, I wrote two short pieces, one on the importance of micro-environments, the other on micro-environments and Aboriginal language and population distribution.

I had been planning to email John to show the continuing influence of the work of him and his colleagues. Instead, I will record my appreciation here.

At the time I first studied at UNE, the Geography Department was developing into one of Australia’s leading if not the leading geography department.

I only did one year of geography. I had intended to major in geography, but I found that history and economics interested me more. Even so, I was aware of the Department’s influence.

The Department’s work combined a regional, national and international focus.

The University was then very interested in its broader region, so geographers combined with other disciplines to study various aspects of the geography, geology, history, economics and life of Northern New South Wales.

There was a strong interest in applied geography, the use of geographical concepts and tools to meet immediate needs. This translated, among other things, into a series of studies for local councils on local issues.

This interest in applied geography carried into the broader arena.

Led by Ted Chapman, UNE was managing rural development programs around Cheng Mai in Thailand. As a twenty year old, I stayed with Ted in Cheng Mai.

During the day, he took brother David and I around some of the villages to show us the work. Walking along the banks demarcating the paddy fields, he explained what they were trying to achieve.

Towards the end, we sat under the shade of a tree in a village. Ted introduced us to the village headman who brought us a drink while we talked. That night, thirteen Armidale people sat down to dinner at Ted’s place.

In addition to its applied work in New England and elsewhere, the Department worked on a number of theoretical and conceptual topics concerned with the development of geography as a discipline.

Things change.

Years later, I was involved in a conversation with some of the then University heavies. The place was going through one of its periodic upheavals.

UNE they, said, can’t be the old university; we have to put the past aside and build our international links.

I threw a spanner in the works by asking when the University had ceased to have an international focus. They really had no idea of past work.

Speaking from my experience as a policy adviser and management consultant, I suggested that one of the best ways of moving in new directions was to select and emphasise those elements in the organisation’s history that supported new directions.

Instead of presenting UNE as an entity in trouble, that had to go international, they should focus on the fact that UNE had always had an international reach.

The Geography Department demonstrated this. It showed that it was quite possible to be both intensely regional in some work streams, international in others. There was no conflict between the two.

I know that I sound a bit like a broken record on this one, but I am very conscious of it at the moment.

The research and writing that I have been doing has brought me back in contact with past work done at NEUC, UNE and at the Teacher’s College/Armidale College of Advanced Education.

The contribution made not just to Northern NSW, the broader New England, but to Australian life and thought is really quite remarkable.

This can be hard for individual staff members, academic or otherwise, to see. It really only become apparent when you stand back and look at patterns over time. Then it stands out.

During the three years I have been writing this column, John Pigrim emailed me a number of times with specific suggestions. They were always helpful.

I would like to think that the work done by he and his colleagues will be remembered.


Jim said...

Haven't been hearing much about the flood waters up your way. Qld and Vic seem to have dominated the news.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi JB. It was largely ignored, at least as an area. NE sits in the dividing line between the Northern & Southern weather systems. North of a line above Port Macquarie, it gets rain from both.

The rain belt caused flooding in the Northern Rivers and Bellinger Valleys. While this cut people off and did damage to rural crops and to roads etc, it was not as bad as it might have been.

On the Tablelands, the rain belt that affected Stanthorpe also affected Tenterfield in particular just to the south. The town was divided in two, people had to be rescued, and their was property damage. There was also flooding further west on the slopes.

On the plains, the waters rolling down from Queensland threatened a number of communities, with people being evacuated to emergency shelter at Moree. These were repeat floods. Fortunately, the peaks were not as high as feared.