Meet a Geographer — Sharing their knowledge

Jim Walmsley

Professor of Geography, Division of Geography & Planning, University of New England (UNE)

Jim Walmsley

Like almost all academics in Australian universities, my working life centres on three activities: teaching, research and administration. I teach undergraduates at all levels from first to final year. I also teach students training to be professional town planners, most of whom are studying for Graduate Diplomas. At UNE the majority of students are off campus and study online. Many of these are mature age students who bring to their work immense life experiences. This can be challenging because it means that I teach everyone from recent school leavers to mid-career workers who are retraining and refocussing their working lives. In terms of research, I study pressing social problems in Australia. Administration is a necessary evil: the challenge is to sort “administrivia” from really worthwhile initiatives which facilitate better teaching and better research opportunities.

Best aspects of my job

I particularly like teaching students who do geography as a non-core part of their degrees.The best aspects of my job are teaching and research. The joy of teaching is very rewarding. I particularly like teaching students who do geography as a non-core part of their degrees. These are people with no great interest in the subject and the challenge is to leave them with a greater insight into what is happening where and how the study of geography informs so much of life. It’s always amazing how many of these students suddenly discover geography and want more. I also my love my research. For me, the core question in geography is “who does what, where, why, when and with what effect?”. Geography is a wonderful subject because it demands an holistic view of life. My research is really in “applied geography” and nowadays relates especially to rural areas. Most recently I have been involved on studies of internal migration in inland Australia, the social impacts of immigration on Australia, and tourism as a way of reviving the fortunes of rural areas. I don’t want to sound too idealistic but I hope that my teaching gives people a better grasp of life in contemporary Australia and that my research leads to policies which improve levels of social wellbeing in the community generally.

Prior studies

In many ways, I sometimes feel like someone who got on a bus and forgot to get off. I enjoyed geography at school and was lucky enough to get into Cambridge University of study geography. At Cambridge, in those days, you focussed on just one subject, geography for me. You had tutorials with 2-3 people (nowhere to hide!) once a week for three years. You wrote at least one essay a week for three years – and it all counted for nothing in terms of continuous assessment. Your degree was decided simply on the basis of how you performed in a set of examinations at the end of your second and third year. The degree structure was inevitably broad, with both human and physical geography covered over all three years. From Cambridge I went to ANU in Canberra to do a PhD. This was a lot of fun. I looked at consumer behaviour and shopping centres in suburban Sydney. This gave me an enduring interest in why people do what they do. I focussed on what was then known as “behavioural geography”, seeking to understand how people perceive the environment and how the images they have of places influence their behaviour. This overall approach is one that I have been able to apply in a variety of fields (eg migration, tourism).

Career pathway

Once on the bus destined for “Academic Geography” I didn’t want to get off. At the completion of my PhD, I moved to the University of New England in Armidale. Oskar Spate, one of the grand old men of Australian geography, remarked to me that I was “changing one tableland for another”. I have stayed at UNE ever since. This might seem a bit boring but, ultimately, staying in Armidale has been a very “geographical” decision. I like the place, I like the local environment, I like the climate, I like my job and I like my life. Some people flit between universities, climbing the promotion ladder. I have been content to do this in situ.

Future career opportunities

Some people use the breadth of geography as a good launching pad for careers in senior university management, often with great success.I wouldn’t want to give the impression that getting on the bus to “Academic Geography” means that life is mapped out for you. There is a lot of discretion in deciding what to focus on. Alongside teaching mainstream geography, I have been able to introduce fun units on sport and on leisure, creation and tourism. I have also been allowed a lot of choice in what research to do. I have also been lucky to be able to get involved in the Institute of Australian Geographers (where I am President 2006-8) and in editing journals. In short, there is a rich variety of opportunities in university geography and what you end up doing is very much a result of personal tastes. Some people use the breadth of geography as a good launching pad for careers in senior university management, often with great success.

Advice to people interested in academic geography

… the demographic profile of university staff is such that a sizeable cohort will retire soon, thereby opening up vast opportunities for newcomers.Go for it! All jobs have their drawbacks and frustrations. Australian universities have had funding cut back for a decade now – but that situation can’t last. The form-filling and compliance requirements often seem endless – but they are manageable. The rewards from teaching and seeing students grow and develop are enormous. And the fun of research and publishing are enduring. Remember, too, that the demographic profile of university staff is such that a sizeable cohort will retire soon, thereby opening up vast opportunities for newcomers.