Teaching Critical and Radical Geographies: A Pioneering Master’s Programme

Federico Ferretti, Kath Browne and Julien Mercille (School of Geography, University College Dublin, Dublin, Ireland)

Critical and radical geographies are well established fields in the context of international scholarship, finding wide representations in academic journals and conferences. They likewise provide useful theoretical frameworks for PhDs and research projects, but they are not always as well represented at the level of the taught curriculum, at least with regards to the formal labelling of academic programmes. On the one hand, we hear of an increasing range of taught modules (graduate and undergraduate) inspired by radical and critical theories, running in the international academic panorama, although it would be difficult to define worldwide statistical trends. On the other, we feel the need to understand whether wider taught programmes such as dedicated graduate or undergraduate courses can be effective in fostering critical social theory, and whether these kinds of initiatives can tackle the challenges that doing critical discourses within the institutional academy implies for both academics and activists.

For these reasons we have decided to propose to our institution, which in Ireland is at once outside the Anglo-American hegemonies, and yet within the Global North, the creation of a Master’s programme (in the form of a one-year full-time or two-years part-time MSc) entirely dedicated to critical geographies and related matters. We are an international group of scholars who had the chance to meet because at a certain moment in our respective careers we came to the UCD School of Geography, each one from a different country and experience. Coming from different national, linguistic and disciplinary backgrounds, located within an Irish academe, we realised that we share academic and scholarly engagement in diverse critical/radical themes such as anarchism, feminism and queer theory, political economy, activism and social inequalities. Then, we discussed how to render an effective collaboration and how to bring our contributions to our university on these specific matters. Beyond the scholarly activities that we pursue, individually and collectively, since the beginning of our respective careers, the most immediate and realistically feasible way for doing that was to establish a new graduate programme.

The result was approval from the University, and the forthcoming launch, in September 2020, of the new MSc programme “Critical Geographies: Power and Inequalities”, dedicated to analysing power relations and inequalities that create contemporary societies, spaces, places, environments and lives, past, present and future. The key themes and approaches that we have decided to flag as key components of the curriculum include: Radical Scholarship, Anarchism, Geopolitics, the Global South, Postcolonialism and Decoloniality, Critical Race Studies, Feminism, Intersectionality, Queer Theory, Healthcare and Urban Studies, Marxism, Autonomism, Situationism, and Non-Representational Theories. This reflects the pluralism and openness suggested by the editorial groups of the main journals in the fields such as the opening statement of ACME and a recent intervention by the Editorial Collective of Antipode as well as by recent decolonial scholarship (North and South) on the “pluriverse”. Yet, our idea of pluralism and inclusiveness is not limited to the realm of ideas, as it also targets increasing participation of students from under-represented groups, answering recent calls from scholars and activists for decolonising not only geographical knowledges, but geography’s disciplinary practices.

The programme’s key modules will address Critical Geographies, Geopolitics, Latin America, and Decoloniality and the “Global South”. The core module “Critical Geography”, established to this end, will be a team-taught module, intended to provide students with the basic theoretical tools of critical theory, offering opportunities to develop these, for credits, in relation to activist endeavours. These theoretical tools will be developed through a fieldtrip; the choice of destinations are currently Vietnam (following the Global South/Decolonial curriculum), Brussels (following the critical geopolitical curriculum) and London (following the critical urban environment curriculum). Reflecting our main scholarly interests, the set of themes described above corresponds to another important point in our philosophy, that is the need for fostering research-informed teaching, driven by international cutting-edge scholarship. We believe that this approach is something which intrinsically challenges the neoliberal tendencies producing conformism and homogenisation at increasingly low levels in the academy. This includes challenges to the ever-advancing neoliberal model of the university in Ireland and globally, where university institutions, departments and programmes seek to compete to gain students as an indispensable commodity to obtain adequate funding or even to survive. In this neoliberal model, students are implicitly considered not to be citizens, but paying customers to be flattered and attracted with more or less exaggerated promises of “employability” or of the “friendliness” of the programme. Conversely, we consider students as individuals provided with autonomous critical instruments to be engaged and developed in collaboration with the teaching team.

Our efforts will always be partial, limited and critiqueable, including our institution’s demand for fees, assessments and other tools that are rightly brought into question. Yet developing critical geographies as the focus of taught graduate studies offers students and staff engagements, scholarship and praxis that we believe has unpredictable possibilities. We will strive to make our project far from elitist, as we value activism and performance as well. This especially applies to the final dissertation and core module. They are scholarly but they refuse to bound scholarship beyond activisms, and students will be given opportunities to develop alternative outputs such as videos or performances.

Complementing the other variegated forms of Master’s offered by our School, namely on Geopolitics, Risk and Sustainability, Population, Urban Environment and Development and the Global South, this taught Master’s course, has to “play the game” by reaching viability, and it is especially in attracting international students that we imagine that its life can be secured. Over time, we would expect to use this new programme as a vehicle to develop collaborations within and beyond University College Dublin, but we refuse to limit these to what we can imagine at its inception. While deciding to create this programme and having it approved by the School and College was finally (and somehow even surprisingly) quick and easy, the big challenge will be now on the possibility of surviving within the mainstream neoliberal system, which is all but friendly to nonconformist initiatives, which are generally tolerated as long as they produce income (i.e. students’ enrolment). The compromise of working within is always apparent.

Among the possible future challenges that we may face is to define how to engage with each other in collaborative ways in case of differing perspectives on “critical” matters. As we come from different political, cultural and even national/linguistic backgrounds, we imagine that this might be one of the future challenges as far as this programme is established. Beyond referring to the need for pluralism stated above, a first point on which we are working is horizontality and collegiality, in order to mediate between the institutional need of having a nominated Head of Programme (Professor Kath Browne) and the need to engage as a collaborative team in the constructive spirit of sharing decisions, duties and practising daily mutual aid, a notion on which we still like to quote old Peter Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution (1902). Only through developing the programme will we know if it is possible to overcome key challenges and contradictions of doing critical geographies within university systems.

As an Irish institution, we stand on the edge of Brexit and the uncertainty that holds. We are both within and outside “the centre” of the Global North, the “university complex”, and multiple other privileges/marginalisations. We hope to receive support from the international community of critical and radical geographers for making this new programme known. We welcome comments, suggestions or feedback which might develop the wider conversation on “radicalising the curriculum”, in geography and beyond. We also hope to welcome many of you as visiting speakers/research visitors, that support the development of critical geographical conversations.