Higher Education’s Silent Killer

Great argument. I feel this on a daily basis.


Marc Spooner. 2015. Higher Education’s Silent Killer. Briarpatch Magazine. 1 Sept. 


“The audit culture distorts scholars’ work by tabulating academic worth through the simplest algorithm: one that considers, for the most part, only peer-reviewed publication, journal impact rankings, and the size of research grants. Whole realms of endeavour are devalued or left out of the equation altogether, including activities such as “slow” research, alternative forms of scholarship and dissemination, devotion to teaching, or actually acting on one’s research findings – all vital aspects of the academic enterprise”enterprise. “

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A couple papers on the Anthropocene from my special issue

Along with Lauren Rickards and Ian Rutherfurd, we have assembled a special issue for Geographical Research on the issue of the Anthropocene for Geography. There are some really compelling and insightful papers that, if interested, I suggest you read.

It was a great experience producing this issue, as it flowed from my organising (with Ian) of the 2014 Institute of Australian Geographers’ conference.



P.S. full text available on ResearchGate or send me an email.

New Papers

Dear empty void,

I’ve had a few requests for copies of papers, and have now listed them all in the publication section. There are four new papers recently accepted or in press, with two more soon to be added. If you’d like a copy, I have put them onto ResearchGate, or simply send me an email.

Best wishes,


1) ‘Combining participatory mapping with Q-methodology to map stakeholder perceptions of complex environmental problems’ is a paper that outlines a mixed methods approach developed for the Borderlands project I contributed to during my Post-doc at the UNESCO Centre for water law, policy and science. The paper shows how mapping, GIS, interviews, and public engagement can help chart a path through the ‘messy’ world of flood risk management.

2) ‘Towards New Disaster Governance: Subsidiarity as a Critical Tool’ is a paper that explores the idea of subsidiarity as a tool for risk management. Effectively, it is already a key tenet of risk management – though uncritically and partially. The move to decentralise and ‘downshift’ responsibility for risk management is predominantly economically-driven, though it could be said to be justified using a subsidiarity argument. This is a debatable reason, but even mores there is need to ask when, why, and how responsibility might have to course upwards (i.e., centralise). This paper analyses the risk management literature in Australia as a way of sparking a discussion.

3) ‘Disaster management culture in Bangladesh’ is a book chapter in Cultures and Disasters: Understanding Cultural Framings in Disaster Risk Reduction. Eds. F. Krüger, G. Bankoff, T. Cannon, B. Orlowski and L. F. Schipper, that engages with the ‘cultural critiques’ of risk management. Broadly, the paper tries to present and explore the disaster management culture that conditions disaster managers. Through emphasis on flood managers – as well as their world views and rationalisations – the paper suggests that there is a distinct flood management culture, but moreover that that culture is one that appropriates and utilises the cultural critique to entrench existing power relations.

4) ‘Matters of method: the paradoxes of understanding suicide’ is a beautiful and provocative paper led by Angeliki Balayannis. The paper shows how efforts to impose order on understanding suicide bound the phenomenon in such a way that the resulting knowledge is impaired. Most importantly, by developing and practicing a materialist analysis, the relations that produce prevailing knowledge-practices are made more evident, exposing linkages and actions that have significant implications for responsibility. In proposing the concept of ‘distancing-through-engagement’ we show how relations are made, unmade, and erased in ways that benefit some while disadvantaging others. Our contribution to this issue – one that currently has only minimal geographic contribution – is to show how space, mobility, and scale are critical to understanding how knowledge is bounded, and how that knowledge leads to particular interventions.

Open letter to Meric Gertler, president of the University of Toronto, from the geography and planning community

Open letter to Meric Gertler, president of the University of Toronto, from the geography and planning community

Dear President Gertler,

The strike by teaching assistants and course instructors at the University of Toronto has now entered its fourth week. You are the president of this university—the largest, wealthiest, and arguably most prestigious university in Canada. You are also a geographer and a planner. As fellow geographers and planners, we write you to express our strong support for the strikers.

Teaching assistants and contract instructors at the University of Toronto are striking for something very basic: a livable income. The rising cost of living, gentrification and skyrocketing rents, ballooning tuition rates (especially for international students), stagnant funding, and the insecurity of contractual employment have combined to produce crisis conditions for many of the university’s graduate-student workers. The guaranteed minimum funding package for graduate students has not increased since 2008 and, at $15,000, now stands at 24 percent below the poverty line for a person living alone in Toronto…

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Better learning, less work…?

An odd thing happened to me recently. I realised I like teaching. While not entirely shocking, I also realised that I like innovative techniques (not strictly technologies) and attempting new ways of encouraging/mandating participation, debate, discussion, and dissension. On December first, along with other grant winners, I’ll be presenting a poster/talk about my efforts to deliver ‘Better teaching and learning by closing the learning-feedback loop: with less work’. I’ve enlisted Gavin Leys (Senior Graphic Designer) at Melbourne Learning Environments to help me realise my artistic goals. He’s been amazing in bringing ideas to reality.

Here is the first draft of the upcoming poster. Much to add and refine, but I am excited about its first appearance and thought I would share.

Hope to see people at the event.


Brian Cook_LTI Poster_(Final) (Gaven Leys did the artwork)

Absent without leave…

Am just back from three weeks ‘holiday’ in which we welcomed our second daughter to the Cook pack. Aveline is doing exceptionally well, as is mom and ‘big sister’. Am back to work this week and have lots of news and outputs coming through. Best. Brian The Cook ladies.

Qualitative Methods Training in Cambodia

The Project
Qualitative methods training session at Prek Leap National School of Agriculture.

One of my favourite aspects of the Cambodian research project is our collaboration with agricultural students at Prek Leap National School of Agriculture. They are an invaluable part of the project, because of their central role in the ethnographic data collection. Our students are going to live in the targeted villages for more than a month, staying with farmers and contributing to their households. We hope that this integration into village life will help the project better understand the decision making that goes on in villages and amongst farming families during the current period of rapid agrarian change.

As part of the project, we agreed to provide training for the students, whose interests are mainly in the agricultural sciences, but who want to better understand decision making and governance. I was fortunate to get this opportunity, and spent several days with individuals from the school, explaining, discussing, and practicing semi-structured interviews, participant observation, photographic methods, focus groups, and ethnography. In addition to the methods, we debated research ethics, research design, research questions, data collection and analysis, intensive and extensive approaches, and structure and agency. It was a busy, but really rewarding, experience for me; for the students, I think it was a little overwhelming, but they will soon go into the field for a practice period (and we’ll follow-up afterwards), which should help them make sense of all the topics.

The Challenge
Focus group discussion
Example of (very common) knowledge transfer (and assumed knowledge deficit?)

One of the big challenges and questions that we hope to explore is the tendency in Cambodia to attempt to ‘inform’ farmers about the practices of farming. This is not simply over-confident scientists neglecting to partner with locals, as many farmers have little connection to the land or history of farming due to the long period of war and socialist engineering. Most famers acquired their land in post-war efforts to create a lasting peace, which means that people are (somewhat) detached from the lands they rely upon. This means that many practices are unsuited or mis-applied by standard practices; whether this is because of ignorance or because of cultural, political, or economic reasons is one of the questions our work will attempt to answer.

The Hope

There is no doubt that sustainability and development are at odds in Cambodia. There is likely no answer or solution, but there appear to be countless opportunities to help. The people are incredibly generous with their thoughts, and in many cases seek input or thoughts. Whether they need foreign expertise and technologies is probably too simple a way of looking at the issues, but what is certain is that there is a very resilient people that should become partners with the plethora of interventions currently underway in Cambodia. Hopefully we can help with this.

Recent clearing of jungle for plantations (typically rubber)

Melancholy Monday?

Have just been out for dinner on my first (jet lagged) night back in Phnom Penh. We were out rather late, and the car ride home was a lesson in ‘first world-ism’. With children out working, late into the night, on a busy road, I was left saddened by the lost potential. A world that turns it’s back on children will surely get what it deserves.

I’ve always been inclined to social limits on capitalism, but nothing made the need more clear than what happens in poor places with no rules. It’s a debate that the developed world seems to ignore, even as the triumphs of the post War middle class are eroded.

I hope something good comes of this project.