What is the Geography course at Cambridge like?
Some students choose to read Geography at University because they’ve not decided whether an ‘arts’ or ‘science’ degree is for them. Geography, with its interest in both physical and human topics, and with its variety of methodological approaches, offers a different and distinctive path. This is, to put it simply, a good thing. It is not simply a postponement of an unavoidable choice between arts and sciences, for geographers have always studied problems that do not fit neatly into disciplinary or methodological categories. Geographers’ long-standing concern for the environment, for instance, cannot be narrowed down into a set of exclusively human or physical questions. Geography’s breadth, in other words, which sets it apart from many disciplines, and which some continue to see as a weakness, is probably its greatest asset as a subject to study at University. I sometimes hear it said in criticism that Geography is really a ‘common-sense’ subject, and I would agree with this wholeheartedly. But Geography’s interest in topics with which non-specialists are concerned – the environment, urban problems, the developing world, and so on – is again in reality a tremendous strength and opportunity. ‘Geography’ in this sense does not belong to ‘geographers’ in the way that ‘history’, say, is claimed as belonging to specialist ‘historians’. Our greatest opportunity and responsibility as geographers is to develop an interdisciplinary and non-specialist dialogue about the physical environment, human societies, and the relations between them.
Geography at Cambridge reflects this breadth, diversity, and concern for ‘real-world’ issues. Students are introduced to the wide range of topics, philosophies, methodologies, and skills that characterise modern Geography, before being invited to choose their specialisms or indeed to restate their commitment to the broad interests of the subject. Whilst the majority of students ultimately do find themselves drawn to either broadly physical or broadly human geographical papers, many retain a diverse portfolio of interests. Courses from which they may choose range widely: they include the physical geography of coastal systems, volcanic and glacial environments, economic, environmental and political geographies, regional geographies of Africa, the Arctic, Latin America and South Asia, and cultural/historical geographies of nature, population, food and social regulation. These diverse papers all contribute to the development of geographical theories and methods, however, and they are held together through core papers in geographical thought and techniques. It is, we think, a rewarding and exciting programme, representative of the importance and substance of the modern discipline of Geography.
I absolutely do not want to claim, however, that Geography at Cambridge is ‘better’ than at any other institution. As a potential applicant to Cambridge, you should weigh up our course against those of other universities and colleges and decide whether what we do suits you. What is attractive and appropriate for one person does not apply to everyone. Quite apart from the course itself, our teaching at Cambridge, with its emphasis on small-group ‘supervisions’, is distinctive, though again not necessarily ‘better’ for every potential applicant. We certainly think that this way of teaching is efficient and effective, just as we think that our courses, including our commitment to fieldwork and laboratory classes, offer tremendous academic opportunities. But if you are thinking about applying, make sure that you have satisfied yourself about what is significantly different about Geography at Cambridge and make your decision on these grounds – and not on ‘punting’, ancient buildings, or Cambridge’s more peculiar traditions. Let me assure you that you will be very welcome here.
Why study Geography at Corpus?
Geography has always been an important subject at Corpus. The College has a history of supporting research into geography, places, and the local environment, going back to Matthew Parker in the sixteenth century, who bequeathed to the College library some of the oldest maps in the British Isles.The College also provided a home to two of the greatest topographical scholars of the eighteenth century, William Stukeley and Richard Gough.
To some students who apply to read Geography, what Corpus has to offer as a college may be the most important factor in their decision to apply. Others are quite comfortable working in a relatively independent environment where mixing with students from other disciplines is common. Students from such backgrounds have in fact been among the very best students in geography, arguably because of their independence and this interdisciplinary stimulus. Corpus students receive exactly the same attention in terms of teaching as students from other colleges. The Department of Geography will act as a focus for your intellectual development, as it does for all Geography students. The Department is a friendly, open and relaxed place, and you will be part of a vibrant and encouraging community of undergraduates, postgraduates and lecturers. The Department moreover plays an efficient role in coordinating College and University teaching. Besides lectures and small-group teaching, the Department organises laboratory work, field classes and seminars. You will be given every opportunity, therefore, to mix with students and teachers from other colleges, in addition to the contacts you will make at Corpus. As a Director of Studies at other colleges, I make sure that my Geography students have the same academic, and social, opportunities, such as introductory parties, dissertation research presentations, and formal dinners.
My own field is the historical and cultural geography of nineteenth-century Britain and its empire, with a particular interest in questions of class and gender. As Director of Studies in Geography, my job is simply to make sure that your career as a geographer is a profitable and enjoyable experience. I make arrangements for supervisions, facilitate your relations with the Department, and generally act as your first port of call in terms of academic questions. Like all Directors of Studies I have a keen interest in both teaching and research. You will encounter me in the Department of Geography, as I teach across all three years of the Geographical Tripos, and I bring much of my research interests in historical and cultural geography to bear on that teaching. I hope that you will consider applying to read Geography at Corpus, and if you do so I very much look forward to meeting you. If you need further information about the course or the College, please feel free to contact me.
Dr Philip Howell
Director of Studies in Geography