GEOGRAPHY CAREERS: PROFESSOR ROBYN BARTEL
13th October 2023
By Nicole Miller - Communications Officer, IAG
Professor Robyn Bartel is the Immediate Past President of the Institute of Australian Geographers (IAG). She is a legal geographer who loves a cuppa, quotes rocker Patti Smith and fondly recalls undergraduate field trips.
We chatted to Robyn about her career and involvement with the IAG. She also shared her publishing and funding application tips for early career researchers.
Caption: Robyn getting to know her place on the Great Escarpment. Credit: Professor Robyn Bartel.
Interview with Professor Robyn Bartel
Where are you working and what’s your job title?
What’s your speciality within the field of geography?
Legal geography, as opposed to the illegal variety (never gets old, that one!)
What are you working on right now?
Saving the world, then hopefully having a nice cup to tea. But seriously, I am interested in ‘future-proofing’ the law through addressing and treating the ultimate causes of the (colonial) legal systems’ failings, including its insensitivity to place, its privileging of partial human exceptionalism and essentialism, and its resourcism and commodification of nature. We can do this through providing tools to sensitise the law to place and reconnect humans with nature. We can generate more effective, as well as socially and environmentally just, on-ground outcomes. And then having a nice cup of tea.
Caption: “We can generate more effective, as well as socially and environmentally just, on-ground outcomes. And then have a nice cup of tea.” – Professor Robyn Bartel. Image: Canva.
Why and how did you get into your field of expertise?
I thought I could make a difference. I started out by thinking science and law would do the trick. How wrong I was! They help but only partially. Humans and place are the other parts.
Memorable geography career moments
Can you tell us about any memorable field trips or research experiences?
Two undergraduate field trips – one to central Australia led by Emeritus Professor Brian Lees and another to Heron Island led by Emeritus Professor Patrick De Deckker. Incredible. We all took it a bit for granted at the time of course and the paperwork would have been horrendous. Thanks Brian and Patrick! We learnt so much from those places and from your extraordinary generosity.
What are you most proud of in your geography career and why?
I’m a bit nervous of this question as any time I have felt a little bit good about an achievement I have come majorly unstuck with some spectacular cringe-worthy fail. In my experience, pride definitely precedes falls. And the old adage about meeting both success and failure with equanimity applies, as Patti Smith puts it: “You can’t think you’re a god or a queen because you have great moments, and you can’t think you’re a failure because you have terrible moments.”
I am proud of graduates and their achievements. I feel safer with that choice as it is more pride-adjacent: their achievements are all of their own doing. This is not a humble-brag either, for, if I have done everything right I should have got out of the way completely (hello heutagogy!)
Caption: We learned that Robyn can quote US punk rocker Patti Smith. Image: Canva.
What would you say to someone considering studying anything within the field of geography?
Great choice! Keep going!
Can you tell us about your IAG Study Group?
I founded the Legal Geography Study Group in 2009 and led it for a while. It really took off once I got out of the way and it is currently in the wonderful hands of Dr John Carr (UNSW) and Dr Meg Sherval (UoN) who are always doing amazing things.
Why are IAG Study Groups important?
Ideas and IAG Study Groups are akin to plants in a garden. They benefit from being tended and receiving attention and affection. The gardeners, insects, birds and everyone visiting the garden, benefits too.
The importance of mentors for geographers
Have you had any formal or informal mentors throughout your career?
All my colleagues, academic and professional staff, and students, also university community members and alumni, are my mentors – as I have learnt something from everyone. I have always and continue to learn from more senior colleagues.
I also learn most from early career researchers (ECRs). I think I learn more from ECRs than they could ever learn from me because what I experienced 10 years ago is not necessarily going to be of interest, relevance or value to someone now. I need them to keep me up-to-date and updated! I am always learning – and unlearning.
What is sometimes called ‘reverse mentoring’ can also be useful for addressing structural and systemic issues. Ideally, learning is always mutual of course, and collegiality is central to intellectual life. I am particularly grateful for collegiality during a time when some broader cultural shifts suggest a turn towards more individualistic, indeed solipsistic and even narcissistic, attitudes and behaviours.
Mentoring is one way we can maintain and promote thinking of others. Through mentoring we can encourage the best ideas, the best research and learning environments – creating the best society and world for us to live in.
Caption: Robyn learns a lot from early career researchers and believes mentoring can help you to ‘give back’ to the research community. Image: Canva.
Tips for geographers on how to get research funding
Do you have any tips for early career researchers about how to get research funding?
Funding is tight and getting tighter for a wide range of reasons. Perhaps organizing to address the ultimate causes of this context would be the best advice – for all of us. At an individual level I think my advice is always to follow your passion, your interest.
Be able to articulate this persuasively. Why is your research worth funding? To put this in other words, practice your pitch. Practice an elevator pitch, a coffee pitch, a boardroom pitch.
And before asking them to listen to you, listen to them – to their story and what they actually need. Give them something before you expect to get something from them. Build a relationship with your funder and consider it a partnership.
Also consider also who you are willing to be funded by and what you are willing to do. There are dis-benefits as well as benefits from certain funders and funding arrangements. Know where your lines are drawn.
Finally, don’t be too hard on yourself if you get a knock back. Luck and timing and many other contextual factors are beyond your control and are always at play too.
Caption: Robyn suggests refining your elevator pitch when working on funding applications. Image: Canva.
How to get published
Do you have any tips for early career researchers about how to get published?
It is important to share our findings and contribute to knowledge. There are a variety of ways to do this, including but not limited to publishing. There may be a variety of audiences who need to hear your message, so have a very clear appreciation of your findings, who needs to know them and why.
Consider the best avenues of sharing your work. I note the trend towards ‘salami-slicing’ work in journals to artificially inflate a CV. I think this is an unfortunate motivation, and in the long-term a self-defeating strategy. It reduces the value and regard for our work.
The publishing landscape is changing also, so there are more options to consider, and opportunities to build new outlets that are as effective and legitimate as those already existing, in some cases perhaps with greater reach and regard. And don’t forget our largest audience, our biggest and most worthwhile impact, will always be with our students.
Why should people join the IAG?
Geographers know their place and their place is the IAG.
Thanks to Robyn for chatting with us!
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Professor Robyn Bartel
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