Born cultured?

The focus of my first year Geography this week was culture and globalization. The challenge is how to broach culture with students from a multitude of different backgrounds. It may seem a simple task to think about global culture in abstraction and focus on how the diverse localities of the earth all feature similar trends in terms of food, music, consumerism and of course Starbucks! But in doing this the all important dialectical relationship between the local and the global, an all important concept to geographers, is lost. Culture does not materialize in a vacuum, it is born or created in place and according to a set of circumstances or processes which are unique in time and context. Even when we think about the global chains which are eating up local small businesses, they too base their advertising or local appeal on the culture of the country they are in.

I gave my students the example of the ‘birth’ of hip-hop music in the South Bronx at the end of the 1960s and through the 1970s. Hip-hop music grew out of the social destruction of the South Bronx through the building of the highways though local communities, and the tearing down of the low-income housing to replace it with tower blocks. Young people were left with little to aim for except joining a gang or joining a block-party: the birth of hip-hop. More than half my students had volunteered at the start of the lecture that they did enjoy listening to hip-hop music, but there were faces of shock and awe as I transformed their understanding of where the music actually comes from. Hip-hop today is a global brand with artists singing in a multitude of languages and on an array of topics but we should not forget the origins of the beat and the lyrics.


The example of hip-hop was in order to open up a wider conversation on what culture means particularly given our increasingly interconnected world. The challenge seemed to be how can people relate to each other but at the same time remain rooted in their local culture. In exploring this with the students and giving them the platform to discuss and share examples of elements of their societies, the question of whether culture is something we are born with or is something that we learn, became the focal point. Half of my students thought culture is something you learn while the other half thought it is something you learn but are also born with. For an instance I was stunned as fear that all our discussions of environmental determinism and eugenics had fallen on deaf ears. Probing deeper though and the consensus was that where we are born and into what home/family plays a huge part in shaping who we are, this was what many of my students were suggesting.

The discussion stayed with me as I contemplated the origins of culture. I have often thought of myself in the past as belonging to a ‘global’ culture, one produced and maintained by my diverse homes and connections. However, recent events in my own life including a major relocation for professional reasons 3 years ago and the untimely tragic passing of my mother last year, have made me reflect a lot more on where my own cultural identity originates from. It led me to delve deeper on contemplating on identity in contemporary life and a growing sense of what I would term dislocation. I do indeed contend that our global connections, our social network ‘families’ are important parts of our contemporary identity and culture, but it cannot be at the expense of the more local. By local I do not mean inward-looking and exclusionary but rather a sense of “bloom where you are planted“. We have become increasingly disconnected of the present moment and from the place in which we are – I very much include myself in this. We are constantly looking for the next ‘fix’ and this has become a cultural norm. Our desire for constant progress and change has resulted in symbolic vocabulary for discussing anything that does not conform to expectations of cultural mainstream norms. It is the world out there rather than the world right here we are obsessed with.

I return to my students discussions on our culture as a mixture of something we learn as well as something we are born with. Suddenly the notion that we are born with a culture becomes so important to me, it is something that is fighting to survive in a life where I am increasingly becoming indistinguishable from my colleagues and friends. Culture is something we learn and the more we are exposed to cultural variety the richer our own understanding of the world becomes. I am drawn to the work of the sociologist Friedrich Heckmann on multiculturalism, where I think we are in grave danger of allowing Heckmann’s fifth and seventh definitions to become the only way we understand cultural differences. His fifth focuses on the superficial level of culture such as folklore and food for example, while the seventh argues that a nation-state is striving for cultural unity and that multiculturalism is hence an illusory concept. Only by being completely comfortable with who we are/where we have come from, can we hope to truly engage with the ‘other’.

Photo taken by Amy Brathwaite in Tacloban, the Philippines

Back to my international students: my aim I resolve is simple, I want them to embrace their own culture that which they were ‘born with’ as they embark on their journey of learning about and living in a different world. I viciously want to avoid a situation where what draws them to each other is what they perceive as a global culture rather than the creation of a forum where they share and respect each others differences as well as similarities. It is back to that dialectical relationship between the global and local and the continual reshaping of both by the other.

I dedicate this blog entry to Doreen Massey who passed away very suddenly on Friday. Her monumental work in geographical research has shaped so many minds including my own.


Teaching urban history

International students arrive in their new setting bewildered overwhelmed animated. Eager to learn open to new ideas a whole new world to navigate. I am a geographer and hence for me one of the fundamental aspects of beginning a learning journey through anything is to start by understanding where you are – your context your place. Not only is an understanding of place important but also a grasp of how that place has come to be, “If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you don’t know where you are” James Burke. Space and time are dynamic and therefore are constantly changing due to and with human activity.

Official records affirm the founding of Vancouver as the year 1886, this of course neglects the rich indigenous history of the land on which the modern city is built. If you are in Vancouver I would encourage you to visit the wonderful exhibit ‘The City Before the City‘. Hence, Vancouver may not be as ‘old’ (in a recent settler historical perspective), a city as Rome or Dublin or indeed as old as the cities of the east coast of North America, but it has a substantial history very much tied up with how the political economy of the present day has unfolded.  A history which has shaped the physical face of the city but also its social fabric.

International students arrive from all over the world excited at the prospect of gaining an undergraduate degree from the University of British Columbia and improving their English language skills. They spend their days immersed in lectures, mountains of assignments and ingesting the different mediums of knowledge acquisition set before them. I fear their removal from reality as they fall into the world of word; I fear their lack of context in what they are absorbing. It seemed an impossible task to design a real-life experience which would present students with the opportunity to apply their book-smarts. The rationale driving me was to offer students the opportunity to learn by doing. Learning by doing is the cornerstone of geographical research, and by engaging in this field trip/assignment students apply their knowledge in context hence removing it from abstraction and making their experience richer.

So let’s get to the details of the design and how to provide an infinite number of students with an experiential experience. There are two stages over the course of two years, different approaches each with its positive elements:

Stage One:

Using MP3 files and a Google map I spend a number of days walking the streets of where the modern city had been born. I researched the background of the Canadian Pacific Railways and its influential role on shaping the modern city, I explored the complex labour history including the intricate and often dark discrimination against indigenous, Asian and Eastern European workers. I had pages of information, an arduous task to select what was of most significance and interest to my student audience. The starting point of course must be a map, providing a visual context and guide. The map embodied the instructor or teacher leading the students on their walk  without being physically present with them on their journey. For the transfer of information students are requested to download 18 MP3 files corresponding to a point on their map, and which take them from the UBC campus downtown Vancouver and guide them on the hour walk. Students were asked to complete a worksheet based on their experience.

I encourage you all to please try and use these resources for Vancouver and adapt them to suit your own cities. The student feedback was overwhelmingly positive: “After this walking tour, I now know Vancouver better in the Geographical, political and historical fields. Especially in the downtown area, as the commercial center of Vancouver, it combines historical and modern buildings in almost every street.This combination impressed me most in this walking tour because it demonstrates the history and development happening in this beautiful city. I enjoyed the way that we used audio as we could hear clearly without distractions” (international first year student).

Stage Two:

In the second year I wanted to address the two issues which I saw as an obstacles to the smooth delivery of the experience for students – that is that students were obliged to download all the the MP3 files prior to embarking on their journey. The second issue I identified was a geographical one – students needing to navigate their way in a strange city. Of course I want to encourage students to maneuver their way through the streets of the city but this can be a daunting task and can take away from the learning experience. I identified a platform,, which allows me to easily create an interactive walking tour where content is Geo-location triggered removing the need for students to download all the MP3 files prior to the walk (this is done automatically by the app). Additionally the platform allows me to build in quizzes and supplementary information, including images and videos, which appear on the student’s phones when they reach the appropriate location. I am able to create tours using online authoring tools; these tours become immediately available on the accompanying app on the students’ smart phones. Once again students are asked to complete a worksheet but this time they also have short interactive quizzes which appear in location. A small cost was involved in using but this was off set by the rich interactive experience which the students have, “I feel that the walking tour is amazing, it just something like magic. When I walk to a point I suppose to go to, the audio starts speaking automatically. It is very interesting. I enjoyed it so much” (first year international student).

I cannot provide the app in its entirety here on the blog but below are some snapshots at how the platform works:

Choose a tour
The App can host a number of different walking tours
Welcome Screen
A historical image welcomes the students to the walking tour

Inventory Message
All audio files are automatically added to students’ inventory so that they can listen to them more than once
Map Screen with Flag
An icon illustrates to the student where they are located and the flag points them to the next audio point

Which ever avenue you choose to take as an instructor or educator I spur you on your task of providing experiential learning experiences for your students whether they be historical or contemporary – providing them with the taste of the intricacy of the knowledge embedded in their everyday urban surroundings and encouraging them to embrace them.

Where is the centre of the map?

After I posted my second post on a sense of place  my partner drew my attention to the geometry of my map. Indeed the screen shot of my Google tour was akin to the image of geometry I included from Wikipedia, but what was fascinating for him was the where the centre of the map was/is. Since I started my life in Vancouver Canada and have now returned here for the present time should that not be the centre of my map? I could manipulate the view, as you will see if you visit the tour, but I had selected the screen shot with Europe and Africa at the centre. Was this a conscious decision? Was I projecting into the map my cultural draw or is it simply that all through primary, secondary and third level education maps have been represented to me with Europe at the centre. Must I  delve into a discussion on post-colonial theory and why maps historically were drawn from a Euro-centric? Others have gone before and I will not reinvent the wheel but rather encourage you to explore. It is pertinent to the discussion that we understand how much of an impact being colonized continues to have on how peoples and nations view the world. I had a interesting discussion this past week with a student of mine who comes from a First Nations community in Canada about mapping and indigenous communities. It began as we were discussing a paper which focuses on community mapping, a research tool which has become especially popular in Action and Participatory Research projects. We were addressing whether the exercise of asking communities to draw their perception of their land/community/region was indeed a participatory exercise in the true sense as traditionally different communities/peoples/cultures have very different ways of understanding the world. I know growing up in Africa that there were certainly no street names or directions except those reminiscent of the British colonial rule. A fantastic App has just been developed in Ghana to try and address this issue given the centrality of technology in contemporary times. In Ireland directions are only used in Dublin to understand perceived social class in terms of if you a North Dub or a South Dub. Certainly, I have had to adjust and learn the concept of North, South, East, West here in North America, and am still constantly amazed with how it is used in everyday speak. The discussion brought up by my student made me reflect on how we take certain maps and ways of understanding boundaries of place for granted. Whose map is it anyways? The ability to create our own Google maps or other forms of digital visualization of places is giving us more creative freedom than the Atlases of old where place appeared static.

Returning to my own screen grab of my Google Tour – what if I were to place my place of birth and my current location (both the same) at the centre of the map? The exercise of writing this post brought me to the realization that putting my homes as points on a map simply made the map seem more arbitrary than it already was. When I think about my connections with family and friends in different communities across the globe it is not by the place they are in as a location on the map, but rather as a network of connections not grounded in place with me at the centre reaching out to them. Maps help us to navigate place but we must be aware of how that place is understood differently not only by different cultures and communities but also from individual to individual based on their life experiences.

A Sense of Place – Connections

A sense of Place – connections

On Wednesday a student of mine invited me to give a talk on place and its link to sustainability. She had asked me back in November and at the time it seemed like a long way off and a great idea. As the date loomed I pondered on what I would share with a group of 70 enthusiastic UBC students and especially how I would appeal to their passion on sustainability issues.

When in doubt I believe we should always turn in and reflect on our own perception of the topic or situation we are hoping to converse about. So much of what we believe to be true is influenced by media, both social and news. We each operate in our own communities sharing information and ideas with each other in the comfort that we are in agreement. We only have to look to our own Facebook page or Twitter feed to observe that our peers are reading or sharing similar websites and videos to us, they care about the same issues we do. Do not misunderstand me there is nothing wrong with this, I do it myself everyday – it is my way of knowing and making sense of the world. It is only at times when I am asked to stop and reflect on this that I begin to see the flaws in my perfect comfort design.

I began by thinking about what home meant to me – is it a place? Is it a group pf people or indeed a person? Is it a sense of being of feeling like you have ‘arrived’ somewhere? Is it more sensual a particular smell, a genre of music, your mother’s cooking? I think for me it was/is all of these things and so I began to decipher this relating it to physical place. I created a Google Tour Builder, which is a fantastic website where you can create your own map tour together with images, links and audio. Suddenly my array of physical homes began to take the shape of geometric shape and so I compared it thus

My homes
My homes using Google Tour Builder
Geometry by
Geometry by

Doreen Massey’s power geometry suddenly came to life before my eyes – it really is about connections after all and my own life is a visualization of this.

So how does all this relate to sense of place and specifically why am I writing about it specifically in terms of my focus on the Middle East? Well if I could make the dots darker for length of time spent in each place, the core of my geometric life would be focused in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. My heart aches when I look at the picture for all of the items I mentioned, a particular smell, a genre of music, my mother’s version of Sudanese cooking, and much more. As I glanced through my own social networks or analyzed the news I focus on I sensed an undercurrent of Arab culture in how I viewed the world – it was the lens which I used to understand many other things. I think we all have a default space which we go to and I found mine. But it has grown and changed, and now that Middle Eastern core is stretched across the globe added different perspectives and voices to the mix. My sense of place is full of energy and diversity in its geometry and this is what gives it power. It is also what saddens me in these desperate times as we witness the ancients lands, birth places of Algebra, science and agriculture descend into darkness. I am reminded of a poem by one of my favourite poets from the region Khalil Gibran ‘Dead Are My People‘ and of his sorrow at the events in his own birthplace of Lebanon.

There is so much more I could say on the Middle East and the current situations but I will save that for another day. I want you to reflect on your own sense of place and your own connections, it is these that will bring some balance into the world, it is these that will bring awareness to others – you have more in common with each other than you think and that is the key to a sustainable world.