Jason Dittmer on Michael Jordan, why he feels ‘reasonably optimistic’, and his appointment as Head of Geography

Editor-in-Chief Tomi Haffety gets to know UCL Geography’s Head of Department in true 2020 fashion via a Zoom interview.

Original artwork courtesy of Yana Marchuk

2020 has been a strange year for everyone. Returning to university, whether remotely or back in London, has not been the experience that we hoped we would have when UCL closed abruptly in March. Participating in online classes has given the new academic year an added dystopian stress and everyone within the department is still contending with this new way of life. It is a welcome benefit then, to have an optimistic and approachable head of department to guide UCL’s Geography community along this unprecedented era.

Professor Jason Dittmer, Florida native turned Londoner, was a latecomer to Geography. Having started studying the discipline late on in his academic life, he was heading for a career in diplomacy or international politics. However, Dittmer experienced a ‘eureka’ moment when deciding what to study for his PhD and realised, as we all know too well, that the broad and diverse discipline of Geography offers an entry point into almost any topic interest in the world. Although this is overlooked by most people, one only has to look at the state of the world that we are occupying now to understand that Geography has its place in any global situation. Terms central to COVID-19 are inherently geographical terms: ‘social distancing’, ‘regional lockdowns’, proving that we are remodelling the geographies of our lives in real time. Figuring out new spatial concepts and utilising spaces in ways that we have never explored before, it is easy to see how Geography is central to these new phenomena.

“What has changed in the department? You’re better off asking me what is still the same!”

Restricting most social activity, the pandemic has hindered the community aspect of the department but Dittmer is eager to sustain as many communal projects as possible. Although all UCL buildings are adopting a 25% capacity rule, which means that the common rooms are out of use for the renowned Tuesday Teas and other impromptu social gatherings, utilising the available technology is one thing that Dittmer is keen to maximise. Believing that these changes are positive for the long term and people are now using the tools that were always readily available to them, the political geographer argues that this could be an important paradigmatic shift in educational techniques. One of the examples of this is the way that Moodle is now being used to its full capacity and being appreciated in a way that was never fully utilised prior to the pandemic.

Some personal changes that he hopes to make in the coming year include reorganising research clusters within the department with the hope that they will achieve greater autonomy and coherence. At the moment, he admits, his main focus on undergraduates is crisis management as each week brings with it a new set of rules and constantly changing social dynamics. UCL Geography has always prided itself on its learning community which involves all students and staff learning new things together. Creating an accessible learning and researching environment, Dittmer holds a big commitment to upholding this ethos so that everyone can continue to gain insights from their peers and teachers as they learn.

“Using the available technology makes for a better pedagogy, which makes for more efficient learning in the long run.”

Teaching at UCL since 2007, the learning community and engagement between students and teachers drives Dittmer to ask deeper questions within his own research. When asked what he enjoys most about teaching Geography he replies, amusingly, “you guys!” “We are all learning together,” he continues, “and I draw so much energy from talking to students about their fun and interesting ideas. It’s great to see how much they bring to the table.” Talking enthusiastically about a dissertation student who was interested in the gender dynamics portrayed in ‘Keeping up with the Kardashians’, it is easy to see what he means when he talks about students having crazy ideas within Geography, and interesting to hear about how the discipline can make any social problem into Geographical research. Dittmer continues with his flattery as he recognises the role his colleagues play in his own work. Surrounded by academics who push him in new directions and to be more analytical, he expresses nothing but admiration for his “unbelievable colleagues”. It seems that our new head of department is also one of its biggest fans.

UCL has launched an enquiry into the history of Eugenics at the university.
Image courtesy of @joharameyer

Addressing wider issues and large scale changes within the university and beyond, Dittmer is ardent on analysing the history of Geography, especially its imperial roots. Earlier this year, the Geography building was renamed ‘The North West Wing’ as part of a UCL drive to eradicate problematic figures associated with the university. Currently, an enquiry into the history of eugenics at the university is taking place and the renaming of buildings is part of this, as well as a global shift in recognising the racism and inequalities of key figures. UCL Geography has a varied and arguably de-colonised curriculum, however because of Geography’s inherent roots in colonialism, there is always room to improve both in the curriculum and how the department operates. Hiring more diverse staff and asking students to comment on the curriculum are steps in the right direction. Nonetheless, making Geography a more equal discipline will be a long process and although things are undoubtedly moving forward in the right direction, Dittmer stresses that it is the essential responsibility of any department to follow through on actions to eradicate inequality and systematic racism.

“It’s a commitment we are making and therefore we should be expecting to follow through on it.”

Animated and approachable even as our interview nears its end and the dreaded Zoom fatigue begins to kick in, we begin to discuss any recommendations he has for UCL Geographers this year. Over lockdown, after watching ‘The Last Dance’, a Netflix documentary about the life of Michael Jordan (because even academics watch Netflix too), Dittmer expresses that he enjoyed reminiscing on his childhood when Jordan rose to fame. The six-time NBA championship winner had drive and leadership never seen before, and because of this his success was made possible. Going on to watch ‘Hamilton’, Dittmer contrasts the two shows arguing that both of the stories are of men who came from nowhere but “dominated the court”. The fact that Hamilton was recast as a black man poses contemporary questions about blackness, leadership and ambition and as he compared the two shows, in a way that only geographers can do, Dittmer began to ask questions about Jordan’s disavowal of African American politics and the history of black success in America.

Lastly, we turned to the political geographer’s thoughts on the future. Asked if our generation is prepared for the environmental, social and political future, Dittmer nods enthusiastically. “I am reasonably optimistic,” he declares, ” because you came of age in the late 2010s: when times are as muddy and confusing as the last few years have been, you will be less attached to the status quo”. By this, he argues that youth orientated contingents such as the BLM and School Strike for Climate movements highlight the way young people have adopted an attitude of change and revolution that older generations lack. With the current pandemic and the crises it brings, there are inevitable economic and social challenges. However, optimistically, these challenges provide a foundation on which real change can be made, and real differences can have conclusive results. This authentic positivity is encouraging to see from the man who will be steering UCL Geography over the next academic year.

To contact Professor Jason Dittmer, email him at j.dittmer@ucl.ac.uk. Alternatively, students can communicate with him through the SSCC where he is enthusiastic to hear your feedback and thoughts.

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