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Mike Morrissey talks about the Impact of Geography

Mike Morrissey talks about the Impact of Geography

The Poetics of Geography is a collection inspired by the 50th anniversary of establishment of the first Geography programme of The UWI in 1966, created by Cecille DePass and first published in 2017 in an electronic version, supported by Hilary Hickling. For more information on this publication, contact DrCecille DePass, Professor Emeritus, University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, depassc@ezpost.com

Are we there yet? Life after UWI, students of the 1960s and 1970s recall the impact of Geography – and of the Geography Department at Mona - on their lives. This interview of Mike Morrissey by the editor is one of those recollections.

A conversation with Mike Morrissey

Cecille DePass:  Mike, to begin our conversation, let’s hear your memories of coming to Jamaica and becoming a Jamaican - and Caribbean - citizen!  How did that happen?

Mike:  The Geography Department transformed my life, Cecille.  But what led me there at all?  My undergraduate years were in what was then called “Welsh Wales” the University College of Wales, in Aberystwyth.  English-born of Irish Morrissey’s, I had been brought up on the right of Ireland to freedom from England.  Plaid Cymru, the independence movement for Wales, was very active in my university years.  Nonetheless when I applied for a teaching job in Jamaica, I had no idea that I would not return to Britain to live.  It was merely an opportunity to see more of the world.  I had never flown in a plane, so opted for the sea voyage in 1968 to Jamaica in the SS Golfito, a banana boat which carried 80 passengers. 

I began teaching at York Castle at a time that ‘Black Power’ was in the air (Browns Town was a centre of radical activity).  Perhaps because of my rebellious Irish background, I was not unsympathetic to the cause and - without intending to - integrated into the life of rural Jamaica, (including, being a supervisor in the 1970 Population Census). 

Beyond Jamaica, I explored the region in every school holiday.  In my first two years, I visited all the British and Dutch West Indian islands, sailing there and back on the Federal Maple and Federal Palm.  Flew to Haiti (where I spent a day in Papa Doc’s prison in Port au Prince); visited Mexico, Venezuela and Curacao.  In hindsight, it seems that I had quickly become intoxicated with the Geography and cultures of Jamaica and the Caribbean.  I did not consider a visit to the United States for several more years! 

By 1972, I voted in a Jamaican election (as a resident Commonwealth Citizen), and two years later I was registered as a citizen of Jamaica.  Through my work over the decades, I have contributed to the development of education in various ways throughout the Caribbean, and even lived for extended periods in Trinidad, Barbados, Saint Maarten, Belize and Dominica. 

Cecille:  Tell us about your career path from teaching Geography in Jamaican high schools to playing a role in the evolution of Geography education across the Commonwealth Caribbean?

Mike:  I am not so sure that I would call it a path, Cecille.  It was more an evolution following various paths, sometimes, accepting seemingly, impossible tasks and somehow, making a success of them.  I was Head of Geography at two contrasting high schools, the second was The Queen’s School in Kingston.  I moved from Brown’s Town to be able to take the Masters at Mona.  I read all that I could on the Geography of Jamaica and the Caribbean, and was enthusiastic about fieldwork for all classes. 

My reputation came to the notice of Professor John Figueroa, Head of Education at Mona.  I was asked to deliver the Geography education, Diploma programme part time, which I did from October 1971 – my earlier classes comprise teachers from many Caribbean countries (I continued in this role until 1997 when I moved out of university teaching into education development work).  Even as early as 1972, school publishers were knocking on my door, suggesting that I write textbooks for Geography for Jamaica and the Caribbean. 

In 1975, the Ministry of Education appointed me as its representative on the newly formed CXC

Geography panel to replace the Cambridge GCE.  Then in 1976, I was appointed to a UWI lectureship to cover Geography and Social Studies education, a position which combined my interests in promoting Geography as a school subject, undertaking research in Geography education, developing high quality instructional materials, and so on. 

My Master’s in Education thesis was on the involvement of teachers in the reform of instructional materials for sixth form Geography.  Although I moved on from academia in 1998, I continued, to some extent, involvement in Geography education.  My Caribbean school atlases, both now in 4th editions, continue to be used in primary and secondary schools across the region.  If you are interested in the books and articles I have published, they are listed on my web page at https://sites.google.com/site/michaelpatrickmorrissey/home  

Cecille:  Did joining the Geography Department at UWI play a major part in your transformation from classroom teacher to a leadership role in Geography education?

Mike:  Barry Floyd agreed to my joining his new Masters programme which was full-time in year 1 per UWI’s regulations.  My headmistress at The Queen’s School willingly organised my teaching timetable to make it possible for me to be on campus for lectures.  There are many I am thankful to for what you call the ‘transformation’.  Mona helped me to view the Caribbean as a region.  This is not a ‘Jamaican thing’.  Most Jamaicans see Jamaica linked to the hubs of modern migration and not as a part of a Caribbean region.  The Geography Department then had as anchor that unrepentant, Trinidadian Vernon Mulchansingh and gathered students from across the West Indies. 

Equally important was my access on campus to Caribbean thought - anticolonial visions of the History, Economics and Political Science Departments which provided an intellectual basis for revisiting the way the region was interpreted.  It is said that converts to Catholicism are the most loyal of Catholics.  In the same way, with a new understanding of Caribbean historiography, I became passionate around the need for change in the school curriculum, in the textbooks used in schools, in making access to Caribbean Geographical knowledge to teachers and students across the region.  

Halfway through my second year with the Geography Department at Mona, the PNP was victorious and Michael Manley assumed the Prime Ministership.  Social justice and change were in the air.  I had a strong interest in Political Geography and analysed the 1972 election results.  I published my first work, in the Geography Department - A Spatial Analysis of Jamaica’s General Elections in 1967 and 1972:  a Study in Electoral Geography.  Going to print gave me new confidence about writing and going public with my conclusions.  I was coming out of my ‘Geography teacher’ persona without even realising it.

I remained close to the Geography Department over the subsequent decades, long after I graduated, even though my base was in the Education Faculty across campus.  So much so, that working with David Barker from 1984 we launched a new journal - Caribbean Geography.  Although I relinquished my position as joint editor in the 1990s (when I joined USAID as its senior education advisor for the eastern Caribbean), David has continued to sustain the journal to the present.  It was a vehicle to make research on the region’s geography accessible to educational institutions across the region.  Published issues are listed here http://hapi.ucla.edu/journal/detail/106  

Cecille:  Several of us, including you, Mike, worked voluntarily in the early 1970s to strengthen and promote the Jamaican Geographical Society (JGS).  How did you get involved?  How did your involvement contribute to your career?

Mike:  At one of the first meetings of the Jamaican Geographical Society I attended in 1970, I was nominated editor of the Society’s Newsletter.  I cannot remember now how it happened, but I certainly threw myself into the role, a new one for me!  With Beverley Phillips’ support, I published frequent newsletters for Geography teachers across the island.  We were blessed by some provision in the postal code that made these free newsletters free to post.

Thinking back, my involvement was very much as an educator - trying to ensure wide participation in JGS events by teachers and sixth formers across the island.  Faye Lumsden, Vincent George, Brian Hudson and others had more of a focus on Planning and Development and established a professional society to promote this field.  I guess my contribution was to focus JGS on the teaching of Geography.  It was indeed a vibrant society with regular and stimulating presentations and fieldwork to mountains, caves, cane fields and cays!  One field outing which I organised to Port Antonio involved leasing the train for the day.  This was mid-1972 and the JGS’s way of saying farewell to Barry Floyd and his family before he headed off to the University of Durham.

Cecille:  As well as being awarded the Master of Science (Geography), what other lasting contributions could you attribute to your early association with the Geography Department?

Mike:  I have already mentioned several ways, Cecille.  In one sense, I made a bad decision in my choice of research.  I chose my focus in 1971, soon after I moved from St. Ann to Kingston, and soon after, I had been involved in the population census.  St. Ann had caught my heart in a way that Kingston has never (St. Ann still has my heart!).

So I stubbornly analysed the migration patterns within that parish as my research, a thesis painfully detailing and explaining rural to urban shifts - a study lost in the archives of time.  Yet, I am ever grateful to Brian Hudson who took over from Ann Norton as supervisor (when she left the island); with all the competing activities in my life, it took some time for the thesis to be finalised.  My regret is that I did not select a subject with more social import and on a grander scale.  I did not become a Population Geographer, and a study of a single Jamaican parish was in hindsight, far too limited in scope.  But out of this, in advising countless students and researchers, I seek to guide them to avoid my own mistake, as I view it.  Out of a negative, others benefit!

More broadly though, my work in education development in recent decades is anchored in a need to understand Geographical context in every case.  Last year, for example, in considering barriers to primary schooling in Angola, I am continually, analysing the geographical realities – the return of refugee populations from Namibia, drought, agricultural systems, internal migration patterns to the urban oil centres and the ghettos that result.  I attribute part of my success in supporting the development of education systems around the world to the knowledge and analytical skills that came out of my association with Geography at Mona.

Cecille:  You also took a key role in the evolution of Social Studies in Jamaica and the Caribbean.  How did that involvement start?  What was the connection to Geography?

Mike:  My involvement with Social Studies began in that first year at Mona.  I was invited by Pam Morris, of the Ministry of Education, to work with her on the development of Social Studies and in training teachers in this new subject via workshops.  The terms Social Studies and workshops were both new to me!  And so began parallel, interconnected, work in Social Studies, which has continued until today, and a relationship with Jamaica’s Ministry of Education which continued in many forms for 40 years.

Pam initially involved me as a Geographer.  Pam, Ruby King, Pansy Robinson, Anne Hickling

Hudson and others, pioneered the school subject with its disciplines such as, History and

Government.  Pam wished that the subject to be introduced in Jamaica would not lose out in terms of Geographical concepts and skills.  For my part, my undergraduate degree included History and International politics, so I was a natural fit with the team.  We did many things together, but I am perhaps particularly, proud of our textbook for the training of Social Studies teachers: “Caribbean Social Studies Through Discovery”, first published in 1980 and still in print today, after several editions.

I went on to work with teachers in several Caribbean countries on the development of country-specific Social Studies textbooks for primary schools.  Of course, in these books, I ensured the Geographic knowledge and skills were embedded.  Working with various governments and publishers, this work resulted in books and a series of books for Belize, Bahamas, Bermuda, Cayman, Dominica, St. Maarten, Turks and Caicos.  I also authored a book:  “Our Island Jamaica” which is out of print (and out of date), but available for download at https://www.academia.edu/12235844/Our_Island_Jamaica  

Cecille:  Your later career, Mike, seems to have morphed away from Geography.  How did that happen?

Mike:  As I mentioned earlier, Cecille, my career has not been linear, but a flowing trajectory, like a river on a flood plain, meandering where opportunities arise, always expanding my skills, while continuing to benefit from past experiences.  From my association with the Department of Statistics in the Census of 1970, the post of Geographer that was created for me in that Department in 1972, to fast track census data analysis and publication.  This was followed by a position in charge of education statistics at the Ministry of Education (all this while slowly completing my Master’s thesis!).  These roles, plus my work on the Social Studies curriculum with Pam Morris, brought me into government service.

Thereafter, I became involved with the governance and development of education systems, first in Jamaica, and eventually globally.  Much of this transformation happened by chance meetings, and, as I said, accepting challenges.  In 2006, the Australian government invited me to be their education adviser for Indonesia.  In such positions, I work with several governments, on structuring investments which will be maximally effective. I finished this role with Australia in 2011, and since then have been advisor to the ambition of a Qatari foundation to assist 50 countries to address barriers to out of school children.  Our target is to enrol 10 million out of school children.

This may seem far from Mona and Barry Floyd, but if Barry had not turned a blind eye in 1970 to my studying and working full time, the river may have flowed in quite another direction, and perhaps one not as personally and professionally fulfilling.  Those few years associated with the Geography Department, Cecille, were fundamental to my career development.  And I am forever grateful! 


Professor Michael Morrissey joined the graduate programme of the Geography Department at Mona in October 1970.  Today he lives in Jakarta, Indonesia and works globally on the provision of educational opportunities to marginalised children.  Dr. Cecille DePass interviewed Mike, as he has always been known, concerning, the contributions of the Geography Department to his life and career.


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