As part of the project ot update the geography segment of this wiki, I interviewed geography professors and geograpy teachers on the field, and teaching in it. Here are some of the responses they gave to my questions. --Erica Winter, December 2008

Professors on Geography

Julie Graham, University of Massachusetts Amherst, economic alternatives (JG)
James Hafner, University of Massachusetts Amherst, political economy, development (JH)
Kirsten Barrett, US Geological Survey (KB)

Tell me about how you first became interested in geography. How old were you? What sparked your interest?

I was 30 years old and building a house in Shutesbury with a couple of other people. One of my housemates, a graduate student in botany at UMass, came home one day and announced “I’ve found the discipline for you!” He had seen a poster in Morrill Science Center depicting a discipline called geography that studies the natural and social world in all its variety (the word “geography” literally means “writing about the earth”). I was so excited to hear about a field that might allow me to pursue my wide-ranging interests that I went to Morrill the next day, met with the geography program director, and enrolled as a non-degree student in undergraduate courses to get a background, so I could apply to PhD programs in geography the following year. I took Intro to Human Geography, Economic Geography, and Climatology (we studied climate change in 1972!) in my first semester and got a great introduction to the discipline.

Hmmnn....I guess my interest in 'other places', 'peoples' and 'landscapes' started when I was young, enjoyed National Geographic, and was excited about seeing those places. Why were those places different from the farms and corn fields of the midwest where I was born and raised? My father had an elephant tusk given by a friend from an African trip which added something exotic to those interests.

Good to start off with a "fun" question. I wasn't really aware of geography as a discipline until I was a senior in college (in Environmental Studies). I had a wonderful first-year professor who taught us the cultural geography of Southeast Asia. A good friend of mine started graduate school in geography the next year and encouraged me to consider it as well. I had an interest in GIS and Remote Sensing, and Geography was/is doing most of that work. I also wanted to return to the Amazon, where I had done a study abroad as an undergraduate. I applied to a few geography programs and eventually did my Master's at SUNY Albany and a PhD. at Clark.

Please describe your current specialty and what interests you about it.

I am an economic geographer and I specialize in studying economic alternatives—everything from community currencies to worker cooperatives to popular movements to take back the commons. My research group studies alternative enterprises and alternative markets (e.g., fair trade, community supported agriculture) plus all the non-monetized, non-market economic activity that goes on in the world and accounts for approximately half of all economic activity. We are interested in creating a knowledge of previously unrecognized and undervalued economic activity to validate and support the efforts of economic activists around the world who are building more just and sustainable local, regional, and global economies. See

I have always been interested in the problems and issues surru\ounding 'development', especially in the 'developing world.' In recent years I have been engaged in work on 'resource management' and alternatives to traditional development -growth- driven patterns of resource use especially in less industrialized or developing nations. This involves concerns with why resources are being overexploited (e.g. forests), conservation, protection of biodiversity and endangered habitats and species, alternative ways of using natural resources sustainably, understanding traditional management/use systems, and protecting the rights of local users-people-whose lives and livelihoods are dependent on those resources versus the state as a competing user.

KB (current research)
At present I am working as a postdoctoral researcher on post-fire successional growth in black spruce forests of interior Alaska. I will use satellite imagery to observe changes in species composition related to fire severity (very severe fires in the region can cause a conifer stand to regenerate as deciduous). My interest is in how to tease out differences in burn severity using remotely sensed imagery. It's a major challenge right now, so I'm using many disparate data sets in addition to the imagery to try to map very severely burned areas. Once we're able to map these severe burns in black spruce (~60% of forest cover in interior Alaska), we'll be looking for areas that burned severely and are regenerating as deciduous stands (usually aspen and some birch). The reasons that this would occur are complex, and we are looking at multiple factors (both remotely and in situ) to determine what causes such a shift. The ability to predict a shift in species dominance precipitated by variation in burn severity is important for a number of reasons. First, if we can reliably model a fire season into the future, we would then be able to say what proportion of the landscape is likely to undergo such a conversion from conifer to decididuous (or, more often co-dominant stands). If the change in dominance is perisistent into the medium to long-term (say, 20 to 100+ years), this will have major implications for carbon (deciduous being more fire resistant and storing more carbon than coniferous stands), albedo (conifer stands reflecting more solar radiation in both summer and winter), hydrology (spruce are generally found in poorly-drained areas, often because of underlying permafrost conditions), and soil conditions (black spruce soils tend to be cooler, wetter, and have more moss cover than deciduous stands). All of this is significant in terms of how the fire regime in the boreal forest of interior Alaska (and we have to be specific to this region, as these dynamics even in Canadian boreal forests can be quite different) will respond to and effect changes in climate. I work with modelers of vegetation dynamics, fire, and climate in the region to see how some of the changes I am studying may play out in terms of interactions between climate, fire, and vegetation and ultimately climate.

What does the US Geological Survey do, exactly?

Phew, USGS does an awful lot. There are many different divisions within USGS that study anything related to geology and/or natural resources, basically. I am at the Alaska Science Center, so there are many people here who study fisheries, bear and fowl populations; also vulcanology and other geological phenomena; there is a department concerned with water resources; I am part of the Geography group. We work on ecological issues in the region with an eye towards vegetation dynamics. There are a few of us who work on fire, others are also interested in shrubby encroachment, land cover mapping…

There are no geosciences depts. at Hampshire, Smith or Amherst—why?

Actually, geosciences encompasses more than geography—at UMass it includes programs in geology, geography, and earth systems. Not every campus amalgamates programs in this way, so that may explain why they don’t have geosciences departments.
Geography itself is an amalgam of human and physical geography—in other words, it’s a social science and a natural science. This breadth of coverage doesn’t fit well with conventional administrative divisions between the social and natural sciences. So sometimes you’ll find geography with the social sciences, like anthropology and sociology, and the physical geographers who study geomorphology and climate feel out of place; and sometimes you’ll find geography lumped with the natural sciences, as at UMass, where you have five human geographers (social scientists) sequestered in the faculty of Natural Sciences and Mathematics.
In any case, you won’t find a geography department or program at every college and university in the U.S. It’s different in the U.K. where geography is an important discipline, with huge numbers of undergraduate majors and large departments with 40 or more faculty. Geography is a small discipline in the U.S. and threatens to become even smaller. When colleges and universities are going through hard times, they can’t eliminate their English departments or their math departments but they can eliminate geography—no one would argue that it’s at the core of a liberal arts education, though it certainly would function well there. So even though we are widely recognized as doing path-breaking work in both the social and natural sciences, geographers are at risk in the academic environment.

Perhaps, those schools emphasize a broad liberal arts curriculum and have 'folded-in' Geography into other curriculum programs. Hampshire has several Geographers teaching in 'multi-disciplinary programs' The trend in the 1980s and 1980s toward social science curriculum in K-12 in the 1970s and 1980s may also have affected how smaller schools frame their curriculum.

KB (taught at Mount Holyoke for one year)
Hmmmm, good question. I don't have a good answer for this because I was only there for a year. It is most certainly to their detriment. I think they may be relying on geology departments to fill this gap, but as you likely know a geoscience department would be more comprehensive in terms of what phenomena (and at what time-scales) students are able to study.

Why is geography important to study? Why study geography? What can it tell us that nothing else can?

Geography is the study of the earth and everything on it, with special attention to localities and regions and to spatial variation. It has been called the quintessential environmental discipline, incorporating as it does both natural and human environments. Currently geography is widely perceived as an innovative discipline, and as theoretically and methodologically sophisticated and open. If geography can tell us things that no other discipline can, that has to do with its theoretical flexibility and receptiveness to innovation. Geography is a good place to be as a researcher and teacher—rather than being narrow and confining, as the word “discipline” suggests, it encourages adventurous thinking and action.

The traditional knowledge base in geography was best captured by facts- state names, capitals, state flowers, rivers etc What and Where.- The popular Geographic Spelling Bee. These 'facts' are the foundations of geographic knowledge but do not tell us WHY- what processes and relationships- How and Why.- define, alter, differentiate one place from another since ALL places are unique. How places and their content are related to others, how do they interact and change,- transport, trade, information, ideas- and what are the processes that affect or create the uniqueness of places and how and why they change. Since we are all linked to special places- part of our identity- we can better appreciate who and what we are, and how we relate to and interact with other peoples and places. At a different level this can help us to shape our own world view.

What geography can tell us that nothing else can is a classic question, one that has led to the dissolution of at least a few geography departments in the US. I think the answer you'll find will depend very much on whom you ask. Being who I am, my role in a research setting is to answer questions using the tools I know best -- GIS and Remote Sensing. But the questions that we are able to answer as a discipline are always informed by other disciplines. Geography is, after all, the "synthesis science." We answer questions best by incorporating information from lots of different sources, by refusing to say that anything is outside our discipline. This sometimes works against us when we are trying to define geography as a discipline and also as individual researchers we aren't usually the ones with a detailed understanding of a particular aspect of a problem. Rather, geographers work well at bringing research together and seeing the big picture issues. And, ultimately, we must have some special focus area in which our knowledge is detailed or else we're not much useto anyone.

I think people should study geography to gain an integrated sense of why the earth is the way it is. The "why of where" is a popular phrase used to express the stuff of geography. The interactions between humans and the planet are increasingly under great scrutiny, a subject in which geography has a rich history. I think that Geography and Environmental Studies are essentially the same thing, so if one must ask why it is important to study, it may help to ask why Environmental Studies is important.

What geographic info should everyone know?

Difficult to specify since there are so many subfields in geography that each study important sites and processes—from urbanization to desertification, from river basins to shanty towns—but right now I would nominate global climate change and its human origins and impacts as something everyone should know about. And I would add that everyone should study the geography of their own region—its physical and social features and processes and how they interact to produce a distinctive experience of life. Looking at what’s threatened and what’s thriving in your own region can be the beginning of engagement for students and citizens.

Well, if you're talking about primary education, I think children need to learn basic information about why things are where they are. This is much more interesting to children than memorizing state capitals, and it gives them a chance to be curious about geography and to create hypotheses about the things that they see around them. I guess I don't think that there needs to be a standardized geographic curriculum so much as students of geography should learn what governs where things like biomes, population centers, and species are located. Ideally this would be global in nature, but starting locally can be a good way to pique interest, starting with observation and then explaining the factors at work behind the observations. These can take you further and further afield if you are curious. Aha -- a very good book about this was written a few decades ago by a teacher at the Banks Street School in NY. I cannot remember the name of the book and I can't find it online. You might contact them to find out about it. They had children going out into the city to discover where things were located. ANd a giant map room where they laid everything out. It was an excellent book from around 1940 or 1950 I believe.

What are the most important things for secondary school students to know about geography?

They might be interested in learning Geographic Information Systems (GIS) which involves computer-based spatial data analysis, and offers amazing technology for assembling and displaying geographic information. You can learn a lot about the world through exploring the capabililties of GIS.

Aha, so based on the scheme I laid out above, young minds are already curious about geography and have begun to formulate ideas about the "why of where." I know that this usually isn't the case, but let's assume that it works that way. Secondary students, then, would learn more advanced information about climate and culture and the important factors in answering questions about human's relationship to the environment. Observation is still important, and more advanced students could be introduced to ways of testing their ideas about how things work spatially. I think spatial skills underlie a good education in geography and I always assume that they are taught in school, but I found some of my students struggled with what I thought were basic ideas about space. Secondary students can learn about geodesy and navigation and how we know so much of what we take for granted in geography. This way, students get the sense that geography is something that is about doing rather than knowing. That would be a good start, I believe.

What are good sources for geography info, especially maps? [books? Internet?]

Google Earth

National Geographic Society, Royal Geographic Society and similar national geographic associations all of which have some educational materials, curriculum for K-12 etc.

These things are always changing... Let's see... Obviously Google Earth is a good introduction to what the Earth looks like in various places. Books can be quite dull are are usually outdated almost as soon as they are printed. I think youtube is a good tool for finding information on different places that aren't pre-digested (this takes time to wade through, but there are some very good teaching tools there). I think and cartograms in general are an interesting tool. I think maps in general are not that interesting to many people (they are to me, certainly, but without a reason to look, many students don't enjoy map-reading). But combining maps has a wealth of potential, which is why GIS is a skill that would be better acquired early on. This need not be using ancy software or even a computer necessarily. I think making one's own map is a great way to learn to interpret maps.

Do you know another expert who I should contact? An organization?

Association of American Geographers, National Geographic Society
Association of American Geographers, American Geographical Society

You could probably get a lot of information on geography education programs from the Association of American Geographers.

And a geography teacher weighs in:

---Michael Soucy, JFK Middle School, Northampton, Mass.

How did you get into teaching? I knew out of high school that I wanted to become a teacher, growing up I had a handful of teachers who really influenced my decision. The dedication and care they showed really stuck with me.

How long have you been teaching? This is my eighth full year of teaching. I was a special education teacher for six and ½ years. This is my second year teaching social studies.

What is your primary social studies interest – history, geography, both, something else? If I had to pick it would probably be geography, because so much can be addressed through geography. Culture, language, religion, environmental factors are all intertwined together.

How much geography do you teach v. History? Percentage wise I would guess more geography, I also include geography lessons during history units. (Ancient Greece/Rome)

Why is geography important to study? In my mind it is important because you help students open up their minds to what is around us. On a basic level students can learn about the physical makeup of a nation and how citizens must adapt. On a more critical thinking level you can connect environment, religion, culture, government and analyze how this might affect the lives of people.

What geography info should every student know? This is a tough question, my thoughts and the states frameworks do not exactly align. I would say how to use resources effectively for understanding. How your environment affects your life.

What do you teach about geography? What do you cover? Why?
I try to focus on the various physical features they might encounter when traveling to certain regions in the world and how one might have to adapt to the conditions. Trying to have them connect the environment and the way they interact with it. I also try to incorporate an example they may be familiar with locally with new material. As far as what I cover, I usually stick to the MA Framework and branch off it when needed. I like to start my units focusing on the landscape and physical geography of a region or continent.

How do you teach geography? Please give specific methods and why they work for you.
  • Lots of visuals, pictures of the concepts or ideas being taught using my television, computer and camera.
  • Power Point presentations
  • Group work/Station work where students are sifting through materials.
  • Web Quests
  • Short Videos
  • Pair reading with visuals
  • I think students learn best when exposed to multiple ways of seeing, hearing, or thinking about a subject. Often I have students compare various regions with similar physical features to get them to think critically.

What should every social studies teacher know about teaching geography?
  • You can make it fun, try switching the way that you do it.
  • The more ways they see it presented the better.
  • Incorporate technology//.