Ken Jennings: Map Geek

By Tim Hill, Perspective Editor

Ken JenningsYou may recognize Ken Jennings from his record-setting 74 consecutive wins on the popular quiz show Jeopardy! in 2004. You may not know that the former software engineer has been a self-described “map geek” since an early age. In his latest book, Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks, Jennings takes a fun and informative tour of several map-obsessed subcultures. Among the characters he meets on his fascinating journey are extreme geocachers, map collectors, young geo-geniuses competing in the National Geographic Bee, the librarian in charge of the world’s largest map collection, and the engineers behind Google Earth.

Q: How did you pick maps and “geography wonks” as the topic for your latest book?

Maphead CoverA: Maps have always been a near-compulsion for me—even as a kid, I’d tune out my second grade teacher and stare at the world map on the classroom wall for hours. I saved up for months to buy a big Hammond world atlas when I was eight, then kept it by my pillow every night. I never understood my obsession and even felt faintly embarrassed by it. I was vaguely aware that there were others like me out there, but I think we map geeks keep our heads down in a world where the media-approved Normal Behavior is to get befuddled by road atlases or not know where Canada is on a world map. So, for me, this was empowerment, a chance to find my tribe.

Q: When you saw your “old Jeopardy! nemesis,” Alex Trebek, at the National Geographic Bee, he cautioned that geography is more than just maps. Did your perception of geography change while writing the book?

A: Sure, I’d long been a victim of the layperson’s assumption that “liking geography” is essentially shorthand for “liking to pore over maps,” which I now know is a sore point for academic geographers. And rightly so! You’re reducing someone’s field of expertise to the tiny part of it that primary school kids can do—essentially the equivalent of praising a math Ph.D. for his mastery of fractions. So it was great for me to see pint-sized National Geographic Bee kids answering nominal “geography” questions that actually revealed impressive knowledge of history, earth science, archaeology, economics, and dozens of other fields. But I also met several educators who told me that maps were what they used to attract young minds to geography, and that academic geographers who forget that (by dissing maps as unfashionable or unreliable, I guess) do so at their own peril.

Q: During your Jeopardy! run, were you particularly excited when a map category came up? Do you recall giving any incorrect responses to geography clues?
A: I always went to the movie and literature categories first, but map stuff was a close third. I remember one particularly close game towards the end. I was hanging on to a narrow lead against a very bright guy going into Final Jeopardy, and I needed a final clue that was in my wheelhouse. Luckily, it was a geography clue: What’s the least populous nation in South America? On the tape you can see me exhale with visible relief. That’s the happiest anyone has ever been about the country of Suriname, possibly including the Surinamese.

Q: Looking back on your K-12 years, how would you assess the geography instruction you received?
A: I’ve read that the United States is the one developed nation where you can get through 15-plus years of school and earn a college diploma without ever once cracking a geography textbook. I was that kid! I guess I remember social studies units on map-reading and some history tests on place-name identification, but no one ever really tried to get across to me what geography was like holistically, as a unified science. So I went through life (a) loving maps and (b) mostly thinking that “geography” was just a Trivial Pursuit category, which is a shame. If schools aren’t getting through to someone as in-the-tank for geography as I am, we’re in trouble.

Q: What do you think parents or teachers can do to inspire students’ interest in maps and geography?
A: Writing Maphead convinced me that the genetic map nerds like me are pretty much born that way: Something about our brains is geared spatially in a way that others’ aren’t. We’re pre-wired to experience life through the lens of place. That said, there’s pretty good evidence that this is a skill that can be taught. You just have to stick with it. It’s like math anxiety: Too many kids and adults assume they can’t navigate or understand maps, so they don’t even try. I’m convinced that the reason for a perceived gender gap when it comes to maps (“My wife can’t read a road map; am I right, folks?!”) is an artifact of a culture that lets boys explore their environments more than girls. And now we’re insulating all our kids, both boys and girls, from their environments like never before. We do it with technology and we especially do it with overprotective parenting. I have two little kids myself now, and I think turning them on to geography has less to do with buying them wall maps or agitating to overthrow their social studies curriculum at school, and more to do with just letting them wander their neighborhood on a summer day.

Q: You wrote about the Travelers’ Century Club, whose members collect visits to countries like some people collect Beanie Babies. If you could visit any place in the world, where would you go, and why?
A: The last time I saw Alex Trebek, he’d just gotten back from an Antarctica cruise with his family, and the guy just would not stop talking about how great it was. So a friend and I are going to follow in the footsteps of Trebek and see Antarctica next year. I guess that’s my strategy: From now on, I will let game show hosts plan all my vacations for me. Unless Pat Sajak tells me I have to go to Branson, Missouri, or something.

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