By Eric Fournier, NCGE President
At the end of my ninth-grade year a guidance counselor informed my classmates and me that in the coming year we would have the opportunity to choose between two electives—European History and World Geography.
This was the first time I had heard the word “elective” and the first time I had ever been given a choice in the classes I would take. Prior to this, in 10 years of schooling, classes were just classes, but now I had a choice. And, for me, the choice was easy.
At home we had a well-thumbed world atlas and a groaning shelf filled with gold-bordered National Geographic magazines, and my mother had an endearing (or annoying) habit of quizzing me on state and world capitals in front of her friends. So it had to be geography.
The teacher, Miss Romansky, introduced me, and the rest of the class, to the formal study of geography. She told us about exotic-sounding places like Skagerrak and Kattegat and explained that places where land pinched seas into narrow passages were called “choke points.” She pulled down the world map and asked us to find similar places around the world. There were lots of them—Gibraltar, Malacca, Hormuz, Bosporus—and she later explained how those places were crucial to understanding patterns of history and commerce in the world.
That lesson helped me understand that knowing exotic place names and locations, which might allow me to show off for mom’s friends, was only the beginning of geographic understanding. It was the underlying concepts that really made the subject come alive.
Three years later, when I was a freshman at Syracuse University, a college guidance counselor explained that after three “core” classes I had room for an elective. There was that word again. When she showed me the eligible classes, I was surprised to see geography on the list. They taught it in college too? I had no idea!
I signed up for Cultural Geography, and on the first day of class made my way up the steep hill from my dorm to the Hall of Languages, where I joined 120 other undergrads in the lecture hall. From the moment the professor strode into the class—and he did indeed stride—he had command of the class. He looked and sounded exactly like a professor was supposed to: tall and dignified, unruly white hair, tweed suit, and a deep resonant voice. He proceeded to deliver the first of many spell-binding lectures. Over the course of the semester he introduced us to more of the underlying concepts in geography—core and periphery, diffusion, perceptual regions, transition zones, and more.
It turned out I did not have just any professor. He was Donald Meinig, one of the preeminent historical geographers of the 20th century and author of a magisterial four-volume series called The Shaping of America. The care and attention he gave to this introductory geography class made it clear that he considered teaching a very important part of his job. Too often we hear about the trade-off between teaching and scholarship and how success in one must come at the expense of the other. But taking teaching seriously, especially elective classes, should be considered an obligation of every geography educator.
So what is the point in dredging up these memories? Don’t underestimate the power of elective classes to change a student’s life. For high school teachers, a geography class might be one of five or six other classes in your daily schedule, and for college professors it might be one more prep that is getting in the way of your latest research project. But these elective classes have the power to open our subject to a large audience of future decision-makers, voters, and citizens. In the process, we help build a more geographically literate society.
Take these “electives” seriously, and remember that someone in the class—like me—might be paying attention.