Geography: An “Elective” Subject?

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.



Reflections on the 2011 Conference

By Joseph Kerski

As I reflect on the 2011 National Conference on Geographic Education in Portland, Oregon, five words come to mind.

Conference Photo

Miguel Mandujano and Munia Mustafa pose with Joseph Kerski before plenary addresses in which they discussed field work projects involving GIS, GPS, and remote sensing technologies.

Expertise. NCGE members know geography content and the discipline. Whether your specialty is soils, population, GIS, or something else, you understand the fundamental themes and tenets of geographic content, skills, and perspective. This was evident in the sessions I attended and in the conversations I had.

Enthusiasm. I would like to thank each of you who worked hard to make the 2011 conference a great success. I appreciate the time you devoted to the event and the financial sacrifice you made to be there. I heard glowing reports from participants about the field trips, papers, workshops, exhibits, awards, posters, and food. I also heard comments on the organization, friendliness, and efficiency of the NCGE staff and hotel staff and volunteers from the local arrangements committee, the Oregon Geographic Alliance, Portland State University, Texas State University, and others. The attention to every detail made a positive impact not only on the participants’ experience at the conference but also on their professional careers. Even if you were not on one of the organizing committees, your presentations, participation, and positive attitude made a difference. If we can encourage educators, especially in today’s fiscal and educational climate, we have succeeded. That is due to your enthusiasm about geography.

Tenacity. Education is not for the faint-hearted. I admire the work you are doing. You are making a difference not only in students’ lives, but throughout the education community and society. During his plenary session, Dr. Alexander Murphy’s story proved that he had to be tenacious in order to move AP Human Geography from dream to reality. We must be tenacious to move geography education into a position where it is funded, supported, respected, taught, and used throughout education and society. Nobody will do it if we don’t.

Curiosity. We are curious about all things geographic—from local community issues to global issues such as population, energy, water, and climate. Curiosity motivates us to learn, to practice what we have learned, and to teach it to others.

Teamwork. The NCGE community enables teamwork and partnerships. The partnerships we are building with the North American Association for Environmental Education, the Canadian Council for Geographic Education, the National Council for the Social Studies, and others can lead to curricular, research, and professional development projects. Further, our location in Washington, D.C., will continue to build visibility and connections. NCGE is providing critically needed contributions the NSF-funded “Road Map” project that will bring much attention to our discipline. Our partnership with publisher Taylor & Francis and with our excellent journal editors has borne much fruit. Our publications, including Geographic Literacy in the United States; Geography in America’s Schools, Libraries, and Homes; the revised National Geography Standards; and others will be valued by the community and beyond. Our webinars provide professional development and new website content. Our conference follows a model that members value, and it is beginning to attract more exhibitors and others outside our community who care about geography education.

NCGE nurtures and supports excellence in teaching and learning geography in all levels and education venues. We encourage and value our members and others in the geography education community both personally and professionally, provide professional development and curricular development, conduct research, and produce scholarship about that research. NCGE partners with other organizations to make a positive impact on teaching, learning, educational research, and educational policy. Our goal is to instill in every person an understanding of geographic content, skills, and perspectives that enable wise decision making. Our expertise, enthusiasm, tenacity, curiosity, and teamwork can help make this happen.

Joseph Kerski, NCGE’s 2011 President, is an education manager with Esri in Broomfield, Colorado.