[This is a blog version of the final weekly column for the Student Edition of Deccan Herald, a Bangalore-based newspaper, for the academic year 2013-14. This column appears in the Monday, 24 March 2014 issue. I have shared most of those columns on this blog. The blog will continue, but this marks the end of this year’s run of the printed column.]
Over the past several months, I have had the joy of sharing my love for geography with you in this column. This is the last column for this academic year. I want to step back – or ‘zoom out’ – and share thoughts about the discipline of geography.
What is generally taught in schools is geography the subject – you consume what is prescribed in the syllabus only to regurgitate (sorry, I cannot think of a kinder word for the process) disconnected facts in exams. Name three of this, give three reasons for that … most of these are muggable nuggets of ‘facts.’ At most, this is learning the subject.
Over my life so far, what my gurus have been teaching me is the discipline of geography. My first inspirational guru, my high school social studies teacher Sri B. Narasanna is no longer physically alive but I keep recollecting little things he said or did and use them to good effect in my life.
My many others gurus are likewise long gone. Still others continue to keep in touch and bless me with their insights, mixed with the joyous compassion that only a guru can show a student.
These gurus have been teaching me how to look at the world through the lens of geography. This means to engage with, marvel at, understand, make sense of, and enjoy the geographical (or spatial; from the word ‘space’ – here, the space on Earth) connections among things ranging from inanimate physical objects and living beings to personal matters and cultural patterns, and how these play out in the context of place. Ultimately, geography is a question of place. “Where?” is the prepositional basis of the discipline of geography.
I love Karnataka samgeetam. A chance conversation with my guru, Dr Surinder Mohan Bhardwaj (now retired), in 1990, started an exploration of the role that place plays (see what I did there? 🙂 ) in the compositions of Sri Muttusvami Dikshita (March 24, 1775 – October 21, 1835 according to the good Professor Wikipedia Maharaj!). We had many discussions and discovered to our delight the geographical beauty in those compositions. We eventually wrote and published a scholarly paper on the topic . Geography is another lens through which I look at his compositions and enjoy them even more deeply.
This experience was also important for another reason. Most of what I learned from Dr Bhardwaj was outside the classroom – I have taken only one course with him during my PhD. Casual conversations in the hallway (of the Geography Department at Kent State University) were very common – his office was just two doors down the hall from mine, at Kent State University. “Hi, Chandra! How are things?” I would claim things were great. “Good. You know, I read this interesting article …” and a conversation of just about 10 minutes would follow. I would be off to the library at the earliest opportunity to read up on what he had said. Our conversations were much more involved over cups of coffee (11am and 3pm), and over lunch (1 – 2pm). All told, each day, the conversations were about 1½ hours. None of these was of the kind where the great guru would hand down wisdom to the student! They were conversations in which I would see the sparkling intelligence and enthusiasm with which he used geography as a tool, a toy, a camera, a book – in short, as a discipline. (You can watch a video interview here, recorded when he visited Bangalore in 2012.
Yet another professor, Dr Thomas W Schmidlin is another conversational guru. I never took a course with him. Yet, similar conversations with him helped me refine and polish that lens with which I continue to look at the world.
These are just two examples from the constellation.
The reason for mentioning these conversations? A lot of learning happens outside the framework of a classroom, a syllabus, and other structured learning environments. But these are not conversations where the guru stands on high and hands down knowledge to a student standing at his/her feet. Instead, the guru shares what is a passion and a deeply cherished discipline with which he/she has worked for long. This is why I always encourage students and teachers to have casual, unstructured, open conversations and share the joy of geographic discovery. Sharing means that there is no fixed role of teacher and student. The roles keep flipping back and forth because either can teach and the other can learn.
However, for such conversations to occur, both parties – but particularly the teacher – must have an insatiable thirst for the joy of learning, not just the learning alone. These conversations don’t give us just knowledge, but they induce and nurture in us the joy of the learning process.
Over the years, I have been particularly in touch with these two gurus for a very simple reason: one conversation with them, and I am excited afresh about my love for geography and geography education. I want to be the kind of teacher to others that they were to me.
I derive the greatest joy when I meet students at my geography workshops. Their sudden and inspirational ideas give me a high that usually takes more than a week to subside.
Class 9, CBSE students. Forty five of them. I started a 3-hour workshop on understanding the geography of the monsoons in India. Early on, I asked them, “What is wind?” Everyone knew this. Forty five loud voices proclaimed, “Wind is air in motion!” Great! Next, I asked them, “But why does air move?” Dead silence as they tried to figure out the answer to this question. Suddenly, out of the corner of my left eye, I saw some movement. I turned and there was this girl, her whole face lit up, eyes widened, and with a very expressive gesture of both her hands, she answered: “Because it’s FREE!” What a moment! I said that was a brilliant answer, but she wanted to retract the answer because, “It’s wrong, isn’t it?” I told her that that was just a poetic view of wind and no less valid than any physics explanation. That session, we linked the monsoons to poetry and art much more than usual.
In my copy of my PhD thesis that I gave Dr Bhardwaj, I could only quote Arjuna from the Bhagavadgeetaa – शिष्यस्तेऽहं शाधि मां shishyaste’ham shaadhi maam, “I am your student, bless me.”
 Chandra S. Balachandran, Surinder M. Bhardwaj. 2001. “Geography as Melody in Muttusvami Dikshita’s Indian Musical Works.” The Geographical Review, 91 (4), p. 690-701.
Chandra Shekhar Balachandran, TIIGS
Join us for the National Geography Youth Summit – 2014, Bangalore, 9-11 June 2014.