Subject vs. discipline. Textbook vs. lived life. How does a geographer bridge these “vs.” gaps and integrate them in life? What is a “geographic” life? Two examples from my world of geographers show me how it could be done.
The geography that we are taught in our school classrooms, alas, does not touch our souls. The content of the textbooks and the way in which it is taught (the teaching method) give us little more than small unconnected factoids to mug up and reproduce on the exam answer sheets.
The standard question most people ask is, “Can geography get you a job?” The question is asked in a tone that tells me the person asking it has already decided the answer is, “NO!” No one would ask the same question about science or mathematics education.
There is another question to be asked, but I am never asked it: “Will geography education make me (or my son or my daughter) a better human being?”
A “better” human being is one who cares about the world around them and belongs in it. This means, they care about the world and wish to help make it a better place. At the very least, it should be about understanding the geography that we are also part of, and that improving that geography will help many including ourselves.
It may be as simple as saying that I will keep my immediate environment clean. I will help keep the larger area where I live clean so that we can all have a healthier physical environment to live in.
When we take our understanding of geography that we learn in the classrooms, in our textbooks, and apply it the benefit of the world around us, we become citizen geographers.
I want to share with you two of the many geographers I know in my life who are inspirational citizen geographers.
Dr Heidi Nast
Dr Heidi Nast is, by training, a geographer and a geologist (Earth scientist). At DePaul University (Chicago, USA), she teaches courses about different topics that include race, inequality, gender, etc. Over the years that I have known her, she used to be an inspiration to me as an excellent thinker, and a geographer. In April 2015, I visited her in Chicago for a few weeks to attend an international conference. During that visit, we had many conversations of what it means to each of us “to be a geographer.”
During these conversations I learned a great deal about how she is a citizen geographer. I paraphrase a comment she made to me, “I am a geographer. I teach about inequalities and the need for fairness in society. I teach about how geography impacts lives and vice versa. What is the point of all this teaching if I don’t bring into practice in my life as a citizen?”
Very far into the conversation, she shared the stories of some of her students. One student suddenly stopped attending classes. Dr Nast traced her and spoke to her on the phone and asked why she had not been attending classes. The story she heard was heart-breaking. The student, a young woman, had become homeless, couldn’t afford even the bus fare to come to the campus to attend the classes, and that’s why she was absent. Being homeless, unable to travel to classes, being without a support system for her … these are very personal geographical issues, too. Remember what I have written several times before in these columns, people who are socially or economically marginal also occupy marginal geographic locations; poorer people live in more difficult geography.
Dr Nast told the student to come and live with her until she was able to find a job and fend for herself.
Did the student get a break on the work she had to do for her grade in the course? No! Dr Nast worked with her to help her do the necessary work and earn the grade she got. Subsequently, the student was able to move on. This is a generalized story. In case after case, such students in Dr Nast’s courses, many coming from very difficult circumstances, challenged her to bring her geography knowledge to make a difference in the lives of people around her.
This pattern is routine for Dr Nast and her work.
Dr Surinder Mohan Bhardwaj
Dr Surinder Bhardwaj was my guru during my own PhD study in geography at Kent State University (Kent, Ohio, USA). He still is. His specialty is the study of geography and its connections with religion and spirituality. His work in this field is so important that it is unlikely you will read any book or formal writing on the subject of geography and religion without at least one reference to his work. For all his life as a geographer, he has been involved in efforts to promote inter-faith communication. In India, we call this “communal harmony.”
I have had many conversations with him over many years and he has always told me, “If we don’t take the geography that we teach and read and write out into the world and use it to make a positive impact, what is the point of being a geographer?”
He is now retired. However, his work with building interfaith communication is only getting stronger. Propelled by the idea that geography is a vital part of who we are and what we believe in. That can be used to divide us or unite us. A geographer’s effort should be to find ways to unite us because this makes the world a better place. Towards this, he is engaged with several efforts in the USA and internationally.
Ultimately, what both Dr Nast and Dr Bhardwaj do is to apply the concept of place as a part of who we are. They take that idea and make it a part of something bigger: Geography as a part of who we could be.
And should be.
This is why they are inspirational citizen geographers.
A version of this article appeared in the Deccan Herald Student Edition, 18 February 2016