Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Becoming Geographers: An Interview About Geography With Geographer Dr. Charles Gritzner

Originally published by Brian Baskerville on Geography

While the focus of this article is American, there are many lessons for Canadian geographers as well.

Despite geography's popularity through venues like National Geographic Magazine, many individuals still do not understand what geography is, what it studies, and why it is important – especially this day in age. Through a series of interview questions, Dr. Charles Gritzner sheds light on this ancient, but seemingly misunderstood discipline.

Dr. Gritzner received his doctorate in geography/anthropology from Louisiana State University and taught at the college level for over 50 years, becoming South Dakota State University’s sixth Distinguished Professor in 1993.  As an educator, he taught seventy-three different courses, which, he is told, may be a record in any discipline. He has authored or co-authored 35 books, published more than 150 articles and book chapters, and won numerous awards for his service to the discipline. Above all, he’s loved by his former students for the way he made learning about the world interesting and engaging.

Dr. Gritzner, you’re interested in many things from culture and energy to natural resources and climate. Why did you choose Geography as a profession as opposed to history or political or environmental science?

My response to this question may seem a bit strange!  In a sense, I didn’t make a deliberate choice or even thoughtfully consider the merits of becoming a geographer, as opposed to pursuing a career in some other sciences.  During the first two years of college I was a physical education major and the curriculum required a social science course, so I enrolled in an Introduction to Geography course.

After the first class, in which the instructor explained the nature of geography and what we would be studying, I left knowing that I was a geographer and had been much of my life, without knowing that geography existed as a field of study!  I loved travel, whether actual or vicarious (e.g. National Geographic magazine); as a youngster, I would spend hours studying maps and, in fact, drew many of my own of places both real and imaginary; having grown up in the country, I had a pretty sound idea of natural processes and “how things worked.”

Geography, more than any other field of study, ties things together – anything on Earth’s surface can be studied geographically. As such, geography, like history, is a method, a way of organizing and analyzing information spatially (vs. the historian’s temporal framework).  As geographers, we must understand the basic elements of all the social sciences (population, economy, society, government, and so-forth).  To understand the present, one also must look to the past. The historical perspective allows one to better understand how the various elements have contributed to the creation of present-day conditions. So as a geographer, one does need to know about the history, political, and environmental sciences of Earth’s diverse mosaic of places.   

Many people today still think Geography is all about capitals and rivers. While that’s part of the discipline, it’s far from the whole story. How can geographers explain their discipline without all the complex jargon?

Very simply!  Frequently during my fifty year career, students from other subject areas asked me what it would take for them to transfer into geography.   For most of them, my advice was, “Take what you know and think about it spatially.”  At the most basic level, geography can be defined as the study of “What is where, why there, and why care.”  The “what,” of course, does include the capitals and rivers, but it involves so much more.  In many respects, geography is the most complex of all disciplines.  To be a good geographer: one must have a basic understanding of the fundamental elements of both the natural and social sciences; we must know: how the various elements interact to create the differences that exist from place to place, the names of various features, processes, and conditions, and finally (this is where geography comes in) we must know where all of this is located, why it’s there, and of what importance is it to us and others.

Geography is great and all, but now that we have Google Earth and GPS everything is mapped and explored.  Is Geography still relevant?

Google Earth, GPS, GIS (Geographic Information Systems), and other such aids are tools and techniques used to study Earth’s varied features in a geographical context.  They, themselves, are not geography any more than a physician’s stethoscope is medicine. Today we have the ability to know precisely where we are on earth and technology can tell us that. Geography, though, tells us what it is like, how it came to be that way, and why it is important.

When students choose majors at college, they are often asked what they will do with what they learn. What does it mean to have a geographical education and what can a person do with it?

Geographers often face several problems when entering the job market.  First and foremost, many employers (and many Americans) do not understand the tremendous contribution that geographers can offer to the workplace.   Second, by virtue of their training, geographers tend to be a “jack of all trades and master of none.”  Yet the breadth of knowledge and the ability to apply this knowledge to places, locations, and conditions, gives geographers a huge competitive edge over those educated in other disciplines. What we find is that once a firm or agency hires a geographer and learns what he or she can contribute, others are then hired.  Geographic understanding is particularly critical for those involved in any way with international relations, be it business, politics, intelligence, travel or other involvement.

According to a recent report by the American Geographical Society, Americans want more geography than they are getting in school. Why doesn’t the United States put the same emphasis on geographic education as other countries?

This is a rather difficult question for which an answer is long and complex.  Briefly, when most “new” Americans arrived on these shores, they had severed ties with their past.  They soon realized, however, that they had no history of their own in this “new” land.  To overcome this void, Americans busily set about the task of creating their own history, including solidly establishing history in the curriculum at the expense of geography.  With an abundance of natural resources, seemingly unlimited space, and little in the way of hostile neighbors, our forefathers saw little need to learn geography, or to know about other places.  One explanation of geography that may apply here is “Geography is learning for living.”  In many places, knowing about the world beyond one’s own borders is imperative for survival.  But today many, if not most Americans, feel little need to learn about the world beyond our borders.

As geography enthusiasts, we are always trying to sharpen the geographical lens through which we view the world. Can you give us some advice, from your own experiences, on how to start thinking and viewing the world like a geographer?

In an increasingly complex and troubled world, it is imperative that citizens possess a fairly detailed “mental map” of the world and the contents and conditions of its various places and regions.  To think geographically, one must first be curious, asking questions such as “Why is this place like it is and what role does location play in creating various conditions found there?”  The answer is undoubtedly related to a combination of physical, cultural, and historical factors.  Basically, to think about and view the world as a geographer, one must seek to learn as much as possible about other people and places and ask: What are they like? Why are they like that? What problems do they face? And, of what importance is all of that to us?  My advice is to read, watch, listen, question, be ever curious, and care!

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