Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Changing Education Paradigms

One of the great privileges of my life has been that for most of my life (so far), I have been surrounded by excellent and even extraordinary educators. One of the great frustrations of recent years -- the past 18-20, really -- has been the ascendancy of non-educators whose "reforms" make good teaching increasingly difficult. In two articles last year -- Accountability and Kids Rule -- I argued that nobody is really measuring the success of "reforms" that aim to measure teacher performance.

The reforms are arrows in the quiver of class warfare, as often punitive measures are advocated for public educators at all levels that would never be tolerated in private schools. Having brooded on these contradictions and hypocrisies for many years, I was glad that a friend shared Sir Ken Robinson's rather elegant explanation (in a form known as an animate) of the divergence between what we say we want out of education and what we put into it.

This is worth taking the time to watch carefully a time or two!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Pleas of Dr. Robinson

With apologies to Anne Bancroft, Paul Simon, and Art Garfunkel. 
During dinner with Parris Glendening a few years ago, someone asked the former professor and former Maryland governor which title was appropriate. Feigning modesty (as I would probably have done), he replied that he had heard one should use the “higher” title, with the clear implication that “Governor” was therefore preferred to “Doctor” or professor.

I was reminded of this last evening as I sat in rapt attention during a ceremony in which former Irish President (and Dr.) Mary Robinson did my profession the favor of receiving geography’s highest honor, the Atlas Award. Despite the etiquette breach – and how deeply privileged I felt simply to be in the audience – I could not resist the pop-culture reference in the title of this blog post.

President Robinson was the first female president of Ireland and the first head of state to visit post-genocide Rwanda. She then served as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. She is also a founding member of The Elders and recently received my country's greatest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. It was not lost on her that the twenty-first century has opened with geography recognizing the lifelong leadership of two women – her friend Dr. Jane Goodall received the inaugural award in 2010.

President Robinson now leads Mary Robinson Foundation -- Climate Justice, an organization whose very name captures in two simple words the profound message that she brought to the 8,000 geographers assembled in New York City for our annual meeting. (Only a few hundred were in the room, but her words were clear and we can consider ourselves advised of how she sees our role in the world at this critical juncture between humans and the earth we inhabit.) Climate Justice describes a critical intersection between science and ethics. While politicians and pundits in the United States fritter away their time in ever more vitriolic and delusional dismissals of the obvious, physical and human systems are colliding in ways that are both severe and profoundly unjust.

Robinson spoke of Climate Justice in terms of three geographies: the Geography of Vulnerability, the Geography of Responsibility, and the Geography of Politics and Power.

See more on my CLIMATE PAGE
She mentioned, for example, already-growing gaps between those who are harmed by climate change and those who stand to benefit in certain ways. Growing seasons in tropical low latitudes -- where economically underdeveloped countries are concentrated -- are being shortened by drought, in contrast to longer growing seasons in upper-mid latitudes. As if to put a coda on her speech, I saw daffodils flourishing near the hotel the following morning, even though it is still February!

President Robinson argues that the juncture at which we find ourselves requires “in-depth evaluation of what we mean by equity in development.” She is encouraged that at the recent climate summit in Durban the European Union, the Least-Developed States, and the Small-Island States led the way toward a successor to Kyoto, in the form of a $100,000,000,000 annual Green Climate Fund. (See what The Economist, Nature, and my blog had to say at the time.)

Delivering on that commitment is even more important, in her view, than is reaching overall greenhouse gas commitments. That is to say, reaching a target such as 350 ppm carbon dioxide may be necessary, but not sufficient if equity is not forcefully addressed. even if we could reach Kyoto targets, it would be an insufficient response, because of the inequities in the geographies she describes.

At the end of her remarks, President-Doctor Robinson called geographers to account, admonishing us:
You understand how our planet works.

You can now listen to President Robinson's address in its entirety.

TwiST -- Just Like This

(Apologies to Chubby Checker)

As I recently posted, this morning I had the privilege of participating with a remarkable group of colleagues on a panel discussing geography as a Diversity Discipline. Amy Work, for example, is both GIS Analyst and Education Coordinator at a fascination organization at Cayuga Community College, known as The Institute for the Application of Geospatial Technology (IAGT).

In particular, she described a summer program known as the Teaching with Spatial Technology Workshop, or TwiST, in which 50 to 100 people from many parts of the world and many professions come together for an intensive, week-long program in which they learn basics of geotechnologies such as global positioning systems (see our GPS article on EarthView) and geographic information systems (GIS).

The varied participants include faculty members from many disciplines on the community-college campus with which IAGT is affiliated. This has helped to create real foment about geography in general and geotechnologies in particular, among teachers -- and even administrators -- from many fields. The college library now maintains a collection of GPS units, for example, in part so that students in an art class can compare their freehand sketches of outdoor spaces with drawing based on GPS waypoints.

Some other fascinating examples really illustrate the diverse applications of geographic thinking in general, and geographic technical tools in particular. An professor of English, for example, who takes students on literary tours of London was able to replace her cumbersome collection of paper-based materials with and iPod-based map containing articles about each site on the tour. (Yes, I'm already thinking about how to do this for my annual Nicaragua tour!) Other examples abound, from criminal justice to resource conservation.

I am further inspired and look forward to a time in the near future when my own department could have the capacity to support this kind of interdisciplinary professional development for our campus and region. IAGT has created a model to which we can aspire.

Diversity Discipline

Most years, I do not attend the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers, preferring the lower-key, familiar regional meetings, which I have attended in several North American regions. I attended in 2010 when it was held in my home town, mainly because we had the opportunity to bring EarthView to the meeting.

This weekend I have attended the national meeting in part because I missed our regional meeting in Montreal and in part because it is reasonably close -- a pleasant train ride away in New York City. The main reason for the decision, however, was an invitation from a geographer I have never met but whose writing I have greatly admired. Professor Sarah Goggin and I are both contributors to Geo Hot Topics, an educational blog maintained by Wiley publishers. We share a strong interest in helping people to understand the power of geographic thinking, so when she invited me to join a panel on geography education, I was both honored and convinced that this would be a good use of my time.

The session, entitled Geography and Diversity, met this morning, and was followed by another session by the same title. Sarah chaired both sessions, which were distinguished by their subtitles -- "Showcasing 'Diversity Discipline' among Administrators and Interdisciplinary Campus Colleagues" was followed by "Teaching to Cultural and Learning Diversities in the Lower-Division Geography Classroom." In other words, we began with a discussion of how to champion geography as a way to promote the diversity aspirations of our colleges and universities, followed by a discussion of how that actually plays out in classrooms.

We decided to spend only a few minutes discussing the article, deciding that A Diversity Discipline is more appropriate, even if we are tempted to think we represent The Diversity Discipline. All kidding aside, these were two very valuable sessions.

I chose to open my remarks with the photo above, taken just a few days ago. When a student on our campus was attacked -- apparently by fellow students -- for an editorial she wrote in support of same-sex marriage, the campus rallied, defending the right of members of our community to be who they are and to express their views freely. The response exemplifies the value of social media -- a well-attended, well-covered event was organized over the course of a holiday weekend -- and the many ways in which geography and geography students are deeply involved in multiple discourses on and around our campus. Defenders of free expression and individual dignity included people from many disciplines and backgrounds, which was the true beauty of the event. As one of the student speakers later suggested, however, geography was very well represented!

I spent some time discussing the legislative and networking efforts of our Massachusetts Geographic Alliance, which in many ways parallel national efforts. At long last -- in my view -- the Association of American Geographers is creating more effective messages about the contributions of our field, and is working with a variety of partners on a national legislative approach that has great promise.

We also discussed the passion for learning geography that we find among our own students and among the thousands of younger students we have reached through Project EarthView. At the conclusion of my remarks, I shared a photograph that had just been shared with me by one of our majors. It represents a passion for learning about the earth; its simplicity belies the complexity of the relationships we know each globe represents.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Outsourced Horrors

The Mexican poet Octavio Paz famously lamented: "Alas, poor Mexico! So far from God and so close to the United States!" The Valentine's Day fire killing hundreds of prisoners in Comayagua, Honduras suggests that the smaller countries of the region are imperiled by proximity to both Mexico and the United States.

As I wrote last March, President Obama has joined a century-long, bipartisan succession of U.S. Presidents who care little about how U.S. policies affect the people of the region. During the 2009 coup in Honduras, Brazil did far more than the U.S. to uphold due process, and our failure ultimately enabled for the presidency to be stolen. 

As both the BBC and NPR have reported, a culture of police violence has grown in Honduras, and the implicit support for the coup is at least partly to blame. The cause of the prison fire at Comayagua is as yet unknown, but it is already known that close to half of the prisoners died, many of them in cells to which no keys could readily be found. In the aftermath, violence erupted between police and relatives of prisoners.

I have written a number of stories on this blog about the drug-related violence gripping Mexico -- including many border areas that I once enjoyed visiting regularly. I have tried to make the case that in many ways, what has befallen Mexico is that the most difficult parts of the U.S. "war on drugs" have been outsourced to Mexico, just as surely as we have outsourced low-paid manufacturing and its attendant misogyny and violence. The BBC reported more than a year ago that Mexico's efforts to quell drug-related violence were, in  turn, pushing the cartel battles into El Salvador

The same BBC article mentions that El Salvador in particular was already wracked by the export of gang violence from Los Angeles. Whenever possible, the United States deports violent criminals to their birth countries, even if they immigrated at two years of age and learned all of their criminality here. Blame for violence in Central America rests ultimately with the criminals -- in and out of uniform -- of the region itself. But much of the violence has roots in the United States and Mexico that must also be remembered.

In addition to the BBC coverage cited above, see the New York Times for details of the fire.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

PowerPoint Afterlife

Like an ex-smoker crusading against butts, my mini-crusade against bad PowerPoint is probably rooted in my past as an avid user and in-house software trainer for the entire Microsoft Office Suite. As a graduate student and in my early days of teaching, the ability to go from outline BOOM! to presentation was intoxicating. One graduate advisor had taught me how to use slides as a guide in presentations, and another had extolled the virtue of outlines as a good indicator of clear thinking. Then along came PowerPoint, followed by employment that included teaching others to use it, and I was hooked.

Eventually, a colleague in the visual arts was working with me to set up the web site for the Watershed Access  Laboratory and decided that I needed -- and was worth of -- professional help. She called one of my PowerPoint presentations "cute" -- but not in a good way. Then she took me to a day-long workshop led by Yale statistician and visual-communication genius Edward Tufte. Throughout the day, people kept asking Tufte about PowerPoint, and he swatted away their questions like so many annoying insects. A couple years later, however, he put his annoyance into a more constructive form -- an essay that has become my Bible and required reading for many of my students. (If I could require it of professors, I would!), via Boston Globe
I last blogged about this almost two years ago, when an article in the New York Times inspired me to post Death by PowerPoint. I should have given credit for that title to Eric LePage, an IT professional at BSU with whom I frequently give presentations on this topic.

I was inspired to revisit the subject this week by another article, this time in the Boston Globe, sent to me by a former student who read Tufte's critique in my coffee class -- and who had endured my performance of the Gettysburg Address with Peter Norvig's PPT slides. The Globe photo essay Stop the PowerPoint Pollution is the culmination of questions on the subject posed to readers of its business pages. It builds on an earlier essay by Paul Hellman, PowerPoint Mistakes that Drive People Crazy, both of which highlight the importance of having something meaningful to say before firing up the software!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Fair Chocolate

Regular readers of this blog will know that I spend a lot of time thinking, writing, and speaking about coffee and the difficulty many farmers face in the "free trade" model that dominates this and most other industries. Dependent on a network of intermediaries who pay whatever the market will bear for their perishable product, "free" most often means that farmers and other workers are free to be exploited.

At Valentine's Day, we are reminded that coffee is not the only product for which FREE does not equal FAIR. I've written elsewhere about bananas, for example, and it is becoming better understood that chocolate often passes along quite a distasteful path on the way to being delicious.

The effort to change all this involves not only the offering of alternatives to conventional chocolate through companies such as Equal Exchange, but also campaigns to bring pressure on the conventional companies that continue to profit from slavery and child labor. The UUSC captures the contradictiono and provides a way to put pressure on Hershey.

I am very pleased that my January 2013 study tour in Nicaragua will include a full day with a fair-trade cocao cooperative in Matagalpa.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Scale: Coffee's Place in the Universe

Scale is an important concept in geography, as it is in other fields, from biology to physics to chemistry to architecture. We take the EarthView globe to schools primarily because it provides such an unusual "projection" -- a map of the entire planet seen without distortion and from the inside -- but being large enough to offer this perspective necessarily means that it is  also a globe of unusually large scale. Each unit of measure on EarthView represents about 20 times the the distance represented by the same length on a typical classroom globe. This means that any shape represents about 400 times the surface area that it would on a classroom globe, and that EarthView has about 8,000 times the volume of that typical globe. This is one of the subjects I cover in my Pi Day EarthView post.

These differences are impressive, but they are only one order of magnitude different (that is, in the range of one decimal place, more or less). In reality, we now know of objects dozens of orders of magnitude smaller than the smallest things we can see, and astronomical distances many orders of magnitude larger than our galaxy. Cary Huang has captured these vast differences in scale in a beautiful animation that is simply called The Scale of the Universe 2. I love that among the many objects selected for comparison is the coffee bean. Use the slide bar to change scale at will, and be sure to click on each and every item from the subquarks to the galaxies and beyond, to learn something about scale, scientific notation, science, and Huang's sense of humor!

Oh, and the animation plays nice music, too.

Mapping Satire

The risk of satire -- especially good satire -- is that people will take it seriously. I consider myself an avid and somewhat sophisticated fan of satire, but I have to admit I was taken in by the news that a Mississippi state legislator had introduced a bill to rename the Gulf of Mexico the Gulf of America.

"A perfect example of xenophobia," I thought. But I was wrong; Rep. Stephen Holland -- with a name like that, he should be a geographer -- had created the perfect parody of xenophobia.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Rachel Carson Experience

Rachel Carson shares a birthday with my favorite librarian, and died just a few weeks before Pam was born. We are not able to prove that Pam is the reincarnation of this great naturalist and writer, but nobody can prove otherwise, either!

I must admit that I somehow got through many years of my geographic education without actually reading Silent Spring, but when I started teaching environmental geography at the college level, I went back to this classic. The textbook I use for my introductory course mentions its 1962 publication as a turning point in U.S. environmental history, so I decided I should read it for myself. Carson's remarkably clear writing is actually pleasant to read, despite its grim subject matter. It is also important to read, for the insights it provides into the hubris of modernism.

The documentary Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (also see IMDB listing), produced at WGBH in Boston, tells Carson's story of pesticides and the meta-story of her dedication to telling that story. This is a book that the chemical industry of her day did not want Carson to publish, and any less determined author would have failed to see it to completion. I have seen the film no fewer than thirty times, so that when I read certain passages of the book itself, the voice in my head is that of Meryl Streep. Almost as strongly associated is the booming voice of publisher Paul Brooks, an ardent defender of Carson and her work. I learned only recently that he was an accomplished environmental writer in his own right, with a special collection in the library of the Walden Woods Project at the Thoreau Institute in Lincoln, Massachusetts.

FWS Employee Photo
Carson helped to launch what many consider the "modern" environmental movement, though I would consider her the first a post-modern science writer. Her professional work began in an earlier, less radical phase of environmental activism, led by FDR's commitment to conservation programs that supported economic recovery. One of those programs was the establishment of the Patuxent Wildlife Refuge in suburban (then rural) Maryland, between Baltimore and Washington. She was among the first employs when the Refuge opened in 1936, and continued as a Fish & Wildlife Service researcher until the financial success of her book The Sea Around Us enabled her to write full-time. Patuxent has grown from 2,670 acres (4 square miles) to 12,841 (23 square miles, about the size of my current home town) today. It remains the only FWS refuge devoted to research.

It is a sad irony that a woman who worked so hard to eliminate a cause of cancer in the world at large succumbed to cancer herself just two years after the book was published. Her legacy continues in the work of the Silent Spring Institute on Cape Cod. Unlike the vast majority of organizations devoted to cancer research, this institute pursues research on environmental causes, rather than genetics or treatment. All three are important, of course, but people seem to resist environmental explanations just as much today as they did in Carson's time. Because the Institute is committed to finding the causes of elevated cancer rates in certain places, a lot of its research involves geographers.

Rachel Carson continues to stir controversy, mainly among apologists for pesticides, who claim that her work is responsible for the persistence of malaria in the tropics.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Waste Not, Want Not

In the United States alone, we use close to ten trillion coffee beans each year. After extracting the caffeine and the flavor, we leave most of that organic matter behind. At Casa Hayes-Boh, we generate a few thousand of those beans ourselves, and we apply them as much as possible in our gardens, where the hydrangea in particular are very happy with this diet.
The Daily Shot of Coffee blog recently suggested this and three other uses for the grounds, some of which we will be trying. Coffee starts as a fruit, the skin, pulp, and two seed coverings of which are lost during processing. Ecological coffee production involves using each of those components for uses as varied as soil amendment (nutrients from some layers; structure from others) and cooking fuel.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Tucson Teach-In

My favorite librarian and I lived in Arizona from 1990 to 1994 and in many ways it was the best place we ever lived. We had terrific friends there, we were learning a lot in graduate school, the food was terrific, the weather was warm, the sky a pleasant shade of blue all the time, and it was cheap. We had no money because we were graduate students, but we paid little rent because the S & L crisis had ravaged the housing market and food was grown nearby. We also did not pay much for entertainment, because we were students and because entertainment meant either attending a lecture or taking a hike in the beautiful deserts and mountains that surround the city.

We were sad to leave and often longed to go back. This diminished as our Arizona friends moved elsewhere or passed away or both, but we still had a great fondness for the place with so many great memories. The past few years, however, have made it difficult to muster much nostalgia, as the politics of fear and hate seem to have made a mighty comeback. Before our time, in the 1980s, Arizona was consumed with needless racial strife, becoming, for example, the last holdout against the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. Arizona today, though, makes the Ev Mecham period seem downright genteel.

The latest indignity is a law passed last spring that bans ethnic studies in schools. The law went into effect yesterday, and one of its authors recently defended it by saying that it would reduce racial barriers. The ruling that ended Mexican Studies in Tucson schools asserts that "people are individuals, not exemplars of racial groups," as if the two categories were mutually exclusive. I am an individual, but I can be understood fully only in the context of many groups to which I belong. To insist that ethnic or racial perspectives do not exist is to reinforce the privilege enjoyed by whatever ethnic or racial perspectives have already dominated public discourse.

In preparation for the law going into effect yesterday, a number of books were removed from classrooms -- with students and teachers present. Teachers have been forbidden not only to teach certain ideas to their students, but also from discussing the entire matter with anybody else. The First Amendment, in other words, has been suspended.

Anderson Cooper examines the issue in an interview with one of the key proponents of the restrictions, Arizona Superintendent Tom Horne, and Georgetown sociology professor Michael Eric Dyson, who refutes some of Horne's more implausible claims. For good measure, Cooper includes a clip of one of my three favorite Republicans at the moment -- California Gov. Schwarzenegger -- openly mocking the string of race-driven laws in his neighboring state.

On the first day of the ban, I read several passages from one of the banned books, The House on Mango Street. I did so because the book illustrates many of the concepts that the future teachers in my class will need to teach as geographers. This was part of a campus-wide and nation-wide teach-in, as educators far from Arizona recognize the importance of this case.

The site is hosting a petition drive that asks the TUSD school return the banned books to the classrooms. I also wrote individually to the TUSD Communications Officer, and received a copy of the district's press release in reply. The board's position is that no book banning has taken place, but it admits that books have been removed from classrooms and are available in school libraries. According to the American Library Association, this constitutes a book ban. No matches were involved, but the freedom to read has still been abridged, as has the ability for teachers to teach.

I subsequently wrote the following to Governor Brewer, though I doubt she will be much worried about my thoughts:

I enjoyed living in Arizona from 1990 to 1994, when I earned my doctorate in geography and Latin American Area Studies at the University of Arizona; I also worked as a substitute in the Amphitheater schools. I benefited greatly from learning, teaching, and living in a Tucson's rich, multicultural environment. I draw on that experience now in my own teaching and in my enjoyment of music, food, and other manifestations of Latino culture with which I became most familiar while living in Arizona.

I am shocked and saddened by the current turn of events, in which bigotry is now driving curriculum. As in Orwell's 1984, the official discourse is one in which words are divorced from their true meanings, so that the oppressed are characterized as oppressors, and vice-versa. But nobody is fooled, and Arizona continues to marginalize itself further from the mainstream.

I hope that you will take measures to help return Arizona to the kind of place that people -- other than the most narrow-minded -- would enjoy visiting or residing.

Arizona is the current battleground, but we should be clear that in the "Land of the Free" many consider themselves free to limit what other people read. This map of recent book challenges produced by the American Library Association is far from complete, but it does suggest that vigilance is warranted wherever we live and teach. Readers can learn more about how to exercise that vigilance from the Banned Books Week MaxGuide, produced by my very own favorite librarian, or from her annual BBW display.

A final word from Steven Colbert, who proves that imitation is the greatest form of mockery.