Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Bad Salamander

The Mass Moments list to which I subscribe recently reminded us of an ignoble anniversary -- the creation north of Boston of the gerrymander -- a legislative district crafted by Elbridge Gerry (pronounced "Gary") and shaped like a salamander. Very early in the history of the United States -- at the first opportunity, actually -- a politician figured out how to select his voters, while giving the appearance that the opposite was taking place.
How can people not go to jail for this kind of fraud?
Back in 2010, I wrote in some detail about the sordid geography of gerrymandering -- including some examples of shameless disenfranchisement. Article One: Enumeration refers to the fact that the framers of the Constitution tried to avoid exactly this problem, putting the geographic exercise known as Census at the very beginning of the document.

Right after the anniversary, I learned of a special summer course on redistricting offered by Tufts University in Boston. The course is intended mainly for mathematicians -- the word "geometry" is used instead of geography -- but it does acknowledge the role of Geographic Information Systems in creating districts.

The technology can be put to honest or dishonest uses; the key is distancing incumbents from the process, as former California Gov. Schwarzenegger makes clear in his comparison of Congress to herpes. Another practical explanation of the problem is found in series of hypothetical voting districts published by the Washington Post in 2015.

Seeing the limits of gerrymandering, some politicians are getting desperate -- fabricating voter fraud in order to justify any regulation that they think would give them an edge in choosing their voters. Congress also continues to deny full representation to more than 600,000 citizens in the District of Columbia. The concept of one person, one vote continues to be elusive.

Monday, February 13, 2017

PERU Geography of Coffee & Climate Change

BSU Travel Course, July 10-24, 2017

Application requires brief recommendations, a $25 fee, and a few other pieces

Join BSU geographers Dr. Rob Hellström and Dr. James Hayes-Bohanan for the experience of a lifetime this summer. And earn 3 credits in the process.

Two geographers are offering this version of the department's popular Geography of Coffee travel course in South America for the first time. Since 2006, the course has been offered in Nicaragua almost every January, and more than 100 participants have found it to be a life-changing experience, many of them returning on their own for weeks or even years at a time.

Bringing the course to Peru allows us to visit a coffee-growing area whose harvest season coincides with our northern-hemisphere summer break. Climate change has become an important part of all serous discussions of coffee; this course allows us to visit important climate-change research stations and coffee farms in the same journey.

This travel course begins with a drive from Lima to research stations in the Andes Mountains at elevations of 13,000 feet, where Dr. Hellström and his students and colleagues are studying the retreat of important glaciers. Our travel to the study site will include exploration of the contemporary cultural landscape and archeology of this part of the Andes, in part to give participants time to adjust to the very high altitude.

From there, we will return to Lima and then travel by air to the upper reaches of the Amazon Basin in the northern part of Peru. There we will spend several days visiting the Oro Verde Cooperative -- a network of farmers who produce organic coffee and cacao for export to Deans Beans in Orange, Massachusetts. We will learn all of the steps that are required to grow, harvest, and produce high-quality coffee and chocolate. We will also learn how working cooperatively allows farmers to contribute directly to the economic and social development of their communities.
Coffee (left) and cacao in the Oro Verde community.
This course will include instruction from the two professors and from local experts throughout the journey. Logistical support is being provided by an outfitter with whom  Dr. Hellström  has worked many times in previous travel. Translation from Spanish and Quechua will by provided throughout, but any competency in these languages will be put to good use.

Details of the program, dates, cost, and itinerary are on the Peru Program brochure (pdf)..

Learn more about Dr.  's climate research from BSU Weather - Peru. Learn more about Dr. Hayes-Bohanan's coffee teaching from For questions about the content of the course, contact us at or For questions about registration, payment, or financial aid, please contact the Study Abroad office at or or 508-531-6183.

This course is available to all. Financial aid may be available to BSU students with FAFSA on file. Aid application deadline is March 3, 2017.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Wheel of Geography

I have long appreciated this graphic by the late, great Dr. Harm de Blij, who was perhaps the most prolific writer of geography texts of all time, and a friend of our geography department in Bridgewater. (For more, see our department's remembrance page and a link to all de Blij references on this blog for more about this remarkable geographer.)

Seen more broadly, geography is at the intersection between two areas of learning that are considered areas of critical need in education: STEM education and Global Education.

At the intersection of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) and
Global Education
Geography in 3-4-5

It is fair to ask a bit more of geography. The fact that it seems to overlap with everything does not tell us what it is. The lack of clear limits suggests it is not about anything at all, as a geologist colleague once told me. For him, most disciplines have a clear subject, such as rocks. In reality, even geology is not defined by the rocks themselves, but to a set of questions, theories and practices related to rocks. Climbing rocks and making granite countertops, for example, are not geology, nor is throwing rocks at passersby.

Geography can be understood, as a discipline concerned with three questions, four traditions, and five themes. To wit:

3 Questions. Geography asks -- of just about anything -- Where is it? Why is it there? So what? We notice locations, patterns, and spatial relationships. Then we try to describe them, explain them, and apply them to problem-solving.

4 Traditions. Since the late 19th century, much of the work of academic geographers has fallen into several areas, identified in a famous speech to geography educators by William Pattison in 1960, available here with his own 1990 words of reflection. A few generations of geographers have found it helpful to place our own work in one or more of his broad traditions: spatial, area studies, man-land (now known as human-environment), and earth science.

5 Themes. When we teach geography, we try to include several of five themes that tend to define geographic thinking: Location, Place (it is not the same as location), Human/Environmental Interaction (there's Pattison again), Movement, and Regions. Read the NCGE Five Themes introduction to see what geographers mean when we use these terms.

Bouns: 18 Standards. If you have gotten this far and still want more details about geography is, please have a look at the National Geography Frameworks -- 18 ways to demonstrate geographic competence. The 18 standards are identified online, and a published version details benchmarks at three different grade levels (4, 8, and 12). The guidance document is published by National Geographic, based on its collaboration with three other major organizations -- the National Council for Geography Education, the American Association of Geographers, and the American Geographical Society. Together they inform our advice to curriculum committees and educational programs throughout the United States.

Advocacy. Geographers consider all of this pretty important for understanding the "real world" and our place within it. I have been working with colleagues in the Massachusetts Geographic Alliance and our allies in the Massachusetts Legislature to bring geography awareness to a wide audience and to return geographic education to a prominent place in the K12 curriculum. This advocacy work is considered so relevant to the Frameworks that a photo (taken by a BSU geography alumna) of a globe we brought to the State House is included at the beginning of both its print and online versions.