Geographical Studies: More Than Maps

Tight-knit program challenges students to approach problems from a place-centered perspective
Photo by: 
Katrina Nygaard, Class of 2013
Geography offers a way of thinking about the world, seeing it as a spatial composition.

Professor Michael Conzen deplores the misconceptions that many people have about his field of study. "The thing that gets me most quickly upset is when somebody says, 'Well, isn't geography just lists of state capitals and longest rivers and highest mountains?' and I throw up my hands and think, 'Too bad that high schools here [in the U.S.] don't offer a proper picture of what geography as a modern analytic science has to offer.'"

The Geography major at UChicago, however, strives to do just that. Professor Conzen is one of two full professors, along with Professor Marvin Mikesell, in the Committee on Geographical Studies, and both of them aim to impart the true flavor of their discipline to students. "Geography offers a way of thinking about the world, seeing it as a spatial composition," Conzen explained. In addition to Conzen and Mikesell, five lecturers contribute courses to the curriculum, together with a few cross-listed courses from cognate fields with geographical content.

It's a select group that chooses to major in Geography: there are 26 current majors, and eight students graduated with the degree last year. Unlike the Geography departments at large state universities, UChicago's program is small—the Geography program is not a full department but a committee. "We are trying to do the impossible with very few resources," said Conzen.

But the size does have its positives. Each student benefits from individualized attention from the instructors as well as support from other students: "While [the major is] not really a formalized community, the fact that it is such a small community means that everyone has had a similar set of shared experiences, like Professor Mikesell's intro course or one of Professor Conzen's required class field trips. In my experience, Geography majors are incredibly supportive of one another," said fourth-year Katie Lettie.

Classes form the bulk of these shared experiences, in which students learn theories that enable them to analyze the world from the perspective of spatial organization. Professor Conzen offers several classes with a field trip component, during which students test the theories they learn in class against physical evidence. In "Changing America in the Twentieth Century," for example, Professor Conzen leads students on a weekend field trip to the Quad Cities. "It's one thing to hear of the decline of the U.S. manufacturing industry and the rise of tech, and another to see the shuttered Main Streets of Midwestern towns and [the] massive modern tech campuses built outside of Chicago," said fourth-year Julia Quigley. The program rounds out its offerings with a three-quarter sequence in GIS, a database software whose unique mapping capability is a valuable asset in research and industry.

Professor Conzen discussing a portion of the first paved rural road in Illinois, as part of a field trip for his course "Changing America in the Twentieth Century." (Photo courtesy of Julia Quigley, Class of 2014)

The program's course requirements offer students great flexibility: only 11 courses are required for the major, and up to three may be listed in other disciplines. As a result, the major tends to attract self-directed students with clearly defined interests. Professor Mikesell noted that many Geography students are double-majors who choose to combine the analytic tools geography supplies with their own specific areas and issues of interest.

"To be a Geography major, you have to be very independent," said Patrick Dexter, a fourth-year in the major. "You're very much encouraged to apply the things you learn about to your actual experiences in urban areas."

Geography majors are freest to explore their own ideas within their BA thesis, a required and central component of the major. Though students often express anxiety about the thesis, Professor Mikesell applauds the quality of the finished papers: "I feel very good about the program, because I think the senior theses are very good," he said. "If somebody were to say, 'Well, we want to judge your program,' I'd say that's what you would look at."

Students' BA research has taken them all over the globe: while many projects focus within the U.S., students have conducted their research in such far-flung locales as Tajikistan, Chile, and South Africa. To offset travel costs, students can apply for the Committee's Ann Natunewicz Travel Award, a grant provided by an alumna of the major who so appreciated the experience of writing her BA thesis that she wanted to support research for later majors.

Funded by this grant, fourth-year Jane Bartman traveled to Scotland in September 2013 to conduct fieldwork for her thesis project. "A topic that has interested me is the movement for Scottish independence from the United Kingdom—they're having a referendum on whether Scotland should leave the UK in September of 2014," Bartman said. "I did some more research into that, and I came up with the topic of modern Scottish national identity, and how the urban environment of Edinburgh reflects and constructs that identity."

The Scottish Parliament building, one of the Edinburgh sites that Jane Bartman is studying for her BA thesis. (Photo courtesy of Jane Bartman, Class of 2014)

Geography majors find that they can apply the analytic skills they've developed to a variety of opportunities after college. Sam Brandt, AB'13, for example, works as a research assistant for two architectural practices in England, a job that came directly out of his research on ring roads in post-industrial English cities.

Some students find careers in government agencies and private sector companies, while many go on to graduate school in geography or related fields, such as urban planning, policy studies, and even law. Katrina Nygaard, AB'13, who is enrolled in the Master's of Urban and Regional Planning program at the University of Minnesota, said that for her, "transitioning to a graduate program has been very easy because it is structured much like UChicago's Geography department."

To conclude each academic year, Professor Conzen opens up his home on one weekend afternoon during Spring Quarter to host a get-together for Geography majors and friends, an event known as the "Geo-Gathering." Guests munch on homemade salad and lasagna from the Med, while fourth-years present their BA research and post-graduation plans, and several of them receive awards and special honors.

Attendees of the Geo-Gathering come away with bellies full and minds broadened. "The point," according to Dexter, "is to appreciate how diverse the major of Geography is and appreciate how the field of geography unites so many disparate interests and disparate life paths."

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