November 16, 2020

BERNSTEIN | Cornell Should Create a Department of Geography

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Monday, Nov. 16 marks the first day of Geography Awareness Week. The third week of every November, students, educators, organizations, policymakers and geographers alike celebrate the often undervalued and understudied discipline. Geography can be used to study the physical properties of our world or the human societies and cultures that inhabit it. 

Indeed, the field is increasingly relevant today, and for Cornell to accomplish its goals of enhancing academic exploration and preparing students for the future, a department of geography must be created.

On the surface, geography may seem like nothing more than making maps or memorizing capitals. But it’s much deeper. Climate change, population growth and globalization are each inherently geographical and important topics for today’s students. Geography can be used to dive deeply into these subjects and explore solutions to the issues they pose.

Perhaps the most important problem faced by our generation is climate change, which affects environments differently based on geography: landscapes, populations and borders all have an impact. Studying geography can help people research, combat and prepare for climate change.

In fact, the University of Oregon’s climate studies minor and Dartmouth College’s climate change science minor are each housed in the schools’ respective departments of geography; at these places they believe that in order to study how our climate works, you must take geography courses.

Geography is used every day to more deeply understand climate change. We can look to the work of Chris Funk, a research geographer and climatologist for the United States Geological Survey, as an example of this. His team uses geography and specifically geographical information systems to study ocean temperatures worldwide. They can use this data to predict rainfall patterns, and thus droughts and floods, in East Africa. Funk’s research helps people know when to stock up food or evacuate, and it shows geography can help prepare for the effects of climate change.

Geography can also help us answer questions about population, demography and resources in our developing world as well. The world population is expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050. Where will these people live? Where will they get their food? How will this impact our planet’s environment?

Human geography, the study of how humans affect and are affected by geography, is especially relevant in answering these questions. For instance, Prof. Susanne Friedberg, Dartmouth College, studies the geopolitical and social relations that determine how food gets from farm to market, to which market it goes, and how that process affects both cultural and natural environments. Geography students at Dartmouth can learn alongside her and take classes where they learn about things like population distribution and distribution of resources in a geographical light.

And as our population grows, we as humans have become more interconnected. Globalization is growing and we rely on information from all sorts of people, regardless of nationality. Learning from each other is best accomplished when we understand each other: our backgrounds, histories and cultures. In this way, geography can help us make sense of globalization.

Geography lends itself to studying international development and the comparison of cultures and environments. These studies ask students to step away from their own preconceptions that they get from their own bubbles and to learn globally. Geography majors who concentrate in international development at Dartmouth learn about domestic politics, environmentalism and inequality in other countries, even sometimes doing field research abroad. This kind of studying prepares students to go about life in a globalized world.

It also should be recognized that geography is extremely interdisciplinary. Hard science involving the studies of climate and Earth’s physical properties are paired hand-in-hand with social sciences to understand populations, societies, policies and cultures. The University of Oregon’s six concentrations of the geography major range from focusing on the economy and sustainability to geopolitics and culture to geographic information systems.

Geography’s breadth adds to its intrigue but also its relevance. It’s useful for the problems of our future and its study is an integral part of adequately preparing students to face them. In fact, Cornell already knows this.

Geographic breadth has long been a requirement in the College of Arts and Sciences because the college wants to ready its students for a truly global world. However, with the old curriculum fading away, the geographic breadth requirement is going with it. 

To both make up for its loss and to truly cement geography as an important subject at Cornell, a department for its study must be created. Thankfully, across the university’s many schools, majors, and disciplines, the infrastructure to do so already exists. 

Across Cornell’s colleges, classes can be found that resemble those in other schools’ geography departments. To name a few, the Departments of city & regional planning, international & comparative Labor, policy analysis & management, development sociology, international agriculture & rural development, sociology, anthropology, and government all have classes that in one way or another study geography.

These classes provide great opportunities, but an organized department would offer so much more. Cornell students deserve the freedom to study geography in different ways, like environmental and physical geography, human and population geography, or international development and comparative geography. All of these topics are so different, but so inherently related — and they’re also all important for the future. 

Geography as a discipline is neither widely taught nor well-taught nationwide. That’s why a Geography Awareness Week exists in the first place: to lend appreciation to an intriguing, important, and fading study. There are few better ways to celebrate than to embrace that Cornell must create a department for the study of geography.

Daniel Bernstein is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at dgb222@cornell.edu. Feel the Bern runs every other Monday this semester.