A common perception of geography is that it mainly involves the memorization of capitals, rivers and countries, but in the CSUN geography department, students and faculty view the discipline in a number of intellectually stimulating and practical ways.
“Originally I thought geography was memorizing place names and staring at wall maps all day long,” said Stephen Kallemeyn, geography major.
Geography is a way to look at the world that prioritizes place and primarily asks the question of “where.” The department offers a variety of classes in cultural, physical and environmental geography, some of which are novel approaches to the discipline and some of which are traditional.
Cultural or human geography is interested in how people interact with space, physical geography is concerned with land and climate and environmental geography bridges the cultural/human and the physical.
“The first thing I say (to my students) is that we’re not going to learn capitals or rivers,” said Edward Jackiewicz, geography professor. “I would argue that the ‘old school’ geography is fading out.”
The biggest draw in the department is the Geographic Information Systems program, a technically sophisticated mapping technique used in virtually every imaginable area. Using GIS, geographers can create computer-generated maps where multiple variables are layered on top of a map showing, for example, the correlation between household income, crime and ethnicity in a certain area. The system can be used to map almost everything because it allows the geographer to apply any kind of data to a regular or three-dimensional map.
The department offers five classes in GIS, each limited to one section and to an enrollment capacity of 20 to 24 students. Most students get the GIS certificate, which entails taking classes from intermediate to advanced tutorials, and project-based courses where students’ knowledge of the software is combined with graphical presentation.
“I would equate the GIS field to the beginning of the Internet,” said Kallemeyn, who is a certified GIS freelancer. He recently got his GIS certificate at Antelope Valley College and is now working for both Lockheed Martin, one of the nation’s biggest weapons producers, and the Poppy Reserve/Mojave Desert Interpretive Association, a program that maps out areas in the Antelope Valley where poppy flowers grow. Kallemeyn’s part-time job in the environmental department at Lockheed, where he uses GIS to map out environmental hazard sites, pays, whereas the other job is meant to build his portfolio.
“If you know GIS, you will get a job,” said Steven Graves, professor of cultural geography. “We think that many more students should take (GIS classes) because of the job opportunities.”
CSUN’s geography department has two GIS computer labs with 50 computers equipped with state-of-the-art software.
“Things change fast in the real world so we want students to have experience with software that is being used today,” said Jason Mejia, who graduated with a master’s degree and now works as a lab technician for the department.
When the two labs are not being used to teach classes, students are free to use the computers to work on colorful mapping projects, some of which are on display in the department hallway.
Le Doung, geography senior, works together with geography professor Shawna Dark on a project that for the first time maps out the remaining wetlands areas in Southern California.
“I took a human geography class in high school and I fell in love with it,” said Duong, who specializes in cartography and GIS. “I like how it relates to people.”
For one of her advanced GIS classes, Doung did a hospital-suitability study for the San Fernando Valley, to determine the best location to place a new hospital.
“I stumbled into GIS,” said Shay Marcham, who graduated from CSUN with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and came back to earn a GIS certificate. “I’ll be able to get my foot into the door and get a decent pay.”
Starting next spring, the department will add a new course entitled Geography of Popular Culture, a combination of two fields many think of as non-associable.
“That’s exactly why I think it is important to offer a class like this,” said Graves, who designed and will teach the upper-division course. “It helps us redefine what geography is in people’s minds.”
Graves wrote his dissertation on the geography of the popular music industry and has taught the pop-culture class before at Louisiana Tech University. There, the course was initially taught to 40 students, but quickly grew very popular and expanded to 260 students by the time Graves left to work at CSUN.
The Geography of Popular Culture class will examine the interactions between pop culture and geography in such areas as music, fashion and trends, sports, cars, television, movies and the fast food industry. The coursework will mainly be comprised of reading and discussing scholarly articles, but Graves wants to incorporate the use of GIS and various diagnostic tools like maps and specialized sets of statistical data.
“Anybody who thinks they might end up working in a cultural industry, definitely the entertainment industry, ought to take this class,” Graves said.
In regards to fashion, the class will look at how trends often communicate identities that are linked to particular places. Similarly, the class will investigate how music is tied to geographical space.
“Why did the grunge sound come from Seattle?” Graves asked. “Why did Memphis produce rock ‘n’ roll in the first place?”
Other points of interest are how the fast food industry has changed American culture and the urban landscape, or how the layout of a shopping mall is designed to maximize consumption.
“We decided that this is a very important class because cultural industries are an important economic engine in the San Fernando Valley,” Graves said.
The geography department currently has 141 declared majors, including graduate students, and is ready to provide for more students should there be some, according to Antonia Hussey, the department chair. To spur interest in geography, the department staff visits local high schools to inform students of what the discipline could entail.
“We want to redesign and create new courses that we think students will be more interested in,” Jackiewicz said. He pointed out that in the Introduction to World Geography class, which is a lower-level G.E. requirement, students usually perform below average. Jackiewicz attributes the problem to the encyclopedic-style course literature that overwhelms students with terms and names, and discourages a broader understanding of geography. He suggests that the department should also offer an introduction course to human geography that could generate more interest and enrollment.
Although Doung’s parents first objected when she declared her major, she has found her place in the department. “They just didn’t know what I would be doing in geography,” Doung said.
She now works as a teacher’s assistant for Dark, one of the nations leading experts on wetlands.
“Everyone in this department is so friendly,” Doung said. “That’s why I like it here so much.”
Kallemeyn said he finds it easy to get freelance work and wants to find a job where he can travel.
“I’ve realized that geography is more of an approach to knowledge, not just dry academia,” said Kallemeyn, a self-proclaimed map enthusiast. “(With a GIS certificate) you don’t have to pick one particular field.”
Although the GIS program is the department’s most marketable education it is still fairly unknown and limited in enrollment, even though a certificate often lands students with jobs.
“The geography department is a hidden secret on campus,” Jackiewicz said. “Students come here and say ‘I had no idea this was geography.'”