60 Years of Geography at Augustana

Nov 15, 05:33 PM

by Nick Borchert — Augustana College

On October 16-17, the Augustana College Geography Department hosted “The Geography 60th Anniversary Symposium: A Celebration of Learning, Research, and Service.” Dozens of graduates of Augustana’s geography program returned for the symposium, which coincided with the college’s Homecoming Weekend. Over the two-day celebration, twelve presenters shared their professional experiences in geography. These former Augustana students included college and university professors, a high school teacher, government officials and community planners, and owners and directors in business and industry. After the Friday presentations, Augustana professors Norm Moline, Charles Mahaffey, and Reuben Heine led the participants on a field trip on the Mississippi River aboard the department’s “Steward-Ship” boat.

If you happened to be an editor for a publication that concerns itself with issues of sustainability and localism, there was much at the symposium to catch your attention. The presentation with the most overt localist implications was the account of the goings-on in Augustana’s geography department given by Dr. Charles Mahaffey, chair of the department and member of the faculty for 32 years. In regards to the Quad Cities area surrounding the Rock Island, Illinois college, Mahaffey said, “Our department is bound up in this place.” This was no surprise coming from the professor who, along with Dr. Jason Peters of the English department, has taught for the past three years in the Environmental Literature and Landscapes Learning Community that has been featured in several other news articles in Local Culture. Mahaffey described the ways in which the Geography Department at Augustana seeks to cure its students of the modern malaise of the “multiply situated self” by locating the education within a particular physical context and “helping the student to develop a geographical imagination.” In addition to their good work with the students, the four members of the Geography Department have logged, by Mahaffey’s estimate, over 100 years of service on boards in the Quad Cities area. “We feel obligated to go out to the community, and the community has been gracious enough to come to us.” Mahaffey’s message of place consciousness and contextual education is a refreshing reprieve from the typical academic agenda, which treats place as irrelevant and encourages professionalization rather than holism.

Curt Roseman, Professor Emeritus of Geography at the University of Southern California, discussed similar initiatives in his department for involving students and faculty with the surrounding community. “Other public universities in the U.S. have a long history of ignoring their surroundings or being fearful of their surroundings, and the people in those surroundings have a history of being fearful of the universities.” Thanks to the efforts of Roseman and others in his department, USC is now one of the best universities in the nation in terms of community interaction. For example, geography students keep a map of the surrounding neighborhoods, which includes the location of many previously unrecognized landmark historic buildings. The school is also extending its hand to the low-income families in its area. Students who complete the university’s Neighborhood Academic Initiative from 6th-12th grade are guaranteed a full ride scholarship to USC.

Other presenters did not address localism or sustainability directly, but when the discussion is about place, those issues are rarely far from the fore. For example, when Sandy Fecht, Lake Level Program Hydrologist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, mentioned a lake-front property owner who wanted the state’s permission to grout the bottom of a Minnesota lake in order to prevent the water level from dropping in times of drought, I was not hard-pressed to draw the causal arrow between the consumers’ demand for unceasing entertainment and the degradation of local landscapes. And when Americans aren’t trying to control nature in order to better recreate in it, they’re doing so for economic gain. Another speaker, Paul Osman, Manager of the Statewide Floodplain Programs for the Illinois Office of Water Resources, has repeatedly had to fight battles against Illinois municipalities who have wanted to construct levees and dams in order to secure undeveloped land for future development. This occurs most frequently in the St. Louis area, says Osman, where, although the Mississippi River is already threatening to burst its banks in many places, cities have repeatedly requested levee construction in yet-undeveloped areas. It is exactly this sort of economic tunnel-vision that leads to community environmental disasters like the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. We cannot hope to control a Mississippi River that continues to rise indefinitely, yet that is precisely what it will do if new levees continue to be built and old levees continue to be raised. Yet so long as the prevailing measurement of community health is growth, there is little hope that communities will learn to work with, rather than against, the natural ecosystems of their areas.

But growth does continue to be the key yardstick by which communities measure themselves, as another speaker, Clayton Lloyd, former Director of Community and Economic Development for nearby Davenport, Iowa, made clear. “We have always in this city—and I think in most cities—wanted to have growth,” said Lloyd. “There is a sense of health when development occurs.” Never mind that this “sense of health” is almost always illusory, and that most growth is in fact cancerous to the city proper, tending as it does to produce sprawl and suburbanization. To Lloyd’s credit, he recognized that not all growth is good growth. He bemoaned the fact that in Davenport, while the size of the population has remained fairly constant over the past three decades, there has been a decline of over 20,000 residents in the city’s core and fringe areas. Development in the outlying areas has covered the difference. These statistics are not unrelated. “Healthy” development in the outliers, in the form of cul-de-sac neighborhoods, commercial districts, and big box department stores, has rendered the city itself unattractive to those with money.

Growth also remains the key determinant of the economic success of businesses, much to the detriment of the locales in which those businesses set up. Presenter Tom Weigand, co-founder of the restaurant Noodles & Company, discussed the ways that his training as a geographer has helped him to pick the business locations “that [are] going to result in the highest volume of sales—which is the measurement we use for success.” Noodles has expanded relentlessly since its inception in 1995, and its stores now number over 220 and reach from coast to coast. This scale of business necessitates that Weigand’s location selection process be formulaic. Whereas the owner of a single restaurant locates in his own community or neighborhood, caters his menu and marketing to the people he serves, and is perfectly content to run one moderately successful restaurant—in other words, his operation is entirely compatible with the ideal of a self-sufficient community—a chain-restaurant owner is a transient, locating his businesses where the development is occurring and encouraging development in the city’s outliers. To quote Weigand, “The perfect scenario is a big business park over here, a big neighborhood over here, and a big shopping center in the middle.” This is indeed the outdated picture of a healthy economy, but the healthy local economy of the post-oil future has no room for such transient entities as office parks, chain-store shopping centers, or the kinds of upper middle class sprawled-out neighborhoods that Weigand has in mind. Thankfully, Weigand’s attempt to hire a consultant to develop an algorithmic “site selection model” resulted in an “unacceptable level of site variance,” meaning that, for now, locations must still be selected by hand. This has led Weigand to the conclusion that “site selection is both art and science.” “The best approach,” he says, is to “learn the local geography.” Apparently this takes “a few days” of watching the people, traffic, and activity in an area, though I know of no other great art that can be started and completed in such a short span.

During the course of his introductory remarks, Dr. Norm Moline, another long-time member of Augustana’s Geography Department, recommended to young geographers that they specialize in one place, because “they’re all so complicated.” I would add only that that one place ought more often than not to be the place in which the geographer actually lives. One excellent instance of such local expertise was to be found in Dr. Colin Belby, Assistant Professor of Geography at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, whose area of expertise is sedimentation in the Upper Mississippi River floodplain. Dr. Belby studies the effects that chemical runoff from farms and other industrial activities has had on the biotic systems in his own backyard, which gives him a level of investment in his work that must surely be lacking in an East Coast geographer who studies the Brazilian rainforests. In point of fact, we are all deeply invested in the life and health of the places in which we live; therefore must we all become, to a certain extent, experts about our regions. I see no good reason that Dr. Belby’s example should not become normative. Though my incorrigible eye has certainly been overly critical of some of the geographers who presented at the symposium, nevertheless, I remain unhesitant to applaud those geographers who use their expertise to understand and help others to understand the physical and cultural geography of their particular places, and to condemn those who use it otherwise.


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