What does getting a degree in geography actually entail? According to Stacie Townsend, a PhD candidate in the Geography Graduate Group at the University of California, Davis, it’s a lot more varied and diverse than most people think. Stacie discusses how geography can be used to explain everything from trends in public transportation to the fictional town of Hill Valley from the Back to the Future movie trilogy. And while she clarifies that geography isn’t always about maps, we still get her to share her favorite types of maps with us and tell us why she thinks maps are so important to understanding our place in the world.
You’re currently working on your PhD in Geography — when did your love of geography start?
I’ve been in love with geography since I was a little kid! The ‘geography facts’ worksheets that we would get in our weekly homework packets in elementary school were always the first ones I reached for. I couldn’t wait to open up our family atlas and find the answers, and then get lost looking over all the maps and information about all the countries of the world.
What is your focus of study in your program?
In my PhD program, I emphasize topics in human geography. So, that means the branch of geography that deals with human populations: the ways in which we impact the environment, how cultures are distributed, even how we come to know and comprehend the world. My specializations are in cultural geography and the GeoHumanities, particularly how we imagine and understand places through engaging with them through culture: literature, art, music, etc.
What’s one misconception of geography or studying geography you would like to clear up?
The question I get most often about the work I do is: “So… like maps and stuff?” And it’s true, many geographers work with maps and can use them as a common language across the discipline. But not all geographers utilize maps, and especially not the ones we’re most familiar with in the age of Google Maps and other GPS technologies. The core of geographic scholarship is really about spatial processes and thinking. How does place impact human or natural life? What can we learn about the world by understanding how things are spatially distributed? These are questions that really drive the work done by geographers.
You’re working on a media geography project– Geographies of Back to the Future. Can you tell me more about that?
Yes! This is a book that I am working on with a collaboration of other geographers. The research is about Back to the Future’s depiction of fictional Hill Valley, CA – which was meant to be a quintessential American town – and the many imagined ways this place changes over the course of the time periods in the movies. My chapter is about the so-called ‘dark horse’ of the trilogy, Part III, where Doc Brown and Marty McFly find themselves in the American West of the 1880s. My chapter tackles some of the inherent imagined geographies of this time and place in American history. The “Wild West” is an important place and time in how we as Americans view ourselves as a nation and a people; taking a geographer’s toolkit to deconstruct the idea a bit has been very interesting.
The book is currently under review by an editorial board, but anyone interested in following updates about publication should follow us on Twitter.
Any other cool projects you’re working on?
The beauty about geography is that the types of things you study can be quite diverse! I’ve recently conducted a study about urban agriculture practices and policies in Sacramento, CA; written a book review about abandoned homesteads in Nebraska; and am currently working on an article about geographic education in the college classroom.
Most people think of maps as being exclusively about borders and land masses. What other types of maps interest you or do you think are powerful pieces of knowledge?
You can map almost any kind of information, which I think is pretty amazing. I have always been really interested in maps that show density trends; for example, you can map how many people drive cars versus take public transportation in different metro areas. There’s almost no limit to what information about the world around us can be conveyed through mapping, whether it be very politicized communities (see: The Detroit Geographical Expedition), cartographic art (the work of Denis Wood), or creative atlases (Rebecca Solnit’s take on mapping San Francisco [image below] and New Orleans).
Do you have a favorite map (type, era, etc.)?
My favorite type of map, at least for looking at the whole world, are ones that use the Goode homolosine projection. You don’t see it used very often, because it isn’t in the shape of a rectangle, like most maps. Instead, it looks something like an orange peel laid out flat. Which makes sense– given the shape of our globe! The Goode homolosine projection is a nice way to show the continents because it doesn’t distort land masses and keeps them equal-area, unlike more traditional rectangular maps that use projections like the Mercator.
This year’s Geography Awareness Week theme is “Explore! The Power of Maps“. What do you think makes a map powerful?
Maps are powerful because they are constructed objects, each made with a specific purpose in mind. The mapmaker must make decisions about what the map will show and what it will necessarily omit. These decisions impact the information we receive from the map, which determines how we come to comprehend the world around us and our relationship to it.
Why should people care about geography?
Geography helps us to have a greater understanding of the world around us and our place in it. Geographic thinking lets us understand how we impact our environments and how they in turn impact our lives as well. Having a geographic vocabulary (ideas like place, scale, or distance) allows us to share and build upon what we know about the spaces we work, live and explore. Geographers study and engage with all aspects of space: countries and borders, natural environments, even spaces like outer space and cyberspace! Anytime you can ask, “where is this phenomenon happening?”, geography can help you get to the answer.