Career Profile: John Fraser Hart
John Fraser Hart is Professor of Geography at the University of Minnesota. Born in 1924, Fraser grew up in Hampden- Sydney, Virginia. After three years of active duty with the U.S. Navy in the Pacific Theater during World War II, he earned his graduate degrees in geography from Northwestern University (PhD 1950). Focusing on rural and agricultural geography, he has published in excess of 250 refereed articles, book reviews, and other publications, and more than a dozen books, including the award-winning, The Land That Feeds Us (1992) and his most recent The Changing Scale of American Agriculture (2003). A fixture in the landscape of American geography, Hart is also well known for his service to the profession, having fulfilled a one-year appointment as Executive Director of the AAG in 1965-66 as the association transitioned to a professional staff, edited the Annals from 1970-75, served as AAG President in 1979-80, and helped establish the Southeast Division of the AAG as a founding member. He has won scores of awards and honors for teaching and research. He lives in Edina with his wife of fiftyfive years.
This profile was published in 2004. Fraser is currently still a professor of geography at the University of Minnesota.
AAG: How did the place you grew up impact your later interest in geography?
Fraser: I spent summers on my grandfather’s farm and had the free run of the countryside and I’ve been interested in the countryside ever since.
AAG: When did you discover geography?
Fraser: In the navy.
AAG: Really? Tell me about it.
Fraser: I was on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific, and I was the intelligence officer. I had cognizance of the intelligence materials. I realized that a lot of what I was looking at was geography, and then realized I was woefully ignorant of a lot of the things I was looking at. After the war, I was drifting around and ended up at the University of Georgia for no particular reason except it that it was a great party school [laughs]. They told me I had to take courses, so I looked for one on the geography of the Pacific Ocean. I never found that course. I told them “Give me what you’ve got,” and wound up in a physical geography course.
AAG: How did your research area come to focus on rural/agricultural geography?
Fraser: That’s a two-fold answer. My thesis advisor encouraged me to study sheep farming in Scotland so I did my dissertation on that topic, then went back to Georgia to teach. At the time I was interested in urban geography but there were few cities to study and so I turned to an important question of the day in the area—what was going to replace cotton?
AAG: What do you find compelling about research and publishing in geography?
Fraser: I’m struck by the fact that publications are like children. You do your best, then turn them out into the world and they are no longer yours. You are proud of them, and you hope they do well, but your part is over and done with. It has a life of its own.
AAG: Do you have a favorite book you’ve written?
Fraser: The last one. [laughs]
AAG: Is that always the answer?!
Fraser: Probably so – there are a lot of them and each one has its points. I don’t think I have ever written anything that at some stage I don’t think “this is the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to write.”
AAG: You’ve had plenty of experience with that.
Fraser: And this fall I’m starting my 56th year of college teaching.
AAG: How many students have you taught?
Fraser: My hunch at Minnesota is between 30,000 to 40,000. I wish I had kept records.
AAG: Do you still enjoy it as much as the first time?
Fraser: I’m looking forward to it—10 o’clock tomorrow morning!
AAG: What is your favorite course?
Fraser: I’d have to say the Geography of the U.S. and Canada. To me Regional Geography is still the core of what we are doing, and teaching a regional course gives me a chance to share with students some of the fascinating things I’ve learned about a fascinating continent.
AAG: Anything you still hope to accomplish?
Fraser: Oh yes. I’m in the final throes of finishing a book, and will write another one next summer—a regional geography of Door County, Wisconsin, where my wife’s family has land.
AAG: What perspective on geography does your long history of work give you?
Fraser: You remind me that I’m the only person that presented papers at both meetings of the 50th and 100th anniversary of the AAG.
AAG: Wow. What do you think has changed most over the past fifty years?
Fraser: I think that geography is moving in a totally new direction. Geography has gone through major metamorphosis. You don’t expect anybody who’s been through the early stage to like all the new directions. Probably anybody over a certain age feels that way.
AAG: You have been member of AAG for more than fifty years. What keeps you going?
Fraser: Inertia. [laughs] I do enjoy going to regional meetings and interacting in smaller groups. The national meeting is a madhouse—I love it but it’s a madhouse. At the regional meetings you have a little more time to interact with people, and usually with different people.
AAG: What has been your most important contribution to geography?
Fraser: Other people have to decide that. We are very poor judges of our own work. I’ve had a lot of fun and done a lot of interesting things, it’s up to others to decide what was useful and what wasn’t.
Dr. Patricia Solis, 2004