Member Profile: Marissa Isaak Wald
Marissa Isaak Wald opens up the world for her geography students at Central New Mexico Community College (CNM), often starting from home. Whether it’s case studies of New Mexico’s rivers and mountains or lessons on the reasons and means for human habitation in the Southwest, Wald often initiates local and regional study, using current events to widen the scope, showing her students how to use spatial thinking and tools to understand and act on issues at all scales: climate change, urban development, war, and, especially in the last several years, public health.
CNM offers an Associate of Arts degree in Geography and Environmental Studies, one of at least 210 geography degree-granting community colleges in the United States. It also has transfer agreements with many 4-year universities, including a cooperative relationship with the University of New Mexico, which accepts CNM students to continue toward a geography bachelors’ degree. As one of two full-time professors teaching geography, Wald teaches world, human, and physical geography.
“I think of all my classes as recruitment tools into the field,” she says. “What’s the best way to recruit? You share the absolutely most fascinating parts of the discipline. So in 2021, in political geography, we spent a lot of time on electoral geographies, and Census, and these kinds of questions, because it was the issue of the day. This year, I might spend more time on geopolitics because we have war in Ukraine. I take whatever I find most interesting and help my students dive deep into it with me. We [geographers] are our own best recruiting tool.”
Wald also cares about the elements of her classroom beyond subject matter. One empowering skill she works on with students is how to ask good questions.
“It is a muscle that’s atrophied, for a lot of students, whether beaten down in prior education settings or just because there was no opportunity, so they need a lot of practice, and they don’t know it from the beginning.” She encourages students to think deeply about “what is a good question? What are answerable questions? What questions are located in place? I want students to think spatially, find relationships between seemingly unrelated things, and to understand systems that affect our whole planet.”
Such critical inquiry calls for an atmosphere of trust. “I’ve been thinking a lot about relationships, and how important they are in higher education, and how we sort of pretend that they aren’t.” Wald draws from bell hooks’ work on connection and power in the classroom, and also recently completed a fellowship year in which she studied trauma-informed scholarship.
“An epiphany that I had last year,” she recalls, “Was that we used to teach with the assumption that some percentage of people in our classroom have experienced trauma; now we must teach with the assumption that we are all traumatized individuals.” Wald works to make her classroom a welcoming place for people of vastly different life experiences. ”You need to create relationships of safety before you get into geographic thinking.”
COVID-19 has made that classroom ever more varied: “I teach physical geography, lab, world, regional, human geography, in all the modalities: in-person, online, hybrid, real-time hybrid, asynchronous, all of those things.” In one semester, each of Wald’s five classes might be in a different modality, with up to 30 students per class. To make it all work, “I try to focus on the core contributions of the discipline.”
Wald says that when she went on the job market, she consciously applied only to community colleges. One reason was a love of teaching—community colleges emphatically focus on teaching and learning. Another was professional boundaries and work-life balance, without the added pressure to pursue and supervise research for publication. The students, of course, are a big part of why she enjoys the work.
“I have brilliant students,” she says. “And my students have incredible lived experience. Just recently I taught a firefighter who worried about missing work during fire season.” Wald has taught members of the military, people in their 60s returning to school, and 16-year-olds earning dual degrees. Her students are also diverse in background and ethnicity, a common feature for many community colleges.
She’s enthusiastic about the keystone role of community colleges in equitable access to education. “Community colleges are the on-ramp to higher education for many Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and other minoritized students,” she said. “If you’re interested in attracting more diverse students to become geographers, community colleges need to be part of the mix.”
Prospective instructors need to understand the crucial role today’s community colleges in higher education, before seeking out a career at a CC. “This job is not a second-place prize for someone who would rather be at a four-year institution,” says Wald. “You have to learn what community colleges are before you decide to do this. People should approach getting a job at a community college with the same rigor with which they approach a job at a four-year college.”
“Being a teacher is a radical act,” she says. “I think of myself as a radical actor for many reasons, such as giving students opportunities that wouldn’t exist for them otherwise, and letting them into the ‘secret language and hidden curriculum’ of higher ed,” for example, by teaching them the ins and outs of requesting a recommendation letter.
Wald keeps a poem by Shel Silverstein pinned to a wall outside her office, sending out a friendly signal to those who might need or want a place in her classroom:
If you are a dreamer, come in,
If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,
A hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer…
If you’re a pretender, come sit by my fire
For we have some fla-golden tales to spin.
Find out more about the rise of community college geography programs.
Check out AAG’s Community College Affinity Group and 80+ other specialty and affinity groups.