Chris Mayda

- 2016

Chris Mayda, a Professor in the Department of Geography and Geology at Eastern Michigan University, who was a champion for sustainability and alternatives ways of thinking and living, passed away in March 2016 after a long-term illness.

Mayda’s entry into academia came as change of career and life-direction in her mid-forties. At the time she was investing in real estate in California but realized that it wasn’t for her.

In her own words, “I went back to school so that I could be who I really am, a geographer. I live it and breathe it every day.” She was interested in the intersection of humanities and science, particularly how people deal with their land.

She studied for a master’s degree in geography at California State University, Northridge, graduating in 1994, followed by a PhD in geography at University of Southern California, with a dissertation entitled “Passion on the Plains: Pigs on the Panhandle” examining the commercial hog industry. She completed this in 1998 at age 50, the same time her son graduated from high school.

While many institutions may not consider offering a 50-something year old their first a tenure-track position, the Department of Geography and Geology at Eastern Michigan University (EMU) took her on in Fall 1999 as an Assistant Professor. It was a decision that they did not regret: it was once claimed that she accomplished the work of three faculty members in her fifteen years at EMU.

She was hired to teach in the department’s Historic Preservation and Geography programs, including her signature approach to the American Cultural Landscapes course, as well as a course in Settlement Geography.

Within a few semesters, she also began teaching the course on the Regional Geography of the United States and Canada, which ultimately became the most popular upper division regional course in the recent history of the geography program, especially among College of Education students and Geography majors.

Moreover, this teaching assignment initiated a ten-year investment of her time developing and writing A Regional Geography of the United States and Canada: Toward a Sustainable Future which was published by Rowman & Littlefieldin 2012. In the course of researching this book, she visited all 50 U.S. states and the provinces of Canada looking at rural and agricultural geography, and also undertook a six-week, 600-mile trek along the U.S./Canadian border. The book discussed of the physical and human geography of the United States and Canada while weaving in the key themes of environment and sustainability. It demonstrated the diversity and richness of each region as well as the fundamental connections that link the continent. This book remains the only regional geography text with a focus on sustainable human-environment interaction.

She took a holistic and ecological perspective, believing that humans needed to re-evaluate their goals and adopt a more sustainable mindset. She utilized systems thinking to conceptualize this. Her personal and research interests in sustainability led to the development of a General Education course titled Thinking Sustainably, and she spearheaded the development of a sustainability minor for the Environment & Society component of the Interdisciplinary Environmental Science and Society (IESS) degree program.

She also collaborated on special topics courses including Sustainable Cities and Unthinking Consumerism.  During a recent two semester sabbatical leave she wrote a new book on sustainability: Think: The Renaissance of the Ecological Age, which was under review for publication at the time of her death.

She also sought to live out a more-sustainable and less-consuming lifestyle in practice. She was known for her efforts to make the EMU campus and community more green, promoting bike riding and the more efficient use of energy resources on campus.

Mayda was a prolific scholar in terms of her numerous publications, professional and public presentations, and will be both long remembered and missed for her abundant energy and passion for teaching and mentoring her students. In the words of a recent graduate of the Historic Preservation program: “She definitely changed my life. She was unique and I especially appreciated that she embraced change, reinventing herself along the way.” 

With thanks to Eastern Michigan University for most of the material in this obituary.