Want a Thriving Department? Focus on Undergraduate Success
I cannot think of a person in higher education who has not felt the pressure of maintaining and growing undergraduate enrollments. Undergraduates, who make up the large majority of the student body, are the people we devote most of our instructional efforts toward, and—as administrators constantly point out—are university’s primary source of revenue through tuition and fees. At public institutions, undergraduate success is also the primary focus of state legislatures looking at higher education metrics and state funding. Geography departments may literally live or die depending on their ability to maintain robust undergraduate enrollments and recruit majors.
I don’t think it’s pessimistic to suggest that a geography faculty member can’t control national economy, demographics, or tuition costs. So, what is a geography professor or department to do? The answer is simple:
Focus on undergraduate student success.
While many faculty seem to intuitively know how their programs can adapt to changing student needs and are able to naturally connect with undergraduate students, some of the rest of us get stuck in the culture and traditions of how we approach undergraduate education and interaction. So, I sought some pointers from the experts: undergraduate advisors (especially Dr. Leslie McLees, Undergraduate Program Director in Geography at University of Oregon). We identified some key ways in which faculty can address changing needs of students, through curriculum, advising, and experience. I don’t have room to adequately address overall student experience, so I’ll focus on the two areas in which faculty and undergraduate students formally interact.
Curriculum for a Changing Discipline
Students want to know that their degrees matter, and rather than dismissing the question of relevance, we need to embrace it. If we cannot justify why our degree matters, how can we expect students to do so, much less parents and legislators?
To prove relevance, we should teach students about geography and how to be professional geographers. We can continually adapt curriculum to the changing discipline and needs of students through modernized geography classes and sequences, professional development courses, and flexible, personalized major tracks.
Like it or not, a current trend seems to be the blurring of traditional discipline boundaries in favor of problem-based programs. A modernized geography curriculum represents current and future trends in the discipline, the changing physical and human landscapes of our planet, and ways to be professionals addressing the problems and opportunities posed by those changes.
One of the things that frustrates me is holding on to previous curricular sequences and class names. There has recently been a robust conversation about this on the AAG listserve that challenges holding onto course names such as: Human Geography, Geomorphology, GIS… The anthropology department on my campus has an introductory course titled: Pirates and Piracy. What do you think sounds more interesting to an undergraduate student, Pirates and Piracy or Introduction to Human Geography? When my sons were UO students, they took the anthropology version.
Another way to translate the need for a four-year degree is to integrate professional development or career management into the curriculum.
Don’t bristle. We’re not talking about vocational training.
Rather, we’re suggesting professional development through traditional routes such as internship or research experiences. Or, streamlined and direct experiences through a professional development course geared towards geography students. We have such a course in our department at the University of Oregon and it has been popular and successful. Moving beyond simply writing resumes and cover letters, it requires critical reflection on skills that students develop at college, training on how to tell their stories about developing those skills, practice in reaching out to people in the workforce, and development of a portfolio that forces them to articulate their proposed career paths. Think of it as a new-age capstone course that requires students to translate the sometimes lofty and theoretical content taught and learned in traditional geography courses into thinking about what it means to BE a professional, paid geographer.
And choices! Our undergraduate students have grown up with more choice than I could have even imagined. Recently, my husband Andrew and I were discussing network TV. Specifically, we were both complaining that our parents never let us stay up late enough to watch the entire episode of Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday night (turns out we both had to go to bed by 8:30pm). What’s half of the Wonderful World going to do for us? So, we both opted out. Our 8-year old minds couldn’t even imagine on-demand TV. And, yet, that’s how our kids have grown up.
That availability of choice has translated to demands for flexibility in our majors and curriculum choices.
Many colleges and universities are responding and offering programs with: enhanced flexibility, personalization (almost a design-your-own-major), and the absence of bottlenecks (i.e. removal of intense vertical integration that keeps students from completing specific required courses).
Advising and Experience Go Together
Approaches to advising vary considerably, but there has been a national trend towards centralized campus advising, which offers an opportunity to connect students to the many resources available on campuses, ranging from mental health and spaces for minoritized groups to financial aid, as well as classical guidance on major choice and requirements to obtain their degree. However, generating excitement about a relatively unknown discipline—which is unfortunately where geography usually lives—is difficult for a central advisor who lacks knowledge in the discipline and understanding of how a specific student’s interests can integrate with the major to provide skills that help them beyond their degree.
That level of advising takes place in departments.
Many geography programs designate an Undergraduate Director who is the face of the program for undergraduates. This UD is the ambassador and advocate both around campus and within geography. Maintaining strong connections with centralized advising not only helps those central advisors learn more about geography, but also helps identify our majors early, which means less time-to-degree, better within-major advising, and earlier connections with faculty and peers. Within the department, the UD not only understands the curriculum in-depth, but also moves advising beyond the checklist of classes to take. They are able to help students translate their course experiences into real-world relevance.
For many, the advisor is one of the closest relationships students will develop with faculty. Advising is more than classes. It is listening to a student and to students in general, hearing their concerns, and communicating with them to empower them to take charge of their learning and their future.
More than any other discipline, geography represents the dynamically changing physical and human planet. But, faculty and academia have…a bit of a pace problem. If we want geography to continue and thrive, we must keep up. We may have to let go of our ideal traditional geography program and the way we have always advised students.
In exchange, we may find ourselves building rather than simply teaching. And…launching alumni into the world who can think critically, engage responsibly, connect synthetically, and question routinely.
In other words, they’ll become geographers.
But, there is no “they” out there who will do it for us. As one of my senior colleagues once told me,
We are the They.
I’d like to thank Dr. Leslie McLees for providing ideas for this column (particularly in the area of advising). Contact her if your department is interested in learning more about integrating professional development into your geography program or discussing the possibilities of supporting a strong undergraduate program. lmclees [at] uoregon [dot] edu
AAG President and Professor at University of Oregon
lobben [at] uoregon [dot] edu
Please note: The ideas expressed in the AAG President’s column are not necessarily the views of the AAG as a whole. This column is traditionally a space in which the president may talk about their views or focus during their tenure as president of AAG, or spotlight their areas of professional work. Please feel free to email the president directly at lobben [at] uoregon [dot] edu to enable a constructive discussion.