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Geography Explores New Terrain

Surveying the boundaries of an expanding discipline

I would advise you never to read the history of any country, till you have studied its Geography.


In 1769, the year Dartmouth was founded, students were using geography to conduct three-dimensional surveying, dialling (the theory and practice of sundials), and navigation using textbooks and maps. They used terrestrial and celestial globes, which were so rare that they were considered endowed gifts to the College. Today, Dartmouth students are using geography in increasingly interdisciplinary ways, taking advantage of the cutting-edge technology of Geographic Information System (GIS) to analyze some of the world's complex problems. "We've gone beyond simple computer cartography," says Chair and Professor of Geography Frank Magilligan. "GIS is now fundamental to many of our analytical approaches."

1676 map of New England
John Speed's 1676 hand-colored map of New England and New York, featuring waterways, mountain ranges, and the names of a number of Native tribes, is available for study in the Evans Map Room. According to Colin Calloway, Samson Occom Professor of Native American Studies and professor of history, "The cartogropher is not always accurate in the placement and naming of specific tribes, but Native peoples dominate the landscape and their presence and power clearly matter to the imperial project." (Photo courtesy Dartmouth College Library)

Dartmouth students use the powerful GIS platform to explore environmental, social, or logistical questions. In Environmental Applications of GIS, Caroline Burns '08 documented the optimal spots for landfills in Grafton County, N.H., while Katie Moerlein '08 tracked the movement of a glacier in Glacier Bay, Alaska, over the course of seven years. Maxwell Schwartz '07 recommended sites for new wildfire dispatch centers in northwestern Montana, and Brian Schwartz '08 analyzed the economic impact of Wal-Mart stores in Los Angeles County. "I've heard a lot about Wal-Mart, but I wanted better insight on what the truth of the matter really was," says Schwartz.

Guiding many of the students in their GIS projects is Assistant Professor of Geography Xun Shi. "Shi has a knack for breaking complexities down to simple concepts," says Ben Wilson '07. For Wilson's senior thesis, he works with Shi on a GIS map available online that tracks the status of home rebuilding in the Gentilly district of New Orleans. "The purpose of the online map is to allow residents to share information that could aid in restoration decision-making," says Wilson. Shi also works with students on a National Institutes of Health project investigating the potential relationship of environmental factors to lung cancer incident rates in New Hampshire.

Xun Shi, Caroline Burns, and Brian Schwartz
(Hundreds of years forward) Assistant Professor of Geography Xun Shi (left) works with Caroline Burns '08 and Brian Schwartz '08 using a very different kind of map for their term projects. (Photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

Professor of Geography Richard Wright, the Orvil E. Dryfoos Professor of Geography and Public Affairs and a 1998 Guggenheim Fellow, says he worked with Tina Catania '05 on a senior honors thesis that documented trends among Hispanic/Latino Americans who mark "other" for their race when filling out the U.S. Census. "What was new about Tina's study was that she found that Mexicans in some areas of the United States were more likely to identify with being Hispanic/Latino than in other parts of the country, and these differences could be dramatic," says Wright. "Her work thus took quantifiable ethnic data—such as the Census collects—and showed the degree to which and where some of these categories were unstable. We then tried to find out why. It's a fascinating study."

In 1948, the president of Harvard University James Conant famously called geography "not a university subject" and many colleges stopped teaching it. But Dartmouth wasn't listening. It remains the only college in the Ivy League with a distinct geography department, says Magilligan, and majors in the subject increased from 17 last year to 34 this year. Next year, 38 are signed up.

Magilligan is justifiably proud of his department's stature. "The cumulative quality of teaching and advising, the publication outputs, the level of scholarship ... The caliber of our faculty is on par with the best departments in the United States," he says. Magilligan also points to a 2007 Annals of the Association of American Geographers article on floodplain development written with Rebecca Manners '04, now a graduate student at the University of North Carolina. "That journal is THE publication outlet amongst geographers," he says, "and this was Rebecca's senior honors thesis at Dartmouth."

In A Look into the History of Geography at Dartmouth College (1977), the late Professor of Geography Emeritus Robert B. Simpson wrote that geography's breadth has enabled it "to slip freely back and forth between the physical and social sciences, in a world which increasingly demands ways of bridging interdisciplinary gaps." Simpson's words still ring true today as geography students tackle such collaborative topics as race and gender studies, human impact on the environment, and the political ecology of international development. "We're not the largest department," says Magilligan. "But we're an important node of the intellectual and social life on campus."


The Evans Map Room

Dartmouth's map room has a geography of its own. Established after World War II in Baker Library's Tower Room, in 1969 it moved to the Reserve Corridor. Thanks to the generosity of Dartmouth Trustee R. Bradford Evans '64 and his wife, Barbara, Dartmouth's maps now enjoy a prime spot in Berry Library. The Evans Map Room houses a collection of more than 189,000 sheet maps and 3,000 atlases, books, journals, CD-ROMS, aerial photos, and a broad array of topographical maps.

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Last Updated: 5/30/08