Courses I’ll Be Teaching: Spring 2018

It’s November, meaning that for the undergrads, it’s registration time! Nothing quite like making students plot out their next round of classes right at the moment when they are at wits’ end with their current round. Fortunately, I’ve been enjoying my four classes this semester, and from my mid-semester evaluations and individual conversations, so have most of my students. This is fortunate, because I happen to be teaching four more courses in the Spring.

Whether or not I’ve had the pleasure of having you in one of my classes this semester, last Fall, or in my 101 sections in 2014-2015, take a look at these options for the Spring.

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(classicwines.com)

GEOG 101 – World Regional Geography

This will be my fifth time teaching this introductory course (fourth time at the University of Tennessee). It takes a humanities-oriented look at the globe and how we are all increasingly connected, taking time out to focus on all of the major World Regions. The list of case studies I use here is too long to write out here and consistently increasing, but today I discussed the geographic birth of the American Indian Movement and my colleague Emma did a guest-lecture about the Westward expansion of the US within our National Park system.


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That’s not me, but my friend Eric Dawson from the East TN History Center speaking to my GEOG 320 class last fall.

GEOG 320 – Cultural Geography: Core Concepts

This course overviews the building blocks for approaching and understanding the very broad concept of Cultural Geography. It includes lessons about the perpetually-growing subject of ‘sense of place,’ gender, the battle of space v. place, as well as case studies in film geography, music, sports, and possibly anything else that ‘makes’ culture. This will be my third time teaching this course, and I always look forward to building on it.


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Somewhere outside Segovia, Spain

GEOG 371 – Exploring Europe

One of my favorite quotes by Eddie Izzard was a throwaway line in Dress to Kill (1998): “I grew up in Europe – where the history comes from!” This class unpacks that phrase by taking a critical look at the geographic processes that have made Europe into Earth’s ostensible mission control center for the past 500 years despite being a rattling agglomeration of devolving nation-states all grappling for some semblance of identity. We look at the heavy-hitters as well as the bench players of the continent, complete with a hand-picked soundtrack from all over the map.


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GEOG 423 – American Popular Culture

This course will examine the relationship between the cultural geography of the United States and the amazing breadth of art, icons, and legends that have sprung from her soil. I’m not prepared to deliver a full syllabus just yet, but some of the topics we may have on tap include literature, popular music, television, Music Television, sports, food/drink, death, Vaudeville, and architecture. This course will be cross-listed with AMST 423 (American Studies), so I’m looking forward to meeting some folks from that department who may not have taken a Geography class yet.

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Music Geography 101: Kendrick Lamar (Compton, CA)

I recently assigned my Geography 101 course a writing project whereby they select a song with geographically-oriented content and report on all of that song’s inherent regionalisms. In the body of their assignment text, I include a list of suggested songs for anybody who may be interested in them or may have difficulty selecting a song on their own. The following is one of them.

Kendrick Lamar – “Compton State of Mind”

A few short years before Kendrick Lamar made modern music history with Good Kid m.a.a.d City and To Pimp a Butterfly (two records that social scientists and journalists are going to still be pontificating on for decades), he was just another “good kid” trying to make something out of himself in a city notorious for holding people down. It’s hardly shocking that most people cannot imagine Compton without N.W.A. springing to mind, even though almost twenty-seven years have passed since they changed the world. Also, Ice Cube remains busy starring in family-friendly blockbusters and directing ESPN documentaries (to be fair, he did great work putting together the 30 for 30 on the cultural legacy of the Los Angeles Raiders).

My personal exposure to Compton was limited to Blue Line metro rides through there and about four friends who lived or had grown up there (three of whom were Latino; the black one was a librarian and Oi! punk fan who had been childhood friends with Easy-E. Go figure.) So what was it about Compton that still thrills so many outsiders? Like it’s anchor city to the north, it is full of violent contradictions and even in an era of heavy gentrification still presents itself without compromise. Kendrick Lamar has no pretensions about his hometown, and in his messy mix tape appearance, he raps his way through it. Fittingly, he would close out his 2012 masterpiece with another song called “Compton” featuring (who else?) Dr. Dre. But here, despite being destined for hip hop greatness, the “good kid” becomes the aural tour guide we never knew we needed.

Regional Music (and) Geography 101

Now that it’s the summertime (academically, at least), I have a little bit of time to clean house and post some material that I’ve been gathering for the past few months. Thank you to those of you who’ve been following these postings for any longer than that. I wouldn’t have chosen geography if I wasn’t highly passionate about it outside of school in the first place, and this site gives me a chance to explain just why I am, in however many words. Occasionally (actually, surprisingly often, which I love) I get opportunities to dig into subjects like music, film, and the pale of popular culture to highlight geography’s relevance within the context of teaching it. Other than the fantastic ‘Back to the Future’ panel we had on Saturday, one of the highlights to this year’s AAG meeting was the first annual GeoSlam, an open-ended session where geographers of all stripes were invited and encouraged to share just what it was that drove them into the field. This came as a much-expected breath of fresh air in an environment that discourages us from injecting the subjective into our work. Until a certain point that our elders easily remember, the mere inclusion of an “I” would subject an article to rejection (this may still apply to some journals; thankfully, I couldn’t name them off the top of my head).

For my first two semesters teaching Geography 101, I assigned a paper about regionalism in music. My instructions are rather thorough; students are to select any song, from anywhere, that pick apart the geographic references inherent. What does the song teach us about that region? What about the songwriter influenced the regionalism in the song?Today, some argue that music is losing its sense of place. I argue that sense of place in music is more important than ever precisely because it’s perpetually easier for music to be placeless if it wants to be. I don’t begrudge bands for “Brooklynizing” (or, if we’re going to be blunt, watering down) their sound if they can still make a decent record.

This was hardly the first time music had been used to teach entry-level geography, and not even the first time a paper of this nature had been assigned (see Sarah Smiley and Chris Post’s excellent pedagogy article on “Using Popular Music to Teach the Geography of the United States and Canada” in Journal of Geography 113: 238–246). But I wanted to pose this question to students in Knoxville for a variety of reasons. Primarily, I wanted to give my students the opportunity to explore the geography of their own tastes through  a relatively open-ended, laid back assignment to counterpoint the excessive stress of the end of the semester. Geography can be everywhere, even in ostensibly mindless lyrics to your favorite song on the radio. The only restriction was (initially) no “Rocky Top” and no “Wagon Wheel.” I understand that these songs are overloaded with localisms pertinent to where we all sit, but I want students to step out of their comfort zone a bit. Also, the TA’s and I don’t want to have to read 100 papers about the same songs. I invited students to use other songs by Dolly Parton or the Oak Ridge Boys (whose name is a very literal regionalism in itself) if they would prefer. My mistake here, though, did not consider just how many students would turn in papers on Marc Cohen’s 1991 aural cardboard “Walking in Memphis.” That song did become a fun running joke among my staff and I, but I did add it to the ‘banned’ list for the spring semester, mainly because it’s a terrible song, but also because it misrepresents Memphis in all sorts of ways I need not go into here. A few other songs made their way onto multiple papers (e.g. “Copperhead Road” by Steve Earle, “Crazy Town” by Kenny Chesney, and various Alabama songs), but none quite offensive enough to warrant any restriction.

What I did do in the spring semester was provide a list of optional songs (several of which I’d be surprised if your typical college-age student today knew terribly well) that are packed with enough blatant regionalisms to become veritable rabbit-holes of material to pry open. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting a song every Monday, Wednesday and Friday with a bit of its geographic context. I’ll include in this series of posts the song I used in class to extract and demonstrate regionalisms: “Science Fiction” by Radon (the band I spoke about at GeoSlam) sometime in the following couple weeks.