Thursday, January 17, 2013

The joy of teaching geography to BYU freshmen.

Most semesters at BYU I teach a large section of Geography and World Affairs (World Regional Geography). Last semester I had a full classroom of 180 students and this semester I have a full classroom of 270 students. Most of my students are freshmen and many are taking the class to fulfill a GE requirement in global and cultural awareness. On the first day of class I give a map quiz for the fun of it. I ask questions like: label the largest Muslim country in the world (Indonesia), label by name the capital of Canada (Ottawa), label the Sahel region of Africa, label Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, etc. In explaining the answers to the quiz questions I always explain that Pittsburgh is located where the Allegheny (river on the left in the above photo I took years ago while in Pittsburgh for a Geography meeting) and Monongahela Rivers (right) come together to form the Ohio River--which makes it a great location for river trade.

Then over the next few days I refer back to some of these questions as examples of why learning geography is important and as examples of introductory geographic principles. I use the Pittsburgh question to illustrate how learning something about a place can have lasting benefits throughout your life in such things as finding a job, succeeding in your job, being a successful missionary or even in finding someone to marry. I explain how after my LDS mission to Indonesia it was always interesting to go on a first date and engage in a conversation something like this:

Her: "Did you go on a mission?"
Me: "Yes."
Her: "Where did you go?"
Me: "Indonesia!"
Her: awkward silence because she doesn't know where Indonesia is or anything about it to ask a follow up question.
Her: she is brave and asks: "where's that?"  followed by me explaining that it is the archipelago north of Australia and south of IndoChina and the Philippines which is then usually followed by awkward silence because she can't even picture such a place in the atlas of her mind. 

I then explain to the students how impressed I would have been if any of my many dates had responded to my answer of "Indonesia!" with something like: "Oh, was it hot and humid there?" (indicating that she remembered that it straddled the equator) or "Oh, isn't that the largest Muslim country in the world?"

I then ask the class it there are any students from Pittsburgh in the class (there seldom are). I ask that student or a hypothetical student, how impressed they would be if when on a first date the conversation went something like this:

Her: "Where are you from?"
Him: "Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania."
Her. "Cool. Isn't that where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers come together to form the Ohio River!"
Him: thinking "Wow, I'm impressed. I think I may want to date her again."

It always gets a laugh.

A few years ago I received this e-mail from a student:

September 3, 2010

Professor Emmett:

I'm enrolled in your Geog 120 class and thought this would make your day. My ward had a speed dating activity this week and as fate would have it I ended up across from a young lady from Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh of all places! Of course I said something like, "Pittsburgh--isn't that where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers merge to form the Ohio?" My "date" was practically breathless. She even uttered the words "I'm impressed." Yeah, Geog 120 really can improve your love life. :)


Jason Harrison

That letter did indeed make my day.

Today I received another letter that made my day:

January 17, 2013
Hey Professor Emmett,

I took your class last semester and loved it. Definitely one of my favorites at BYU so far. Anyway, I got my mission call last night and I have been called to the Pennsylvania Pittsburgh Mission! I couldn't believe that one of the first things I could tell everyone about my mission is that it's the place where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers meet to form the Ohio River! I'm definitely proud of that fact that I can tell everyone who asks about Pittsburgh.

Just thought I'd drop a line and let you know that you made an impact on a very (newly) large part of my life! Thanks for being such a great professor.

McKann Hanseen (with her mission call below)

Both Jason and McKann gave me permission to use their stories and photos in class so I hope they don't mind me sharing them here.


  1. Totally awesome. I recall fondly my experiences with Geography. Although I focused on GIS and remote sensing, I consider myself a geographer first with a thirst for the "why of the where." Thanks for your role in that part of my life! -Jess

  2. "Dude, I thought the Ohio River started in Ohio, not Indonesia. I'm confused," a.k.a. "The Joys of Trying to Teach High School Freshmen Anything." Well done Professor Emmett.

  3. I advised Jason back in the day. I also received a kind and thoughtful note of gratitude from him right as I left my post. It's always rewarding to know you can make a small but sometimes significant difference in someone's life. Miss seeing you Chad!