Tuesday, August 09, 2022

Burn Pits of Iraq

On NPR's Morning Edition, journalist Leila Fadel interviewed anthropologist Kali Rubaii of Purdue University about her research into the ongoing health problems experience both by U.S. veterans and Iraqi civilians, because of the unregulated burning of mixed waste during the wars there.

In the 1970s and 1980s, newly emerging environmental laws were widely ignored on military bases in the United States. This changed at some point in the 1990s, personnel were retrained, and those bases began to come into compliance. The case of Iraq, however, highlights the long-term damage done by war.

Children in Mosul, from Professor Rubaii's 2020 article
Birth Defects and the Toxic Legacy of War in Iraq

This is a particularly difficult example that illustrates the severe damage done by long-term exposure to toxic chemicals. It is as if we either learned nothing from Love Canal or chose to ignore what we did learn.

City Champions

As I prepare a full slate of classes for the fall semester, I enjoy planning the weekly activities of Discovering Brockton, a First-Year Seminar I offer to students in the Commonwealth Honors program at Bridgewater State University. 

Class chat in Brockton City Hall. Photo: Brian Benson, BSU

In 2019, we were fortunate to have Brian Benson of our university publicity office join us for a day. His article City Champions remains the best summary of what we try to do in the class. 

For two semesters during the pandemic, I offered this class fully online. I was grateful that so many collaborators in the region helped me to have meaningful video class sessions in which they shared various facets of the community. Videoconferencing, however, did not provide the kinds of insights that arise from driving or walking around a place with a geographer. 

For that, I created a series of Windshield and Sidewalk Surveys, with the help of my artist son who happened to be visiting for a few weeks as the 2020 semester was about to begin. See the playlists Windshield Surveys, Sidewalk Surveys 1, and Sidewalk Surveys 2 to join some of the fun.


Championing the City of Champions (2012)

Geographic Lens on New Bedford (2017)

Brockton Honors (2020)

Monterrey COIL Project: Livable Cities (2022)

And more news about the Department of Geography.

Sunday, August 07, 2022

Wall Street Over Haiti

 In The Ransom, NYT outlines nearly two centuries of interventions by France and the United States that -- combined with the collusion of internal elites -- have perpetuated debt and disarray in Haiti. Even coffee is implicated.

US Military in Haiti, 1920 Image: NYT

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Detroit Museum Visit

I have been teaching Detroit: Arts City for several years, without having ever been to the city. Some people are surprised, because a lot of my teaching is about places I have been. Finally getting back to Chicago and Wisconsin for family visits last week, 

I was glad when my spouse suggested a stop in Detroit. We saw as much as we could manage in just 21 hours, mostly in two of the city's many museums: Detroit Institute of Arts and Detroit Historical Museum. The former is a global treasure -- the fact that bureaucrats seriously considered selling off its contents as a "rescue" plan is what got me interested in the study of the city in the first place. My son wrote a most excellent paper arguing against this deeply flawed and ignorant plan.

These are two institutions that tell a lot of stories, so my snapshots hardly do either of them justice. Still, for those who have never been, I hope that the slides below from our quick visit will inspire an appreciation for some facets of this remarkable city and its cultural treasures. 

Please click the right arrows to advance slides, and click the ... three dots below each image to expand the captions. Apologies that Flickr "updates" do not make this a bit more user-friendly. You can also go directly to the Flickr album if that works better for you or you want to look at a single image more carefully.
Detroit: Arts City in 21 Hours
I look forward to sharing these with my honors colloquium students in the fall.

Rosa Parks, Detroiter

Rosa Parks is one of the most famous participants in the Great Migration, but most people who know her name do not know that she migrated! This included me until very recently, when I learned about her experiences in Detroit, where she spent a bit more than half of her life. 

Icon of civil disobedience: justice sometimes
requires breaking unjust laws.

Despite the success of her role reducing racial discrimination in Alabama by challenging segregation on buses in 1955 -- perhaps even because of that success -- she was unable to find work there and was forced to escape, first to Virginia and then to Detroit, Michigan. There she worked for U.S. Rep. John Conyers for many years. 

After retirement, she was assaulted in her own apartment and forced to move. Little Caesars Pizza mogul Mike Ilich privately paid her rent for many subsequent years, though this arrangement seems to have ended during her final years.

The logo I have seen in 2-D throughout
the USA is 3-D throughout Detroit,
even in the Detroit Historical Museum.

Friday, July 08, 2022

Water Deep Dive (The Takeaway)

I usually find The Takeaway from WNYC to be compelling radio. Even in the context of the general excellence of the program, the broadcast I am listening to on WGBH 89.7 is so exceptional,  that even as I listen, I am preparing this post as part of making the broadcast required listening for most of my classes.

Deep Dive: Water as a Human Right

Even if you are not in one of those courses, I strongly encourage you to listen to Water, a single episode in the program's Deep Dive series. As the title suggests, the scope of this episode is ambitious; one might even say daunting.

In just 48 minutes, journalists Melissa Harris-Perry, Dorian Warren and an impressive array of guests connect water insecurity in the United States to human concerns ranging from physical and mental health to racial inequality and political stability.

Their conversation stretches from Chicago and Detroit to the Navajo Nation and to the world beyond. The program ends with a serious of important questions about how we use water, from the global level to the level of individual households.


Only one of the guests is identified as a geographer, but a geographic perspective is woven throughout the conversations. It is, in fact, a good example of political ecology, the theoretical outlook that has informed my approach to environmental geography since my doctoral studies

Sunday, July 03, 2022

Coffee Cups without the Coffee

Note: This entry is cross-posted on my new blog, Doctor Potato Head.

Many people know that my #CoffeeMaven priorities are more about the farmers than the coffee itself (though I love the coffee itself!). I use the tag #ThankTheFarmers on many of the words and images I share; this little story is an example of gratitude that extends to all kinds of farmers – not just the beloved cafeteros in my life.

Two of those farmers are Ron and Connie of Maribett Farm, with whom we have many kinds of connections, agricultural and otherwise. While helping us with some permaculture projects in our back yard, they recently left this gift on our back porch. They even sent the photos, since we were not home at the time.

The plant is Colocasia esculenta. It immediately reminded me of a plant I know as elephant ear, but I thought I was mistaken because this plant is pretty small, and the elephant ear I have seen in Nicaragua has individual leaves almost as big as I am. 

A quick internet search confirmed my original hunch, and browsing my Flickr albums of Nicaragua travels brought me to the comparison I was thinking of.

I think our farmer friends chose this plant because of the name used by the vendor: Coffee Cups. Even if they did not intend this, it was the first thing I noticed! This was the first time I had seen or heard that name. The gift is a great example of how my friends have helped me to develop my #CoffeeMaven identity – that of a completist who endeavors to learn about all possible aspects of coffee

The notes from the Proven Winners company mentions that the plant is toxic to both pets and humans, even though the Latin name of the species indicates that it is edible. In fact, Colocasia esculenta is a leading food crop throughout the tropics. The top is known as elephant ear, but the bottom is known as taro (malanga in Spanish), a root that is readily edible and resembles a potato.

It is, in fact, one of several tubers in the lineup of potato-esque roots from which the popular snack Terra Chips are made.

Lagniappe: Thirsty Plant

Long before I saw – and ate – this plant in Nicaragua, I had learned that it can be a problematic invasive plant, at least in one setting. When we took a glass-bottom boat tour of San Marcos Springs in Texas, we learned that hydrologists had calculated how much the Edwards Aquifer was losing through the evapotranspiration from the enormous leaves of plants that surrounded the spring-fed waterways along the escarpment. I do not remember the number, of course, but they were making comparisons to the water demand of a small city.

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Unfettered Rockets


Famous environmental radical Richard
Nixon signing the National Environmental
Policy Act
(NEPA) on January 1, 1970.

President Nixon was no radical, of course, but he did sign a number of common-sense environmental laws that have provided for improved protection of land, water, and public health for the past half-century.

One of these is the National Environmental Policy Act, which created the Environment Protection Agency and instituted the requirement that any large project involving the Federal government would require an assessment of its potential environmental, economic, and health impacts. What would be more inappropriate, after all, than for one arm of the Federal government to damage an environment that other Federal agencies were endeavoring to protect? 

This is all on my mind as I read about the Federal Aviation Administration green-lighting the latest ego trip of a certain billionaire with extra-planetary ambitions. The New York Times headline tells us that SpaceX Wins Environmental Approval for Launch of Mars Rocket, but one must read the article itself to realize how errant that decision is and how many aspects of the project merit review. It will push people out of their homes and disrupt access to a nearby beach on a frequent basis. 

Even a cursory glance at the map of the area in question -- where SpaceX already has some facilities -- shows that it is in an extremely sensitive coastal location, surrounded by fragile barrier islands, wildlife management areas, and a rare kind of estuary. 

Having lived in the region -- and having taught environmental geography about a mile from the site -- I can think of several more aspects of this location that warrant review. Brownsville is in the Lower Rio Grande Valley -- the delta of the Rio Grande -- which is superlative in several relevant ways.

The four-county area is overwhelmingly Hispanic and low-income, suggesting two ways in which local power may not be exercised fully and fairly in this complex process. Moreover, this region is the area in which the seasonal flyways of many protected migratory birds converge. In fact, the majority of the birds found anywhere in the United States are found at least seasonally in this region. Certainly the potential interactions between these birds and rocket launches is worthy of study. 

It could be that a thorough NEPA review would still allow for this project to go forward; we will not know unless the Biden Administration does its job and insists on it. Even if the project is approved, however, the thorough review required by Nixon's pen would almost certainly lead to useful modifications of the project.

Lagniappe: Local Voice

It is gratifying to see our old friend Jim Chapman mentioned in the article -- the entire region would probably be a parking lot by now if it were not for him and other brave activists in the Valley.

Friday, May 13, 2022

Monterrey COIL Project: Livable Cities

This post is a bit longer than usual because I am both describing a recent teaching collaboration and including the thoughtful work that our students produced. Because the post is rather long, I am going to open with the conclusions -- what some might call the take-away findings.

Introduction and Conclusions

This post elaborates on a presentation my geography colleague Dr. Boah Kim and I presented at the BSU-CARS Symposium in May 2022. We were among faculty members from several departments who were describing our recent experiences in several parts of the world with Collaborative Online International Learning, or COIL. Specifically, we reported on our COIL experience with colleagues at TEC-Monterrey in Mexico.

My conclusions:

  • COIL is a valid and valuable international experience, both for those who have additional international opportunities and for those who may lack access to -- or even interest in -- conventional international experiences.
  • Small is beautiful: a short-term assignment of limited scope can produce very positive results.
  • Experience helps: partners with previous COIL experience helped this project to succeed, even though we had not worked together previously.
  • Language: the high level of English proficiency among the students in our partner institution was essential to the success of the project.
  • Collaborating with students in another country helped local students to deepen their curiosity about and understanding of Gateway Cities in Massachusetts.


I had no international academic experiences until the summer after I completed my master's degree, but providing international experiences for undergraduates later became a big part of my career. I have led or co-led short-term programs in Nicaragua, Cape Verde, Cuba, Costa Rica, Panama, and Brazil. I also helped to establish a program of long-term exchanges in Brazil that provided semester-long international experiences for more than a dozen students. 

These have been important, life-changing experiences for the students involved and for me as a professor. They often have ripple effects on other students and on the family members of the students who participate. 

Despite our best efforts, however, only a tiny percentage of the students I teach have had experiences of this kind. And because of an extended global pandemic, I am on an involuntary hiatus from such experiences myself. I am grateful that I traveled with students in January 2020, but it will be at least May 2023 before I do so again! 

Enter COIL -- Collaborative Online International Learning, a concept well described by its name and more fully elaborated on the website of SUNY COIL, one of the institutional leaders in this kind of programming. I was intrigued by this concept when I learned of it from some of our campus leaders in international programs in the depths of the pandemic. I explored the COIL concept with colleagues with whom I had developed some of the successful programs described above, but we did not find a way to make it work. 

In early 2022, I received a more specific invitation: to develop a COIL project with potential partners at TEC-Monterrey, a private university in northern Mexico with deep experience in the approach. We soon formed a team involving two TEC faculty in a planning/architecture program and two BSU geography professors.

We situated the collaboration in my upper-level course Latin America: Globalization & Cohesion. The course was well underway when we began planning, so I had to adjust my syllabus and assignments considerably to make the COIL possible. I decided that the only way to make the experience worthwhile -- especially as it came near the end of an exhausting academic year -- was to give the project plenty of space to succeed. By this I mean that I decided to devote class time to it and to reduce other planned assignments. 

The TEC professors had previous experience with these international collaborations and they had administrative support that was very helpful in structuring the project we did together. The project structure had several key components:
  • Synchronous meetings that would include faculty input and also small-group break-out rooms for the students.
  • Structured "ice breaker" activities -- low-stakes but relevant questions that required students to start talking and writing together during the first meeting.
  • Asynchronous collaborations in the same small groups, working for a week or two on more focused questions and with the goal of combined work products.
The course in which this work was situated is a broad survey course; a collaboration on environmental, cultural, or political geography would have been viable. But since the focus of my collaborators and of the TEC-Monterrey students is urban studies, we made that the focus of our projects. Specifically, Dr. Kim introduced the use of the SWOT (Strength-Weakness-Opportunity-Threat) concept to analyzing urban places and planning. Fortunately, three of my students were in her urban planning class, and a fourth member of that class was able to join our collaboration.

We formed three student groups of equal size, with equal numbers of Monterrey and Bridgewater students in each. All of the Monterrey students applied SWOT analysis to an area of Monterrey itself. The Bridgewater students did the same with three different nearby urban places: the Gateway Cities of Lowell and Brockton and the similarly-situated Boston neighborhood of Dorchester. The level of familiarity with these places varied considerably, so there was a lot of learning required about places close to home. This was fitting, though: in all of the international programs I have led, people learned something about their homes.

The students spent about two weeks applying SWOT to two aspects of these places: mobility and demographic makeup. 

Student Work

After comparing mobility in their communities through a SWOT lens, each group created an infographic to summarize those comparisons. Each group developed its own format, as seen below. Each infographic is a bit too big for this blog screen; please click each to enlarge or open in a separate tab to enable zooming or printing..

After comparing the demographies in their chosen communities through a SWOT lens, each group created an infographic to summarize those comparisons, as they had done with mobility. These discussions were a bit deeperEach group developed its own format, as seen below. Each of these infographics is a too wide for this blog screen, so as with those above, please click each to enlarge or open in a separate tab to enable zooming or printing..


Formal COIL exchanges involve require all students to participate in two activities that bookend the experience. The first is a structured ice breaker and the last is a reflection that is shared with all participants. The reflection posted by BSU student Felicia Prata represents what many of the students wrote:
I thought this was an absolutely incredible experience that was unlike anything I have ever experienced. I learned a whole lot about the country of Mexico and the town of Monterrey, as well as the students, their academic experience in Mexico, and their cultural problems.

It helped me not only learn a lot about them as students and the area in which they live, but also taught me a lot about myself, and the differences we have in our everyday American culture. I would definitely like to do this with my students when I am a teacher as well.

Monday, May 09, 2022

Higher Education Leadership Opening

Note: The opening paragraphs here are adapted from recent communication from my faculty union to the membership. I include them to provide context for my own comments below and also by way of inviting others who might wish to communicate with DHE about this search.

The Massachusetts Department of Higher Education (DHE) is currently preparing a search for a new Commissioner which will formally launch the week of May 16th. The Commissioner is the leader “responsible for providing overall direction to public higher education in Massachusetts and helping shape state-level policies that maximize the benefits of higher education to the Commonwealth and its citizens."

Those with an interest in higher education -- which truly should be everybody in Massachusetts --has been invited to participate in a public forum (that date passed before I got this posted) and in the following ways:

  • Provide feedback on the experiences, characteristics, and priorities for the next commissioner: The search committee is asking for stakeholders to weigh in on the values and vision they hope to see in the next Commissioner. You can add your thoughts here.
  • Recommend or nominate a candidate: Do you know someone who would make a great leader of public higher education in Massachusetts? Submit their name here and the search committee will reach out.

I took the first part of this request seriously and have decided to make my responses to the survey public, because I think that too often "input" about critical matters in education is collected quietly to avoid any real discussion happening publicly. 

When I arrived in 1997, I was shocked to see how poorly Massachusetts treats its public colleges and universities. 

The photo above -- note my complete lack of grey hair -- is from a 2005 speech at the State House. The situation has become less favorable since I delivered Public Higher Education is a Public Good, as part of an earlier effort to encourage the Commonwealth to recognize the inherent value of what we do in our colleges and universities.

Since then, the situation has worsened, though educators and students alike continue to give our all to the education enterprise. I hope we can find "leaders" willing to do the same.

Herewith, the current (May 2022) survey questions and my responses.
  1. Your primary affiliation:
    MA Public College/University Faculty

  2. What prior experiences should the next Commissioner have?
    At a minimum, the Commissioner should have served at as a tenured professor or librarian in a public university. All other qualifications are extra, but this is the only way the Commissioner can value the "secret sauce" of a higher education system that was once the envy of the world.

  3. What are the attributes, characteristics, and values that you would like to see in the next Commissioner?
    The commissioner needs to value academic freedom -- in a very real sense -- and to understand how this serves students in the long run.
    An emphasis on short-term "workforce" goals is, ironically, what leads to a poorly prepared workforce.

  4. What experience in leading, developing and/or supporting DEI programming should the next Commissioner have?
    Experience with programming and buzzwords counts for nothing in my estimation. Experience respecting and working with educators and students from many backgrounds is what counts.

  5. Given the challenges and opportunities facing higher education and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, what do you think is the most critical work to be done by the next Commissioner in the coming decade?
    Educating the Legislature about the perils of continuing to shift the costs of higher education to students and their families. Most politicians are still old enough to have benefited from public higher ed that was public not only in name but in financing. They have allowed the 80/20 funding ratio to be flipped, and it is killing our chances of inclusive and effective education.

  6. What are some of the attractive features of working to advance higher education in Massachusetts that would be appealing to potential candidates for the Commissioner position?
    Several thousand of the most creative, resilient and compassionate educators in the country are working in public higher education in Massachusetts. Simply enabling them to do to their work is the single best way to contribute to the social and economic revival of this vibrant Commonwealth.

  7. Other comments:
    I am delighted to have a chance to provide input to this process. In the cradle of democracy and public higher education, those who do the teaching have been marginalized.
    Please, please choose someone who values academic freedom, the time our faculty, librarians, and staff members commit to the education endeavor, and the time our students need to commit to learning. Every $10 shifted to student fees is an hour each student spends NOT studying.
    And faculty and librarians should not be humiliated and bullied at the bargaining table for simply trying to hold on to living wages and standards of academic freedom.

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