Sunday, March 31, 2019

Mexican Countries

By now, this screenshot will be familiar to many:

FOX NEWS screenshot with title: "Trump Cuts U.S. Aid to 3 Mexican Countries"
Fox News screenshot, as reported by Newsweek
and everybody else.
This filled my weekend newsfeed, an some have asked for my thoughts on it. Here is what I posted in response to a query from a BSU alumnus:

I have a few thoughts, in no particular order, other than the first:
  • I am glad so many of my friends thought of my efforts in geographic education when they saw this.
  • I am also reminded that our most prolific geographer -- the late, great Dr. Harm de Blij -- told us that he wrote 1,000 letters a year to public officials and the editors of various programs and publications about errors of this kind or erroneous maps. Some stand out more than others, but many are made. Dr. de Blij, incidentally, was the first person to put a map of Kuwait on television when Iraq invaded it; he knew instantly that it would be an example of Americans learning geography through war.

And some more thoughts:

  • We wonder why Americans are so bad at geography, but we don't actually teach it much. The world is big and complicated; it needs more than a quick class in middle school. Massachusetts is about to increase it from a miniscule part of the curriculum to a tiny part. We need more, but someone in state government is working very hard against us.
  • It remains illegal to become a certified high-school geography teacher in Massachusetts.
  • Seeing this post did motivate me to get the publicity together for our next advocacy day (April 17, 2019) at the State House.

Photo by BSU Alumna Ashley (Costa) Harris
Massachusetts State House 2012
As published in National Geographic's
Geography for Life
And two more thoughts about the story:
  • The xenophobia of the people involved is giving the quote more attention.
  • The attention is a distraction from the important part of the story, which is the application of hamfisted negotiation tactics to a matter of extreme complexity in the international sphere.
Lagniappe

My doctoral minor in Latin American Area Studies can now be called Mexico & Stuff.


Antidote

The essential site Latino Rebels provides an antidote to the ignorance, in the form of a map (hurrah!) and a poem that is as instructive as it is tragic: Central American (In)Visibility.

Map: Latino Rebels

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Oranges

OrangesOranges by John McPhee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I always tell my students -- and anyone else who might listen -- that reading is the key to good writing. As I read Oranges, I realized that reading the work of John McPhee is an especially good way to improve one's writing. He is often credited as the forebear of the entire genre of creative nonfiction, and this early work (his third book, published in 1967) puts his gift for clarity on display.

Another of his books (Encounters with the Archdruid) was assigned in the first geography course I ever took, and another (Rising from the Plains) was the first book given to me as a gift by a professor. I thoroughly enjoyed those and a half-dozen more, but I always felt I was missing something important when I would see him described as the author of just one book: Oranges.

During a sabbatical that is ostensibly about a lot of other things, I decided that I should give myself the gift of taking the time to read this book that has been lurking at the edges of my attention for three decades. In 150 short pages, McPhee shows that behind the seemingly ordinary -- a piece of fruit or a glass of juice -- is a story much broader than most people know. The geography, agronomy, and economy of oranges is fascinating and complex; in his straightforward narrative style, McPhee answers questions about oranges that we did not know we had.

A half-century after publication, some details certainly have changed, but I recommend beginning the story of oranges with this book. The book does fail the test of time in one noticeable way: McPhee describes an industry entirely devoid of women, except as customers, and makes no comment about that imbalance. That he did not notice this in 1966 is not surprising, but some of the examples should have been mentioned in his 2000 preface.

All of the other McPhee books I have read are told from the point of view of biography. He writes about environmental ethics by introducing us to an environmentalist; he begins a geology story with the biography of a woman whose grandson would become a geologist; the world's shipping industry is seen from the point of view of an ordinary sailor. He does tell parts of the story of Oranges through the biographies of orange growers, scientists and marketers. The overall story, however, is told as autobiography. That is, he describes his own journey of exploration in an engaging, first-person narrative so that the reader is learning as he learns, as if peering over his shoulder. In this way, he teaches us not only good writing but also good research.

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