Geography Department

New faces, different focus

Professor George White, head of the geography department, is resting easier these days. “This is our first year without a job search,” he says. “The years since I’ve been here have been transitional in nature.”

Trisha Jackson, assistant professor of geography, showcases a large tree in the central Amazon rain forest.

Trisha Jackson, assistant professor of geography, showcases a large tree in the central Amazon rain forest.


White arrived three years ago from Frostburg (Md.) State, where he was a professor of geography. Trisha Jackson joined the staff in fall 2011 and Hilary Hungerford came aboard in fall 2012. The assistant professors take their place alongside veteran faculty members Darrell Napton, Bruce Millett, Janet Gritzner and Bob Watrel. Retirement claimed Fritz Gritzner in May 2010 and Don Berg in May 2011.

“We’re going through some changes,” says White. “We have new people with lots of new ideas. We do appreciate the tradition of the department, but new things are happening.”

Jackson comes to SDSU after completing her master’s degree (2007) and doctorate (2011) at the University of Kansas. She earned her undergraduate degree in physical geography at Texas State University in 2004.

With a background in soil science and food systems that fits well at a land-grant university, Jackson is working to develop a scientific collaboration in Brazil to study “terra preta,” a tropical soil made by humans that maintains fertility for thousands of years.

“I love getting my hands dirty, figuratively and literally,” says Jackson. “Soils research is an excellent way to bridge human and physical geography. What better way to entice geography students to do research projects with me and become well-rounded geographers.”

Hungerford also comes from the University of Kansas, where she earned her doctorate (2012) and master’s degree (2007) in geography. Her bachelor’s degree in geography was earned at Northern Colorado in 2001.

Her interests are in community development, water provision and sustainability, especially in West Africa. She has conducted extensive field work in places like Niamey, Niger, and has previously lived in Benin and Ghana.

An international flavor
Jackson, center, looks on as Federal University of Western Para students open an archaeological unit at the edge of a rain forest near a plowed cornfield comprised of terra preta soils.

Jackson, center, looks on as Federal University of Western Para students open an archaeological unit at the edge of a rain forest near a plowed cornfield comprised of terra preta soils.

More of the world is making its way into the geography curriculum at SDSU, according to White, who teaches a course on Europe with special focus on Romania.

“As a land-grant institution, we have faculty here who study changes in the Great Plains,” says White. “However, we live in a very globalized world, and South Dakota is very much a part of all the changes taking place.

“With a good mix of faculty members, we’re developing our international focus to not only better understand the rest of the world, but also to understand how South Dakota is situated in our globalized world.”

With more faculty members showing international expertise, the department better reflects the full meaning of geography

“Geography is the field that studies the world,” says White. “It’s concerned with how phenomena, both human and natural, intersect and interact in space to make, shape and change places. More people are recognizing that geography is fundamental to understanding our world and solving many of the problems that confront us.”

In addition to faculty news, White reports that the department will continue what it started last year, which is field training for graduate teaching assistants.

In October 2012, students trekked to the corner of North Dakota and the Red River Valley, and then they journeyed to northern Minnesota, through the Iron Range to the headwaters of the Mississippi River. In fall 2011, they ventured to the Sandhills of Nebraska, to Denver and north along the Rocky Mountains into Wyoming and through the Black Hills.

“Geography is very field-oriented,” says White. “You have to be able to walk out the door and know what you are looking at. It’s like having a doctor who has never operated before. Students have to have some experience, so we have to get them out into the field.”

Geography alliance, convention

Field training is favored by graduate teaching assistants, who teach two labs in physical geography. One lab centers on weather and climate, and a second lab focuses on natural landscapes.

Undergraduates also benefit by the field training when they learn from teaching assistants who have obtained field knowledge and experience.

White serves as coordinator of the South Dakota Geographical Alliance. Affiliated with National Geographic, the alliance uses grant money to promote geography education in South Dakota schools. The alliance conducts workshops where new concepts, maps, school materials and different geography activities are introduced.

“Typically, your K-12 teachers are bogged down with lesson plans and teacher conferences, so they have very little time to actually go out and collect new material for their lectures,” says White. “We try and give them new material to say ‘These are some of the new things going on in the world.’”

A long-standing tradition of the geography department is hosting the South Dakota State Geography Convention. The longest running, student-organized-and-sponsored geography annual meeting in the United States will gather for the 44th time March 14-15 in the Volstorff Ballroom at the University Student Union.

Ten eminent academic and applied geographers from around the country will give presentations, including the president of the Association of American Geographers. The convention also features social activities, a Gamma Theta Upsilon initiation and an awards banquet.

“The convention is a wonderful event for our department because we have a number of speakers presenting on a range of interesting topics,” says White. “I’m looking forward to the upcoming one and hope to meet a number of alumni there.”

Kyle Johnson

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