How did you get interested in geography? What kind of books and people in the field interested you?
In 1971, when I was in the 8th standard at National High School, Bangalore, the Bangladesh war broke out. Our Social Studies teacher, Sri B Narasanna, held us spell-bound for the duration of the war explaining to us the geography and history of what was unfolding daily. We didn’t touch the textbook for all those days. The seeds of my interest in geography were sown then. However, I didn’t realize it until I started teaching geography as a doctoral student at Kent State University (Ohio) in the mid-1980s where I had come under the tutelage of my next geography guru, Dr Surinder Mohan Bhardwaj.
Before that, I don’t recall any books inspiring me to become a geographer. I did rethink many books from a geographer’s perspective and found new meanings and connections in them. In graduate school, of course, we had readings of geographers such as the legendary Dr. Yi-Fu Tuan, and others.
My own guru’s writings on pilgrimages and sacred geographies continue to be a huge influence both in my life and in my geography education work. My interests today are largely shaped by the latter.
Tell us about TIGS.
I started TIGS (The Institute of Geographical Studies) as a project in 2000 when I relocated to Bangalore, after having studied and taught in the USA for twenty years. When I returned I observed how dead school-level geography education is in most of the academic endeavors. Inspired and inspiring geography education was there, but very rare. Alas, it still is.
I wanted to share what my teachers (both Sri Narasanna and Dr. Bhardwaj) had taught me with pupils and teachers alike.
Under TIGS, I began offering workshops that showed how textbook concepts connect to our lives in many interesting ways.
Over time, TIGS has been offering a variety of other activities including field trips, lectures, documentary film screenings, non-formal geography education online (a course called G.o.D. – Geography over Distance), weekly geography essays published for several years in the Deccan Herald Student Edition, online readings, quizzes, assignment ideas, and our flagship annual event: International Geography Youth Summit (IGYS). IGYS is the only formal academic geography conference for school children (standards 7 and above) in India. It has become very popular with children because they get to explore geography by conducting a project on a topic of their choosing.
Why are you on a mission to educate children about this subject?
Every discipline we engage with comes with a set of ethics and human values. When school education goes from teaching subjects to teaching disciplines, children see the value of what they are learning, and how they should use their knowledge for making a difference for the better in the world around them. Far too often, school education is about getting high marks and becoming ‘successful’, not much about how to be a good citizen of the world at all scales ranging from the family to the world.
Every discipline can offer such frameworks. I just happen to talk about geography. It is not only interesting in and of itself, it is also a naturally integrating discipline. It helps us see how things are interconnected in this world. Recognizing and engaging with these interconnections make the discipline that much more powerful. This is called PDK (Powerful Disciplinary Knowledge). Geography’s PDK empowers children to be both critical thinkers and compassionate human beings.
There are many anecdotes and tidbits in the book Geography, Everywhere! Tell us about them.
Every waking moment, I keep reflecting on what might be teachable. Thanks to my gurus, my geography lens is always helping me see how beautifully geography connects with everything. So, no matter what happens, one track in my mind is always discerning the geography aspect of life. That is a joyous experience.
I just share that with anyone who is interested.
Tell us about your writing process.
Generally, I work better when I have deadlines! I look at the goings-on in the world and in my own life to see things that illustrate geography concepts. I use these to introduce my readers to geography concepts. Through these, definitions of the concepts are tied to real-world phenomena. Sometimes, they are not real-world! I have explored cyberplaces, fiction, dreams, mythologies, psychologies, and so on through geography.
Nothing escapes the geography treatment!
I have done a lot of slice-of-life kind of writing (mainly online). Several of these have appeared in an e-zine. Here, I have to put in a lot of effort to keep the geography discourse out! These are musings from my own life.
In all cases, it is merely observing, not much digging.
How is the approach toward geography different in the west?
‘The west’ is a very broad term. Generally, in Europe, for example, teachers have a great deal more agency to develop, design, and deliver curriculums. In the USA, there is considerable political meddling in the social sciences curriculum. The effects of this are far less on geography than the other social sciences. There is much more hands-on learning because class sizes are usually small.
You have talked about zoonotic diseases in one of the essays in your book. In pandemic times, what role do you see geography playing in the spread of COVID-19?
One of the subfields of geography is medical geography. It shows how place matters. Specifically, in the context of COVID-19, geography appears in many different ways. Starting with the place of origin of the various species and their interactions with their ecosystems, we look at where the species end up and how humans interact with them (e.g.wet markets). What are the characteristics of a place that facilitate zoonosis? For instance, poor hygiene, dense human populations, transportation connections (modes of transport, frequency, etc.), and so on. The characteristics of places matter a lot!
Check out some essays related to this crisis at the TIGS blog.
Tell us about your experience with Pothi.com.
I can’t remember how I came across Pothi.com It may have been through searching online about 1½ years or so ago, when I was compiling some of my essays into a book and was looking for possible publishing avenues. In the event, we ended up publishing it from TIGS in July 2019 at the International Geography Youth Summit-2019.
Subsequently, mainly due to COVID-19, we wanted to get an eBook version published with some corrections and updates to the print version. I returned to Pothi.com to see if they could do it.
They did it! And did it well. The sequence of production was very methodical. I had never published an eBook, so the learning curve was rather steep. However, team Pothi.com very patiently helped me through the process. And now there is an eBook version of Geography, Everywhere!
I’ve begun work on a book primarily for school children (class 7 and above) on how they eat and drink geography. Literally. I am hoping to have this out by end of 2021. I can’t say more at this time.
Seven of my online students are collaborating with me on a very interesting documentary that connects geography with the life and works of Karnataka sangītam composer of 18th-19th century. COVID-19 has really slowed us down, but we hope to have this completed as soon as possible when we are able to travel and work safely.
We are working to have an International Geography Youth Summit-2021 entirely online. TIGS’ students are helping with this also.
Finally, we are in the process of revamping our website to make it offer more interactive spaces for school children to explore geography in their own lives.
Thanks so much for talking to us about this unique subject and we wish you luck in your mission to spread the love of geography everywhere!