Thinking about Nora Ephron thinking about reading

The late Nora Ephron on reading

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Young Americans: “The most indulged young people in the history of the world?’

The July 2, 2012 issue of The New Yorker contains an excellent article in which Elizabeth Kolbert argues that American parents have raised a generation of ‘adulescents, young people who have grown up as possibly “the most indulged young people in the history of the world.”  We could well be may be raising a generation, she says,  “who can’t, or at least won’t, tie their own shoes.”

This isn’t the fault of the ‘adulescents’ (the generation of which many of you, my students, are members.) It is the fault of people of my and your parents’ generation; we haven’t given you the chance to take responsibility, and we have prevented you from experience that most valuable of experiences: failure.

The result is a generation of young Americans less able than any previous generation to ask their own questions, figure out answers themselves, and exercise judgment. Parents have always taken care of those things and, unsurprisingly, when these young people reach college they expect professors to fill the same role.

Please read the New Yorker article. I want to know what you think. Does the piece  mischaracterize the upbringing today’s 18 – 25 year olds have experienced? If it doesn’t, what should college professors like me do about this? Should we take by far the easiest route when you ask us questions and give you the answers, just as your parents have done? Or should we tell you to figure it out for yourself, knowing full well that your upbringing has conditioned you to respond angrily to such a response, and to take it as a personal affront?


Posted in Education | 6 Comments

Giving up your kids because you can’t afford to keep them: the ultimate sacrifice, or an abdication of responsibility?

Phnom Penh, Cambodia
June 26, 2012 

Last week, I met and talked with Male (MA-lee,) a Cambodian woman whose story shook me to the core.  Seven years ago, Male’s husband (who worked on a Thai fishing vessel to support his family) died of tuberculosis, leaving her alone to take care of their five young children (then ranging in age from two to about eight.) Male has little education (during what should have been her middle and high school years, the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia, and there was no formal education,) and so could not earn more than the most meager of incomes in this poor country (where nearly 30 percent of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day.) She certainly could not earn enough to feed let alone clothe or educate her children.

Male faced a terrible dilemma, and made a tough choice: she took the eldest two to an NGO that arranges international adoptions. Her hope was that they would be adopted by wealthy foreigners who would be able to provide them with better prospects in life than she could. They were soon adopted by an Austrian couple who took them back with them to Vienna, and she hasn’t heard from them since. Later, she took two more of her children to an ‘orphanage,’ where they remain today (and she is still in touch with them).  Male kept only her infant child, now a boy of nine.

There is a lot more to Male’s particular story, and I will post it online very soon. For now, though, I want to focus on the situation parents like Male find themselves in, not because it is unusual, but because it is very common. Millions of parents in the developing world face themselves facing dilemmas a lot like Male’s, though details vary widely.

Faced with this terrible dilemma, what should a parent do? If you were in Male’s position, what would you do?  Did she do the right thing, or was she wrong to abandon her children?

In a closed discussion on this topic, one student in Geog 101 summarized the view of several members of the class

I wonder if her Male’s two eldest children, were adopted by the Austrian couple, were actually sent to them and are living in a good home.  Especially since she is of low socioeconomic status, there is no way for her to know whether her children were sold into child slavery or actually sent to a loving home.  In that sense, I question whether giving them up for adoption was actually better for them than keeping them with her?  Knowing this and that I would have no way to be sure, I don’t think I would’ve given them up for adoption.

Do you agree? I look forward to hearing from you (and by ‘you’ I mean not only students in Geog 101, but anyone else who happens to stop by this site.)

Donald N. Rallis


Posted in Development, Poverty, Uncategorized | 8 Comments

GeoQuiz! No.1 now open!

I have just sent out a Tweet containing the first ever Geog 101 GeoQuiz!. In it, I asked you to identify the city in which I took one of my photographs.  This is an easy one, so get to right away before someone else beats you to it! Remember that the prize goes to the best explanation for the answer, so a correct answer isn’t enough.  Post your explanation and answer as a comment right here, after this post.

After the contest has ended, I will post the Geoquiz! photograph here (yes, this is a transparent effort to get you to subscribe to the @UMWGeog101 Twitter feed!)


For rules and guidelines, see my previous post.

Posted in GeoQuiz! | 7 Comments

Announcing the All New GeoQuiz!

For your enjoyment and edification, the people who bring you this course proudly announce the launch of GeoQuiz!, a game the whole family can enjoy (well, most of it, anyway; some episodes may be a bit risqué.) It’s open to everyone, whether you are in Geog 101 or not. Here’s how it works.

How GeoQuiz! works

From time to time (every few days, sometimes for a few days in a row, or if the spirit moves your quizmaster, more than once in a single day) you will receive a Tweet (from @UMWGeog101) containing a question, often accompanied by a photograph or perhaps a web link. At about the same time, or maybe a few hours later, a post will appear here posing the same question (but usually without the photograph, which may be added after the quiz deadline has passed. This is because a) I want to persuade members of this class to follow my Twtter feed for this course (and more importantly try using Twitter,) and b) because I might be out and about when I see something interesting and decide to take a photograph and post a GeoQuiz! question of it from my phone before I forget.)

Your challenge, if you are willing to accept it, is to answer the question. But there’s more: the winner is not the first person to come up the the correct answer. Nor is the the correct answer in and of itself enough to win. Instead, the prize goes to the contestant who provides the most logical and persuasive explanation of how he or she came up with the answer. Having the right answer helps, but logical and persuasive explanation of how you reach your answer is more important. So it is quite likely that sometimes a person with a logically argued wrong answer may defeat one with a correct answer but an unconvincing explanation.

Request: If you recognize the location of a GeoQuiz! photo, don’t just post it. Instead, work backwards; explain how, if you didn’t know where this was, you could figure it out.

So be sure you’re watching those Tweets, have your geographic thinking cap on, and are up to the challenge! (If you’re not on Twitter and following @UMWGeog101, you will have a tough time participating.) Post your answers here as a comment following the appropriate GeoQuiz! question.

The prize

 One extra credit point, added to the winner’s final grade for Geog 101. Since anyone can subscribe to @UMWGeog101’s Tweets, and anyone can post comments on the Geog 101 Website, it is quite possible that the best answer could come from someone who is not in this class. If this happens, the winner’s name will be posted on the course website, and the prize will be the warm glow of satisfaction that comes from being the best. If the winner has a blog site, web page, or Twitter account, if you I will throw in a free mention of your Twitter name and/or a link to your website.

The deadline

48 hours after the GeoQuiz! tweet is sent. You may, if you wish, continue to post answers, comments, or thoughts after the deadline, although they won’t earn you the prize (your quizmaster will consider them, though, when assessing the Contribution portion of your grade.

The Big Announcement

Your quizmaster will deliver his judgement within 24 hours of the deadline by adding the announcement to the GeoQuiz! question. He will also explain his decision, and perhaps ramble on for a while (as is his wont) about it. You are welcome – indeed, encouraged – to add your by comments, complaints, and corrections l beneath the appropriate GeoQuiz! post.


Post them here, and your quizmaster and perhaps your fellow contestants will do their best to give you an answer.


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The best place in the world to be a woman is Canada and the worst is India

That, anyway, is what a recent Trustlaw poll concludes. Take a look at the details of the poll. What surprises or does not surprise you about it? What geographic patterns does it reveal?

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Layer cakes, tarantulas, and bank accounts

Close up of my face; I am holding a deep-fried tarantula in my mouth

Your professor enjoying a crunchy lunchtime appetizer in Cambodia

The world looks different depending on where you look at it from.

What each of us grows up with is what we consider ‘normal.’

The two sentences sum up the main reasons this World Regional Geography course exists. If we are to understand what goes on in the world, and if we are to have any hope at all of solving vexing international problems and avoiding conflicts, we need to try as best we can to see the world as others see it.  In order to do this, we need to find out as much as we can about the places others live, the cultures, economic circumstances, and physical environments that have helped shape their lives and world-views.

This idea is simple to understand, but extremely difficult to put into practice. How can we possibly know about the challenges people on the other side of the world face in their daily lives? How can we even start to figure out what parts of our ‘normal’ aren’t normal to them? The answer is simple: we can’t. But we can try.

A flight of wooden stairs; on the landing are about a dozen pairs of shoes. The staircase appears to be outdoors; there are bushes in the background.

What is going on here? What does it tell us?

Step One: Take a bite of the cake

A good place to start trying is to assemble in our own minds an idea of the geographic ‘layer cake‘ of the places in which the people we want to under live.  For students in Geog 101, the textbook and an atlas are good places to start. By reading about some of the physical geography (climate and landforms) of the northern European lowland, for example, we can figure out that this is a place where agriculture is possible, and transportation and movement of people is relatively easy. Natural vegetation , another in conjunction with other layers of the cake, help us understand the lives of the (few) people who live in the Sahara or Amazon basin areas. The economic layer of the cake is covered in an good text’s description of Sub-Saharan Africa, the poorest of the world’s regions. Religion  (again, in conjunction with other layers of the cake) help us understand Saudia Arabia (as well as making sense of the recent news story about the cancellation of Lady Gaga’s concert in Jakarta.) The geography of political boundaries (the political geography layer,) the geography of religion, and the geography of natural resources help us make sense of the 2011 division of Sudan into two new countries, South Sudan and (Norther) Sudan (and the current violent conflict between the two.)

Step Two: Imagine

Finding out things we don’t know is easy enough in an age of Google and online libraries. But how can we possibly begin to find out about things that we don’t know we don’t know?

There are a whole lot of differences between foreign places and our own home environments that we would never even think of, but that wouldn’t rate a mention in textbooks or even travel guides. These are often related to everyday life, and range from etiquette and food to dress and transportation; these are often things we would never even think to ask about or investigate.

Three middle aged men and one woman sit around a square table in a park. It is night' there are lights on along the paved path in the background.

Midnight; People's Park, Guangzhou, China.

The best way to learn about these is to travel. I have found that when I travel to a new destination just about every waking moment is a learning experience for me. I always learn most about things I didn’t know that I didn’t know about. It had never occurred to me, for example, that people might eat scorpions (China,) tarantulas (Cambodia,) or dogs (Vietnam.) I never thought about the kind of things we do in parks, or that in other places people might use parks and public spaces very differently (see my blog post on privacy and the use of public space.)

But how do you find out about things you don’t know you don’t know if you can’t get there? One way is to look at photographs, particularly photographs of ordinary, everyday scenes from the place you want to learn about. Think carefully about what you are seeing, note anything that seems different from what you are used to, and think about what might explain it (this is the reason I use so many photographs in my classes.) Another is to ask and talk to people who live there, or who have traveled there. I try to help in this regard by bringing my own experiences, observations, and photographs to class, and writing about them on the Regional GeogBlog.

A third way to learn about other places is to think about ordinary things you do, people you interact with, and landscapes (human and physical) you encounter in your everyday life. You can learn a whole lot by thinking about what you see (and don’t see) in a supermarket, what products you see advertised on television, and how you communicate with your friends and relatives.

I found myself thinking about these issues a couple of days ago, when I logged in to my bank account. The bank’s computer was suspicious of the fact that someone was attempting to access my account, so it prompted me to answer some security questions. As I did so, it suddenly dawned on me that in Cambodia, where I am now, these questions would be nonsensical for most people, either because they would have no answer to them or because the answers would be too obvious. I found some examples on the website :

  • What city were you born in?
  • What is your mother’s maiden name?
  • What was the make of your first car?
  • What is the name of the place your wedding reception was held?
  • What is your mother’s middle name?
  • What year did you graduate from High School?
  • What are the last 5 digits of your credit card?

Some might make sense in Cambodia, but not in China. For example:

  •  What is your oldest sibling’s birthday month and year?

Think about these questions. What assumptions do they make? Why might these assumptions be invalid in a place like Cambodia or Congo? What does this tell us about countries like these?

Please post your answers and thoughts below. Can you think of any other examples of ordinary aspects of our daily lives that may be very different in other places?

Update, Sunday June 10, 2012: I had a new gastronomic experience last night when I ate my first fried cricket. It was really good: crunchy on the outside (but not quite as crunchy as tarantula,) and slightly fleshy inside (not squooshy like caterpillar.) Durian for dessert; I discovered that if you eat it very cold it is delicious; at anything approaching room temperature and the stench is overpowering.

Posted in Geography, Travel and Transportation | 9 Comments

Some more scenes from Phnom Penh

Cyclo and passenger passing by Phnom Penh's Kandal market

In class on Wednesday May 23, you watched a live webcam scene from Phnom Penh’s Tonle Sap riverfront. I used this scene to introduce the idea of ‘reading the landscape:’  looking carefully at what you are seeing in the human and physical landscape, and using it to try and learn something about the place you are looking at (even though you may know nothing at all about it, and may not even know where it is.)

We will talking a lot more about ‘learning from looking’ as the course progresses. In the mean time, if you were intrigued by what you saw of Phnom Penh on the street corner you watched on Wednesday, you may be interested in taking a look at some other  photographs of landscapes and people of this city, and some of the activity that goes on at dawn each day a few hundred meters from my Wednesday morning coffee shop. What else can you tell about the city from them? Do they corroborate or contradict anything of our observations or conclusions on Wednesday?


Posted in Reading landscapes, Southeast Asia | Leave a comment

A talk of interest on campus (and suitable for an extra credit review)

“Dangerous neighborhood: India, United States and Security Challenges in South Asia”
Pranay Verma, Political Counselor, Indian Embassy
Shuja Nawaz, Director, Center for South Asia, Atlantic Council
Alan Kronstadt, Specialist on South Asia, Congressional Research Service

When: Wednesday, March 28, 4pm
Where: Trinkle 204

South Asia is considered one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the world on account of nuclear weapons, terrorist attacks, competition for energy sources and regional hegemony. It is also a regions where there is an ongoing war, major trade routes and some of the most protracted inter-state conflicts. The invited panelists will discuss how these challenges shape Indian and US foreign policies and prospects for conflict and  cooperation in the region.

The panel discussion is sponsored by the CAS Dean, the Leidecker Center for Asian Studies, the departments of Political Science and International Relations and Geography.

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How about keeping your own travel map?


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