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The Human Face of Geography

September 16, 2008

“Everyone talks about globalization,” says Patricia Mathews-Salazar, “even though no one seems to know exactly what it is.” But Mathews-Salazar, an associate professor in BMCC’s Social Science Department, is not one to offer her students easy answers. Rather, her survey course, Introduction to Human Geography, wrestles, not always conclusively, with complex issues such as globalization, as well as “the ways people shape and affect nature and the places where they live – and are in turn shaped by nature and their environment.”

Born and raised in Peru, Mathews-Salazar holds a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Yale – a field that informs her approach to the teaching of human geography. “Everything we study in the course is based on the idea of promoting tolerance and respect for the dignity of all people,” she says. “What can we learn from different cultures – and how can we apply that to the study of how people relate to the planet?”

Food for thought
While globalization figures importantly in class discussions and readings, Mathews-Salazar is quick to note that it can mean different things to different people. “Socioeconomic processes differ from country to country, often yielding different outcomes,” she says. “McDonald’s may be everywhere, but a McDonald’s hamburger purchased in Indonesia tastes different from one in Peru.”

Not surprisingly, the content of Mathews-Salazar’s course is enriched by the diversity of BMCC’s student population. “My students come from many different parts of the world, and each one brings something of value to class discussions,” she says. “Perhaps more than most people, they understand how local events can have an impact on other parts of the world – how the after-effects of an earthquake in Nicaragua, for example, can be felt in New York.”

Environmentalism without attitude
In exploring the links between geographic regions – and between humans and their environment – Mathews-Salazar does not shy from hard realities. “The fact is that, sometimes, humans are not so good for the environment,” she says. But the lessons of human geography cannot be taught by preaching or moralizing, Mathews-Salazar says. While environmental groups have pressured indigenous tribes in South America to abandon traditional slash-and-burn farming practices, “it is almost never productive for westerners to impose their values on others in this way. The point needs to be made, but more amicably.”

Recently, Mathews-Salazar accompanied her class on a visit to the American Museum of Natural History, where they walked through a meticulously reproduced diorama of an African rainforest in the Hall of Biodiversity. “The impact on them was powerful,” she says. “As a teacher, I can assign my students to visit a museum on their own, but it’s not the same as when we all go together and share the experience.”

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