When most people think of geography, they remember the maps we had to label growing up in social studies classes. However, map labeling is only the tip of the geography iceberg, and our own geography professor Dr. Dawn Drake has the task to single-handedly teach Missouri Western students the vast subject and all it encompasses.
As Dr. Drake defined it, geography is the science of “where.” It pairs heavily with history, biology, and countless other subjects, jobs, and research projects. Recently, Missouri Western moved geography from the history department to biology, since it is so research oriented.
“Geography has three big areas. Human geography is more social sciences; looking at politics, economics, culture, those types of things. Physical geography is about landscape, atmosphere, and water, and technical geography is map making and managing data. I teach across all three areas,” Drake said.
With such a wide area of study, you would expect Missouri Western to have several professors employed to teach geography classes. However, Dr. Drake works alone for the most part.
“It’s not unusual unfortunately with geography,” Drake said. “There’s a fairly large group of us we call S.A.G.’s (pronounced “sage”), or Stand Alone Geographer, where we’re the only geographer at our university. Despite how important geography is, because it keeps getting deemphasized at K-12, we get fewer students coming in, then programs get shrunk or absorbed into other places.”
If anyone could carry all geography classes themselves, it would be Dr. Drake. While most students discover their love for geography late in college, she knew she loved it from high school, even though it took her a few years to commit to the degree.
“If someone was going to major in geography right out the gate, it should have been me. But I had the typical college kid experience that ‘I can’t draw a map, I can’t be a geographer!’ But I took my first two geography courses, and found out that (map making) is only a tiny portion of it, and the computer will draw the maps for me! So I double majored in Geography and History.”
Dr. Drake is able to teach all three areas of geography, even though she only specializes in one. She frequently brings in guest speakers to help cover whatever subject she has less expertise in to help students get the full geography experience.
“I’m trained as a human geographer. I do a lot of economic and business research, usually with rural or agricultural components to it. I also have training in technical Geography I use as an analysis tool for a lot of my research. One of the reasons I got the job here is because I have training in all three fields, which most Geographers don’t have.”
Brian Salsberry is a senior majoring in history with a geography minor and is president of Missouri Western’s Geography Club. With all the years of working with Dr. Drake, he heavily appreciates how much she cares about her students and is willing to help them.
“She’s a very hands-on instructor. As passionate as she is on geography, I’d say she’s even more passionate about the success of her students. She really tries hard to make sure students don’t just pass her class,” Salsberry said.
While Missouri Western currently only offers a geography minor, Salsberry hopes that they will consider adding a major, especially since geography has become so essential in so many different fields.
“The cool thing about geography is that it spans across different disciplines,” Salsberry said. “With the trajectory of geography these days, it probably fits better in the biology department, whereas 15 years ago it might have fit better with history.”
Dr. Drake encourages students to consider taking a geography course no matter what major you are, since it applies to so many fields and has become so important.
“Even if you don’t take a minor, take a class here and there,” Drake said. “There’s so many different hard skills you get from geography classes, such as awareness of the world around you and considering the global environment we live in. Having that ability to look at the world through a global lens. We’re seeing jobs across the spectrum open up expecting some of the hard skills and the software we teach.”
Dr. Drake might have her schedule full teaching all the geography classes at Missouri Western, but she always has time for her students, and Salsberry is just one student of many who appreciates her effort and passion.