Prospect Magazine: Cool Classes

A Sense of Place

Drawing a new world map in "Economic Geography"

Michael Lindberg was asking his students to change the face of the world. He stood at the head of his classroom one morning, with world maps on either side of him, and posed a question.

If we could redraw the maps to design a country for maximum economic potential, Lindberg wanted to know, what would that map look like? He scrawled a few irregular ovals and trapezoids on the chalkboard, outlines of imaginary economic powers. “What’s the best shape?” he asked the 12 students gathered for his economic geography class. “Should it be compact or fragmented? Should it be on an east-west axis, or north-south?”

Lindberg’s challenge never did produce a definitive answer, but it did provoke a discussion that touched on everything from the economic legacies of colonialism to the variety of animal species found in Africa. That, says Lindberg, is standard procedure for the course.

“I consider a class successful if we’ve raised more questions than we’ve answered,” he says.

Indeed, the class is built around two basic questions that defy easy answering: Why is there such an economic disparity between the developed and the developing worlds? And is the disparity best explained by factors created by humans or factors dictated by geography?

“Those are the questions we keep coming back to,” Lindberg says.

A 400-level course, Economic Geography attracts mostly majors and minors from the Department of Geography and Environmental Planning, a relatively small pool of students. Enrollment for the class rarely rises much above a dozen. Elmhurst is one of a relative few liberal arts colleges to offer a major in geography, and Lindberg says the college graduates 10 to 15 majors each year.

“Really very few people come here intending to major in geography,” he says before class. “But they discover us by taking one of our general education courses, and they find that they like it.”

Up for discussion in Economic Geography this morning were the ways a particular environment can facilitate economic development. Someone in the class noted the lack of major natural barriers across Eurasia and suggested that this encouraged spatial diffusion—the spread of people, things, and ideas from place to place. So did Eurasia’s east-west orientation, Lindberg pointed out. Because it straddles the same latitude from Ukraine to France, common agriculture and technology could easily develop there.

But when Lindberg went to the chalkboard for his exercise in alternative cartography and posed his question about the ideal shape for an economic power, the class seemed a bit stymied. The room went quiet for a moment. Then one student, not satisfied with the options offered on the blackboard, asked, “Can you draw some more shapes?” Lindberg and the rest of the class had to laugh.

Changing the face of the world, it appears, is no simple task.

Michael Lindberg and his students ask how geography explains our world.
Photo by: Tom Lindfors

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