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Geography 499: Renamed and Retooled

The long-standing Geography 499 course is a required capstone experience for all majors. Recently, it has been renamed and retooled in light of the department’s goals of enhancing the public impact of a geographic education and the professional readiness of our students.

Now carrying the moniker, Practicing Geography, the course engages students in discussions, readings, and hands-on activities that encourage them to think about what they can do with their geography major and the professional skills and approaches necessary to convert the major into a job and a career. Geography 499 students learn how to network, search for internships and job openings, participate in professional conferences, explain and pitch geography to a potential employer and the general public, design effective resumes and cover letters, participate in mock job interviews, and sensitize themselves to the practical ethics of geography and GIS.

A major foundation idea to this course is there is not just one way of practicing geography and there are any number of ways in which graduates can have an impact in the world, whether through the academy, the private or business sector, a public agency or government organization, the nonprofit sphere and community organizing, or working outside of geography in allied fields. Instruction in the revamped Geography 499, carried out thus far by Professors Derek Alderman and Solange Munoz, stresses the success of students in the workplace is not only of importance to them in terms of livelihood, but also in protecting the long-term sustainability and viability of geography as field of study and real world application of science.

All of the activities in Geography 499 lead to students producing a professional portfolio with examples from previous courses where they applied geographic skills, technologies, and theories to analyze issues or problems. Students are asked to carry out an original research project and present the results of that analysis in their portfolio. While the portfolio is meant to be a demonstration piece majors can share with potential employers at job fairs or interviews, it also doubles as a form of program assessment for the Department of Geography—a way of evaluating the effectiveness in preparing students for graduation.

The portfolios also allow for identifying areas where students have a deficiency of skills, which can then be addressed in the future within geography courses leading up to 499. With the recent approval of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, this assessment of portfolios has replaced the senior exit exams traditionally taken by graduating students in the Department of Geography. Portfolio-based teaching and learning is relatively new to UT geography, but it is a well-established method used in many disciplines to assess students’ learning and encouraging them to think critically about their own education, skill development, and professional preparation.

Student response to the revamped Geography 499 has been positive, with many of them giving the department and instructors high marks for taking such an active interest in helping them identify career goals and intellectual passions and developing successful strategies for proceeding through the wider professional world.

Quotes provided by students
“Geography 499 with Dr. Alderman was the most valuable class of my undergraduate career. During this jam-packed course, I polished my resume, put together a professional portfolio, and discussed different careers in geography. My biggest take away, however, was Dr. Alderman’s emphasis on passion, specifically how to hone in on passion and effectively express it to others. I find myself drawing upon Dr. Alderman’s keen insights as I begin to cultivate a successful, happy career. I am currently applying for a 2019 Fulbright grant and often recount the professional and transferable skills I learned in 499 to strengthen my proposal.”
-Ellie Eggink

“Geography 499 provided me with a greater understanding that geography is not just a single theoretical academic subject, but a dynamic way of thinking that helps people better understand the planet on which they live. I am grateful to Dr. Alderman for providing this context through meaningful class discussions and reflective exercises. This course equipped me with the ability to succinctly articulate the value of geographic study and the unique perspective/way of thinking I can bring to a job as a geographer. The exercises and discussions prompted me to take stock of what I’d accomplished so far in my academic career and forced me to think deeply about both my immediate and long-term post-graduation development. Personally, the course reinforced my passion for geography as a broad academic discipline, along with my own specific area of research. I am happy to be pursuing my master’s degree here at the University of Tennessee. I can honestly say my experiences in Geography 499 played an important role in this decision.”
-Jacob Cecil