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The Larger Meaning of Research

Ron KalafskyIn academic circles, especially in research-intensive institutions such as UT, we tend to place a lot of emphasis on scholarly output, whether in terms of external funding, journal articles, impact factors, or other metrics. This is understandable, as we want to disseminate our research, push scholarship to new boundaries, and find ways to benchmark ourselves against peer and aspirational departments regionally, domestically, and globally.

At the same time, we occasionally ask ourselves questions along the lines of, “What is the larger meaning of such research and how does it benefit society?” These considerations become even more salient, given that UT serves as the flagship and land grant university of Tennessee. Moreover, such discussions are not limited to UT or our state. Indeed, the National Science Foundation lists ‘Broader Impacts’ as one of its criteria when considering grant proposals, with some of the standards encompassing “How well does the activity advance discovery and understanding while promoting teaching, training, and learning?” and “What may be the benefits of the proposed activity to society?”

Such considerations are at the core of what geographers do in our department. Professor Sally Horn, for example, parlays her considerable external funding expertise into a graduate-level course called Grant Proposal Writing in Geography. This popular annual offering has benefitted students aiming at careers in both the academic and nonprofit sectors, while also resulting in noteworthy external funding awards that have enabled students to further their research across the world. Another example is found in Professor Nicholas Nagle’s GIS in the Community, a course that explores how the valuable tools found in geographic information systems can benefit real world, community-centered challenges. A final instance is found in the research of Professor Solange Muñoz, whose work explores informal housing and rights to housing in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Again, real world issues that affect people’s lives.

Much like the rest of the skills and accomplishments in our department, I could provide even more examples of how UT geographers impact the world, but space limitations do not permit it. I hope you enjoy this collection of articles along this theme. As always, please reach out to me at any time.

Best wishes throughout the year.

Ron Kalafsky
Professor and Head
Department of Geography