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  • Transformed by Antarctica
  • Martha L. Henderson

Many faculty members of higher education institutions across the nation have asked me how we teach at Evergreen State College. We do teach world regional geography at Evergreen, and I offer this short article to demonstrate a system of learning. I also focus on one of the regions of the world that often is overlooked: the Polar Regions, especially Antarctica. Teaching world regional geography in a ten-week quarter is always a challenge. Inevitably student learning about the entire extent of Earth must be compressed to those areas to accommodate diverse populations, physical features, environmental histories, and challenges before us. A quick examination of world geography textbooks offers a measure of significance in the number of pages devoted to each major region. Student learning about Polar Regions is often left to their own reading of texts. At Evergreen, I have the luxury of expanding the regional focus into a two-quarter-long class.

Six years ago, a colleague was looking for a traveling partner to Antarctica and I immediately signed up. The trip was amazing. Antarctica is other-worldly. Ice is beautiful. Penguins are super cool, especially when you are kayaking with them right at your side. Old whaling stations are reminders of an extremely prosperous era for countries far from the antipode, at the cost of the world whale population. Sailing to Antarctica can be treacherous. The continent tends to attract adventurers and experienced travelers wanting something exotic. I traveled on an expedition ship, and my experience fell somewhere in between the luxury of cruise ships and cargo ships headed to resupply McMurdo Research Station.

While most visitors are amazed at the beauty of the coastal margins, I returned inspired to investigate the geographical significance of the continent in the global systems. These notes begin with my construction of a two-quarter course titled “Geography of Polar Regions” for upper-division environmental studies students at Evergreen. The notes focus on the second quarter of the class, in which students examined the physical and social geography of Antarctica. I offer these notes as an invitation for faculty to see the potential of putting the Polar Regions, and especially Antarctica, at the beginning of the quarter. A foundation built on the poles, for reasons I [End Page 222] explain below, can not only turn the world upside down, it can transform students into understanding Earth systems, human interactions, landscapes of significance, and the power of distant places in constructing their lives.

Note One: Constructing the Curriculum

Most regional geography textbooks, having invested as much text to the inhabited areas of Earth as possible, tend to lump Antarctica with the Arctic, remote South Pacific Ocean sites, or a meager description of areas still basically unknown, such as the oceans or outer space. I know from my experience in teaching introductory world geography on the quarter system that there is just not enough time to cover all the chapters. Covering all world regions is daunting and often leaves students with not much time or enthusiasm for investigating the poles.

After my visit to Graham Land on the archipelago, and acknowledging that at Evergreen we rarely use standard texts, I searched for a set of texts that would set up a framework for a regional approach based in environmental history, political ecology, and concepts of place. These texts were supplemented with an introduction to the cryosphere from a cultural perspective and physical geography readings on climate, glaciation, extreme biogeography. The reading list can be found in the bibliography of this paper. There are many alternative resources available for studying Antarctica.

I created student learning expectations to underscore the significance of physical conditions in high southern latitudes, the historical knowledge of Antarctica from early cartographic images, explorers’ encounters, types of ice, climate and climate change, whaling and its impact on world economies, tourism, research agendas, the Antarctic political regime, and, finally, the Antarctic Treaty, which specifically states that the continent is to be a place of research and peace. The course also included student learning to enhance their skills and abilities in environmental decision-making.

Embedded in curriculum were lectures about place and the construction of the Antarctic...


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