My colleague and friend Joseph Kerski recently wrote about the ways in which spatial thinking may be increasingly recognized as valuable within higher education (and thanks for the call out, Joseph). He included Harvard’s recent job announcement as evidence of increased interest in the topic, and suggested that few dedicated jobs like these exist. I think there are actually more people filling that role on college campuses than is usually recognized, but these jobs are still uncommon. They typically exist where GIS is being used in interdisciplinary settings, and in locales where cross-campus activities naturally take place, like libraries and offices of instructional technology. There, anyone who tries to support GIS usage and does NOT effectively communicate about spatial thinking in the process has an especially difficult time doing their job.
GIS “Specialists” on college campuses are great people (some of my best friends!) and I’m lucky to have met many of them over the years, mostly those from smaller liberal arts schools including Smith, DePauw, Carleton, Dickinson, Allegheny, Amherst, Colby, Williams, St. Lawrence, Skidmore, and dozens of others. At Redlands, we’re lucky to have multiple people participating in these efforts. Dave Smith is our GIS Specialist, based in ITS. I modeled my own current Redlands position after Barbara Parmenter’s at Tufts, and work as a hybrid faculty/administrator. Yes, it’s uncommon and difficult at times to bridge those worlds, but it can work.
What all of these positions have in common is that spatial thinking, whether we explicitly describe it as that or not, is central. Yes, there’s software support. Yes, there’s data management. Yes, there’s some applied analysis. Yes, there’s map production. But if we weren’t successful at helping faculty and students gain confidence and competence at asking and answering spatial questions, it would all be for naught. Faculty + their creative ideas + a few scattered days with Esri’s virtual campus ≠ sustainable GIS-based spatial learning.
The Harvard announcement has indeed generated a bit of discussion around the water cooler. I’m particularly interested that they’re targeting their General Education courses, especially since I happened to write about their doing just that in a 2009 article in Journal of Geography in Higher Education (free pdf available here)! Faculty who are curious about GIS and are hesitatingly testing the waters are sometimes reluctant to admit that they don’t know much about the spatial characteristics of their data, or that they have never (knowingly) asked spatial questions about the data before, or that they know little about how to analyze their spatial data in (statistically) valid ways. Typically, faculty will have to be ready to try something new, and dedicate some time to it, and we all know how precious and rare our time can be. Support staff learn to appreciate that faculty perspective and work with and around it. How effective will a post-doc be in that role? Can a post-doc be conversant enough about the range of topics they are likely to encounter (from biology to history to sociology to geology to political science, and beyond), or at least intellectually curious enough to engage in the conversations necessary to tease out the best GIS-based approaches? Can someone make enough progress in two years to show a return in (learning) investment? YES. Especially if they’re geographers, the naturally interdisciplinary discipline!
Bottom line – there is a tremendous amount of spatially-based learning going on in many ways and in many places across campuses, it often involves GIS, schools from A to Z are doing it, and explicit attention to the value that spatial thinking brings to the activities will provide its greatest purchase in higher education. Institutional investments in human resources are essential to making it all work.