When I tell people that I’m planning to major in Human Geography, they tend to respond in a few different ways. The most common, “Oh that’s so cool! I don’t know too many people who study that.” The second response starts out like the first, but after it’s sunk in for a few minutes, a perplexed look crosses their face and they ask me, “So can you just clarify what exactly Geography is?” And the last, my personal favorite, “Wow, I loved learning where all the countries are on the map when I was in elementary school!” I bite my tongue when I hear this — refraining from responding by asking if they really think I’m spending four years and an entire college tuition on memorizing maps — and try to remind myself that Human Geography is a unique major, so it’s not their fault they haven’t heard of it.
My go-to explanation of my major is that it’s the study of the relationship between people and their land, exploring how each has shaped the other. It looks at how societies are organized on different scales, and how places, territories, and landscapes are produced by human activity. Therefore, it’s the study of how the maps that we’re all familiar with came to be, and what the implications of them being structured in this way are on our society. Not to mention that it’s interdisciplinary in ways you’d never imagine, bringing together environmental science, computer science, art, history, economics, ethnic studies, sociology, and so much more.
I started at UC Berkeley with very little idea of what I wanted to study. During my first semester, one of my professors gave me some of the best advice I’ve heard when I asked how I should go about choosing a major. It went something along the lines of, “It’s all about figuring out which way of explaining the world really clicks for you. Go out and take classes that you think you might be interested in, and while you take them, think about if this understanding of the world makes sense to you.”
I’ve only taken a handful of Geography courses and have yet to officially declare the major, so I’m in no way an expert in the field. But the first Geography course I took convinced me that this was the field of study for me, and the subsequent ones have only gone to further this conviction. It’s explained the way the world works to me in ways that I never could have imagined yet make perfect sense to me. I will admit that I’ve spent a good amount of this semester memorizing the world map for one of my classes, and most of my assignments involve making a map of some sort, but that’s beside the point. These assignments have forced me to dig much deeper by looking at the correlation of different factors and encouraging me to consider the social and political implications of how I design my map. In conclusion, Geography is difficult to explain because it brings together so many different things and has so many parts, but one thing is for sure: it’s so much more than simply memorizing maps.