Don Mitchell tries to challenge
students' perceptions when they enter his Geography 172 class, World Cultures. For example, during one lecture he might assert that, biologically, there is no such thing as race. Once he has students convinced of that view, he turns the tables. In his next lecture, he proposes that while race may not have a biological basis, it is "very real on the ground. People have to deal with it every day." |
Mitchell, 36, a professor in the geography department of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and The College of Arts and Sciences since fall 1997, hopes his students will argue with him during both lectures. "I try to be provocative," he says. His aim is not to impart a set of facts, but rather to nurture an inquisitive frame of mind. "I want students to think about how there is a wide set of processes that construct the world we're part of. I want them to know what some of those processes are, but I'm not interested in pat answers."
That goes for his own views, too. Mitchell says his ideas often evolve as a result of give-and-take in the classroom. And he doesn't want students to consider his opinions sacred. He often makes fun of his own socialist politics as a way of encouraging students to disagree with him.
Many people may think of geography class as being more about learning how to read a map, or memorizing Brazil's top 10 exports. But Mitchell is a cultural geographer: His interest is in investigating "the way people think and live their lives in particular places." How does this differ from disciplines such as history, sociology, and anthropology? Mitchell says that these days the lines are blurring, that all these subjects draw on each other. But geography "brings a specific focus on space itself, a focus on the spatial relationships between places and people."|
Mitchell's own work has often focused on how the interaction between society and its marginalized members changes the landscape. His 1996 book, The Lie of the Land: Migrant Workers and the California Landscape,explores how the conflict between farm workers and farm owners shaped California's Central Valley between 1913 and 1945. The book was well-received, and marked Mitchell as a rising star in geography circles, according to geography department chair John Mercer. It may also have brought Mitchell to the attention of the MacArthur Foundation. In June he was awarded one of 29 MacArthur Fellowships for 1998. The fellowship, commonly known as a "genius grant," will pay him $235,000 over the next five years. Mitchell is the first SU faculty member to receive this honor.
A MacArthur Fellowship is not something for which one can apply. Each year the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation invites more than 100 people, selected for expertise in their respective fields and their ability to identify exceptional creativity, to serve as nominators. Typically, between 20 and 30 fellows are selected each year.
Since the program began in 1981, 531 fellows have been named. A few, like author Robert Penn Warren and choreographer Twyla Tharp, are well-known to the general public. But many are unknown outside their own fields.