Graduate School of Geography

Professor Deborah Martin talks about student-faculty collaboration in geography.

How and why did you start studying geography?

I often give credit (or blame!) to the city of Toronto, Canada, because that's where I grew up. I was very aware that my life in Toronto was different in culture and political context from that of family members living in the U.S., and I think an awareness of Toronto made me the urban geographer that I am. I also took quite a bit of geography in high school--in Canada it's a required subject--and I loved it.

In college I actually began by focusing on international studies. I had studied German in high school and decided to take a course in German that just happened to be on the urban geography of Europe. Urban geography became my field, although now I focus on U.S. cities for the most part.

How can geography undergrads get involved in research?

There are different ways. For example, last summer I had the assistance of a Clark undergrad who received an NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates award. He did a lot of the media data gathering and kept our database current and the articles in the database properly cataloged. He also handled some of the correspondence with people we interviewed and some of administrative tasks. So working directly with a faculty member on a funded grant is one way.

Geography is also home to the HERO program, which stands for Human Environment Regional Observatory. While I'm not directly involved in HERO, I've had many urban geography students participate in the HERO program, and I've seen their whole understanding of the kinds of questions geographers ask and how they do research really explode through that experience. HERO is a great model of how to engage students with a particular research problem, solve and address it. Participating students go through the whole research process with faculty supervision. HERO is a collaborative program in which research is driven as much by students as by faculty. Professors directly engaged in HERO have an opportunity to work in a sustained way with undergrads, and publish research papers with those undergrads as co-authors.

What do you see as the strength of Clark's geography department?

One of the things that is always a challenge when undergrads are trying to decide what kind of college to go to is the conventional wisdom that the big exciting research goes on in the big research schools, and that in a liberal arts college, you'll have much more elbow-to-elbow contact with faculty--BUT they're not doing that cutting edge research. Our department is both, and that's the strength for everyone involved: the faculty, the grad students, and the undergrads. Undergrads in our program have the traditional liberal arts experience with smaller classes and more access to faculty, but they also have the insights and the opportunities to understand more about research from both graduate students and faculty. I really include the graduate students in that because I think one of the strengths in the way our program works is that grad students are involved in undergraduate education and undergraduate training and research training, but in a way that's a more collaborative mentorship on all levels.

Our graduate program is very interdisciplinary and integrative. It has to do with how we understand space, how we use space, how people understand the environment and use the environment in a multifaceted way. When I was a graduate student, I went to a great school with a great program, but the different elements of geography were really separate areas. I could understand what a physical geographer did, but I didn't really understand how that was connected to my areas of interest.

Our graduate students bring us--the faculty--together in configurations that we might not have imagined. It's one of the things that makes inquiry so interesting in our department. Our students are asking questions that are very integrative in nature, and our structure, small size, and history actually fosters that integration. It gets us thinking about our own questions in a different way. That's why you go into this business in the first place: you want to ask questions and find new ways to answer them.

What is your current area of research?

My overarching research theme is about place identity and representation. I'm interested in how we organize ourselves socially in the urban environment.

Currently I'm working with a law professor at the University of Georgia on a research project, funded by the National Science Foundation, that we're calling "legalizing community," which is about local land-use conflicts. More specifically, we're looking at how neighborhood activism and local politics surrounding the location of group homes are shaped by laws and rules about conflict resolution. The group homes in question can serve several populations, including those receiving treatment for drug or alcohol addition, as well as people transitioning from homeless shelters, and the location of such homes has lately been a big issue in Worcester and Massachusetts generally. That's one of the reasons we became interested in it. We're exploring how lawyers, public officials, neighborhood activists and social service agencies understand and interpret the law, and how that understanding impacts the location of these group homes, and the urban landscape more generally.

We're in the middle of the research right now, so it's fun. We're conducting interviews with people involved, studying the laws themselves, and reading about the conflicts as presented in different media accounts.

Are there relevant laws at the local, state and federal levels?

Yes. Local land-use conflicts are informed by laws at all those levels. There are relevant federal and state laws relating to housing discrimination, housing policy and people with disabilities.

So far our project has focused on Massachusetts, but we also hope to do a comparison with New York state, because Massachusetts and New York have similar goals for group home settings, but structurally and legally, they deal with the location process very differently. We also are thinking that we will expand the project to other states, states with fewer legal guidelines to group home siting. But that will involve another research proposal and hopefully more funding, in order to really pursue a broader comparative.