By Spaine Stephens
students remember many things about geography professor Derek Alderman. They talk about how he uses humor to liven up lectures and how he opens doors to research and publication opportunities. They say he has a knack for being everywhere at once while de-emphasizing place as simply a physical location. And while his work is studied and praised worldwide, one of his top priorities is making sure his students have a rich academic experience, coming away thinking about how they can make changes in society through the field of geography.
“I want them to be passionate about what they study. I want to get them to think about how they can improve the world,” says Alderman, who received the UNC Board of Governors Teaching Award in 2009.
“There’s an excitement that Dr. Alderman generates,” says Arnold Modlin ’06 ’08, who earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in geography with Alderman’s guidance. Alderman, he says, pushes students to understand geography beyond maps and locations. From attending local festivals and observing the demographics of the crowd to discussing the differences among regional barbecue recipes, Alderman’s students see geography come to life.
|“I always thought of geography as
map memorization and learning about
different cultures, but it is so much more
than that. Geography involves where everything is, and how it is all connected together, so it is a very broad field.
--Student Jamie Wheeler.
That’s his goal and his teaching philosophy. Alderman, who came to East Carolina in 2000, teaches classes from the undergraduate to the doctoral level and has mentored dozens of students. In and out of the classroom, he works to mold each one to understand the role of space, place and landscape in the past, present and the future. Teaching undergraduate courses gives him the chance to shape minds early. “Teaching intro-level undergraduate courses keeps you grounded,” Alderman says. “It forces you to see the world in a broader way.”
“I always thought of geography as map memorization and learning about different cultures, but it is so much more than that,” says undergraduate Jamie Wheeler. “Geography involves where everything is, and how it is all connected together, so it is a very broad field. Dr. Alderman helped me realize that I could follow my dream of helping the environment through geography, and how powerful tools like [geographic information systems] can be in problem solving.”
In the classroom, Alderman encourages conversation so students don’t just sit and absorb information; instead, they play an active role in learning and teaching each other. That also helps him learn, he says. “I want to make them feel like they can participate,” he says. “I want the classroom to be a place of dialogue.” But learning isn’t always serious business. He spices his lectures with humor and casual conversation. “It helps to brighten the mood,” he says. “It shows that you’re human, you have your own stories and experiences. It’s OK to laugh and approach the world in a way that recognizes that.”
“He wants each person in a classroom to be engaged and enthused about the subject of the day,” says Janna Casperson, a current student and advisee, “and he accomplishes this by encouraging the whole classroom to discuss, laugh and enjoy the general company while at the same time teaching solid geographic knowledge.”
The world as classroom
Exploration is a key factor in the syllabus of Alderman’s courses. Students venture into the community to get a better sense of geography’s impact on life. One field trip took the class to Cherry Hill Cemetery in Greenville to photograph, map and analyze the area, studying evidence of demographic patterns, social attitudes, history, environment and possible preservation issues. It brings geography to life for the students. Another course studies how traditional barbecue recipes vary across regions, even within the state. “It’s really helpful in illustrating geography and how things vary from place to place,” Alderman says. “It’s a way of reaffirming place.”
A research fellow with ECU’s Center for Sustainable Tourism, Alderman understands that teaching forces him to strengthen his connection between research and classroom instruction, to maintain knowledge of recent issues in geography and related areas. Those connections lead to mentorship opportunities, through which he can see student enthusiasm firsthand. “I want students to be passionate about what they study,” he says.
Alderman has taught at East Carolina since 2000 after earning his doctoral and master’s degrees from the University of Georgia and a bachelor’s from Georgia Southern College. He encourages his undergraduate students to get involved with research and presenting their findings at conferences as a way to instill confidence in them that geography can become a rewarding career. Those experiences give them the tools they need to stand apart. “Dr. Alderman has improved my graduate experience professionally by encouraging me to present a poster at an upcoming geography conference as well as present with him at another later in the year,” Casperson says.
Much of Alderman’s own research is conducted through ECU’s Center for Sustainable Tourism, where he pursues public outreach and conducts community engagement research, such as studying the politics of naming streets after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He examines the social, racial and political aspects that communities take into account as they work to agree on roads or parts of streets to name after King. “I like the idea of actually having an impact on discussions of public issues,” he says. He stays connected with activists across the state and often fields questions on the topic from media ranging from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to the BBC.
Alderman concentrates on socially sustainable tourism, particularly cultural heritage tourism. He is interested in studying trends in the promotion and development of African American heritage tourism, going so far as to help museums and historic sites better speak to minority visitors. One initiative that is making this happen is the center’s Race, Ethnicity, Social Equity and Tourism Initiative (RESET). Alderman is working with other ECU faculty and some at other institutions to identify, study and challenge patterns of social inequity in the tourism industry. “It’s pretty exciting,” Alderman says. “It’s particularly important for African Americans because they have such an intense history when it comes to history in the South.” The initiative drives researchers to pursue avenues of strengthening minority travel and tourism by studying brochures and publications in visitors’ centers around the state and noting the presence of minorities—or lack thereof—in photos in the brochures. The research also sets out to ensure that minorities have access and awareness to outdoor travel, resources and recreation.
Socially responsible history
Another area of Alderman’s research focuses on Southern plantations and how often the historic sites mention slavery in visitor tours. Failing to do that, Alderman points out, could cause African Americans to lose a sense of history and belonging. “It’s not just about history; it’s socially responsible,” he says. “We’ve got to recognize different histories and identities, and we’ve got to deal with difficult memories.”
There’s also an economic side to that kind of omission. Historic plantations open for tourism struggle in part because they leave out an important part of the population. Working with Alderman and other researchers, many plantations are becoming receptive to including information about slavery on their tours. Students have collaborated on much of the RESET research, allowing them to see how geography can bring about social change. Alderman also has worked closely with Carol Kline, assistant professor in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies, on RESET efforts. Alderman, she says, “is very student-centered and has his students’ best interests at heart. He is always looking for opportunities for his students to grow outside the classroom.”
Alderman himself also is growing outside the classroom and his research. He spends as much time as possible cycling, enjoying film and music, spending time with his family and traveling. It’s hard for his passion for geography not to infiltrate that time. “I love traveling in the South, and I discover something new every time I travel. I’ve never visited a place that I don’t think is interesting.” His personal and work time is intertwined because of the powerful connections between self and place. Always learning, always teaching, Alderman is helping students find their sense of place in the world and what that means for society.
“When you’re finished up at East Carolina, you’re not finished up with Dr. Alderman,” says Modlin, who is pursuing a Ph.D. at Louisiana State University and teaching at Norfolk State University. “He’s what I hope to become as a professor.”