Disciplinary Divergence and Convergence in the Content of Introductory Undergraduate Coursework in Geography




Rutherford, David J.

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The Grosvenor Center for Geographic Education


While some geographers assert that the variable, diverse, and wide-ranging content focus of geography produces a problem of disciplinary disunity and lack of coherence, many geographers argue that geography is a discipline of synthesis whose content focus is of secondary importance to its unifying perspectives. This tension between diverse content focus and synthesizing perspectives appears particularly noticeable in introductory undergraduate courses in geography. While observers have noted widely differing content foci across the three most widely taught introductory undergraduate courses (human geography, physical geography, and world regional geography), no systematic empirical research has documented the differing content foci of these courses or identified the extent to which these courses may incorporate synthesizing perspectives. The research reported in this paper utilized a theoretically informed empirical approach to identify the content foci and synthesizing perspectives that were present in these introductory courses during the mid-2000s in the United States. Formal curricula, in the form of course syllabi for the three introductory courses were subjected to a rigorous and replicable content analysis that identified subject matter content and synthesizing perspectives in these three courses. Overall results show the existence of ( 1) limited commonality of subject matter across the courses, particularly between physical geography courses and the human and regional courses, and (2) a small set of subject matter items and disciplinary perspectives that are common across the courses. Detailed results provide nuance to these overall results and additional insight. The results suggest ways that instructors can not only teach the specific content focus of each course but also introduce students to perspectives that can serve to unite geography as a coherent disciplinary approach. In addition, by drawing from theory, this paper suggests ways that these results can contribute to overcoming the divide that exist across the overall discipline of geography and help to "engineer the synergies that are now latent" in the discipline (Abler, 1992, p. 224 ).



geography, geography education, undergraduate, introductory courses, synthesis, fragmentation


Rutherford, D.J. (2011). Disciplinary divergence and convergence in the content of introductory undergraduate coursework in geography. Research in Geographic Education, 13(2), pp. 3-29.


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