Professor travels abroad to spread geographic knowledge

Head of WKU’s Department of Geography and Geology professor David Keeling has completed several international trips including a 25,000 mile cape to cape expedition. Dr. Keeling has taken WKU students on study abroad trips since 1994 and has been appointed as a University Distinguished Professor. (Adam Wolffbrandt/HERALD)

Mackenzie Mathews

David Keeling, head of the Geography and Geology Department, has made it his mission to spread the importance of geography throughout the world.

He has found that taking several 25,000-mile expeditions a year helps support his endeavor.

The excursions generally take up to three weeks and aim to convey the importance of geography to individuals in both business and industry. Keeling gives lectures on their destinations’ geographical elements, including history, economics and culture. He highlighted the importance of understanding how vast a subject geography is.

“Everything on the planet is structured around the interaction of people and places over time and space. That’s geography,” Keeling said. “It’s not just about capitals and highest mountains and longest rivers.”

Over the past 18 years, Keeling has gone on over 20 trips, working with the American Geographic Society to educate participants on the impact geography has around the world. Many of them often make influential decisions that, whether they realize it or not, involve geography, Keeling explained.

“Our mission is to really promote a spatial, geographic way of thinking about how the world works, because things are so integrated,” Keeling said. “The idea is to help them (participants) understand the geographic perspective: that place matters, geography matters.”

Keeling continued to explain that a lack of geographic knowledge can have lasting effects, like the United States’ international disputes that have played out over the last several years.

“If you think about some things we have gotten involved in as a government over the years — in Afghanistan and Iraq and other places — a lot of the mistakes that are made are because we don’t understand geography,” he said.

James Polk, assistant geography professor, said Keeling gives the travelers a deeper understanding than they would otherwise receive as tourists.

“He is able to really help them get fully immersed. Experience that true culture — the food, the place, learn the full history and the full geography,” Polk said. “It makes their experience much richer, and I think a lot of people take that back and share it.”

A part of the immersion experience includes finding a local cause to donate to or invest in at every destination. Keeling said that many participants are frequently looking for investment opportunities, so it is important for them to understand the business possibilities in poorly developed countries.

“If you can get people to look at opportunities and look at the resources and see how the United States and this particular country might interact economically, then it opens up opportunities for the local people, and for business people and investors in the United States,” he explained.

Keeling’s devotion to spreading geographic education holds roots at WKU, where he has worked for the last 21 years. Polk said Keeling has been bringing his experiences back to the department for the classroom and fellow faculty.

“He brings a lot of good experience and exposure to the department, which helps us attract students,” Polk stated. “They get to see if you go into this field, this is what you could do. This is the type of experience you can get.”

Polk has felt great encouragement from Keeling’s travels and career as a geographer and professor.

“I think that he pretty much defines what a geographer is, and how they should be, because it’s really hard to talk about geography and talk about landscapes and all the different types of comparisons without visiting and experiencing it,” he said. “He is probably the most inspiring person that I’ve worked with to make me want to do that and really embrace my discipline more.”

Keeling takes advantage of every chance he gets to spread geographical knowledge. He said he has spoken to the director of the CIA and CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, and it is rewarding to assist their understanding of geography themes like climate change or resource distribution.

“It’s just a great opportunity for me to go out and preach the gospel of geography to people who don’t know much about it,” he said. “The traveling is fun, but the interaction with the people is very rewarding, which is why I do it.”