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John Fraser Hart: “Just an old country geographer”

The U of M's oldest professor is teaching his last semester
April 14, 2015

Portrait: John Fraser Hart

Portrait: John Fraser Hart
Professor John Fraser Hart, Department of Geography

On his way out of class, the young man stops for a quick side comment to his teacher. “Your lessons leave me starving,” he jokes to geography professor John Fraser Hart.

Hart nods and smiles as he detaches his slide-filled carousel from its Kodak projector. He and his slides have just taken this roomful of undergraduates on a tour of America’s Corn Belt, ending with an overview of some of the massive egg-, turkey-,  and beef-production farms that feed the country.

It’s true that Hart’s teaching methods rely on technology more associated with the college years of these students’ parents—or grandparents. In fact, alumni of those generations could well have taken this very class from him: Hart has taught Geography 3101—Geography of the United States and Canada—since shortly after he arrived at the University in 1967. But the class also proves that digital dexterity isn’t a prerequisite for passionate scholarship and extraordinary expertise.

At 91, Hart is the University’s oldest professor; he will retire at the end of spring semester. As a professor with that much longevity, he has taught thousands of students (more than 40,000, he estimates), published hundreds of articles (more than 250 at last count), more than a dozen books, and witnessed—if not always participated in—the communication industry’s incessant march from typewriters to Twitter. 

To professional geographers, Hart’s is not just a household name, but also an iconic one, to which phrases like “the highest standards of geographical scholarship” are attached. What Hart likes to call himself is “just an old country geographer.” Both of these phrases are true—as long as “country” is understood to mean not just croplands from tobacco to soybeans, but also casinos, mobile homes, chicken farms, and New York City boroughs. He has studied all of these, and more, and in the process put his own indelible stamp on what regional geography scholarship means.

It was more than 30 years ago now that Hart created something of a stir among his peers by calling regional geography “the highest form of the geographer’s art,” raising more than a few hackles among geographers determined to transform geography into a more “scientific” discipline. But he has made the steadfast case that geography scholarship is both art and science, one that demands not only rigorous methods, but also a fundamental understanding of human values.

“We cannot understand a region until we understand the behavior of the people who inhabit it,” he has written, “and we cannot understand their behavior until we understand and appreciate the values that motivate that behavior.”

He believes in working from the ground up, so to speak, talking to people on their own turf and at their own level—sort of like learning a second language by immersion rather than textbook. And then, when it comes to teaching, this is what Hart shares.

“I can’t take students on a helicopter ride, so I do the job that students can’t do. I go out, take pictures, bring them back and show them what it’s like.”

So although Hart uses plenty of data to illustrate issues like the dramatic decrease in the number of U.S. farms and the corresponding increase in their size over the last decades, he paints the story with picture of people and the land. There’s Floyd, who once made a living raising corn, oats, cattle and hogs on 120-acre Iowa farm, but whose son couldn’t continue without the large capital investments needed for modern agriculture. There’s Kenny, who took over his family’s farm from his grandfather, and succeeded by embracing the specialized, mechanized, high-tech world of modern agriculture. And there’s Russ, who embraced that world so much that he laughingly calls himself a a “BCF” farmer: He can make a living by raising beef and corn, then spending winters in Florida.

Hart has befriended them all, kept in touch over the years and draws on their stories to illustrate the patterns and impact of agricultural production over the decades and the evolution of farming from a cottage industry to a modern mass-production business

At the same time, there’s no getting around the fact that Hart has been a rigorous instructor. His multiple-choice exams require students not only to pinpoint areas on maps but also to understand those areas’ character and function.  A third of the students fail his first exam, he says.

“The tests are different than anything they’re used to,” he says. “This does not generate warm fuzzy feelings.”

Born in Virginia, formed by his Southern roots and the summers he spent on his grandfather’s farm, Hart never dreamed he’d be a teacher. In fact, after three-and-a-half years as an instructor in the Navy, he boldly declared it was the last thing he’d ever want to do. But a PhD from Northwestern in 1950 led to six years on the University of Georgia faculty, then 12 years at Indiana University, and finally, his nearly 50 years at the University of Minnesota.

“Academia is the best life in the world,” he now says.

He admits he feels sad about leaving.  “I’m still having fun, but I’m aware of the things I’m not doing as well as I’d like to,” he says. “I’m retiring as a professor, not as a geographer.”

So the office file cabinets are empty now, the shelves mostly cleared, except for the packing boxes. Even the Kodachrome slides have been thinned out: In the last month, he has tossed some 10,000 of 25,000 he has used regularly in his classes. He’s turned 50 tapes over to the U archives. 

On April 14, Hart will host Old Haunts Revisited, a coffee hour for his colleagues in the Department of Geography, Environment, and Society, in which he’ll share favorite memories of a career that has spanned nearly six decades.

He won’t be a teacher anymore, he says, but he’ll always be a geographer—and always with a hunger for more.