Jinting Wu (education policy, cultural anthropology).Humanist geography is a study of how humans experience, imagine, and transform places and landscapes as they intertwine with the social, cultural, and existential horizons of human society. Sitting at the crossroads of Earth science, social science, and the humanities, humanist geography is multi-disciplinary, inter-disciplinary, and trans-disciplinary by nature. The focus of humanist geography, as exemplified by Yi-Fu Tuan’s pioneering works, is through the lenses of religion, philosophy, arts, literature, and psychology to examine how human values, perceptions, and consciousness are embedded in places and spaces.
Conrad Wiles (sociology, social welfare).Yi-Fu became my informal mentor during my undergraduate career, and he informally taught me about humanist geography. I believe I have a greater understanding and appreciation for how we are shaped by our physical environment and how we shape our physical environment. Each of us sees the world differently in part because we experience different physical environments. I think humanist geographers have a holistic understanding of the relationship between humans and the land and how this relationship has evolved over time.
Kevin Warnke (political science, African studies, sign language).As someone who has never taken a geography course, my only exposure to humanist geography has been through my conversations with Yi-Fu or a layman’s reading of his books. To me, humanist geography means appreciating that human interactions with space and place are worth studying, whether they take place in the wilds of a jungle or in a family’s home, in a Leo Tolstoy novel or in the words of a pastor’s sermon. Our relationship to space and place is not an obscure or arcane topic; it is fundamental to how we as a species understand ourselves and our place in the world.
Matthew O’Brien (chemistry, political science, African studies).“Geography” conjures images of maps, sceneries, and landscape stills, detached representations that reduce people to subjective smudges outside the frame. One would expect such sights to line the walls of an emeritus geography professor’s office, marking the places he has been and the contributions he has made. However, upon entering Yi-Fu Tuan’s office one is struck by the utter lack of such hallmarks. The only trophies—displayed on a tack board that catches the eyes of visitors—are of friends, family, and colleagues. “Humanist geography” embodies this ideal by placing people with their perspectives and ideals back in the frame and on the wall.
Lindy Nelson (environmental studies, landscape architecture).I don’t believe I’m alone in my perception of our world as a messy, complicated place. The more we advance in our understanding of it, the more the relationship between “man” and nature is difficult to comprehend at every level. Tensions in the struggle for scarce resources, competitive world-views, and personal direction appear to grow as we become more aware of them. Humanist geography is the one rational, interdisciplinary approach I’m aware of that can bridge all areas of knowledge in an attempt to clarify our place and inform us socially, personally, and spiritually. If you’re wondering how, read Yi-Fu Tuan.
Andrew Miller (law, English, music).Humans have always shaped the places they live, but those places and spaces shape people and society as well. My impression of humanist geography is that it explores the back-and-forth between people and places, as they impact each other. What’s interesting is that the impact of place on people and societies is all encompassing, just as human impact on place is shaped across the full spectrum of perceptions and experiences.
Melanie McCalmont (communication geography, sociology of science).Animals and humans alike communicate about their experience of place. The physical planet knows we are here, too, and responds to human activity. But, unlike the glacier, the deer, the forest fire-we've forgotten how to share a place. Humanistic geography is self-consciousness of our impact on place. The glacier does not apologize to the mountain, nor the deer to the sapling. Yet humans stopped natural forest fires until finally we listened, understood that we must share our place with fires. Humans used to communicate apologies and thanks in campfire rituals of joyful dancing and cautionary storytelling. As our impact has increased, we communicate our apologies with a global eletronic network of satellites dancing in the sky and internet stories on how to reduce and repair our technological damage. Does she hear us?
Hongnian Huang (mathematics, philosophy).In Professor Tuan’s words, “humanist geography achieves an understanding of the human world by studying people’s relations with nature, their geographical behavior, as well as their feelings and ideas in regard to space and place.” I am a young researcher pursuing my ideas in geometry. It is very interesting for me to relate Professor Tuan’s ideas to my own experiences in the mathematical world. Many geometers spend their entire lives to understand space, but they do not care how their theory can be applied to real lives. In many cases, the motivation to do mathematics is only for its beauty. On the other hand, when it is applied, does it do any good? For example, does the complicated machinery built up in Wall Street do any good to the financial market?
Michael Hsu (Chinese literature, environmental studies) with Professor Tuan.Other geographers study ways through the world and others the ways of the world, while the humanist geographer wonders why we endeavor to do so at all. Often existential in its questions and experiential in its answers, it is a field of study that is both intellectually rewarding and personally satisfying. Humanist geography is academe’s most elegant proof that our Odyssean quests are returns to the self.
Steven Holescher (American studies, historical geography, photographs as archives).Humanist geography isn’t just an academic field; it’s also, and more importantly, a way of being in the world. It’s about continually opening your senses of vision, hearing, and smell to the grand diversity of humanly constructed places. It’s also about trying to understand those experiences and then communicate their multiple meanings in evocative ways. Although humanist geography is not the province of any scholarly community—indeed, the novels of John Updike, the symphonies of Beethoven, the philosophy of Hannah Arendt, and the photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson have helped me with this life-long project—I learned the most from a geographer: my teacher, mentor, and friend, Yi-Fu Tuan.
Andrew Grant (cultural geography, China, explorer).Humanist geography holds a mirror to human experience. Never resorting to mystifying or obscure language, the humanist approach illuminates experiences both mundane and profound, showing how they relate to the basic human conditions of belonging and separation. Yi-Fu Tuan has deftly probed subjects as diverse as perception, metaphor, emotion, anxiety, fantasy, and religion, all the while remaining accessible to both scholars and the curious reader. Above all, humanist geography reveals how humans secure themselves in a chaotic world, a task accomplished, as Tuan has shown us, by methods as diverse as inventing a cosmogony or frequenting a local coffee shop.
Chaoyi Chang (urban planning, geography, GIS) and Professor Yi-Fu Tuan.October 15, 2011 was homecoming weekend at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the campus was flooded with people wearing red. Somehow that reminded me of the sea of red flags on China’s National Day. Two different cultures, two different worlds. Which one do I feel more at home in? My nostalgia for China began to fade as I felt more at home in the United States. If there is one discipline that raises such questions and seeks answers to them, it is humanist geography.
Nicholas Bauch (cultural/urban geography, Italian, photography).The value of humanist geography lies in its ability to enchant the world with meaning and purpose. It is as much about knowing the places around us as it is a guide to being in the world. Practicing humanist geography is attractive because it requires a slowness, a meditation that is antithetical to the breakneck speed at which we are asked to conduct our lives.