Texas Tech University

Gary Elbow

Professor
Department of Geosciences
College of Arts & Sciences
Honors College

elbow portrait in his office

What are your research objectives and interests?

As a geographer, I am concerned with how humans perceive and utilize space. I attack these questions on two levels: 1) looking at patterns of human activity as expressed in different locations and among different social groups, especially in Latin America, and 2) through geography education and providing instructional materials and strategies for helping students better understand the world in which they live.

How do you feel your research impacts the globe?

Geographers are committed to understanding how humans interact with the physical world and with each other on Earth. Much of my research has been in Latin America, and I hope it has contributed to better understandings of how people in this part of the world behave spatially and how they organize and utilize the environments where they live. As a Fulbright Scholar to two countries, Costa Rica and Ecuador, and a visiting scholar at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador and the Universidad Pedagógica de Honduras, I was able to establish friendships and influence students and fellow scholars while, at the same time, enriching my own cultural understanding and language skills. I am a strong believer in international outreach whether as a researcher, teacher, or engaged tourist.

Another way in which my research impacts the world is through geography education. I have written textbooks for students at grade levels from four through college and conducted research on different ways of teaching students about the world and the people who live here. Having a geographically literate citizenry is essential to achieving our national goals and meeting our security needs. Also, because the United States economy and foreign policies have global dimensions, having a geographically aware population is in our interest as well as that of the other countries with which we share our planet.

black and white, elbow teaching students

What types of service projects have you been involved with?

My service is quite varied and involves work with professional organizations, test development bodies, university committees, faculty governance, and many teaching-related activities.

I have worked with professional organizations as an officer and also took on jobs as varied as reviewing and editing publications and developing text for brochures extolling the virtues of geography education for school administrators, teachers, and parents.

  • I served for 20 years with the Library of Congress as a contributing editor to the Handbook of Latin American Studies.
  • I have worked with state and national organizations on test development, including Educational Testing Service (ETS) for which I have been a member of the Social Sciences and History CLEP Test Development Committee since 2009, and I served on committees that helped to review questions and set standards for the Texas Social Studies Teacher Certification Exam.
  • I have been deeply involved in Fulbright Award-related matters as a member of the Texas Tech University Student Fulbright/Rhodes Scholar Evaluation Committee from 1990-1992 and as chairperson of the Fulbright Student Award Applicant Evaluation Committee from 1999-2010. I also served on regional and national level Fulbright Award screening committees for students (IIE) and scholar (CIES) applicants to various Latin American programs.
  • With respect to education, my first external funding at TTU (1978) was from the EXXON Education Foundation to introduce a directed decision-making strategy called Guided Design into geography classes at TTU. I have taught a service-learning class as part of the Honors College First-Year Experience program for the past 10 fall semesters, and this year, I helped to create an integrated humanities course through the Humanities Center.
  • I have participated in the last three reaffirmations of accreditation of Texas Tech University with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, and I directed the 2005 reaffirmation process.
  • I was elected as the third president of the Faculty Senate, and I have, at one time or another, held all of its other offices including service as parliamentarian for 5 years.
  • If working in university administration counts as a service project, I was associate dean in the Honors College for 5 years and served 6 years as associate vice-provost for academic affairs, during which time I led restructuring of the university core curriculum.
  • I served as a board member of the Lubbock Chapter of the ACLU for three years during the 1980's and I am currently a member of the Advisory Board of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at TTU, and I have offered several OLLI classes.

What are you currently working on?

I have several projects in various stages of development. I am working with a student to revise for publication an Honors undergraduate thesis that describes how Breedlove Dehydrated Foods, Inc. worked with Congressman Larry Combest to introduce and pass legislation making it possible for them to receive federal government funding to produce dehydrated food for emergency relief efforts abroad.

I am writing up a description of the First-Year Experience service-learning class I developed for the Honors College because as far as I know, my human well-being approach is unique among introductory human geography courses. I am conducting background research for a case study based on an encounter I had with Maya Indian farmers in highland Guatemala in the 1970's and 1980's. This will be a cautionary tale for social scientists conducting fieldwork with traditional cultures and also a study in how distinct cultures may interpret an encounter in very differing ways.

I am in the initial stages of preparing a paper on the incorporation of landscape scenes in Argentine films to set a mood of discomfort, fear, and depression among characters. This paper is based in films I use in a Latin American cinema Honors seminar class.

black and white, elbow teaching students

Where do you find your inspiration?

Geographers' lives are like the busman's holiday. We constantly observe our surroundings (yes, even when they seem to be flat and featureless) and seek inspiration from them. Travel is an opportunity to observe new landscapes and ways of life. I always choose a window seat when flying, and I become quite frustrated when flight attendants tell me to shut the window covers on long flights so others can sleep. I also find attending conferences and hearing about the research colleagues are doing to be highly stimulating. I almost always return with new ideas for research, teaching, or both. Finally, I learn constantly from students in my classes who contribute interesting and sometimes surprising observations and ask penetrating questions. One of my most inspiring intercultural experiences was spending four summers in Quito, Ecuador, teaching a graduate field geography course for students from all over Latin America.

What advice do you have for new faculty members about
balancing the components of Integrated Scholarship—
teaching, research, and service—in their careers?

Always remember that success can be measured in many ways, but when you begin an academic career, those ways are quite circumscribed. The rules for tenure and promotion are clear; you must set priorities and focus on your research agenda and teaching. Service in small ways is expected, but service will not compensate for a weak publication and grant funding record or less than stellar teaching evaluations. Once you have attained tenure, if you are so inclined, you will find many opportunities to provide service on campus, with professional, community, or other organizations. The Convocations Committee is a good place to start university service for new faculty because it only involves a couple of days at the end of finals week each semester, it is fun to see the excited students and their families at commencement, and it is a good way to meet colleagues from outside your home department.

More about Gary Elbow

I was born in San Francisco, California, but raised in a small town near the Oregon coast. I received a B.S. in General Science from Oregon State University (couldn't make up my mind what I wanted to be) and went 40 miles south to work on an M.A. in Geography at the University of Oregon. I had not considered academe as a possible career until I neared the end of my M.A., and I followed a former UO faculty member to the University of Pittsburgh to work on a Ph.D. Fate works in strange ways—I used to tell people who asked where I wanted to live after I completed my Ph.D. "anywhere but the middle of the country." So, where have I made my career?

As an ABD I fell into a job working for USAID in Guatemala for two years as a Planning Advisor helping municipal governments set priorities for development. I was able to collect data for my dissertation, become fluent in Spanish, and get to know the country quite well. Security was an issue, and I was one of only two USAID Guatemala employees allowed to live outside of the capital. (The U.S. ambassador to Guatemala and two military attaches were assassinated while I was there.) My wife Margaret and I were married in Amatitlán, where I was living, and we spent a year and a half learning about the country together and having wonderful adventures.

I came to Texas Tech in 1970 as an ABD and finished the dissertation. I managed to find opportunities to continue doing field work in Guatemala and other Latin American countries, and I became active in the Conference of Latin American Geographers (In 2003, I received an award for career contributions to Latin American geography), and I also became a board member of the National Council for Geographic Education, which opened the door to my interest in research and writing on geography education.

I have been a faculty member at TTU for 45 years, and, as I reflect on my career here, I can truly say the university has provided me with opportunities that might not have been available elsewhere. In retrospect, living in the middle of the country turned out pretty well.