Dr. Michael Robinson holds a B.S. in Environmental Studies and a PhD in Geography, both from UC Santa Barbara (UCSB). He is just finishing his tenth year teaching, Physical Geography, Weather & Climate, Geographic Information Systems, Field Studies of Eastern Sierra Nevada and Field Studies in Death Valley, at Santa Barbara City College (SBCC). I recently had the opportunity to ask him a few questions about what he is doing now and how UCSB helped prepare him for his career.
What attracted you to Geography?
The interdisciplinary nature of the discipline as well as the focus on understanding our incredible planet and human-environmental interactions.
What attracted you to a career in education?
Teaching really clicked for me, first as a Teaching Assistant (TA) and then as a part-time instructor at Ventura College and SBCC. Though I’m at heart an introvert, I really enjoy interacting with students and teaching earth science. Many of my students are non-science majors who were, at least initially, taking my classes to check off their “science requirement.” I like the challenge of translating science and abstract concepts to these students, and it is really gratifying when a student connects the content from a class like Physical Geography or Weather & Climate to a landscape they drove past on a road trip or an article they read in the news. It is especially wonderful when a student says they’ve decided to major in Geography because of my class!
Describe your career path following your PhD up to your current position.
While I was finishing my PhD I started teaching a few Geography and Environmental Studies classes at Ventura College and SBCC. It was really hard to juggle teaching, my family, and finishing my PhD, but the teaching experience I had acquired really helped in landing the full-time position at SBCC. I would have been much less competitive without the teaching experience.
How has your education/background in Geography prepared you for your current position?
I am really fortunate to have worked with, and been mentored by, a diverse cross-section of Geography faculty at UCSB (Hugo Loaiciga, Dave Siegel, Dan Montello, Stuart Sweeney, Kostas Goulias, Chris Costello in Bren and Barbara Walker in ISBER). SBCC is a two-year college offering primarily lower-division undergraduate courses and it is really beneficial to have a broad background. I mostly teach introductory Physical Geography and GIS courses, but there are so many connections between physical geography and human and economic geography and the students really appreciate the holistic perspective. Though it wasn’t my original plan when I began my graduate studies at UCSB, I (somewhat unintentionally) studied a broad range of topics in Geography. That coursework and research, and my TA experience, really laid the groundwork for everything I teach at SBCC.
What do you like best about your job?
Classes are usually relatively small (20 – 60 students) and we really emphasize office hours and study sessions, which allows me to connect with a lot of students. I enjoy getting to know students and watching them grow and evolve while they are here at SBCC. As much as I love UCSB, community college is a pretty spectacular place for students from so many different backgrounds and histories to discover a love of learning, to grow and mature – though that last one can take a while. We really have some amazing faculty at SBCC. I’ve enjoyed connecting with and getting to know other faculty through campus committee involvement and various trainings over the years.
What do you find most interesting/challenging/inspiring about your work?
The teaching load at SBCC is very heavy (a normal load is 5 – 6 classes per semester), but there isn’t an expectation for research or publication like at a university. I am sometimes disheartened by (apparently) unprepared or unmotivated students. That said, it is quite incredible, and super rewarding, when the material clicks for a student and they come up to me after class or after the course has ended and tell me how relevant they found the material. A comment I hear pretty often is, “I didn’t think I’d like Geography, but it turned out to be really interesting!”
What advice would you give someone interested in a career like yours?
A faculty position at a community college is very different than a faculty position at a university. The teaching load is very heavy, but there isn’t an expectation for research or publication. You should definitely try out some teaching (which isn’t the same as being a TA) before you commit to this path. Community colleges are a great place to get teaching experience, and they are often looking for part-time faculty to teach a class or two.
Do you have any hobbies? What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
I swim on a master’s swim team and play a lot of music (primarily bass and guitar) in my spare time. I really enjoy traveling (as a Geographer I feel it is my duty to travel as much as possible!) and I’m super fortunate that one of my wife’s hobbies is planning vacations. 🙂
Thanks for taking the time to talk to us Michael. We love to see our Alumni doing great things and in our local community!!
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