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‘The “Butterfly Effect” Is no Longer an Abstract Idea, but a Reality that You Constantly Observe’

‘The “Butterfly Effect” Is no Longer an Abstract Idea, but a Reality that You Constantly Observe’

© HSE University

The bachelor’s programme ‘Geography of Global Changes and Geoinformation Technology’ is offered by the Faculty of Geography and Geoinformation Technology, one of the newest at HSE University. One year ago, Yulia Kuznetsova came on as the programme’s academic supervisor. In this interview for the HSE News Service, Yulia Kuznetsova explains her job duties, where HSE geography students do their field work, and why geography itself can make you happy.

Yulia Kuznetsova

— What does your job entail? 

I am chiefly responsible for ensuring that the educational programme maintains the proper balance. This is the No. 1 task in a new faculty, when the programme is a living thing and constantly in flux. Because all the people who come to teach the students are on fire with their subject and are often young and full of enthusiasm, it is easy to for the programme to become skewed in a particular direction. Geography is very much an interdisciplinary science. It has at least two main areas—social geography and physical geography, and students must acquire a basic knowledge of each. The third main component and the main method for geographers is geoinformation technology and cartography. It is important that every geographer has adequate knowledge of these methods. Therefore, it is important to maintain a balance at the level of the entire programme, to monitor and improve the links between subjects and disciplines so that, having gained skills in one subject, the student can apply them in another.

My next task is to sort out the feedback that arises in the process, and there is a lot of it at a new faculty. On the one hand, this is feedback from the first incoming class because these students are co-designers of the programme. On the other hand, it is also from teachers, because we are all new to HSE and this is a huge university with its own rules and obligations. We need to help people understand the peculiarities of curriculum development, the grading system, and working with the university, because not everyone is used to the way things are done at HSE University.

— How do new courses appear and new programmes take shape?

The idea behind the creation of our faculty is that we don’t train narrow specialists like classical geographical universities do—meaning separate majors for meteorologists, soil scientists, etc. We train geographers in such general fields as physical geography, social geography, and geoinformation technology. The first two years of study comprise the general education programme, the core, the basics for all three components that, once mastered, make it possible to go on and specialise. In parallel, our students study related subjects, such as macroeconomics, microeconomics, mathematics and others. In the third year, they focus on methodological subjects. Students choose a specialisation and master more nuanced methods that are used in specific areas of geography. In the fourth year, they study subjects that synthesise all this, as well as regional courses. We hope that after earning a bachelor’s degree, our graduates will share a common vision of the world and have a clear set of methods for studying it. At the same time, we continue to introduce new courses and replace others; we are in the process of developing the programme for the fourth year of study.

— You say ‘we’. Can you say something about the team at your faculty?

The dean of the faculty, Nikolai Kurichev takes an active role in all processes, including programme development. Olga Solomina, the director of the Institute of Geography of the Russian Academy of Sciences, is the academic director of the faculty. She tries to develop the scientific component, to make sure that we don’t get carried away or sidetracked. She helps to create a professional community at the faculty and beyond it, to build ties with the geographic community outside HSE University. We want students to have a choice: to go into research—which takes someone with a lot of experience and an overall vision of the academic environment and all the skills needed to work in it; or else to go into practical industries. Thirdly, we have four excellent curators working in three areas: Stas Kutuzov in physical geography, Maria Gunko and Maria Zotova who now oversee social geography, and Andrey Medvedev in geoinformation technology. It’s thanks to them that the faculty has become what it has. We also have 10-15 teachers who are actively involved in the creation and development of our educational programme.

— Aside from standard classroom activities, what types of interesting things happen at your faculty?

Several important elements of practical training take place during the year. Geographers are field workers by definition, so we must introduce students to the various types of physical locations that exist. In fact, expeditions take their name from the particular field: a city survey, a mountain hike, a sea voyage, and so on. As part of their education, we must introduce students to this type of work and teach them to work in a team. This can be done through practice. First-year students spend three weeks on this. It reinforces all of the basic skills they have learned in their first year of studies. We held our first-ever practical training at the Kursk Biosphere Station. This year it will be held in Moscow. Second-year students carry out their practical training in small groups. This summer, the physical geographers traveled to the Bezengi Glacier, high in the Caucasus Mountains, the social geographers covered 4,000 km along the Volga River, and the geoinformation technologists did their practical training on the right bank of the Tsimlyansk Reservoir and in the southeastern part of the Archedinsky-Don Sands massif.

We have also started the tradition of taking short field trips during the schoolyear. For example, as part of the course on the oceans, second-year students go to Kaliningrad to visit the laboratories of the Institute of Oceanology and personally observe the intersection of land and sea.

Another important tradition is when students do lab work at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Geography. They get acquainted with working scientists and methods, see and try various equipment, and work with test samples. After these visits, some students stay on as lab assistants. In addition to giving them extra income, this is a unique opportunity for them to try their hand at academic science while still first-year students.

HSE University

— The faculty also posts regularly to a YouTube channel where it occassionally releases career-related videos.

Yes, we try to show students what geographers really do, and not only in the framework of trips—because students spend most of their time in Moscow and geographers can work in more than just science. We came up with the format of a career guidance seminar where we introduce students to the reality of the profession through communication with practicing geographers. This is a seminar where our guests share their unique stories, because there is a widespread belief that a geographer can work anywhere if he really wants to. Our guest speakers have included government advisers, business owners, managers, consultants, journalists, scientists, and representatives of NGOs. As early as their first year, students get an idea about possible future career tracks. In my opinion, this is a very valuable practice and I don’t know of anything similar, at least among geography faculties in Russia.

— How do you see modern geographical education in Russia?

It’s different now and that’s great. A few years ago, a single vision of geography was predominant—the classical one that had developed over time. This was a geography faculty with an average of 15 different, very narrow majors. Students would study the basics for one year, then specialise to become good meteorologists, hydrologists, and so on. This is more or less how it looks at most Russian universities with geography departments. Now—and in my opinion, this is great—there is an alternative that we are creating at HSE University. We take a more comprehensive approach. We have doubled the time for learning the basics. Over those two years, students gain a strong mastery of the main geographical methods: cartographic and geoinformation technology. Another difference is that we don’t have narrow majors even for upperclassmen like they do in classical university programmes. We have come to the conclusion that a meteorologist doesn’t always understand what, for example, a geochemist or soil scientist does. We are trying to change this, without denying that specilisation is useful and important. The world needs highy specialised individuals, but the world also needs those who can establish a dialogue with others, understand what everyone else is doing and see the big picture of how everything is interrelated. However, we don’t deny our students the right to specialise in, say, a master’s programme. We take this dual approach; this is the modern way to teach geography in Russia. We don’t compete with classical university programmes, but help and supplement them.

— What joys and pains do the students of your programme experience?

The main problem at our young and very energetic faculty—and at HSE University as a whole—is that students are overloaded, especially at certain times of the year. We’re trying to change that. I hope that we will gradually succeed. At our Open Houses, I always mention that it’s difficult to study here. We have a particular system of assessment such that from the first day of the first year to the last day of the fourth year, students must meet deadlines. This a fundamentally different, complicated and new lifestyle in which you constantly have to produce and take tests and exams.

— Is there any joy?

Geography itself is a source of happiness. There was a time when it put me in absolute ecstasies: everything is connected to everything else, and geography shows this in a really cool way. By studying geography, you begin to see these interactions, the way events both around and within you are interconnected. The ‘butterfly effect’ is no longer an abstract idea, but a reality that you constantly observe. You learn to look at the world around you very closely, and in a completely different way. This is the joy that students experience from their very first classes, and it stays with them for life.

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