The teaching ‘travel agent’

Geography is more than maps and cities for popular professor and lifelong world traveler
Monday, April 24, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:41 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Joseph Hobbs sits comfortably in the cramped corner of his office in Stewart Hall. He is surrounded by two computers, a corkboard displaying photos of his family, and numerous worn-out maps. Sunlight splashes into the basement room from a window behind him.

But Hobbs isn’t focused on his office right now. He glances up into the distance, a slight smile forming as he recalls the time he spent barbecuing and swimming at the North Pole.

He jumps out of his seat and points to a map, tracing the route that brought him 90 degrees north: out of Alaska, over to Siberia where he boarded an icebreaker, up to the Wrangel Island and then up to the North Pole. Once he has finished, Hobbs returns to his seat — and slowly, he returns to Columbia.

Leading adventure tours to the Arctic has been only one of Hobbs’ travels. He has led eager tourists to Australia, Madagascar and the Middle East. Those trips are a combination of planned excursions to towns or villages and free time spent looking at nature or visiting rainforests, deserts and islands.

“Those are interesting, too,” he says casually.

“Interesting” may be a gross understatement to most, but for Hobbs, adventure tours are only one part of his well-traveled life. Born to an Air Force family in Anchorage, Alaska, Hobbs lived in California, Texas, Saudi Arabia and south India. Culture shock was to be expected, but Hobbs insists that coming back to the United States was harder than going abroad. When he returned to California after living in Saudi Arabia, he found that he no longer had much in common with his old friends.

“I really wanted to be other places,” he said. “Just about anywhere other than where I was.”

Hobbs didn’t stay put for long. After falling in love with Egypt as a child, he studied in Cairo with the University of California-Santa Cruz. This is where his career in geography began, he said. He went on to earn master’s and doctoral degrees in geography, and he completed his research on Egypt with a focus on the Bedouin population in the region.

Cynics who still think geography is only about memorizing state capitals and labeling maps have never been to one of Hobbs’ lectures. He walks into his Geography 1200 class and announces that the students are going to see one of the most amazing places on Earth and he asks to be their “travel agent.”

While lecturing, Hobbs shows footage of his trip to Madagascar. The movie begins with typical touristic scenes — taxi rides, trips to the marketplace, dancing at a wedding.

But the next images are unexpected. Students gasp, laugh and squirm in their seats as their thin, bespectacled professor stoops to pick up two sizable boa constrictors, laughing and petting them before removing them from the trail. He is also shown crossing crocodile-infested streams and dealing with illegal bird poachers.

Hobbs’ passion for geography and first-hand experiences bring the subject matter to life, and his effort does not go unnoticed by his students. “After my first week, I was telling my brother how much I liked this class,” junior Abby Davis said.

Other students have expressed the same sentiment on Hobbs’ personal Web site. There, some students have written posts telling Hobbs his classes are some of the most interesting they have taken at MU. One student even said he changed his major to geography after taking one of Hobbs’ classes.

However, Hobbs is reluctant to take too much credit for the effect he has on his students.

“People are just sort of innately curious about the world and what other places and what other people are like,” he said. “One thing I always do is encourage students to study abroad or just travel somewhere, or do anything they can to get out of the country.”

But he acknowledges that positive feedback is satisfying and that making a difference in a student’s life is the most that any professor can ask for.

Beginning in the fall of 2007, Hobbs’ academic career at MU will take a different turn. He will likely succeed Gail Ludwig as chairman of the geography department. Taking an administrative role is quite different from teaching.

“It’s kind of like having kids,” Ludwig said, explaining it is hard to anticipate what to expect. The role will require Hobbs to teach only one class and to stay in the office over the summer, something that could hamper his chances to travel.

Traveling the globe and teaching at MU is time-consuming. Factor in the time spent preparing for classes, and Hobbs doesn’t have much downtime. Every free minute is a precious commodity and family time ranks high on his list of priorities. Luckily, teaching and a love of travel run in the family. Hobbs and his wife, Cindy, who is also a teacher, have two daughters, 12-year-old Katie and 9-year-old Lily.

Because the family’s schedule is so full, spending time together really requires getting out of Columbia. They take vacations together whenever possible. After several trips to Mexico, Katie and Lily are always looking forward to the next return trip. In fact, the girls are already studying Spanish. Next on the itinerary is a trip to China. Hobbs said it will be a “big adventure” for the family, especially for the girls, who have never been that far away.

Next fall, however, Hobbs won’t be in the classroom and he won’t be with his family. He will be in Vietnam.

For several weeks in the fall and winter, Hobbs will be on leave to help advance academic ties with Vietnam. He hopes to establish research ties with the universities across the country as well as recruit students.

“There are many gifted students, scholars and scientists in Vietnam that have a great deal to offer MU and our community and country,” he said. “Our goal is to welcome many of these people to MU in the coming years.”

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