“Geography is such a broad field. It is not about what is where – that’s the concern of the postal service. It is about peoples and environments, natural and man-made, and their interaction in a constantly changing world.”
Growing up in the former Soviet Union, Professor of Geography Olga Medvedkov routinely felt the fear around her associated with any challenge to mainstream thinking. The daughter of physician parents, she witnessed her mother’s and father’s reluctance to question the regime, knowing full well that other relatives had died earlier in Stalin’s purges.
“The Soviet brainwashing machine was working from the school on up,” Medvedkov says. “No critical thinking was allowed; everybody had to think alike, following the Communist Party line. Teachers were annoyed by my questions. It was dangerous to think differently.”
Within those dogmatic and propagandistic confines, however, Medvedkov found her voice, one of dissidence and hope, and one that has inspired students across generations to “think differently” about the world and their role in it. “I know that ‘critical thinking’ sounds like an overused term to many people, but not to me,” Medvedkov says. “My generation and the generations of my parents and grandparents were deprived of such a luxury – to think freely and critically. I hope that my prior experience – life behind the Iron Curtain and the break away from it – allows me to stress to my students how important personal freedom is and that it comes with freedom of thought and speech without fear of reprisal.”
Looking at her students’ success in the field of geography, Medvedkov clearly has accomplished all that and more, so much so that her students recently nominated her for Wittenberg’s top faculty prize, the Alumni Association Award for Distinguished Teaching. Medvedkov learned of the news while on a Fulbright Award at Tbilisi State University in the country of Georgia.
“It was 2 a.m. in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, when I was awakened by a Skype call from Wittenberg colleagues,” she recalls. “At first I did not comprehend it all, being only partly awake, and it took me a couple of minutes to understand what it was all about. I felt overwhelmed and humbled. It is the biggest honor a professor may receive because it is coming from recommendations of present and past students.”
Intent on helping students understand that geography means more than maps, Medvedkov has embraced a strategic vision for her field, founded upon technological innovation and passionate teaching.
“Geography is such a broad field,” she says. “It is not about what is where – that’s the concern of the postal service. It is about peoples and environments, natural and man-made, and their interaction in a constantly changing world. Geography is the common denominator that organizes spatially our neighborhoods, societies, and world. It is a very dynamic field, particularly with the new digital technology that has reshaped it dramatically.”
Her expertise in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) serves as one example of her forward-thinking attitude. In addition to introducing students to the foundations of her discipline, Medvedkov trains students to use GIS tools to solve real-world problems. Using Springfield’s own urban environment as a living laboratory, Medvedkov’s students have mapped everything from lead-painted houses in area neighborhoods and crime hot spots in Clark County to the most recent undertaking, a study of the foreclosure crisis in the city.
“This last study brought the city a $6 million grant for neighborhood stabilization,” Medvedkov says. “These types of applied classes excite me and my students the most.”
While in Georgia, Medvedkov is continuing to “think differently,” seeking out more cutting-edge technology to enhance her students’ understanding and expand her teaching repertoire.
“I want to teach a WikiGIS course,” she explains. “It is an open source GIS course that builds communities around it, and I am experimenting with it in Georgia right now, where I am teaching a GIS class for master’s degree students at Tbilisi State University. As a class, we are collaborating with a newly developed NGO, called Open Source Caucasus Map, where the volunteers are trained in mapping to contribute to a common geographical database where information is currently lacking. It is Geo-Wikipedia.”
In the Springfield context, Medvedkov envisions this type of a project working in a specific neighborhood, where the residents serve as active participants not only in sharing their ideas but applying them in a digital form, all while working together with students.
“It is yet a higher level of interaction between Wittenberg and the community,” she says. “Wittenberg students are smart and motivated, but what distinguishes them most is their willingness to be engaged, to be a part of something bigger than a regular class, to extend their skills and their hearts beyond the ‘borders’ of the university.” The same can be said of Medvedkov whose love of teaching and lifelong learning found a home at Wittenberg when she joined the faculty full-time in 1989.
“I think I am a very lucky person to teach at such a wonderful school as Wittenberg, to express my ideas freely, to engage students in projects beyond their classrooms, to expose them to the community and the world, and to collaborate with my colleagues many of whom have become my close friends.
“In Russia, very few people dared to express opinions that deviated from a prescribed line; those who did were the dissidents, and their actions and ideas influenced my life just as my students influence me daily. That is why I always tell my students to think critically and stay engaged, and it’s also why I fell in love with Wittenberg.”