Social Studies

Using ‘The Amazing Race’ To Teach Geography

By Stephen Sawchuk — August 17, 2017 3 min read
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It’s all too common to think of geography education as a rote march through cities, countries, borders, mountain ranges, and rivers. But Sarah L. Smiley, an associate professor at Kent State University at Salem, uses a novel teaching tool to help her students wrestle with some of the discipline’s core questions: the popular reality-TV program “The Amazing Race.”

Cultural geography, her speciality, is a subset of the field that focuses on patterns of human activities and why they happen where they do.

“I’m sure I’m biased, but the value of geography is that it teaches you critical thinking, that ‘why’ question. It’s not, ‘Cleveland is located there’ and you’re done.’ Why is Cleveland there and not 20 miles away?” she said, using the closest big city to Salem in Ohio as an example. “It gets you to be a little more critical, and brings in so many other things. You would have to think about economics, about population at the time, the physical location near a river. And there was oil; Cleveland had an oil background.”

“The Amazing Race” lets students explore those questions on a global scale, said Smiley, who published her approach in an article in the May-June issue of the Journal of Geography, which is put out by the National Council for Geographic Education.

The program, which has aired since 2001, follows teams of U.S. contestants in a scavenger hunt in locations around the world. Generally, the last team to arrive at each location gets cut at the end of each episode. On the way, teams face “roadblocks” and “detours” in the forms of challenges in which they might interact with residents, try a local delicacy, and sometimes learn a few key phrases in the native language.

Smiley said she started showing bits of the program to her students when she was a professor at Baltimore City College, just as a way for her students to see cities like Paris and Istanbul when they came up in class. Over time, though, she realized that the show could provide ways for students to talk about how location shapes differences, gender, language, and religion, for starters. For example, an episode in India dealt with female contestants getting groped on packed trains—a good opportunity to introduce discussions of women’s rights in the country, and how the country’s stats regarding rape and violence towards women have been a major political issue over the past decade.

Smiley generally provides background knowledge to help illuminate some of the themes in the episodes, and pairs each episode with additional geographical and theoretical readings.

“It doesn’t have to be a cultural geography focus. You could use it in a historical way, when contestants visit archeological sites, or in thinking about colonialism,” she said.

Her work generally fits into a rough category of using nontraditional texts in cultural geography—using computer games, films, and art to teach and ask questions about ethnicity and identity.

Could you adapt Smiley’s ideas for high school students? Smiley thinks so. She says she might slim down some of the heavy-duty theory in favor of more accessible texts, and some episodes might not be appropriate for high school. But others are great fits. She recalled an episode that focusd in part on Malawi, a country in southeastern Africa, and its production and export of tobacco. That’s a great entry point to talking about global exchange and trade.

It’s fair to ask—and other cultural geography scholars have—whether “The Amazing Race” treats culture in a reductionist way. But that presents opportunities to talk about how the media represents foreign cultures, including how it creates or perpetuates certain stereotypical viewpoints. (With her college students, Smiley uses Edward Said’s classic cultural-theory text Orientalism, which deals with how the West has represented East Asian and Middle Eastern cultures, to frame her discussions.)

She added, “I think many episodes do a really good job trying to give some accurate information about the places.”

And when contestants react in less-than-admirable ways—as appears to happen with some regularity when they journey through developing countries—that’s an opportunity to discuss dichotomies like clean/dirty, patterns of inequity, and racism that structure conceptions of other people.

What do you think, readers, about this novel approach? The comments section is open!

Photo: The skyline of Nairobi, Kenya at dusk. —Make It Kenya Photo/Stuart Price.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.