“Don’t teach your students geography – teach them to be geographers” underpins Dr. Kenneth C. Martis’ philosophy for teaching geography. And his passion for teaching is just one of the many reasons that he was chosen as the newest recipient of the Regional Research Institute’s Miernyk Award for Career Scholarly Achievement.
The Miernyk Award was established at the RRI’s 25th anniversary celebration in honor of Professor Emeritus William H. Miernyk, who founded and directed the Institute from its establishment in 1965 until his retirement in 1983. The award recognizes individuals whose careers have been marked by sustained scholarly productivity, dedication to doctoral students, service to scholarly organizations and enduring commitment to the Institute and to WVU. “Without question, Dr. Martis, who is internationally renowned for his work, embodies all of these criteria,” said Dr. Randall Jackson, Regional Research Institute Director. “He has worked tirelessly to remedy the geographic illiteracy that is pervasive throughout the U.S. and the world.”
In fact, the most recent National Geographic-Roper Survey of Geographic Literacy poll shows that nearly 30 percent of young adults couldn’t identify Louisiana on a map and 50 percent couldn’t identify New York despite worldwide coverage of Hurricane Katrina and 9/11. Many couldn’t even point out the Pacific Ocean. But learning facts and figures isn’t what will overcome geographic illiteracy Dr. Martis explains. Instead, “…help the students see that geography is not only a body of knowledge, but theories, lawful-deductive explanations, fieldwork, interviews, data gathering, data analysis, and predictions.”
Another teaching tenet of Martis’ is “positive geography.” He explains that in his role as an earth science teacher, he teaches “about global warming, acid rain, natural disasters, biomagnification, and cancer and the environment.” In his role as a social science teacher, he teaches “about global hunger, genocide and war. “ He knows these subjects can be depressing but that you can put each situation in a total perspective. “Positive teaching not only reports the good things happening in the environment and world affairs, and what works in environmental and social science, but also provides prescriptions to change the not-so-good things,” Martis said. “All my courses end with hope. With hope a student can change themselves and the world.”
His students take this lesson to heart and many of them have credited his enthusiasm for teaching in inspiring them to pursue an active, engaged learning of events, places and people. Former student Max Reinke, for example, had landed a paid internship, one of only eleven in the world, in geography at National Geographic where he worked to advance geographic awareness for youngsters through the National Geographic Education Foundation and by linking lawmakers and K-12 teachers in a joint mission to promote geographic literacy. Without the mentoring he received from Dr. Martis, Reinke would likely be a zoologist right now instead of a geographer who takes into account everything from politics and sociology to world hunger, wars and climate change.
Yet another former student and graduate researcher has been quoted as saying that what he and countless other students learned from Dr. Martis “went far beyond the geography lessons. The observant students quickly learned that the classroom lessons, while enlightening, also provided a knowledge base and thought process that they would utilize for the rest of their lives.” Numerous news articles about Dr. Martis contain similar appreciative sentiments from many other students.
But Martis’ talents go beyond teaching. He is the author and co-author of seven groundbreaking, award winning books and an online atlas in which he links together history, political science, and geography to provide an uncommon and highly insightful view of American elections and politics. Taking his students under his wing, he invited them to become an integral part of the research process for his publications and credited them for their work.
His books have earned him research grants and awards from the National Science Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, American Library Association, Washington Book Publishers, and numerous other organizations as well as recognition for his extraordinary talent as a researcher and author. His book, Historical Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections: 1788-2004 was recognized as the Best Single Volume Reference in Humanities and Social Sciences for 2006 by the Professional and Scholarly Publishing Division of the Association of American Publishers. Never before undertaken, this book maps out the election outcomes for all counties in every presidential election between 1788 and 2004.
And he has been recognized for his work by both the University and nationally. His University honors and awards range from being the first recipient of WVU’s Benedum Distinguished Scholar Award—the University’s highest academic honor—to being named Outstanding College Teacher and Outstanding University Teacher. His national academic honors and awards are also impressive. Martis was chosen by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education for West Virginia Professor of the Year, selected from among only 300 top professors in the United States. The American Library Association awarded him, and his coauthors, the Outstanding Academic Book of 2003 for Atlas of American Politics: 1960-2000.
Of being selected for the Miernyk Award, Martis says, “I am deeply honored, humbled and grateful to be given the Miernyk Award. When I arrived at WVU in 1975, two geography professors out of five were, in part, supported by the Regional Research Institute and Dr. Miernyk. It was evident from my beginning here that Dr. Miernyk recognized that the emerging field of regional science was a melding of traditional economics and economic geography. Although my research area was neither quantitative nor economic, he recognized my work was valuable in inserting spatial aspects into not only to political geography, but also to political science and history. Even after retirement in the 1980s Bill Miernyk was a valuable reference in grant support and academic awards.”
“Over the years,” Martis continues, “the RRI seminar series has been a scholarly beacon for me, bringing renowned scholars to WVU. Dr. Jackson has carried and even intensified the inclusiveness and intellectual activities of RRI, and, in addition, his being a geographer has had many added benefits to myself and my department. All-in-all, over my career, numerous grants, scholarly meetings, international seminars, publications, and graduate and undergraduate research support came from the RRI. The RRI being at WVU has given me opportunities and advanced my career in countless ways.”
And he has given back to the University, the RRI, and the community. “Dr. Martis has been a constant and ardent supporter of the Regional Research Institute,” said Randall Jackson, RRI Director. “He continues to support the University and its students through a scholarship he has established to provide assistance to geography students, and he is also active in numerous community and professional organizations,” Jackson continues. “The announcement of this Award will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with him, with his career, and his lifelong commitment to academic achievement.”
Ronald L. Lewis, Professor Emeritus of History and past recipient of the award isn’t surprised. Lewis said, “With his interdisciplinary and collaborative research, outstanding record of publications throughout his entire career, and his long commitment to the Regional Research Institute, Professor Martis is the ideal recipient of the Miernyk Award for Career Scholarly Achievement. Congratulations, Ken!”
Trevor M. Harris, Eberly Distinguished Professor of Geography and last year’s recipient had this to say, “Ken Martis is a very worthy recipient of the distinguished Miernyk award. His many publications, presentations, and national awards have established his international reputation as a leading scholar in the mapping and geographical analysis of the electoral history of the United States. His reputation as a scholar is only equaled by his outstanding qualities as a teacher as witnessed by his award as West Virginia Professor of the Year in 2007. His commitment to the state of West Virginia, to WVU, to his discipline, and to his students represent the essential qualities of a Miernyk awardee. This award is very well deserved and a wonderful accolade and recognition of his distinguished career.”
Dr. Martis received the award at a banquet held in his honor on November 6, 2014 at the Hotel Morgan. Former recipients include Patrick C. Mann, 1990; Ronald L. Lewis, 1995; Walter C. Labys, 2000; Peter Schaeffer, 2008; and Trevor M. Harris, 2013.