Professor, Glacial/Fluvial Geomorphology, John Van Hoesen @Taconic_Musings: A Day in the GeoLife Series

NAME:  John Van Hoesen

CURRENT TITLE:  Associate Professor of Geology & Environmental Studies

AREA OF EXPERTISE: Glacial/fluvial geomorphology, surficial/soil mapping, spatial analysis, applied geographic information system (GIS), and geoscience education


EDUCATION: B.S. Geology, University of Albany, New York; M.S. Geoscience, University of Nevada, Las Vegas; Ph.D. Geoscience, University of Nevada, Las Vegas


Dr. John Van Hoesen, Associate Professor of Geology & Environmental Studies

What’s your job like?

It depends on the time of year and which hat I’m wearing. As a faculty member at a small, private, liberal arts college in rural Vermont, I often spend a fair bit of time inside and in front of a computer. As an undergraduate, I partially pursued geology for the lure of fieldwork, but the unfortunate reality is that committee work, curriculum planning, grading, etc., all interfere with opportunities to be in the outdoor classroom. I don’t mean to sound negative at all; I’m just offering a reality check on ‘life as a college professor.’ However, any frustration I have about not being outside is offset by the amazing opportunity to work with undergraduate students on research projects or helping them solve a difficult exercise or understand a complex concept they are curious about.

In the summer, I work as a consulting geologist or GIS analyst and both offer more field-based opportunities. I spend a lot of time knocking on doors, asking permission to walk private property to dig soil pits or describe and sample exposures of surficial sediments. Other times, I might be waist deep in a river collecting cross-section data and evaluating high-water marks, bank full indicators, and scour potential.

What’s a typical day like?

During the semester, each day is a balance between preparing questions and activities for classes, offering feedback on assignments, more often than not rushing to a committee meeting (or meetings), and battling the non-stop onslaught of email.

I wish my typical day included a fixed time for working on manuscripts, presentations, grant proposals, or reviewing manuscripts or grants, but the reality is that I work in cycles. So, other days I might spend the entire day working on a GIS project, writing/editing an article or developing an assignment for a course. I’m more of a binge writer, and this job is conducive to that approach.

What’s fun?

My job is mostly fun, because it’s wildly variable with the autonomy to explore topics that either I or my students are interested in and the freedom to pursue consulting opportunities in the summer to maintain an understanding of the expectations placed on working professionals outside of academia. I get the best and worst (but mostly best) of both worlds without having to follow someone else’s research agenda.

But day-to-day, the most fun occurs in the classroom, lab, or field seeing someone else get just as excited about the origins of reticulate, the simplicity but importance of pebble counts, the poetry of Globigerina ooze or an exposure of billion-year-old stromatolites… Without question, the most fun is the interaction with students and their own curiosity about the natural world.

What’s challenging?

The almost constant tug-of-war between teaching, research and service within the academic environment. Describing a typical day was challenging, because every day brings with it something unexpected, which is a double-edged sword with respect to time management. It could be something really awesome that distracts you from something less interesting but more important, or it could be something administrative that isn’t really important but is time sensitive and distracts you from something awesome.

One challenge associated with teaching is overcoming the hierarchical model of learning and trying to foster an environment of exploration, curiosity and healthy skepticism to move away from the focus on grades and getting the correct answer. It’s a difficult case to make when the pathway to success is paved with grade point average (GPA) results and class rankings.

What’s your advice to students?

Volunteer. I completely understand and agree with the current backlash against internships that don’t provide compensation — that’s not what I’m referring to. Volunteer to work in a lab; volunteer with The Nature Conservancy; volunteer with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), etc.; volunteer while you are also working and going to school. You will be amazed by the doors that open if you do a great job, and it is an excellent way to discover you don’t like something you thought you would! So, find an internship that pays you for your knowledge and skills, and then volunteer for something too.

I live in Vermont, and yes, we have a lot of cows and a lot of silos. They are beautiful to look at, but death to curiosity and research. It is important to have a specialty, but it is also important to be open to other fields of research. Don’t be fooled that our discipline has all the answers. I’ve learned a great deal from my colleagues in anthropology, biology, art and English.

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