What’s in a Name? Undergraduate Student Perceptions of Geography, Environment, and Sustainability Key Words and Program Names

Justin Stoler, Diana Ter-Ghazaryan, Ira Sheskin, Amber L. Pearson, Gary Schnakenberg, Dominique Cagalanan, Kate Swanson, Piotr Jankowski

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


The academic discipline of geography, faced with increasing competition from cognate fields and declining undergraduate enrollments, continues to suffer an identity crisis. In recent decades, many geography programs have instituted department or degree name changes, or otherwise rebranded, without any evidence guiding these decisions. This study begins to build an evidence base for these decisions by presenting results from a survey of 4,388 undergraduates across four U.S. universities to understand how students rate key words that commonly appear in geography course descriptions and titles and phrases that comprise degree and department names. Undergraduates overwhelmingly and consistently preferred simple, thematic types of terms to those that sounded more technical or science oriented. Forms of the word geography were rated significantly lower than words or phrases containing environment and sustainability. Forms of geography that included the word science were rated particularly low. Student ratings varied by class standing, major, gender, high school location (United States vs. outside of the United States), whether the student had previously enrolled in a geography course, and self-perceived numeracy. Multivariable analysis revealed potential opportunities for targeted undergraduate recruiting and curricular development. This study is an important step toward reconciling contemporary student perceptions of geography and related fields with departmental identities and the disciplinary jargon often used in program and course descriptions. We offer a toolkit for implementing similar research at other institutions and ultimately helping geography programs recruit and retain the next generation of geographers.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)317-342
Number of pages26
JournalAnnals of the American Association of Geographers
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2020


  • academic identity
  • administration
  • geography education
  • program branding
  • recruitment
  • survey research

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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