A (Long) Biography of Case...
by Casey D. Allen, PhD
A first-generation college student, I was born and grew-up outside what was then a small, rural Farm Town. My family was good-sized, but average for a rural-dwelling family. I have three sisters and three brothers which have produced 29 niblings. Even though we were a low-income-near-poverty line family, I never felt like I missed out on anything, or lacked any creature comforts – though we piled on blankets during the winter instead of using the heater (natural gas was too expensive), lived out of food storage for a few months every now and then, had to borrow our neighbor’s phone because ours would get cut-off, and only got a microwave when I was in high school (and that was a gift from someone). I enjoy the Outdoors, most sports, and travel as much as I can.
A quick overview of my professional background would go something like this: I’m a multiple award-winning Teacher-Scholar (and Fulbright Scholar) with wide-ranging interests, and one of a handful of people in the world who use rock decay science to help with rock art and heritage/cultural stone management issues. I am also considered an expert in the fields of Geomorphology (the “Science of Scenery”), something called Humanistic Geography, and Geography Education (in which I was recognized by the Grosvenor Center for Geographic Education as an “Early Career Scholar”). My formal training also includes soils, botany, pedagogy, various field techniques, sense of place, and regional studies/science. I have served in various capacities at several different universities and won prestigious awards at each, before taking up a post as Lecturer of Environmental/Earth Science in the Department of Biological and Chemical Sciences at The University of the West Indies (Cave Hill Campus, Barbados). It’s fun being in a student-focused department that supports student field experiences!
Before The UWI, I was senior advisor for a USAID-sponsored project and Geography Course Faculty (read: Professor) at Western Governors University. For about a decade prior to those posts, I was at the University of Colorado Denver where I progressed up the ranks to tenured Associate Professor (of Geography and Environmental Science). Before that, I earned my doctorate (Ph.D.) in Geography from the School of Geographical Sciences (and Urban Planning) at Arizona State University, spending my last year there as a National Science Foundation GK-12 Fellow. While at ASU, my studies focused on human-environment interactions via field methods & techniques, and I took formal classes in LOTS of different areas.
During the 2006-07 academic year, I oversaw the implementation and inauguration of the Master of Advanced Study (MAS) Program in Geographic Education at ASU as the program’s Associate Director, moving from my previous position of helping establish ASU’s Institute for Social Science Research. Before ASU, I held a full-time faculty position at St. George’s University in Grenada, West Indies (the Caribbean!), where I helped run their Pre-Medical Program. Preceding that post, I served as a professional Academic Advisor (and later Coordinator for At-Risk Populations, and subsequently Director of Academic Advising for a spell) in the Academic Advisement Center at Weber State University where I also taught Geography as an adjunct faculty member.
While I have a Bachelor of Science degree in Geography, my Master’s Degree is actually
in Secondary Education (I wanted to be a high school principal at one time…) My overall
focus, however, centers on engaging people in exploring, discovering, and appreciating
landscapes via first-hand, field-based experiences. Check my CV if you want specifics...
My training as a Geographer enhances my awareness of the world, allowing me to be a keen observer of landscapes, peoples, and cultures (i.e., place and space – the major tenets of geography). Geography, Travel, and Fieldwork have also greatly influenced my Teaching Philosophy and personal life. Come to think of it, there’s only one way I can describe how I became a Geographer: Magic! Because you see, I had always been a Geographer – I just never knew it. And until I went to college, I never even really knew what Geography was. I mean, classes in cultural studies, the natural sciences, and the Arts and Humanities always interested me, but those individual disciplines never gave me all I wanted. Geography, however, stretches across and works within each.
While I was growing-up, my parents thought we should get out and see the world, so we traveled quite a bit, though only in the United States, since we didn’t have much (but my dad had visited Europe, Morocco, Japan, and the Azores when he served in the Air Force during the Korean War!) We did, however, spend a LOT of time camping, and so a love of the outdoors was...natural. Seeing first-hand and learning about our World’s many different places, peoples, and landscapes was always one of my favorite things to do (and still is!). Before moving to the thriving metropolis of Tremonton, we lived, literally, in the middle of nowhere, and to while away the day when I was a toddler, I went for countless “Nature Walks” with my mom during those early formative years. I even began my formal schooling in a one room schoolhouse (think Little House on the Prairie)! Several years later, when I was 14-going-on-15-years old, I had an interesting, life-altering experience: I got lost in the Chihuahua Desert in Mexico. By myself! So, the discipline of Geography was a great fit for me (but not just because I went on lots of Nature Walks or got lost...though those are two of my favorite things to still do!)
As I was growing up in Tremonton, my rebellious and extremely inquisitive mind was constantly put to the test, because Tremonton is, well...one of my former students put it best: “a nice place to be from”. Although I learned a lot being raised there – indeed, many of my observing skills were learned in the Bear River Valley and it is a GREAT place to do Geography and somewhere to which I return every now and then – it was nevertheless a bit, umm...confining for me. When I was growing up there, it was a rather small town of about 3000 people, but has seen somewhat steady growth since then.
Tremonton is, in fact, a great case study in rural development (yay, rural geography!),
as it now hosts manufacturing plants/transportation hubs for big companies like
Malt-O-Meal, Autoliv, Wal-Mart, and Kimberley-Clark, among others. It has been
fascinating to watch it develop over the years, but I digress...
After leaving high school, I spent an average-GPA quarter at Snow Junior College (in Ephraim, Utah), a couple of below-average-GPA quarters at Salt Lake Community College, and then, somehow, got accepted to Weber State University. When I arrived at Weber (pronounced “WEE-bur”), I still had no idea what I wanted to study – I was just happy to be in college. Before I decided to major in Geography though, I majored in a lot of other areas: Musical Theatre, Geology, Spanish, Recreation, and Botany. I also studied other fields like modern dance, vocal performance, and history.
During my early years at Weber, I had to fulfill a physical science requirement for General Education, and thought, “Geography looks easy...I mean, it was a piece of cake in high school, and I know all of my states and capitals.” So I signed up for a Physical Geography class. Was I surprised! It was VERY different from my high school Geography class! After the first week, I was hooked. I remember thinking, “Here’s an interesting subject where I can study relevant things like clouds, weather, mountains, earthquakes, plants...”, which really hit my soul at the time since I backpacked and hiked a LOT during this time. It was as if a door had been opened in my brain, and things I had always seen started to make sense. The next term, I signed up for a World Regional Geography course and was even more surprised to learn that the discipline would allow me to study cultures, languages, philosophy, religion, economics...and lots more! But choosing a major is not something to take lightly! So although I kept taking Geography classes here and there, it took me another couple of years before I “officially” declared Geography as my major. And it has been one of the best choices in my life...
I remember going home one weekend after I had decided on Geography as my major. I walked into the house and declared to my mother, “...I’m going to major in Geography!” She raised her eyebrows dubiously. Leaving the music/theatre arena was unorthodox in my family at the time, so I think it hit her pretty hard, especially since I had been raised to perform – singing, dancing, acting. Imagine being a parent and struggling to pay for years of music and dance lessons, only to have your child say, “I’m not going to do any of those...” Pretty hard to swallow. But I know she suspected all along I might skirt music and/or theatre as a profession because I was always interested in scientific things, even as a child. My dad just smiled. I am VERY grateful to have a strong background in The Arts – and to my parents who provided it for me and my wonderful siblings and niblings who keep me engaged in them – but I just had so many more interests than music and theatre. Although, have you seen Maddie Tarbox’s vocal studio where she uses “Evidence-based Voice Science” to teach singing? She’s my niece. Uh. May. Zing!
Still, when I told people I was majoring in Geography, they reacted the same as they had when I told them I was majoring in Musical Theatre. That same old, “huh...so what are you going to do with that? Teach?” I found out years later that most people who knew me thought I was just going to mooch my way around the world anyhow...Which I actually did for a bit and it was, umm...well...not as exciting or glamorous as I thought it would be – though it can be a LOT easier to do nowadays.
Also, the old saying, “Those who can do, and those who can’t teach”? That’s crap.
Don’t believe me? Try to teach a subject. To any age group. It’s not easy.
I’ve worked many different teaching and not-teaching gigs. While maybe not manually
difficult, teaching – at least teaching well – takes a lot of mental capacity, tenacity,
enthusiasm, and preparation. But I digress...
Finally, after numerous field study courses, a few study abroads, a bunch of extended road trips, lots of backpacking in the wilderness, and more than enough credit hours, I graduated from Weber State with a Major in (Cultural) Geography, a minor in Latin American Studies, and emphases in Botany and History. The only regret I have about my undergraduate education is this: I wish I had stayed another year – there’s nothing wrong with being a senior for 3 or 4 years. If I had stayed another year, I would have went to India on a study abroad and easily earned two more minors – all I needed for a Botany minor was one lousy lab safety class! But I chose, due to outside pressures, to start being responsible. HAH! Let me reiterate: HAH!
My advice to all college/university students is this: unless you know exactly what you want to do for certain, take your time earning your degree. You will never regret the time you spend doing it, especially if you get involved. Step outside your comfort zone, think outside the box, check out disciplines and classes that look fun, but that maybe you never thought of “doing.” As an undergraduate, your degree is the important thing, not necessarily the major. Even if you plan on being an Engineer, you do NOT necessarily need to major in Engineering, and you probably won’t even end up in your field anyhow. Plus, the job you’ll end up having likely isn’t invented yet. You can major in math, physics, architecture, planning, or several other fields (including Geography!) and still be an “Engineer” or work in a related field.
It is extremely important to do what you want to do, instead of what other people think you
should do! And remember: there are LOTS of great alternatives besides a formal college
degree that can make a very nice living and give you a wonderful lifestyle. While I believe
everyone should have a college/university experience – even just one semester – it is not for
everyone. Don’t be afraid to check out all the options, including vocational training. So-called
blue-collar jobs can offer an excellent and attractive lifestyle. You don’t need a university degree
to be successful and live a full and happy life. In fact, if I didn’t have experience outside of the
formal college setting, I would not have succeeded or accomplished all I have today. For example...
My first professional job after graduating college was, in fact, working as an “Engineer” in Latin America. With a Geography degree. This job was wonderful for a brand-new college grad and offered just what I was looking for: travel, adventure, and a chance to use my noggin. I was supposed to make and interpret borehole (drilling) maps. But a lot of the job ended up being repairing, troubleshooting, and MacGyvering equipment and vehicles – skills I learned from my father and working on a farm.
And the CEO of the company was very surprised at how quickly I caught on to the work. He was amazed that I could calculate “drift curves”, knew what dip and strike were, wasn’t afraid of the local culture, and could repair our equipment – whether that was the surface recording gyro guidance system we used for mapping boreholes, the generator that ran our winch and pulley, or the winch system itself. I also communicated just as well with the local miners as the American geologists. He liked not just my university degree, but the other, more practical (blue collar) experience I had.
Even so, after a while, the job’s patina wore thin near the end of my contract, and when it came time to renew, I decided against it, turning my focus instead toward education. Consulting in Latin America was a great experience however: I learned a lot, met neat people, had some harrowing experiences, and saw a LOT of really incredible landscapes.
When my Engineer contract was up, I got a summer position teaching Spanish, History, and Geography at a private secondary school while I applied (and got accepted) to two graduate programs: one in Geography and one in Education. Getting admitted to any graduate program was quite the feat considering my dismal undergrad GPA, but it’s strong evidence that if you want something bad enough, with hard work and perseverance, you can get it. In the end, I chose the Master of Education route because I wanted to learn to teach well. You see, I had undergrad professors that were, to say the least, geniuses. But when it came to teaching, they lacked something. They were great minds, and fun to talk with, but their teaching style? Well, it just sucked. And I vowed to NEVER teach like that.
After the summer term was over at the school where I was teaching, I moved on to a master’s program in Secondary Education at Southern Utah University. A few weeks into the program, I discovered it was possible to have a focus in Science Education. So, I finagled a program of study to include a few graduate-level geography, geology, and physical science classes so I could have the “science education” background. I worked super hard and completed the Master’s Degree in nine months, and then moved to Denver, Colorado where I took a couple more graduate-level Geography courses while working part-time for the National Park Service. After learning all I wanted to from Denver for the time being, it was back to Utah, where I started the long process of finding a job in Higher Education, spurred on by one of my professors at SUU who asked me, “Have you ever thought of teaching in a college setting?”...“Why yes,” I thought to myself, “Yes, I have”...
Several months and odd jobs later, with still no career prospects and a week before classes began, I walked into the Dean’s office at Salt Lake Community College and asked to be an adjunct instructor. After convincing the Dean I could teach “anything”, he gave me a single human geography course. A few days later, he called to say the meteorology adjunct had bailed, and asked if I would be interested in switching. So, I ended up teaching three Introduction to Meteorology courses. Then, a short while later, I was offered an Academic Advisor position at Weber State. And what luck! I had just been offered an adjunct class with the Geography department there. So, for the next few years, I worked at Weber State University in (what was then) the Academic Advisement Center while also teaching as an adjunct faculty member in the Geography and First Year Experience programs.
While at Weber I became a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Certified Practitioner, earned a
qualification in the Strong Interest Inventory, worked with some really terrific folks, and found
I had a knack for helping people navigate the often-muddy rivers of higher education. I will be
forever grateful to the extraordinary Director who took a chance and hired me!
After a few years at Weber State, I started searching for other employment options that would allow me to continue growing and developing my skills in higher education teaching and administration. That winter, I was offered a faculty position at St. George’s University and, after much consideration, pondering, discussion, and negotiation, I accepted the post. Grenada is an interesting place for a geographer, and it was very exciting to be able to live on and explore a tropical island. Again, I had the good fortune of working with some truly incredible and student-focused folks.
But while I loved Grenada, SGU, and the people/culture/landscape there, it was soon time to move onward yet again...So it was off to the Sonora desert where I worked in various capacities at Arizona State University while completing my doctorate. After earning my PhD in three years and one semester, I was fortunate to get a tenure-track position in the University of Colorado Denver‘s Department of Geography and Environmental Sciences, earning tenure right on schedule and accomplishing some great things along the way.
While I am indeed proud of all I did at CU, after nearly a decade, I decided to turn my focus towards online and competency-based education, which led me to take a position with Western Governors University and, shortly after joining the faculty there, I was asked to serve as Senior Advisor for a USAID-sponsored project in Wadi Rum, Jordan. Not being able to do both, we made the decision to focus on the Jordan project, and I finagled an adjunct post at SUU until the project’s end. In early 2018, I was offered a Lectureship at The University of the West Indies (Cave Hill Campus) to help their new major in Environmental Science and, after much pondering and negotiation, seized the opportunity to live on a slice of the Lesser Antilles again. So now, I enjoy life on a tropical island, work at a hidden gem of a university, interact with some great colleagues, and get to teach some truly outstanding students. I also get to play in the field. A lot. Which I throughly enjoy. Tres, tres, tres exciting!
A final thought: although my life may seem a cacophonous demonstration of serendipity, what has allowed me to succeed in whatever I choose to do is in fact the mantra of, “If you want something bad enough, you persevere and work hard to get it” which my parents instilled in me from birth. That and a bit of luck. But in the end, even though my mom may have been initially disappointed that I never followed through with the music route (although I still sing well and play a couple instruments), she was super proud of me and often compared my chosen field with her own father’s “folk knowledge” (and she adored her father).
Plus, she’ll always be reminded of my achievements because, while her other children and grandchildren were writing things like, “Your number 1 son”, “Your favorite daughter”, “Your loving grandson” on her casket lid at her funeral (something she asked us to do), I wrote simply, “Casey D. Allen, PhD. Suck It.” Well, minus the “suck it” part...but I would have put that if I had been using that saying at the time. She would have liked it. Or just shook her head and mumble quietly to herself...And my dad would have just smiled.