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Geography professor wins prestigious national teaching award


A University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire geography professor with a talent and passion for creating learning experiences in his classroom and around the world has received a prestigious national teaching award.

Dr. Ezra Zeitler, an associate professor of geography and anthropology, is the recipient of the 2017 Higher Education Distinguished Teaching Award.

Each year the National Council for Geographic Education recognizes one to three educators from throughout the country for outstanding teaching in higher education.

Zeitler is the first UW-Eau Claire faculty member to receive the award, and the sixth educator from a UW System school to receive the honor since it was established in 1982.

“I’m flattered that my passion for teaching geography was recognized by Emily Moothart (a 2016 UW-Eau Claire geography graduate) and am very humbled that she dedicated time from her busy graduate school schedule to nominate me,” Zeitler says of his former student’s nomination.

Moothart describes Zeitler as a mentor who helped her gain knowledge, skills and a professional network, all of which are helping her succeed at the University of Massachusetts-Boston where she is a graduate student studying environmental science.

“Dr. Zeitler was there for me in the geography department from day one, and I can still rely on him no matter what,” Moothart says. “He has been by far one of the most influential professors in all my years of higher education.

“Not only is he brilliant at human geography, but he is an excellent cartographer. His passion for cartography piqued my interest in map design. Cartography and visual design is something that I didn’t think would be an applicable skill, but it’s a tool that has helped me in grad school, and one that few people I have met in the last year know. I used my skills learned in his classes to design the material for a climate change workshop I just led in Boston.”

Moothart is far from alone in her praise of Zeitler as a teacher and mentor.

“I was fortunate to have many positive education-related influences in my life, but Dr. Zeitler was the person who fostered a passion for geographic learning and research,” says Joe Quintana, who earned a geography degree from UW-Eau Claire in 2014 and now works for UW-Extension. “The introductory course I took from him made me decide to change my major. His intermediate courses taught me that geography was a true passion and interest of mine, not just something to major in. His advanced courses made me want to pursue a graduate degree in geography.”

Quintana says the “Wisconsin Geographies” class Zeitler teaches was the best class he ever took as an undergraduate or graduate student.

“Dr. Zeitler used his extensive personal and professional geographic knowledge to teach us the physical and cultural story of the state we all lived in,” Quintana says. “He took our learning into the field during a long weekend in Door County. His willingness to lead a field experience demonstrates his desire to provide a deep learning environment, and provide real-world experiences alongside scholarly classroom engagement.”

There were 40 students in the course yet he made it feel like a small class, Quintana says.

“He made it extremely personal and relevant to each student,” Quintana says, adding that the class included geography majors as well as students with other majors. “Using the common ground we all shared — living in Wisconsin — he made the course interesting, relevant and accessible no matter the student’s background within geography.

“He found a balance of content that challenged the geography majors, while allowing the non-majors to still understand and fully participate in discussions and exercises. He even adapted our final project to create a more worthwhile exercise for each student’s major field of study.”

With hands-on learning an important part of his teaching philosophy, Zeitler says he appreciates being part of a geography department and university that supports and encourages outside-the-classroom learning experiences.

The award, Zeitler says, is as much a reflection on his department and university colleagues as it is on him because they share his commitment to creating learning experiences on and off campus.

Since joining UW-Eau Claire’s faculty in 2008, Zeitler has helped to develop, lead and assess field experiences in 27 geography courses.

These experiences include daylong visits to local indigenous nations and tourism-related sites, long-weekend excursions to regional destinations, 10-day field seminar trips to places domestic and foreign, and monthlong traveling classroom programs to Central Europe.

“Collectively, I have spent more than eight months in the field with more than 700 students since 2008, and I’ve loved nearly every minute of it,” says Zeitler, who also teaches a class in UW-Eau Claire’s American Indian Studies Program. “Making geographic concepts relatable and applicable to real-world scenarios is foundational to my pedagogical approach.

“I strive to make students aware that spatial thinking is integral to their lives and that it is a pertinent skill in today’s workforce.”

Thanks to his innovative teaching, his students have had field experiences in places near and far, including Door County, Chicago, Oregon, Central Europe and China.

Among the highlights of his career is co-teaching a geography/American Indian studies course titled “Native Geographies,” which includes field trips to the Ho-Chunk, Menominee and Prairie Island Mdewakanton Dakota communities, Zeitler says.

Moothart participated in multiple field seminars led by Zeitler, experiences she says added great value to her time at UW-Eau Claire.

“Dr. Zeitler plans his field itineraries to incorporate local experts on a variety of topics from tsunami planning in coastal communities to analyzing street art in Portland,” says Moothart. “He also incorporates time for students to do active research in the field. This could go from asking locals about gentrification to mapping trees in a ski resort for insect infestation. He planned it in a way so we could make the trip our own, while also conducting research that we could present at a conference.

“He also would plan ‘chill time,’ which, I later learned, provides subliminal education. We would walk around and meet people, giving us authentic interactions with locals.”

The field courses also include daily debriefings, giving students opportunities to ask questions and share their thoughts about the experiences they had that day.

“These times solidified my learning during the experience,” Moothart says. “I was compelled to think critically and learned more about the region — whether it was in Oregon or Wisconsin — than I ever could from a textbook or going on a family vacation. I retained much after his classes, including viewing the world with a critical lens, which is something I still use every day.”

Most recently, Zeitler spent nearly two weeks with 12 students co-leading a field seminar in Scotland with Dr. Garry Running, a professor of geography.

The Scotland seminar left him even more impressed with Zeitler’s ability to teach and inspire his students, Running says.

“I couldn't have done it without Ezra's myriad contributions to the course, from envisioning it and planning it to working with the students on the ground during their field experience,” Running says of the Scotland seminar, which involved a study of ecotourism and heritage tourism sites in Scotland from the perspective of a millennial-aged tourist. “Ezra's contributions made the experience a success.”

Whether he is leading an international field seminar like the one in Scotland or teaching an introductory geography class on campus, Zeitler expects active student participation, Quintana says. He is an enthusiastic listener, who encourages student questions, answers or anecdotes, he says.

Zeitler also has high expectations of students’ academic work, which means that every project or exam was challenging, Quintana says.

“At times, this made for long hours in the library or lab, but those assignments were some of the most valuable learning experiences I had at UWEC, even if I didn’t earn the grade I wanted,” Quintana says.

It was Zeitler, Quintana says, who helped him develop his interest and skills in research.

During a “Tourism Geography” class, Quintana began research relating to tourism in Wisconsin Dells. The class ended but he wanted to continue his project so he asked Zeitler to serve as a mentor.

“I was in the driver's seat, and he was along to check my research blind spots,” Quintana says of the collaborative research project. “He allowed me to explore various avenues of research topics and methods and determine what I felt the best course of action would be. He helped me navigate problems of scope, methodological issues and understanding how to go about analyzing complex human-geography related issues.

“As I moved onto graduate school research, I sought similar mentorship partners who allowed me to explore and grow on my own, offering advice along the way, but not holding my hand throughout the entire experience.”

Moothart and Quintana are among the many Blugolds — geography majors and non-geography majors — whose college experiences were made better because Zeitler was their instructor, Running says.

"His goal is to create a classroom environment that is open and engaging to all students, no matter their experience and interest in geography,” Running says. “His courses are thorough, thoughtfully prepared, evidence-based, rigorous, current and up to date, and engaging.

“It’s wonderful to see his teaching being recognized through this national award.”

Photo caption: Dr. Ezra Zeitler is the recipient of the 2017 Higher Education Distinguished Teaching Award.


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