Dr. Eric Keys
Areas of Specialization
Graduate Students Currently Supervised
In My Own Words
Tropical agriculture and environmental change: I investigate the human-environment condition in southeastern Mexico, a frontier of tropical deforestation and economic development. Using ideas from cultural and political ecology I focus on the ways that actors, land managers, use contested lands to make their livelihood. In doing so, I have identified important linkages between economic structures such as markets and policy, and deforestation that expands our theoretical grasp of these relationships. I focus on the role of market intermediaries as they shape options and constraints on smallholders. One of the main findings of this research, and one at odds with current conservation-with-development ideas, is that farmers in frontier regions are unable to desist from forest conversion without government support and in the face of aggressive market forces. I also show that farmers, in an attempt to negate environmental variability by introducing industrial-style mono-cropped commercial cultivars, provide a ready vector for plant pests and diseases that in turn imperil their livelihoods. I find that the market, currently hoped for as a way to intensify cultivation, engenders greater social and economic vulnerability, leading farmers to extensify agriculture by cutting more forest
Global Environmental Change: Complementing my case study level research on deforestation and agriculture I engage in scaling these and others’ findings up to regional and global levels. I contribute to the Global Land Project (GLP) by developing regional and global models of the drivers and consequences of human alteration of the surface of the Earth. With national and international partners in the International Human Dimensions Program (IHDP) I conducted a meta-analysis of tropical agricultural change. I helped advance our understanding of land change by demonstrating that different time periods during the last thirty years reflected different agricultural development strategies. During the 1970s many agricultural changes were associated with the application of green revolution technologies. The 1980s witnessed a rise in income generating and cooperative activities to drive agricultural productivity. Agricultural change in the 1990s was driven in part by divestment by national governments in agricultural development.
Vulnerability to Risks and Hazards: Border regions are zones of connection and barriers to institutional and actor interaction. I investigate the linkages between international trade and the transformation of agriculture along the U.S.-Mexico border using satellite imagery, aerial photography, and ground based research. I demonstrate, for example, that much of the agriculture witnessed on both sides of the border is not a reaction to the NAFTA, counter conventional wisdom, but has developed over at least twenty years of prior U.S.-Mexico trade. In addition to establishing a baseline to monitor change for academic inquiry, this research serves urban planners and governments on the U.S.-Mexico border. Much of this research aims to develop a deeper understanding of how people and landscapes are vulnerable to environmental and anthropogenic risks and hazards and how these hazards are amplified and attenuated through social structures and economic relationships.
Theories of human-environment relationships: As I conduct my studies I employ a range of theoretical frameworks to explain landscape transformation and the reasons behind it. In the past agricultural change literature has provided me with an approach to tropical environmental change processes. Currently I am interested in melding actor-network theory with fuzzy set logic methods to bolster our understanding of human-environmental processes. I am also impressed by environmental thought related to mental constructs of the environment and appropriate uses, especially how these can be operationalized in terms of on the ground impacts.
Learning: My courses address how people relate to the environment under the broad rubric of human-environment geography. I have an excellent record of education, instructing both majors and non-majors at the undergraduate level, advising graduate students across the university, and developing a human-environment curriculum in my department and across campus. My teaching of both undergraduates and graduates embodies best practices in education. I succeed in teaching when I return to my roots in liberal arts colleges. I graduated from Macalester College and took my PhD at Clark University, both strong Liberal Arts Programs, which gave me the experience and insight necessary to encourage students to participate in discussions and become independent learners, even in classes of more than one hundred students. I encourage participation through the use of in-class, small-group work tied to the content of the day’s lecture or reading. I demand high quality and quantity work from students, focusing on writing and discussion to hone learning that eventually witnesses students demanding the same of themselves. My teaching reviews provide positive feedback to my methods and content that nonetheless allows me to update and improve course content.
Undergraduate teaching: I teach two courses primarily: The Human Footprint of the Landscape and The Geography of Latin America. The human footprint imbues students with geographic dimensions of human-environment and human-human relationships. Students in my courses carry-out quasi-experiments outside of the classroom, undertake scenario-building exercises for environmental conditions, engage in structured debate, and write short reaction papers to course reading. I return work quickly to provide feedback to students. I receive excellent evaluations from courses (see C.V. for summary evaluation scores) and enjoy repeat students, including non-majors. Quality of reviews aside, I strive to improve my teaching.
Graduate teaching: Mentoring is a key goal of mine. I help students develop human-environment research by offering graduate human-environment seminars alternating between the human dimensions of Global Environment Change and Cultural and Political Ecology as foci. I offer research or guidance through directed readings for students interested in special topics not otherwise offered. In addition, I have taken graduate students to field sites in southeastern Mexico and along the U.S.-Mexico border, greatly enhancing their graduate experience. I serve on multiple PhD and masters’ committees at the University of Florida and other institutions. I am particularly interested in recruiting students to work with me who have read my areas of interest and would like to work toward these goals. If you would like to work with me please contact me so we can further discuss your future studies.
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