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Image“My Students Begged Me to Bring Him Back”
Matthew Sparke
Professor, Dept. of Geography and Jackson School of International Studies
In 1999, out of the chaos of the World Trade Organization protest, Matthew Sparke seized an educational opportunity. He says, “People were crying out for some explanation as to why there was so much discontent with globalization.” Sparke had just begun teaching at the UW in 1996, and the protests made him realize that there was a gap in the UW curriculum that the geography professor was uniquely qualified to bridge.

The next year he created a globalization curriculum, aided by the National Science Foundation CAREER Award, a grant that allowed him to combine research and teaching to explore “globalization and the transnational development of civil society.”

Seven years later, Sparke’s roster of upper- and lower-division classes on globalization has made an impression on students and colleagues alike. “He is distinguished by his ability to take complex theoretical arguments and make them compelling to students,” says Geography Professor Victoria Lawson. “Sparke has visited my 400-level development theory course on a number of occasions…my students begged me to bring him back the following week.”

Sparke’s intro-level globalization course gets raves from students who say their professor’s teaching style and material have pushed them to think differently about the world around them (and even inspired a few to pursue political activism). Whitney Bosel, a former Geography 123 student, says, “I think almost everyone in that big room liked going to class and hearing [Sparke] lecture. His passion was infectious, and he really seemed to want to make sure that students understood the material.”

Among many challenges, it’s always particularly difficult to find ways to make a large lecture class, such as Geography 123, more personal, says Sparke, who lets his own undergrad experience at the University of Oxford instruct him somewhat. “One of the things I did like [about my department] was it gave me a chance to meet professors; that’s something that’s hard to replicate in a large university.” Sparke tries to make himself as available as he can, plying students with weekly coffee klatches and learning their many names.

In his lessons, he strives to avoid the tedious podium lectures he remembers listening to as an undergraduate. “I speak to students’ real interests and the world they’re preparing to live in, try to connect topics to things they care about—where money goes, who makes the clothes they wear, where their food comes from.” He also appreciates the range of his students’ intellectual backgrounds, adding, “Never underestimate what students can learn and never underestimate what they can know.”

For Sparke the greatest reward is seeing his efforts come together. “When I see students getting switched on to connecting their learning to living in their world and making their world, that makes it all worthwhile.”

“I do believe teaching works best at the UW when we as teachers understand we’re in it together, when we realize that the lessons we give are building on each other.”—Niki Stojnic