Pioneer Spotlight: Dr. Richard Waugh

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Pioneer Spotlight
Dr. Rich Waugh with students in Canyonlands National Park
October 21, 2016

Dr. Richard Waugh is a professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. He earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in geology from the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri. He also earned a master’s in geography from the University of Missouri, and a doctorate in geography from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Waugh began teaching at UW-Platteville in 1978 and specializes in cultural geography, environmental geography and field based geographic education.

When did you first become interested in geography?

I discovered geography as a boy. My dad was in the Air Force, so I grew up living in different places around the world. When I was in third grade, I was living in Japan, and my mind was blown – in a good way – by the culture and the people. I got interested in how other people lived around the world and that’s when I started realizing that maps were very cool, because they represent people, cultures and places.

I also always loved the earth and the outdoors, and so I got interested in geology.  I received two degrees in that, but I was getting more and more interested in environmental issues. So, I switched to geography, which has always had a very strong environmental emphasis ever since the ancient Greeks invented geography 2,500 years ago. It’s always had that core relationship between people and the earth. And I knew that’s what I wanted to do. Actually, I decided that I wanted to be a professor when I was 17.  When I was in college, I was inspired by my professors because they explained the world to me. And I wanted to do that same thing for other people. Both geography and teaching have always been what I wanted to do.

How would you describe your teaching style? 

My goal is to help students understand the world better. I process information through images and maps, and I try to incorporate that into my classes. I use a lot of imagery and I’ll often have assignments where students have to interpret photography.

I also write my own books for each of my classes. They’re about 700 pages worth of photographs, which are tied specifically to the lecture and class materials. I’m an enthusiastic photographer, and I use a lot of my own photographs. I revise the books every semester so they’re always current. Students can write and take notes in these books and it’s theirs to keep forever. I think reading is important, and if students read the material, we talk about it in class, and then I show the photographs, it really helps them understand. 

In class, I like to have discussions. I really try to get students involved and have them share things they know. Just the other day, a student knew something that I didn’t. I always tell my students it’s a really good day when I learn something!

What do you like best about your job?

Teaching is my favorite part of what I do. I like teaching students about the world and helping them to understand it, and I especially love to work with students in the field. I am always looking for ways to get people out in the world and teach them in context. For example, I teach a course called Field Geography of the Western United States. And with the help of professors Chris Underwood and Lynnette Dornak, I lead an annual trip to the Western United States as part of the course. The trip is three weeks long and we do physical, environmental and cultural geography out in the field. That’s the best part of all — getting the students out there and explaining what we are actually seeing.

I also try to get students involved with international trips whenever I can, and take day trips for certain courses.

What is your favorite part about teaching at UW-Platteville?

I really like working with the people in the geography department. We all get along really well and it’s fun to be here.

I also like the fact that I am allowed to do so much field work with students. Other campuses don’t often get that opportunity. In fact, it’s unusual that we are able to do it as much as we do. But the geography department here focuses on that. We want to get out in the world and see it. 

And I’m not the only geography professor who does that. There’s an annual trip to Japan, and all kinds of hands-on opportunities. I like teaching at UW-Platteville because we have the chance to do this.

What are some things you do outside of teaching?

I like the outdoors — backpacking, hiking, camping. That’s what outdoors means to me. I also love to travel and seeing new places is always a thrill to me. 

I’m also a big movie fan. I love movies from all eras. Some of my favorite films are from the 1920s and 1930s, and I also really like international films.

Finally, I've always had a real passion for reading, and I enjoy all kinds of books – fiction, non-fiction, and both English-language and non-English language books.

Interview conducted by Laura Janisch, Communications. To nominate someone for the Pioneer Spotlight, contact


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