The world as a textbook

From Down Under to Cali, geography prof. settles in

Originally published in the May 10, 2011 print edition of the Sac City Express

City College professor Richard Neil is a valuable member of the geography department. Neil’s unconventional approach includes using YouTube videos and his personal rock collection to teach students about the wonders of geography. Photo by Kate Paloy.

It is 7:30 a.m.

You walk into your class on the first day of the semester. You’re ready to learn. The professor walks in, blurts out the entire roll call in the most boring, unenthusiastic voice and announces an insane work load.

It’s going to be a long semester. The next day, however, is Saturday and though you’re not thrilled to be at school on the weekend, you are met with a pleasant surprise: geography professor Richard Raymond Neil.

Neil teaches a physical geography class at City College on Saturdays. He says his teaching method differs from others because he doesn’t just teach his subject, but makes the textbook come to life.

“I’m bringing the world to the classroom,” says Neil, who moved from Los Angeles to Australia at age 5 and lived there for 12 years. “When you share a planet with other people that don’t look like you, don’t think like you, and don’t talk like you, it’s even more important to know what’s out there. That’s part of what I try to bring to the classroom.”

Neil says teaching geography isn’t just about science, but about environment and culture. Along with geographical pictures and videos, he uses his personal rock collection and YouTube as tools.

“YouTube brings awareness that, believe it or not, not everybody is watching ‘Jersey Shore’ on MTV,” says Neil, 44. “There are other shows in other countries, such as Ireland or Australia, that people watch and enjoy. As Americans we’re missing out on these cultural opportunities.”

William Norton, a student in Neil’s geography class, says: “I really enjoy his class. He goes over conventional teaching of course, but he goes into alternate ways of teaching. He does make an attempt to make it real using pop culture references. One morning he showed a YouTube video of a late ’70s Australian pop band, and it made it a little bit more fun.”

Neil’s passion shines most when he is talking about Australia.

“I have seen kangaroos the size of bunny rabbits,” Neil says enthusiastically. “When people think of kangaroos, they think of these big giant things. They come in all shapes and sizes.”

Neil’s family moved to Australia when his father accepted a high school teaching job in the 1970s. “I have walked through rain forests where not another human being has ever walked through,” Neil says.

At the age of 18, Neil moved back to the United States to attend college. He received his master’s degree in geography from California State University, Northridge, a bachelor’s degree in geography from Sonoma State University, two teaching credentials in social studies from California State University, Los Angeles,
and an associate’s in liberal arts from Santa Monica Community College.

He is clearly respected by colleagues, as evidenced by the trouble he has on campus in going from point A to point B because he gets stopped by so many people who want to have conversations.

“He’s a valued member of our faculty,” says Craig Davis, City College geography professor. “He does a good job of communicating a subject that most haven’t had. I’ve always found Rick to be easy going, nice to talk to; he has interesting stories with living in Australia. He does a great job using his experiences to try to pique student interest and get some perspective from outside the classroom or even outside of Sacramento.”

Neil has also traveled to Mexico, Arizona, Hawaii, and through most of California. He says he hopes to one day have the time and financial stability to see more of the world.

A part-time professor for the Los Rios Community College District since 2004, Neil also maintains a full-time job for the state of California as a senior education specialist at CalPERS. But, Neil says, his true passion is teaching.

“Every time I present a unit, it’s different,” Neil says. “Every semester I get a different bunch of students so it’s almost like teaching for the first time all over again. As long as I stick to the subject and objectives, I’m free to present it in any way that I want. I have so much freedom of expression.”

This article was chosen as one of nine guest writer articles from an introduction to newswriting and reporting class to appear in the Express.

About Daniel Wilson

Daniel has been a writer for over 25 years and recently earned his Bachelor's degree in journalism. Portfolio:
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