The many worlds within geography

As Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington celebrates 125 years, we speak to some of the academics who have been making our University special for a long time. Geography lecturer Richard Willis tells us about his 50 years teaching New Zealand’s geography here and around the world.

A group of around 30 people on a beach with blue sky and crashing waves behind them
Richard Willis and a group of students at a beach near Kapuni, Taranaki
What started as a childhood interest in geography and history sparked by stamp collecting has led to a 50-year teaching career at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington for geography lecturer Richard Willis.

A farm boy from Taranaki, Richard had planned on becoming a high school geography teacher but in 1972, after completing a BA with 1st Class Honours, then a Master’s in geography at the University, he was invited by the late Professor Keith Buchanan to join the teaching staff.

In those 50 years he has taught thousands of students including All Blacks Alama Ieremia and Graham Mourie, who Richard played alongside when they both represented the University and Wellington in the pre-professional era. He’s taught New Zealand geography at universities in East Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

“I love the interaction with students. I like trying to explain things and getting a reaction from people that shows they are enjoying it as much as I am enjoying it and that they really do understand. I guess I particularly love field trips where I can show them,” he says.

Richard has lectured in human geography and European geography in the past, but has always taken a ‘Geographies of New Zealand’ class, organising and participating in field trips for 50 years. His current summer course sees him regularly return to Taranaki and the Central North Island with groups of students where they focus on geographies of sustainability in relation to dairying, forestry, and tourism. They walk the Tongariro Crossing and look at issues around tourism, whether the legislative framework which attempts to prescribe sustainability is working and if it’s not, what changes they would make.

Richard grew up in Taranaki, which was also the site of the first conflict between British troops and Maori, and this is where he takes his class regularly.

“The first year I did this I told students why this place was precious to me. As a young teenager I used to take the tractor, the whitebait net, a fishing rod, sausages and go down there and I just loved it. After my wife died of cancer at 38, I was a bit of a mess. I had a counsellor and she said I had to find a happy place and so that was my happy place.

“I related that incident to the students, the story about how precious it was to me going down there and one of the questions in the short answer test that year was, what was the significance of the Orangi Tuapeka and Waimate pā. Of course, the answer was supposed to be ‘it was the scene of the first conflict between British troops and Māori in 1832,’ but 80 per cent of the class put down that it was Richard’s happy place.

“You get a kind of an idea of the relationship I have with my students. I love teaching.”

Richard says that in his lifetime, geography has gone from simply learning about countries, to “applying all kinds of theories—post-modernism, post-structuralism, and teaching about how that’s affected the land”.

He says students often get to the end of their Physical Science or Social Sciences degrees without really knowing anything about their own country, which is why he enjoys coming in at that third-year level to teach them about it.

“I ask them to draw maps and locate things in the tests and they love it. They say this is the first time since primary school they’ve ever done this.

“It’s not that I don’t talk about neoliberalism and how it’s affected our rural areas and so on, but I actually get them to look at what it looks like on the ground and photograph it and put it in their assignments.”

Richard says there have been significant changes and challenges throughout his time at University, including the introduction of student fees.

“When I went through university it was sort of a life ladder. You did university, you got a degree. You worked out your political beliefs and your religious beliefs, you marched on anti-war protests…there’s not really the time to do that now.”

On the personal front there has been joy but challenges too. Richard became a solo father to three after his first wife died. He is now a father of five and a grandfather to eight—soon to be nine. Two of his sons have represented New Zealand in athletics, Nick winning two Olympic and three Commonwealth medals. One of his daughters has represented New Zealand four times in rowing.

After taking early retirement, Richard set up a small tour company, hosting students and professors from Germany, America, and Canada. The COVID-19 pandemic put an end to that and Richard, still an active race walker, has been helping a friend run Active Seniors Walking Tours. They climb Mt Taranaki and walk the Tongariro Crossing.

A writer of poetry for many years, Richard found himself with spare time during lockdown and decided to write a novel. Titled Curtis’ War, the story is set in Taranaki and centres around a man with mental health issues who is falsely accused of murder. A second novel, Fallen from Grace, followed.

Richard plans to continue teaching his summer course and says although the job market has changed irrevocably, geography is still “desperately relevant” with students employed as resource managers, teachers, diplomats, and climate change analysts.

“My definition of geography is the analysis and explanation of landscape. When you look out the window of the library up at the University, you see an amazingly intricate landscape and you start off with the physical components. You’ve got Wellington Harbour, the earthquake geology, you’ve got the geology that overlays that and the climate. Then there’s the impact of colonialism on the indigenous people, the first industries and then you’ve got the imprint of the 1930s and welfare capitalism, then Roger Douglas and neoliberalism.

“But the geographer doesn’t start with the theories, the geographer starts with what he or she sees on the ground and with fact… Geography is an encaptic subject, it’s not looking down a microscope. It’s looking at wholes, looking at large chunks of life and saying, ok how do we understand that?”