Nature, Environments, & Place in American Thought

Lisa Blee (Spring 2014)

As I prepared to teach this class for the first time, I was struck by the way writers thought about the environment and place as simultaneously personal and communal. I wanted to explore with my students this dynamic interplay between the interior and exterior geography of our lives and surroundings. I organized the course to move from the inside out; we would start with discussion of our memories, and then consider how our culture shapes how we see the world, how we alter our environments, and consequently how we impact society. The assignments were intended to follow the same trajectory, moving from contemplative practice, to group work, and finally to public engagement.

The process of creating and executing this course followed a similar path. My own thinking was shaped first by the readings I selected, and then challenged and deepened through my partnership with ZSR Digital Initiatives Librarian Chelcie Rowell as we worked to design this public web exhibit. The first step was determining what the students should learn and how to find the right digital tools to meet those goals. Chelcie listened as I described my visions for an exhibit and tested out a number of platforms. We determined that Omeka and Neatline had the best user-friendly features. Conversations with Chelcie made it clear that I had to refine the purpose of each assignment in order to synch learning objectives, exhibit design, and the capabilities of available digital tools. As the semester went on we developed a dynamic collaboration in which we responded to students’ interests (e.g. their place studies determined the scope of the digital map), learned more about Omeka and Neatline by troubleshooting, and experimented with display options.

I came to teach this class because of my interest in the environment as a place and meaningful idea. I have little background in digital media, but I am interested in finding new ways to reach out to and engage with public audiences. My partnership with Chelcie and experience with Omeka and Neatline have helped me to see how these interests can inform one another. The practice of translating humanistic inquiry into a digital presentation pushed me to reflect on the role of technology in environmental thought and action — something I also wanted my students to thoughtfully consider. The most surprising discovery I made in the process of teaching the course was the usefulness of digital representations of nature for drawing out memories and motivating action. Rather than impoverished replicas, digital images and maps had the power to invoke the viewer’s vivid lived experiences in and with nature. A viewer’s engagement with the material on the website might, somewhat ironically, prompt them to shut down the computer and take a mindful stroll outside. The website was not just a receptacle for ideas — it could also encourage action and changes to our thinking.