Rootless No More: Finding (Your) Place at JMU

by: Carole Nash

This week, 94 GISAT 112 (“Environmental Issues in Science and Technology”) students will fan out across the University to consider the impacts that land use change may have on campus surface water quality in locations they tested last week. Armed with old topographic maps and aerial photographs from a half-century ago, they will see how today’s landscape has changed as the University has grown. Think you know what Newman Lake looks like? A 1951 black-and-white aerial photo shows a stream and wetlands. And how about the East Campus? A mixture of forest and hay fields. Coming from twelve different states, the GISAT students (many freshmen) are making themselves at home here on campus, and my colleague Mary Handley and I are utilizing place-based pedagogy to further that transition. Looking at their new home as a dynamic place, we are asking them to apply water quality concepts, literally out their back doors, to build a bridge between knowledge and meaning. They’ll follow this with reflections on environmental issues in the places they know well, among them: Lynnhaven River (Virginia Beach); Delaware River (Frenchtown, New Jersey); Mattawoman Creek (Charles County, Maryland); Oppermans Pond (Pleasantville, New York); Rivanna River (Charlottesville).

Pedagogy of Place uses the human community and local environment as starting points for teaching by emphasizing interdisciplinary learning through hands-on, inquiry-based, real-world experiences and involving direct collaboration with community partners. Place-based study cultivates the ability to look deeply into the life of a community, explore its connections to regional, national and global influences, and assess its impacts on other systems. This way of teaching provides a framework for contextualizing classroom material and modeling what it means to live with deep knowledge of a community. Places are not simple. They are multi-dimensional, complex constructs, filled with meaning and attachments that we create through lived experience. Our dialogues with places — between culture and land, history and future, individuals and communities — build these constructs from the ground up.

Topophilia (love of place) is a central to place-based education. A concept made popular by geographer Yi-Fu Tuan in his 1974 book of the same name, topophilia is the affective bond with one’s environment – a person’s mental, emotional, and cognitive ties to place that, in turn, shape one’s world view. Scaled for the personal and the cultural, Dr. Tuan posits a strong relationship between topophilia and the formation and reinforcement of values.
Here’s the challenge: to teach place, you need to be familiar with place. Along with our students, many faculty members are new to the Shenandoah Valley. A recent report by the JMU Office of Institutional Research, “A Faculty in Transition, 1986-2011,” provides insight into who we are as a faculty and how we have changed over the last 25 years. For example, 35% of current faculty has five years or less experience at JMU. Common to higher education – and often expected – faculty prioritize career over location, and in rural areas in particular, come to know their new communities in time through family or recreational activities. Eric Zencey’s 1985 Chronicle of Higher Education piece, “Rootless Professors,” is critical of our business, arguing that the university writ large does not encourage connection to place: “professors are expected to owe no allegiance to geographical territory; we’re supposed to belong to the boundless world of books and ideas and eternal truths . . .”

Think for a moment: what has surprised you about living in the Shenandoah Valley – or any other place with which you feel a strong connection? What do you want to tell your students about this place? Why? As we learn to be more holistic in our approach to teaching and learning, how are we integrating the places we live into our classrooms and our scholarship? Are we interested in creating real collaborations in communities and helping our students find their places? Join us for “Pedagogy of Place,” a Faculty Workshop on Thursday, November 8, to create new working connections with faculty who are looking to put down some roots.

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