Grant-Funded Institute Explores Land as a Laboratory

A group of 25 college and university faculty members are taking part in a summer institute that is focusing on environmental and borderlands history.
June 22, 2009
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Guest faculty during the 2009 NEH Summer Institute for University and College Teachers include professors, artists, photographers and researchers from the University of Montana, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, the United States Geological Survey, Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia in Mexico and both Arizona State and Northern Arizona universities, among other locations.

Katherine Morrissey, a UA associate professor of history, is leading a month-long institute that will inform college and university faculty members about environmental history and borderlands history.
Katherine Morrissey, a UA associate professor of history, is leading a month-long institute that will inform college and university faculty members about environmental history and borderlands history.
The institute at the UA drew 25 college and university professors from across the United States.
The institute at the UA drew 25 college and university professors from across the United States.

Understanding ways people interact with the land and also the social, cultural, political and historical influences shaping interactions is increasingly critical in studying and understanding environmental and borderlands history.

This is particularly true among college and university faculty working with and within those disciplines.

That is why The University of Arizona's history department coordinated and is hosting an institute to help 25 faculty from across the nation to think and teach more critically about cultural and environmental history in a broader and binational context.

The National Endowment for the Humanities, or NEH, provided the UA with a $200,000 grant to fund the 2009 NEH Summer Institute for University and College Teachers, "Nature and History at the Nation's Edge: A Field Institute in Environmental and Borderlands History." The funding provides each participant with a $3,200 stipend. 

"Environmental history is, increasingly, becoming a specialty at both universities and colleges," said Katherine Morrissey, a UA associate professor of history and the principal investigator on the grant funding the institute, which began last week.

The rigorous, month-long institute is multifaceted and interactive, featuring a 15-day field study tour through the arid lands and historical landscapes of Arizona, New Mexico and Sonora, Mexico.

The institute serves to connect participants both in the classroom and in the field with scholars and experts who offer insights and methods for reading the historical landscape in a variety of rural, urban, natural and industrial settings.

"Especially exciting are the opportunities for interdisciplinary work; for links between science and the social sciences," Morrissey said.

The group will learn about bioregional studies, native foods, the lives and histories of indigenous populations, endangered species, urbanization and numerous other topics. Participants also had the opportunity to learn in the field; they participated, for example, in a Saguaro Fruit Harvest, which involves collecting desert plants and fruits for processing.

Getting this type of extensive knowledge would be difficult without taking a sabbatical or other specialized course, which could mean more time away from the classroom or research for some of the participants.

"At the UA we have a rich repository of knowledge and expertise on Arizona, the borderlands and the greater southwest, and we want to share that broadly," said Morrissey, an environmental and cultural historian of the 19th and 20th century North American West.

As part of a field study component, participants have already explored the Tumacacori National Historical Park, San Ignacio de Cabórica and other Spanish colonial missions with zooarcheologists, anthropologists and botanists while learning about the region's historical biodiversity.

The group also will travel to grasslands restoration ranches, the American Museum of Natural History's Southwest Research Station in the Chiricahua Mountains, and historic mining towns in both Sonora, Mexico, and southern Arizona.

Last Friday, the group visited the UA's Special Collections for a lecture with Eric Meeks, who teaches history at Northern Arizona University. 

Meeks' interactive lecture focused on the heterogenous nature of American Indian populations, and he talked about the evolution of those communities before and after contact with Europeans.

The theme of his work, Meeks said, has been to understand the level of diversity within and across American Indian communities. "I view this as a continuum of people divided into these rigid categories," he said. 

Meeks spoke about how such populations – the Yaqui, Tohono O'odham, Pima and others – have "defied easy classification." He talked also about reasons why assumptions about such groups being dynamic only after interacting with Europeans is false.

Being able to recognize such misnomers, he said, is crucial, to reverse the inaccuracies that have been documented in history. Being able to do this, he said, can lead to a greater understanding of peoples' cultural differences, language, migrations and connections to the land. 

"Identity," Meeks said, "is relational."

Bob Wilson, an assistant professor of geography at Syracuse University whose expertise is in the West, teaches about the U.S.-Canada border. He said he came to the insitute because he wanted a stronger understanding about issues affecting the U.S.-Mexico border.

"I want to be able to translate dimensions of environmental issues, which is a hot topic especially now," Wilson said, noting the expanded study of global climate change as one reason.

Referring to such a range of disciplines represented during the institute, Wilson said, "We have a common interest in this region, but all of our disciplines present different perspectives."

Participating faculty come from disciplines that include history, geography, environmental literature, ethnic studies, art history and environmental studies, among other areas.
And that is what makes the institute a rich experience, said Monica Barron, who teaches English and creative writing at Truman State University in Missouri.

Barron said she intends to take what she learns directly to the classroom. Her interest is in having students explore, through writing, ways that discourse shapes space, and vice versa.

In the end, Morrissey said she hopes the institute will make a meaningful impact in undergraduate teaching.

"Our institute is a field institute. One of the best ways to teach undergraduates about environmental and historical change is to take them outside and into the environment itself, to teach them how to understand and interpret our interactions with the landscape," Morrissey said.

"Whether the participants teach in the Southwest or in New England, we all live in a regional environment," she said. "We need to learn more about how our past has influenced our present environmental circumstances."