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The Power of Place
In Chamlee-Wright’s view, colleges are “civil society incubators” that hone the habits of critical thinking and collaboration. In addition to editing the submissions of a dozen other contributors, Chamlee-Wright penned the introduction and co-wrote a chapter on co-governance in higher education. She also collaborated with her Washington College colleagues Adam Goodheart, director of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, and John L. Seidel, director of the Center for Environment and Society, on a chapter that illustrates the value of connecting students to place to enhance learning. In the following excerpts adapted from that chapter (pages 91-110), the three describe how Chestertown and its environs inform effective teaching.
Developing the Art of Self-Governance
Washington College’s founder and first president William Smith confidently asserted that “Liberty will not deign to dwell, but where her fair companion Knowledge flourishes by her side.” Like many of his contemporaries in the first years of national independence, Smith was preoccupied with the question of how to render Americans fit for self-governance. Within his writings, a formula of sorts is proposed. Knowledge and liberty remain conjoined, and citizens must be capable of navigating both their individual affairs and society’s common pursuits. Arguably, the central goal of liberal learning is not to acquire a particular core of knowledge, but rather to develop intellectual agency—the critical thinking that frees us from dogma and enables us to recognize both the seen and unseen structures that shape society.
When Smith imagined his ideal institution, he described a hilltop “public garden” where professors and students would gather outdoors, observing both the untamed wilderness and the turrets and spires of a nearby city. In other words, this would be an institution with a strong sense of place, open to both the human and natural worlds.
The principal advantage of place-based learning is that students learn how to read a complex social text and experience what it is to truly discover something new. This experience fosters confidence and enables them to transfer their learning to other situations in the future, including the communities where they will eventually settle and build careers and families.
In the models of place-based learning happening here at Washington College, faculty and students connect to Chestertown and the greater Eastern Shore through community assets such as archives, private lands, resource-rich waterways, and residents with expertise and stories to share. Students come to understand that the place they are entering into has a story—the community is the way it is for multiple and complex reasons. And understanding at least some of these reasons is a necessary step before one can offer an effective social critique or propose a path for positive social change.
With a Local Lens, History is Personal and Often Surprising
Chestertown, Maryland, is a place where the past is very much present. A casual visitor—or a newly arrived first-year student at Washington College—sees streets lined with red-brick colonial mansions and turreted Victorian houses, as well as sailboats lying at anchor along the Chester River waterfront, once a bustling eighteenth-century port. The town’s surrounding region of the Eastern Shore of Maryland can likewise seem like a land that time forgot: tiny crossroads villages nestle amid rolling cornfields, and ospreys nest along lazy tidal streams emptying into the Chesapeake Bay.
Yet those who notice only quaint houses and pretty landscapes miss most of the picture. An old building is a container of many lives, many generations, many stories. A rural hamlet might have been founded by newly emancipated African Americans or by seventeenth-century watermen. The fields and rivers, eternal though they may appear, have undergone vast transformation since the time when they were farmed and fished by Native Americans.
In 2000, largely in response to these rich historical surroundings, Washington College established the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience as an interdisciplinary institute dedicated to exploring the nation’s past and present through a variety of entry points: not just traditional history, but also art, literature, music, politics, and other fields. Headquartered in a circa-1746 riverfront building known as the Custom House, the Starr Center sponsors lectures, forums, and performances; hosts prominent authors as residential fellows; and places undergraduates in paid summer jobs at the Smithsonian, the National Archives, and other prominent institutions.
But the Center’s most distinctive asset has been its physical setting, which encourages a “boots-on-the-ground” approach to studying the past. Guided by faculty and staff, Washington College students venture beyond campus to dig through attics and courthouses in search of papers and artifacts and to conduct oral-history interviews with local residents.
Traditional historical scholarship often attempts to organize and simplify the past, seeking broad social, economic, or political patterns. Place-centered history, on the other hand, complicates the past, challenging students to unravel the tangled web of stories, relationships, contingencies, and motivations that make up human life as it is actually lived.
The Starr Center’s approach to place-centered history is perhaps best illustrated by a seminar its director has taught periodically since 2005. “Chestertown’s America” examines America’s past, from prehistory to recent times, through the lens of the town and its immediate surroundings. On the first day of class, students are taken on a surprise “mini-field trip.” To start, they visit an 18th-century painting owned by Washington College that depicts the landscape of Chestertown and its environs, portrayed in great detail from the vantage point of an outlying plantation. Scrutinizing this single image, the students try to tease out every bit of information that the painting offers—inevitably coming to focus on a complicated vignette of enslaved African Americans in the picture’s foreground. Next, at the nearby county courthouse, they break up into small teams and examine early volumes of handwritten wills and estate inventories, seeking references to the human “property” owned by local masters, and then view an inventory from the estate depicted in the painting. Executed in 1798, just a few years after the artwork, the inventory lists each enslaved person by name and dollar value. Finally, the students are driven to a nearby farm—which they soon realize is the plantation shown in the picture, its main house and surroundings little changed since the 18th century.
Thus, in the span of two and a half hours, they have begun studying local history from a variety of vantage points. Moreover, they have begun to grasp the deep-rooted nature of race-based inequality in their own community, a point driven home when the vans return to campus through a neighborhood of low-income public housing occupied almost exclusively by African Americans. Over the course of the semester, students in “Chestertown’s America” learn to interpret the architecture of a historic house, mine information from back issues of newspapers, and decipher and interpret 18th- and 19th-century manuscripts. They also are given opportunities to produce research that has value beyond the classroom and share it with a wider audience.
In 2005, for instance, students were assigned to unearth the true story of the Chestertown Tea Party, a 1774 incident in which, according to many secondary sources, local patriots hurled contraband tea into the Chester River. Since the mid-twentieth century, the occasion has been commemorated and reenacted at an annual festival presented as the community’s flagship event of the year, rallying local pride, drawing thousands of tourists, and bringing considerable business to area merchants. But the undergraduates in “Chestertown’s America” made a rather unwelcome discovery: There was no evidence that the supposed Revolutionary-era protest had actually occurred. Eighteenth-century sources did not mention it at all, and the earliest written reference was in an 1899 book presenting an unreliable, largely fanciful history of the town.
When the students’ findings were revealed in the press, considerable public debate ensued, raising questions that had no easy answers: How do we establish historical certainty? At what point does long-accepted myth take on significance—even a kind of truth—of its own? And should the public interest trump scholarly accuracy? As it turned out, these questions were themselves incorporated into the local narrative. The festival’s organizers produced a film investigating the controversy, a movie that has subsequently been screened during each year’s celebration— thus giving the town a more nuanced awareness of its own past.
Three years after the Tea Party controversy, a different cadre of “Chestertown’s America” students were involved in another discovery, this time involving a trove of family papers found in the attic of an old plantation house. Class members took the lead in investigating the documents, some 30,000 pages spanning from the 1660s through the late 20th century and including everything from slave records to Civil War letters. Their effort to rescue and conserve the collection, which was in imminent danger of being destroyed, drew widespread media coverage and led to a long-term partnership with the Maryland State Archives, which now houses the Poplar Grove collection.
When the course was taught in 2013, class members helped with the creation of a new museum and cultural center in Chestertown. The Charles Sumner Post of the Grand Army of the Republic is one of just two African-American Civil War veterans’ lodges surviving in the United States, and a local nonprofit had secured funding to renovate the building and open it to the public. Working in pairs, students in “Chestertown’ s America” researched and wrote biographies of individual soldiers from the post, for inclusion in the museum and publication online by the Maryland State Archives. Delving deep into 19th-century census records, newspapers, federal pension files, military rosters, regimental histories, slave lists, manumission papers, and land deeds, the students retrieved and reconstructed the life stories of people whose very existence had been largely forgotten.
This time, as with the Tea Party, some inconvenient truths came to light under the class’s scrutiny. One of the soldiers, Oscar Crozier, a bugler in the legendary 54th Massachusetts (chronicled in the movie Glory), had been proudly held up as a local hero whose life story could be a centerpiece of the new museum and an inspiration for local schoolchildren. The student team researching Crozier discovered that shortly after his return from the Civil War, he served a prison sentence for knifing his lover in a drunken rage. Post-traumatic stress? Cold-hearted murder? In any case, as the class wrestled with such questions, it became clear that the lives, deeds, and ordeals of actual “heroes” do not often fit into neat heroic formulas, that scholarly investigation sometimes involves unwelcome discoveries that draw the researcher into a complicated maze of moral reckonings.
All of these programs are about learning to observe and interpret not just historical realities, but also the human experience in a broader sense. When students read the private diaries and memoirs of a male plantation owner, a female slaveholder, and an enslaved African-American who all lived near Chestertown in the 1820s, they gain knowledge and perspective that the writers themselves lacked. If, in the process, they also learn to strive for a multivalent understanding of the present-day world, they will surely become not only better scholars, but also better citizens.
The Social and Environmental Ecology of Place
The Chesapeake Bay is perhaps the most intensively studied body of water on earth, but it remains deeply troubled, with water quality problems, expanding dead zones, and declining fisheries. Its problems are not so much problems of science, but “problems of people.” Since its inception, the Center for Environment & Society has tried to foster a better understanding of the role society plays in the Bay’s challenges and to harness multiple disciplines to help solve seemingly intractable problems.
As a model for engaged, liberal learning that leverages the power of place, the Center’s “Chesapeake Semester” deserves particular attention. This immersive curricular experience is structured to align with the mission of CES itself, recognizing the primary environmental challenge in the Chesapeake Bay as a problem of how human social, economic, and political systems intersect with one another. Launched in 2009, the program was partly a response to faculty desire to use our rich local resources for field study without being constrained by the need to return to campus in time for other classes or extracurricular activities. The solution was to design a four-course program that would constitute a student’s entire academic load for the fall semester.
An explicit objective of the Chesapeake Semester is to get students out of the classroom to range widely around the watershed, meeting the people and seeing the places of the Chesapeake. We begin with two days at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, an important partner in the program. Students eat at a local crab house, and then rise at 5:30 the next morning, setting off with two local watermen to trot-line for blue crabs. Later that day, they get behind the scenes in the museum collections and sail with Captain Wade Murphy on the Rebecca Ruark, one of the few remaining skipjacks on the Chesapeake Bay. Capt. Wadey is a true waterman, one of the last great skipjack captains. Garrulous, opinionated, and a natural comedian, he has turned to tourism to make a living in the face of declining oyster stocks. By book-ending the day with these two experiences, the students are able to put human faces on an iconic element of the estuary’s population—the watermen.
The remainder of the week zeroes in on a feature of Chestertown that the students think they know: the Chester River. In kayaks, we explore the upper reaches of the Chester—shallow, narrow, with a gravel bottom and clear water that is quite unlike the mud bottom and brown water with which the students are familiar. Their path takes them past dense stands of wild rice and arrow arum, plant foods used by wildlife and Native Americans. They kayak through arched bowers of trees before emerging into wider stretches of river from Chestertown to about seven miles downstream, fishing and exploring geology along the way. In early afternoon, they transfer to the skipjack Elsworth and the Annie D., a buy boat. These vessels take them toward the mouth of the river where they anchor for the night.
By 7:30 the next morning, the group is headed to meet another waterman, pound-netter Dickie Manning, Jr. Pound nets divert fish swimming along the shore into an enclosure, or pound, lined with a net. Working from a small boat, the pound-netter draws in the net, like closing a purse, and the water shimmers with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of fish, crabs, and other wildlife. But it is hard work, from driving the stakes that hold the nets, to pulling in the net, dipping out the fish, and culling the catch. It is made more difficult when an engine dies or a gear breaks, illustrating the razor’s edge profit margin that is the waterman’s reality.
While onboard the skipjack Elsworth, students meet Capt. Andy McCown, an educator and raconteur extraordinaire who also has worked in the fisheries. Capt. McCown reads poetry and short stories about the Chester and the Chesapeake Bay, such as Gilbert Byron’s “These Chesapeake Men.” The readings remind us to see, to hear, to feel, to open up some deeper part of our consciousness in appreciation. Byron’s “My People” reinforces the notion that we should not be satisfied with seeing the exterior of people in this region, but probe deeper so that we might see beneath the “mahogany faces” of people who are “barnacled and rough” to “find them tender as the peeler crab, as soft and sweet as the oysters they shuck, a hard shell their only protection from a world gone mad.” It’s a mix of literature, history, place, and the natural world that is particularly compelling when experienced on the deck of a boat in a secluded cove.
At semester’s end, a final journey focuses explicitly on environmental policy issues, examining the competing interests involved in regulating fisheries, agriculture, and development. The first step in approaching each issue is to meet members of the various constituencies, including seafood buyers, laborers in a crab-picking house (many of whom are migrant workers from Mexico), researchers at University of Maryland’s Horn Point marine laboratories, aquaculture companies, policy makers, and regulatory personnel in government. We visit farms of various sizes, from a large dairy operation with a heavy reliance on automation to a small, grass-fed dairy that also produces grass-fed beef. In the morning, students may meet with Jim Perdue, owner of one of the major poultry integrators. That afternoon, they meet with two brothers who manage a family poultry farm. They go inside the “chicken houses,” see how manure is managed, and review the paper trail documenting nutrient management that is required by government regulation. The next day they meet with the director of a law clinic that is suing both Perdue and a family poultry farm for nutrient pollution.
The various actors do not see eye to eye, and they raise thorny issues about common resources, individual vs. group rights, access, the role of capital in fisheries, and the potential loss of traditional culture. Each person or group we meet is likeable and convincing. This forces students to avoid shortcuts around critical thinking (e.g., “I don’t have to listen to him because he’s a poultry farmer who doesn’t care about the environment”) and instead helps them maintain the “learning stance” (e.g., “Perhaps I can learn something from him even though I don’t agree with his viewpoint”). It also forces students to develop the intellectual agency they require to sort it all out—to draw independent conclusions that are informed by theory, empirical research, and deep listening.
Invited into inherently complex place-based contexts, students have the opportunity to encounter inconvenient historical truths that require them to see beyond the dominant narrative. In addition to cultivating the skills of critical listening, reading and thinking, place-based teaching develops skills of sympathetic listening. Students adapt their “learning stance” in ways that leave them open to learning from diverse and unlikely teachers. They are left better equipped to practice the art of association and good governance in communities of all types and sizes.
These excerpts from Liberal Learning and the Art of Self-Governance (Routledge, 2015) are printed with the permission of the publisher.