Getting Physical in the Field

by johnmccreery

Just read a amazing piece on “Place Hacking” on Savage Minds. A conversation between Adam Fish and “reformed archeologist” Bradley L. Garrett, it takes us through words and photographs into the world of urban exploration, a hobby whose enthusiasts “choose to spend their weekends and time off of work exploring landscapes [instead of] sitting in front of a television or drinking at the pub.”  I am instantly reminded of the work of Harvard professor John R. Stilgoe, who has, for decades, been teaching classes in which assignments include such topics as locating the date and manufacturer of all the manhole covers in a neighborhood or tracing the routes of abandoned train lines. It also recalls a not-yet-implemented project that Ruth and I have often discussed, tracing the history of the stairways we use to climb up and down the hills of Yokohama. We know that many follow historic routes that date back to the Edo Period, when most travel in Japan was on foot. We also wonder, however, how, when, why and by who the decisions were made to install the concrete stairs we traverse on our hikes around the city. We would like to know more about these bits of modern history inscribed in the landscape.

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6 Comments to “Getting Physical in the Field”

  1. Thanks for the interest in my research, I will have a look at Dr. Stilgoe’s work!

  2. John, we’d love to see anything you find out on that here at Dead Voles!

  3. Carl, I’d love to see what would happen if you gave your students the sort of assignment that Stilgoe gives his. It’s amazing how the questions explode and the stories multiply as soon as you start looking at familiar details in any landscape and start asking the journalist’s classic Who, What, Where, When, How and Why questions.

  4. For sure! He sounds great. Familiarizing the unfamiliar and defamiliarizing the familiar is part of good teaching. I give my students that kind of assignment all the time, just not outdoors. The process applies to all settings. This semester I’m leading two groups in exploration of how race got built and what routes it traverses, and three others to investigate the interplay of agency and structure in the construction of several world-historical landscapes.

    When I was teaching Human Development I worked directly on the students’ experiences and it’s possible to get some striking personal illuminations that way. Now that I have to stay closer to disciplinary History I’ve focused more on training students’ ability to bracket their own experience and think abstractly. Each discipline has its characteristic strengths and weaknesses.

  5. The thing I particularly like about Stilgoe’s assignments is that they take students out of themselves in a very material way. Starting with something that is visible and palpable, right there, not you, not something imagined via text, is, I believe, a particularly powerful move.

  6. Absolutely! Although as Buckaroo Banzai points out, wherever you go, there you are. So oddly enough, for many of my students reflective contact with their own thinking is every bit as startling as one of Stilgoe’s or Garrett’s settings. I’m not saying it’s an either-or, just that I’m currently better set up to teach the contemplative lessons than the palpable ones. It’s all zen, right? Learning to be fully present in what we’re doing, whatever it is.

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