The English class syllabus reads:
During our semester together we will explore the connection between self, community, and place. Using the American Southern landscape as a backdrop, we will first explore the nuanced relationship between humans and the environment via a series of diverse voices and pieces of literature. Secondly, we will explore the power of story while we investigate the importance story plays in the formation and communication of the relationship between self, community, and place. Finally, we will revisit the role place plays in identity formation, belonging, and culture. At the end of our course, we will look to our own sense of place, and our own understandings as we seek to answer the question, “How should we live well in a place?”
This last line is the crux of what we do and it is a question we live here, daily. From Community Circle meetings where students own their actions and words to Thursday afternoons when students and faculty are side by side splitting wood, working the garden, and taking care of our home. In English class, we read to understand. To develop empathy and to widen our worldview. How should we live well in a place? To answer this we must first ask: how do you truly know a place? What stands in our way? What creates a sense of place? What are the varied and nuanced relationships humans have to place? Is there privilege in having a sense of place?
We read a ton of literature in and out of class. We discuss and dissect the relationships between people and place. We discuss the ways in which Americans (and perhaps humans) are more disconnected from their geography than ever as Barry Lopez argues in “American Geographies.”
“In forty thousand years of human history, it has only been in the last few hundred years or so that a people could afford to ignore their local geographies as completely as we do and still survive,” says Lopez. We use this as our jumping-off point as we move into other works by Jamaica Kincaid, bell hooks, Annie Dillard, Edward Abbey, Evie Shockley, Linda Hogan, and onward.
I feel fortunate to be able to teach a class that directly mirrors an experience my students are moving through. As we seek to understand sense of place from the vantage point of our authors, we reflect on and invest in our sense of place here. As Wendell Berry says, “If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.” We’re on our way to figuring out if he’s on to something.
By Chelsea Staunton