Ursinus faculty land $30,000 NEH grant

Photo Courtesy of Kayla O'Mahony

Kevin Leon

keleon@ursinus.edu

Ursinus was recently awarded $30,000 in funding from the National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH) through the Humanities Connections grant. The NEH is a federal grant-making agency that supports humanities scholarships. This prestigious grant was only awarded to 23 colleges around the country.

     An interdisciplinary team of faculty, led by English professor Meredith Goldsmith and environmental studies professor Patrick Hurley, submitted a proposal for the “Trajectories of Transformation” project. The project encompasses a generalized process for identifying and developing courses—with a commitment to working with community partners to develop those courses—that engage with the surrounding area, its landscapes, people, cultures, and histories.

     The NEH website states that the Humanities Connections grant program is attempting to expand the role of the humanities in two and four-year institutions. Collaborations between at least two professors from different departments is required, along with experiential learning, long-term institutional support, and the integration of the subject matter with at least one humanities and non-humanities discipline.  

     According to Patrick Hurley, Trajectories in Transformation is two things at once. 

It is the name for an interdisciplinary approach to studying the ways that suburbanization has transformed surrounding landscapes, ecosystems, and community connections to the land. It is also a recognition that suburbanization and associated processes are part of a wider set of human processes modifying area landscapes, ecosystems, and communities.

     Hurley explains that these human processes are often put under the idea of the Anthropocene, a new geological era in which people are the force of change on the planet’s surface, ecologies, and biogeophysical systems. Much of what has occurred in southeastern PA over the past century and, specifically, the suburbanization in and around the Collegeville area is part of the Anthropocene. Studies of these trajectories of environmental change often overlook the human component, or what these changes specifically mean to and for the people experiencing them, which is something this project aims to address.

     The goal of this project, according to Goldsmith, is to take an interdisciplinary approach to studying the suburbs in which Collegeville is located. She explains that Collegeville, like many other suburban regions, is undergoing environmental and demographical changes, and the grant will allow the development of interdisciplinary courses that focus on these suburban transformations, with the ultimate goal for them to become part of the new core curriculum. This project makes interdisciplinary connections between environmental studies and English and creates opportunities for student engagement with the world not only on but beyond our campus. 

      “Our project seeks to provide a mechanism for Ursinus students to learn about, as well as document, these [geological] changes, namely through engaging in courses that integrate explorations of area themes, topics, and actual landscapes and people,” said Professor Hurley.

      Hurley explained that part of the reasoning behind this project was to find a unique way for students to incorporate different methods and approaches to research, such as spatial analysis, ethnographic methods, and in-depth interviews. These methods and approaches are used in the environmental studies department to introduce students to key factors affecting the environment and to efforts that concern managing the changes to conserve nature and protect people.

     “These methods and approaches can be used to more broadly study how the transformation of areas, landscapes, ecosystems, and communities are experienced by the people living here and what these changes mean for them,” says Hurley.

     Added Hurley, “The planning and desire to create more experiential classes centered on the landscapes, ecosystems, and communities around Ursinus are both about enriching students’ learning and about the College helping to narrate or curate our geographical part of the world, the reasons for and ways [in which] we are transforming it, and what it all means for us. This grant is the first stepping stone in realizing this concept.” 

     This project takes place within the context of Ursinus’ new core curriculum, which asks students to consider what matters to them, how they should live together, how they can understand the world, and what they will do. The planning grant allows engagement with each of these questions in a way that asks students to think about and consider the local region around them.  

      “We wanted to create a project rooted in place, and to encourage to students to examine closely a place they believe they know well: the American suburbs. Students will deepen their observational skills, cross disciplinary boundaries, and challenge their own preconceived notions,” said Goldsmith.