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Fall 2015 Seminar

Knowing Your Place: Human and Social Geography

The information age has increasingly privileged the virtual over the real, from social media to digital archives. Historically, however, humans have defined themselves in part through a sense of place, both geographical and social, and we continue to inhabit physical places and warm bodies. The sense of physical or geographical place as the foundation for cultural and individual identity permeates texts throughout Western history. Society has been dominated by the tension between a sense of belonging and community implied in having a place and the oppression implied in being told to know one’s place.

Detail from Giacomo Gastaldi, Il disegno della geografia moderna de tutta la parte dell’Africa (Venice, 1564) Novacco 8F 13. Courtesy The Newberry Library, Chicago. Click here for a larger image.

The fall 2015 seminar will use the resources of the Newberry Library to explore the documentary evidence of a sense of place from the ancient world to the modern era, to interrogate the current trend away from the embodied and toward the virtual, and to examine the role of the archive itself in a digital era. We also will draw on Chicago itself — the place the students will be living — with its neighborhoods, festivals, architecture, and rich place-specific history.

In addition to serving as a tantalizing introduction to the variety of collections at the Newberry and to the abundant conceptual possibilities inherent in “place,” the seminar material is also designed to develop students’ skills as scholars and writers, enabling them to turn ideas, interests, and curiosities into full-fledged scholarly projects. Writing will be a large part of our teaching strategy, including in-class “write-to-learn” moments and a required research blog in which students will constantly articulate their claims, their methods, and the challenges they encounter.

The Newberry’s resources

Detail from Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden and Thomas Moran, Tower Falls and Sulpher Mountain, from The Yellowstone National Park... (1876) VAULT oversize Graff 1830. Courtesy The Newberry Library, Chicago. Click here for a larger image.

Students will find the library’s collections to be a vast and stimulating resource for their research. Since “place” is so often tied to geography, we plan to explore the Newberry’s remarkable cartographic collections. To back our discussions about the seminar’s physical location in Chicago, we will draw on the library’s extensive historical and literary materials related to the city. As we develop the symbolic and metaphorical associations of place, including constructions of race and class, the Newberry’s strength in Native American and American materials (notably the Ayers collections) will be valuable, as will its holdings in 19th century popular periodicals and in early modern literature of exploration and travel.

For information about the Newberry’s holdings, visit


Ian MacInnes

Albion College



Marcy Sacks

Albion College