This NEH Humanities Connections project contends that ideas of community and place are capacious, ramifying, and necessary for 21st century students to grasp as they enter an increasingly diverse workplace and world. Using Timothy Creswell’s text Place: A Short Introduction as a starting point, we will ask our students to look at American and global society as a “world of places” that teaches us “to see things differently” when we immerse ourselves in a particular community’s history, memory and understanding of itself. According to philosopher Edward Casey’s The Fate of Place, the very concept of modern identity stems from the power of place: our need to create narratives about how communities, folkways, and societies developed and must be remembered. The corollary principle, as social historian Walter Licht has argued, is that knowledge of “the world of places” must not be erased during a new era of technical innovation and global development; rather, understanding distinct places (such as Rochester’s Public Market, Philadelphia’s Textile Corridor, or Silicon Valley’s early chip manufacturing zone) is critical to thinking about a range of contemporary civic matters, from the efficacy of community redevelopment plans to the need for environmental remediation in the urban core. Ultimately, we hope to show students that understanding community, memory and sense of place remains a complex but worthwhile endeavor. As philosopher Dimitri Nikulin notes, we become more engaged citizens when thinking about the connections among place, the past and the present.

This Humanities Connections grant will create three-courses in RIT’s general education curriculum that allow students to study community, memory and sense of place from two complementary perspectives: coursework and experiential learning. Students may take any one of three classes examining community from various historical, literary, economic and social perspectives. Beyond rigorous classroom study, students in all courses will also work on engaged research projects  focusing on Rochester neighborhoods that illuminate the lived meaning of community, memory and diversity amid new economic and social conditions. By interacting with business leaders, reformers and residents, we hope to show our students that understanding community and sense of place requires not only intellectual investigation but immersions in communities themselves.

Recognizing that RIT students need a firm grounding in humanities inquiry, each of the three courses focuses on a distinct theme and will survey literature in various fields of study. In “Industry, Environment, and Community,” students will examine Rochester through the lens of industrialization, immigration, technological innovation, and environmental change between the 1890s and 1990s – an era that saw Rochester’s rise as a regional business center and then decline as “Rust Belt” town beset by unemployment and environmental pollution from the industrial age. In “Literary Geographies,” students will survey the diverse ways that writers have cultivated a distinct sense of place in and beyond Rochester through fiction, memories, maps and other nonfiction genres that make a place social and culturally visible. In “Reforming Rochester,” students will examine the city’s dynamic history of social reform during the 19th and 20th centuries, as successive waves of civil rights, women’s rights, and religious reformers attempted to turn Rochester itself into a model American City.