Geography is a fundamentally interdisciplinary field, often seen as straddling the natural and social sciences and increasingly drawing upon the arts and other forms of expression and representation. For these reasons, Sarah Lawrence College provides an exciting context, as the community is predisposed to welcome geography’s breadth and interdisciplinary qualities. Geography courses are infused with the central questions of the discipline. What is the relationship between human beings and “nature”? How does globalization change spatial patterns of historical, political, economic, social, and cultural human activities? And how do these patterns provide avenues for understanding our contemporary world and pathways for the future?
Two seminars are taught on a regular basis: Introduction to Development Studies: The Political Ecology of Development and The Geography of Contemporary China and Its Place in a Globalizing World Economy. In addition, a lecture course, Food, Agriculture, Environment, and Development, provides students an opportunity to investigate these issues and their connections both in lecture and in group conference activities that include debates and special presentations.
As a discipline built on field study, students in geography classes participate in field trips—most recently, for example, to farming communities in Pennsylvania but also to Manhattan’s Chinatown, where students engage aspects of Chinese culture in walks through the community that expose the heterogeneity of China through food, art, religion, and language while simultaneously clarifying the challenges facing recent immigrants and legacies of institutions imbued with racism that are carved into the built environment. That is one of the overarching goals of contemporary geography: to investigate the ways that landscape and place both reflect and reproduce the evolving relationship of humans to each other and to their environments.
This course will explore the ways in which cities are built, used, and changed by both policy makers and popular movements. Using the New York Metropolitan Area as the primary case study, we will look at the city as a dynamic, disputed space—a place where social, political, environmental, and ideological differences are expressed in both the formal political sphere and in the politics of everyday life. This course will take us into the halls of city government, the offices of city planners, the homes and workplaces of New York residents, and the streets used by all. Throughout the course and through various lenses, we will constantly ask ourselves: How are inequalities produced and contested in an urban environment? To answer that question, we will study the city’s historical, contemporary, and future development, looking at both the hard infrastructure (such as transportation and waste management systems) that make the city work, as well as the soft infrastructure (such as planning and development policies) that shape its growth. Through various case studies—from the challenges facing Chinatown to the politics of affordable housing—we will look at the planned roots of urban inequalities, the constituencies that benefited from these policies, and the popular movements that have challenged them. We will take field trips to the city to experience the geography of inequality firsthand, taking in the landscapes as we learn about the history. In conference work, students will be encouraged to pursue one of two tracks: (1) focus on one particular expression of inequality and develop a historical analysis of how it was created, maintained, and contested; or (2) focus on one particular neighborhood and demonstrate how planning and popular movements have shaped the urban environment. As a component of conference work, students will have the opportunity to connect with local community organizations that are dealing with the subjects being studied. In addition to learning from their examples, students will be encouraged to share with these organizations the results of their research. Students are greatly encouraged to utilize the college’s new Geographic Information Systems (GIS) lab and capacities to develop maps that demonstrate their theses over time and space. Students will also be encouraged to attend the Geography Film and Lecture series in which course-related topics will be addressed.
A region, country, state, city, or even neighborhood cannot easily be described by “factors” (race, age, income, etc.), despite the efforts of sociologists, policy makers, and geographers to do so. Instead, the world exists as complex sets of social relations of power: relationships between people, places, the movement of capital, and the struggles against exploitation. Maps do not naturally lend themselves to explorations of these social relations; however, maps do provide insight into the conditions in which we live, work, and reproduce ourselves and one another. Maps also tell very convincing stories by appearing objective. They even produce new realities: borders, fears, and even nations. Maps can provide tools to support movements for liberation and can also reinforce dynamics of oppression and exploitation. Maps can influence perspective, policy, and grassroots activity in a variety of ways, both through the conscious efforts of the mapmaker(s) and through the implicit power relationships shown on (or left out of) maps. Maps can reveal the inherent contradictions in capitalist society. Perhaps most importantly, maps provide inroads for asking questions about the world around us, up to and including: What is space? In this course, we will explore the power of, as well as the problems with, mapping for social and environmental justice. Through a variety of case studies, we will learn how to use ArcGIS, specifically, and how to apply this use to a number of topics. Maps are also pieces of art. They are representations of the world around us; as such, we will also examine social and political aesthetics. Students will be encouraged in their conference work to think about a spatial phenomenon related to social and environmental justice and to think beyond the technology of Geographic Information Science (GIS) to the role and responsibility of maps and spatial science. Students will be encouraged to explore the production of the world itself through the lens of a particular social struggle. Students taking the geography seminar offered in the fall semester are especially encouraged to continue their conference work in this course through the medium of GIS and creation of visual representations and analyses.
Brazil has been described as a serene republic, a racial democracy, and the country of the future—and most recently advertised as a site of favela tourism. Those labels encapsulate the ambitions, contradictions, and indeterminacies that Brazilians and Brazilianists wrestle with in coming to terms with the social, economic, and political landscape of a nearly continent-size country. To unravel the questions driving these myths, this course delves into the history of Brazil from the establishment of Portuguese settlements on the Atlantic coast in the 1500s and the world created by sugar mills to the return to electoral politics and the advent of neoliberalism at the turn of the 20th century. The course is organized as an excursion through Brazilian towns and cities (and their hinterlands) that captures a set of historical movements in Brazil: from the coast to the interior, from the Northeast to the South and Center, and from a colony to an empire and even to a regional and global power. Using images, maps, Brazilian voices, and historiography, the forays into cities such as Recife, Salvador, Rio de Janeiro, Ouro Preto, São Paulo, and Brasília will give students a broad perspective and the analytical depth to understand the history of Brazil and the challenges that the country faces today. Our focus on the interplay between regional and national actors and trajectories, the geography of politics and economics, and shifts in the center of power will provide analytical tools to understand other national and even international contexts. By the end of the course, students will be able to understand the structural processes, political and economic conjunctures and the social and cultural interpretations that shape the history of Brazil. In addition, students will have developed the critical skills to understand and analyze fundamental concepts and processes in history and the social sciences, such as colonialism, imperialism, nation-state, industrialization, and national myths. Students will also be able to capture the nuances that make Brazil an economically and culturally rich country with a poor population and myriad forms of social inequality.
The Middle East has a long and rich urban tradition, boasting some of the world’s oldest cities. At the same time, the cities of the region have undergone profound changes over time, particularly as a result of the range of global forces, patterns, and linkages that are intrinsic to the process of “modernity” (a conceptual category that will be examined at great length). This course explores the lived experience of urban space as a lens through which to view broader transformations in the social, political, economic, and cultural history of the Middle East from late antiquity to the present. The course will also introduce students to some recent developments in urban theory and different methods that scholars have adopted to capture various aspects of city life, particularly in the modern period. To this end, the approach of the course will be interdisciplinary, drawing from such fields as art history, anthropology, sociology, geography, comparative literature, film studies, and political economy to explore the historical development of Middle Eastern cities through a variety of frames. In our effort to think beyond the “hard city” of bricks and mortar, particular attention will be paid to the cultural imagination and expression of various Middle Eastern cities in literature and film—our main “primary sources” in this course. Throughout the course, we will examine what cities have meant for Middle Eastern society and culture in a variety of contexts; study how various individuals and social groups across the region have experienced and used urban space; explore how writers, artists and filmmakers have attempted to imagine and render their urban milieus; and consider the extent to which the Middle Eastern experience of urban modernity has paralleled others around the globe. Cities to be covered include: Cairo, Istanbul, Damascus, Mecca, Baghdad, Tehran, Isfahan, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Aleppo, Alexandria, Beirut, Algiers, Marrakesh, Aden, Izmir, and Dubai.