Stanford course aims to cultivate future leaders of the American West

Developed by the Bill Lane Center for the American West, the interdisciplinary course introduced undergraduates to the unique history, literature, art, politics, and environmental challenges of the North American West.
Aug 20, 2014
At the Cantor Arts Center this spring, undergraduate students clustered around Stanford art history professor Alexander Nemerov, who pointed at a giant 1868 photograph of a long-gone Vallejo flour mill. "How is this not a document?" Nemerov asked. There were no right or wrong answers, he told the students, as the group speculated on why the renowned western photographer Carleton Watkins framed the photograph as he did, and what it conveyed about nature and civilization.
Elsewhere in the exhibit, the environmental and civil engineering professor David Freyberg invited students to ponder Watkins’ 1871 photograph of the Malakoff Diggins, California's largest hydraulic gold mine. Amid the destruction wrought by powerful hoses unearthing gold ore, Freyberg noted an oddly pastoral waterfall. "That water flowing down the center,” he asked, “is that natural?"
Hearing an art historian and a hydrologist’s different perspectives on the photographs in the “Carleton Watkins: The Stanford Albums” exhibition was typical fare for students enrolled in The American West. The ambitious 10-week interdisciplinary course was taught by senior faculty from five departments and two schools.
Using the framework of five major western themes—borders; space; boom and bust; Native Americans; and water—the course aimed to introduce students to the unique characteristics and challenges of the American West: its history, physical geography, literature, art, film, institutions, politics, economics, and particular public policy issues.
The course was developed by the Bill Lane Center for the American West, which was founded in 2002 by the Stanford historians David M. Kennedy and Richard White to promote interdisciplinary teaching, research, and public awareness about the region.
"The cultivation of future regional leaders, well-informed and engaged early in their lives with the region’s history, health, and prospects," says Kennedy, "is among our cardinal aims."
The Center and the teaching team received support for the course from the Faculty College, a program of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education that encourages teams of faculty to develop innovative curricular and pedagogical ideas.
“With lectures and readings woven around large themes, students got a truly integrated perspective on the evolution and current state of this critical and endlessly fascinating region,” said Bruce Cain, the faculty director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West.
As its first formal term-time course offering, the Center envisions The American West as a portal to the study of the region, one that might lead students to further coursework, research, internships—and a future as leaders in the American West.

Interdisciplinary evidence

The course proved to be a draw, enrolling 109 undergraduate students who ranged from freshmen to seniors, from anthropology to mechanical engineering majors.
Students contemplated western space, for instance, by examining maps that demonstrate the extremes of basin-and-range topography, discussing the effects of suburban sprawl on rural lands, and viewing Georgia O’Keefe’s ecstatic, skyward-reaching The Lawrence Tree.
“The first two units that focused on space and boundaries were fascinating,” said Will Toaspern, an American Studies major in the class of 2014. “It brought a great opportunity to incorporate different disciplines. A lot of times, it felt like they were responding to other's lectures on the fly, improvising off each other.”
The teaching team was a highly interdisciplinary group of distinguished faculty: political scientist Bruce E. Cain, the Charles Louis Ducommun Professor in Humanities and Sciences; David M. Kennedy, the Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History, Emeritus; David Freyberg, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering; Gavin Jones, professor of English; and Alexander Nemerov, the Carl and Marilynn Thoma Provostial Professor of Arts and Humanities.
All of the instructors were present throughout most of the sessions, which combined a sequence of two or three half-hour lectures with periods of discussion and debate among the students and professors, from the perspectives of their own varying academic disciplines.
"It was fascinating to hear a hydrologist talking about the same issues as an art historian or a political scientist and a literature professor exploring similar threads," said John Temple, a journalist and former editor of the Rocky Mountain News, who audited the course as a John S. Knight journalism fellow. "It's rare to see scholars interact in real time, but that's what we experienced most days in the West class. The dialogue and questioning revealed unexpected insights into the region and made the class much more dynamic than a typical lecture class."
Using evidence from different domains to illustrate a common theme was central to the course’s synthetic approach. For example, at the Carleton Watkins exhibit, "the Malakoff Diggins photo was an opportunity to reinforce the conversation I had in class about the role of gold mining,” says Freyberg, “in terms of both water use and the connection between water and gold, but [also] in terms of the impacts of mining on the landscape."
Toaspern felt that “it was really a culmination of how I've been taught to think over last four years, to think about all this stuff you've been learning, but then are left to synthesize it yourself.”

Cultivating future leaders

“The strengths of the course are amazing and almost as vast as the West itself, says Michele Marincovich, senior advisor to the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education and the former longtime director of Stanford’s Center for Teaching and Learning. “A 'dream team' of faculty as both teachers and scholars, three dedicated and able course assistants, capacious and engaging themes, rich visual and textual material, and an infrastructure of support from the Lane Center”.
The course complements the Bill Lane Center's existing student programs, which include research assistantships, summer internships with western organizations, and Sophomore College field courses in the West.
Marincovich recently observed and reported on the course for the Center’s Advisory Council, and particularly praised the teaching team for modeling knowledge transfer – taking knowledge from one domain and applying it in another. “When I sat in, I saw the theme of boom and bust reverberate across historical, literary, artistic, and hydrological analyses, encompassing large-scale mineral extraction, tall tales, irrigated agriculture, and epic landscapes,” she says. “Students observe faculty taking the course themes and applying the ideas across very different disciplines. Students are encouraged to do the same.”
The Center plans to offer the course again in the spring quarter.