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The Importance of Local Places:
Teaching and Learning Start at Home
By E. Pierre Morenon
Department of Anthropology, Rhode Island College
How do we connect thinking, action and places in our research and teaching? Local places are familiar. They have complex structures. They are important, even significant. And, local places provide opportunities for action. I learned these little lessons in my 8th Grade biology class when I was asked to select a square meter area anywhere on the school grounds and make periodic observations about it throughout the spring term. Forty years ago, I selected a familiar spot next to a parking lot and near a wooded wetland. There I documented worm scats, plant growth and cigarette droppings for sixteen weeks. In my end of term presentation to the class I discussed the small weekly alterations and the profound cumulative changes that I had noticed. Small acts do make a difference over time! I strongly disagreed with classmates who endorsed one option in the school’s long range development plan – to expand parking into the wetlands. Forty years later I remember this evaluation of natural cycles and the public policy debate, as well as the temperature and smell of the earth in late May.
Carolyn Shapiro, Illustrator
I now regularly ask students in archaeology classes to observe and think about places. They are encouraged to link evidence from local places to ideas, to generalize from small spaces to large issues. However, just finding a local place can also illustrate the challenge of linking places to knowledge and ideas. In our initial efforts to identify and locate local places, the proverbial lines between local and global, between actions and thoughts, are not easily drawn.
Many years ago, my first instructions to a Rhode Island College archaeology class preparing to visit the North Burial Ground – the oldest, largest cemetery in Providence – were: meet me at the south entrance to the North Burial Ground. No one knew what I was talking about. So, then the directions became more specific: go to the Branch Avenue Exit off I-95 and the North Burial Ground is the big cemetery visible from that exit. Well, those directions were recognized by some: “Oh, is that the cemetery across from Benny’s?” I then proceeded to describe Benny’s, Branch Avenue and its intersection with North Main Street, as well as the fire station, and the Kentucky Fried Chicken at the corner. Now about half of the class was with me, but there were still some confused looks. Several were not clear about the Branch Avenue exit. So, I told them that it was Exit 24, the exit immediately north of the State House, heading toward Pawtucket on I-95. Now there were a few more expressions of recognition. Finally, someone asked: “I-95? Is that the big highway?” Ultimately, I had to describe North Providence and Rhode Island College, how to find Smith Street, how to get to the State House in Providence and how to get onto the big highway pointed in the right direction.
How can one act locally if local thinking is confused? Finding local places requires a global, larger context. In order to find the North Burial Ground you need to either be a proficient map-reader or be familiar with a twenty-five square mile area from Pawtucket to Cranston and from Johnston to East Providence. Local places are familiar to everyone and to no one. To find local places, it is important to have shared terms and concepts about places. Without common reference points, every place - whether familiar or exotic – is mysterious and difficult to negotiate.
The assumption that “everyone should know that “ is constantly being tested. When my father was first learning English he asked my Yankee grandmother: “Why do Americans use the same sounds (i.e., homophones) - meet or meat, too or two - to mean different things?” She answered, “Well Dear, that’s the way it is!” Sometimes the outsider notices complexity within the ordinary or raises questions about the status quo. Sometimes our thinking is clearer when we explore a problem from another’s point-of-view. Studying and learning through exotica or the unfamiliar can help define the edges to what we already know. Sometimes it is difficult to think analytically about the familiar. My grandmother did not notice the ambiguity in her speech as long as she talked to others who spoke her English. There was never any doubt; they could easily understand each other without explanations or directions. However, the questions posed by her French son-in-law puzzled her, just as my initial directions to the North Burial Ground puzzled long time Rhode Island residents.
Lesson 1: Pay close attention to where you live
To an archaeologist, questions (How old? How made or used? Where found?) that define the edges of our inquiry are seldom alien and the evidence critical to those questions are familiar, close, just below the leaves, under the duff (detritus in the top layer of a soil). We may think globally, but our research is local . Students may explore a fantastic place involving an extinct culture in a different part of the world, but ultimately the evidence is quite specific to that particular locale: the dust on a floor, the refuse in a room. Rarely – in research or in the classroom - is the work of an archaeologist global or local, exotic or familiar. It is the interplay, the way we tie everyday experiences to our research and learning, that defines the way we act, and whether what we do is satisfying. Teaching and research is global and local, mostly local.
What a town! This past summer my cousin Marie and her best friend visited my home in Providence for fourteen days. They had traveled from Valensole, a small village of approximately 1000 in Provence, southern France to visit her godfather, my father. Valensole is a picture post card village that you might see in either the Travel Section of the New York Times or in a Cezanne painting. Red tile covered roofs, white walled buildings flowing down the side of a hill. Winding roads connecting small courtyards built around active fountains dating to Roman times. A community within fields of wheat and lavender surrounded by oak forests. Yet my cousin Marie liked Providence.
For someone familiar with the July festivals in Avignon, I was surprised how
much Marie and her friend liked our Waterfire. They had traveled the Mediterranean,
from Marseilles to Chateau D’If (and further), yet really enjoyed the
boat ride from the Port of Providence to Newport. On the other hand, she
disliked the Newport mansion, the summer estate of a Gilded Age industrialist,
which we visited together. Her disdain was not because she was unfamiliar
with opulence. Just the opposite, she was very familiar with the chateaux
along the Loire or the summer mansion of the Sun King, Louis XIV, in Versailles.
She knew what Americans liked to see in France, but was surprised by what
they liked to visit in America.
Marie did not want to visit global constructs to tourism like the Disneyland Resort outside of Paris. Rather, she preferred learning about our history (read, local history), seeing textile machines working at Slater Mill and talking with us about the Narragansett Indians. Her friend loved watching birds at my backyard bird feeder. Yet, I could not remember seeing many songbirds in Marseilles or in the lavender fields around Valensole. There, early mornings were silent, except for the neighbor’s rooster.
In fact, watching small birds at my backyard feeder was such a treat that Marie’s friend soon became obsessed by a single gift, a gift that to her expressed the uniqueness and charm of Providence. So, we drove to the Audubon Society of Rhode Island’s gift shop in Smithfield on the last day of their visit to collect that important momento, carefully looked at its dozens of forms and sizes, and then spent more hours wrapping and mailing it home at considerable cost. The bird feeder she selected is now in her backyard garden in Marseilles. I have a small patch of lavender at the front of my house in Providence.
What I see as only local, others find fascinating. What is noteworthy to Americans visiting Newport, others describe as bourgeois. Is Rhode Island really that exotic? Is my backyard really a place of destination to worldly travelers?
In 1976 I worked from September through December in Hatch, New Mexico (population 700) completing field studies and excavations at several ancient settlements. Hatch had two movie theatres, one for the locals and one that opened during the seasonal lettuce and chili harvest for migrant laborers, the aliens. Las Cruces, New Mexico and El Paso, Texas are the nearest large towns. Hatch High School did play 12-man football, and Truth or Consequences, New Mexico was one of its rivals. That rival town had renamed itself after the television game show, “Truth or Consequences,” to gain national notice. Perhaps Bob Barker would visit them?
Lesson 2: Immerse Yourself in the Complexity of Local Places
The fieldwork was in a desert. With an annual rainfall of less than five inches, it barely rained. The project area included a deep ravine or arroyo (the Placitas Arroyo) that occasionally directed water into the Rio Grande River a mile to the east. The town of Hatch was located at the eastern end of this arroyo, on the Rio Grande, and we worked on the western end, in the desert.
Hatch had a good place to eat on the Deming Highway and each morning the crew
of eight excavators met there for breakfast. Its regular customers were curious
about us at first; we were the strangers, exotics. However, they lost interest
when they discovered what we were doing. “Hunting arrowheads, are you?” They
knew that there were arrowheads scattered everywhere. Why study them? I think
the locals at the diner suspected that this scruffy band of archaeologists
were up to more than excavation. They were puzzled that we found their neighborhood
to be so fascinating . We
loved the food in that diner.
After breakfast we went to work where we carefully excavated eight archaeological sites around the rim of the Placitas Arroyo. Eight hundred to 4,000 years ago Native Americans were attracted to this area because of the periodic surface water that remained after it had rained in its pools and springs. Water is localized in deserts, as were the periodic storms that fed the small pools. Local habitats where water concentrates attract opportunistic species - plant, animal, and human. The small ancient human communities represented at these archaeological sites reflected the local conditions.
We excavated pieces of small horticultural villages with one or more pit houses (structures built partially underground) along the rim of the Placitas, overlooking watered areas in the arroyo bottom. These villages were places where native plants, such as yucca, mesquite and varieties of desert grasses were collected and roasted. Water-soaked patches at the bottom of the Placitas Arroyo sustained small cornfields. Stone tools were made from exposed outcrops of welded tuff (volcanic stone). It was not a surprise that just down the arroyo from where we worked was Hatch, an historic small farming community that had also developed around local water resources.
Local resources were critical to everything we studied. The raw materials for the tools were concentrated in the arroyo bottom. The dunes that supported the native plant communities were created along the south edge of the arroyo where air currents uplifted and deposited sand over the millennia. The springs and pools collected in the Pleistocene marl (compacted clays) that were exposed in certain places by erosion over the past 10,000 years. We were excavating sites that existed because of local silt, wind, temperature and rain conditions.
The project addressed a local problem. The Placitas Arroyo was a catchment that concentrated episodic water flowing across a desert, attracting people to it for thousands of years. This was also a catchment area that the Soil Conservation Service planned to dam. I had been hired to study archaeological sites that would be damaged by the proposed dam, but it was the danger that episodic flooding posed to Hatch that was the real reason for this study. In the mid-1920s a once in a century storm flooded downtown Hatch to a depth of twenty feet, destroying property and drowning dozens of citizens. Fifty years later the federal government was still trying to solve this local problem by building a dam; the archaeological investigations were part of the solution. Sometimes national governments respond slowly to local needs.
Hatch was a curious place to an archaeologist raised on the East Coast. Hatch was the Chili Capital of the United States. Probably not too many people in the rest of the world know this. However, I still have a “Hatch, New Mexico: Chili Capital of the United States” bumper sticker from the chili bake-off that I bought at the Hatch Chili Festival after the chili pepper harvest in 1976. Locals earnestly competed in that festival, entering dishes in the green chili, red chili, chili con carne, and other baking categories. The crew persuaded me to enter a dish in the chili con carne competition. In addition to attracting locals, this festival attracted politicians. US Senator Montoya was one of the judges. All politics, after all, is local; and here our government did demonstrate remarkable attention to local concerns. Senator Montoya certainly enthusiastically sampled each dish of chili con carne, and southern New Mexico overwhelmingly contributed to his re-election every six years.
However, places are rarely simple; local places represent deep and complex structures. After three months of fieldwork I was ready to go home. Home in this case was a laboratory at North Texas State University in Denton, Texas and research continued there for another nine months on this project. Was the intensive examination of an ecotone, the interface between a desert and intermittent water resources, worth the effort or was it a waste of time?
Well, some answers depend on whom you ask. No, the proton magnetometer research did not work; remote sensing on this project was a waste of time and money. Yes, the early evidence for agriculture in southern New Mexico did correlate with unexpectedly early village formation. Yes, the analyses did raise some important cultural questions that continue to be critical to the understanding of history of this region. The sites were important to the historic preservation and professional archaeological community that continues to use the results from this project. Yes, the project was certainly worth it to the people who worked on the project – at least four of the excavators are now established professional archaeologists. And yes, the Placitas Arroyo Project was also worth it to the people of Hatch. This project paved the way for the water retention dam that will, one day, protect downtown Hatch. Once again, government action can be slow! Was this project worth it to Senator Montoya? I am smiling now as I imagine the expression on the Senator’s face as he bit into my chili con carne entry in the Hatch Chili Festival. (I’ll leave his expression to your imagination.)
Was the Placitas Arroyo research worth it? I still remember “Frank’s” answer to that question one fall day in 1988, eleven years after I rose from the Denton lab and ten years after I began teaching at Rhode Island College. He wanted to know why, in his archaeology class, we were spending time reviewing the Placitas Arroyo Project. This project was “local” (read, unimportant); we should be examining national or international projects. The men in the Hatch diner had raised the same question in 1976. Perhaps they were right . After all the Placitas Arroyo was research at a local place.
Lesson 3: Local places are important
The illustrations in Ellen Raskin’s Nothing Ever Happens on My Block (1966) show a young boy sitting on the curb in front of his house. As he describes a world filled with significant imaginary experiences – astronauts, cowboys, or whatever – he complains about his neighborhood where nothing ever happens. As he whines, his block is awash with activity – lightning strikes a house, robbers climb out of a window, a cat bolts up a tree. He never notices. Each event precipitates another, and the street scene behind him is completely transformed by the end of this book. He, however, as a model of inaction never changes his position.
In 1988 I discussed Raskin’s book with the Principal of Flynn Elementary School in South Providence as we looked from the front of the school, over big highway I-95. From that spot we watched a barge that was barely visible on the horizon move down Narragansett Bay. He liked this book. He commented that children often are surprised when he points out the boats on the bay: “What’s a boat doing there?” Neighborhood children rarely visited Narragansett Bay.
These children would soon be surprised by what they noticed very near to the school because the third grade would soon start an excavation in the empty lot across the street (Morenon 1992). Archaeology was part of a larger project, Students Understanding Neighborhoods (Project S.U.N.). Some teachers openly wondered if the children would learn anything about the neighborhood from an empty lot. However, something had indeed happened on that block.
Through archaeology, art, classroom activities, oral history, photography or texts Project S.U.N. fully immersed students in a local place, their neighborhood. In this project context and background evidence were designed to fit the scale of inquiry. Too often macro theory is used to explain micro processes. As Ted Sizer (1985) and other educators have long argued – less is more.
In our work in this South Providence local place across from the Flynn School we soon discovered that the empty lot was once the property of Harry Fish (Morenon and Budner 1993). Harry Fish emigrated from southern Russia in the 1890s, built two houses on the lot, raised five children and lived there until the early 1930s. Urban renewal tore into this area in the 1960s. This was why there was an empty lot across the street. The third graders learned about their neighborhood through this single family and this one lot. They studied, thought, and wrote about Harry Fish and his family. They generalized from this locale to their lives and to the neighborhood within which they now lived. They produced a mural of the neighborhood and they left a time capsule in the schoolyard for future children.
The life of Harry Fish became each third grader’s conceptual framework for understanding the history of a tiny part of Providence. One block off Willard Avenue, a center of Jewish immigration in the early 20th century, this lot revealed a history of immigration, urbanization, and the story of a transforming community. As one excited student asked after his hour of excavation: “Who’s this guy?” Harry Fish’s lot was his bridge from what was once a familiar empty lot to what was now a sophisticated and complex neighborhood.
“Frank” was never convinced that archaeological research should be local; however, local research was fine for kids. In addition to the Harry Fish Project we did examine other archaeology projects in “Frank’s” class: Cahokia (the largest ancient temple mound in North America) and Olduvai Gorge (the first place to yield reliably dated early man skeletons and artifacts), to cite two. For some reason “Frank” did not view all of these research projects as local. Yet at Cahokia, a huge “Mississippian” (circa 1000 AD) mound near St Louis, it took archaeologists over 100 years to mount a significant research study. The site is so huge that it does defy study, but even in the 1920s many still believed that this mound was a natural hill because local (read, unimportant) Indian tribes could never have constructed something so large. At Olduvai Gorge, Louis and Mary Leakey worked for almost three decades in obscurity. Until the late 1950s many experts argued that China or Java was the center of human evolution. The Leakeys’ work was local (read, peripheral, unimportant) to worldly scholars. Mary Leakey’s discovery of Zinjanthropus in 1959 fixed Olduvai Gorge on the global map. Today most scholars believe that Africa is central to human evolution.
In most cases, like invention, pollution or politics, archaeological research
is local . The evidence might
be in your community, or your workplace. Consider that the Rhode Island State
Home and School for Neglected and Dependent Children was “discovered” in
2001. It is located on the campus of Rhode Island College, which is where
I have worked since 1978. Rhode Island’s state orphanage was created
by legislation in 1884 and was immediately recognized as a model for enlightened
childcare and treatment. The Patrick O’Rourke Children’s Center
closed as a child residential facility in 1979. Of the fourteen buildings
present in 1908, as shown on the map below, three remain standing today.
The Chapin Mansion is now Rhode Island College’s Forman Center; the
boiler house has been transformed into classrooms A, B and C; and dormitory
building C is now the Yellow Cottage.
Map of State Home and School, 1908
11 Forman Center; Classrooms (2003)
12 Yellow Cottage (2003)
Why was this important place not studied before? The answer: it was local (read, unnoticed, not important). It took the actions of others, in this case Richard Hillman at the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth and Families, to change this perspective. In 2001 he challenged the College to take ownership of Rhode Island’s state orphanage, which it fully had acquired in 1999. In response to his challenge, the State Home and School Project began.
Dr. John Nazarian, President of Rhode Island College, asked one of the critical orienting questions during preliminary studies at the State Home and School in June of 2001: “What makes the Yellow House so important?” It stands thirty yards north of the Forman Center on the East Campus at Rhode Island College and plans were in place to tear it down. It did not appear to meet federal guidelines listed by the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission. Significant properties are identified and recognized by federal and state programs. Statutes protect significant properties and they are eligible for preservation funding. These are not insignificant issues for an old building requiring maintenance.
By the summer of 2002 the State Home and School Project had blossomed. Because of research by sociologists and social workers, and reunions of former residents, the State Home began to receive local publicity. It even got the attention of my cousin Marie. She took copies of the Providence Journal’s article about the State Home Project back home with her to Valensole last July. As a nurse she was fascinated with our approach to childcare and institutionalization of children. Moreover, she had really come to the United States to visit her godfather who was institutionalized in a nursing home. He too had been orphaned as an infant in 1906 at the death of his mother. It was my father’s uncle, Marie’s grandfather, who cared for my father through major periods of his youth. Thus, as an orphan he became part of her family and ninety-five years later she and I were discussing these personal family details around the evening dinner table. By day I learned about State Home and School children through the toys they lost as they played.
In countless ways it is the details, objects, personal histories, memories and images from local places that are important. Perhaps this is why Hatch, Valensole, Providence, the State Home and School, and Olduvai Gorge are important as local phenomena. Through the examination of the details from local places, research helps us experience what was meaningful in the lives of others, only to discover that those experiences are important to us, as well.
Lesson 4: Take Action Locally
What makes the Yellow House significant? Orphanages and state institutions have not been widely studied as historic properties; there is no definitive national, state or local standard, no existing measure to use to answer this question. We should not expect to find many well-tested formulas. Rather, we must depend on suggestions and tentative guidelines. Significance can certainly be based on existing research that identifies important scientific or historic characteristics of a property, the reason for which a property must be preserved. In 2001 there was no body of research, no standard. Rhode Island College needed to answer this question because we will determine whether and how the Yellow Cottage is preserved.
Significance is somewhat faddish – it depends on public taste. Depression era glass is now saved, even though it was discarded in the 1970s. Today we protect important modern buildings from the 1950s, although they were not protected in the 1980s. Public taste is not a “politically correct” argument. To the contrary, historic properties are legally preserved for the public good. Whether a place meets this public good standard depends on national or regional standards, as well as on the local community and those who own the place. The former residents who once lived at the State Home and School must argue that the State Home and School is significant. Those who work within the State Home and School Project must develop the measures and create the standards that define the significance of the Yellow Cottage. The Yellow Cottage is important because we (read, the residents, scholars, and administrators; public and College) value it. This is original research; the State Home has been part of a national dialogue on childcare and protection since at least 1884.
As my father discovered when he talked to my Yankee grandmother, locals do not always notice or appreciate what is all around them. Locals, even expert locals, cannot always explain the familiar. However, significant discoveries always have a locale and are best protected as local phenomenon. As faculty, accessible evidence is critical to our research, and accessible knowledge is important to our teaching.
In the conclusion to Nothing Ever Happens on My Block there is no critical self-discovery. The boy sees no complexity in his world, nothing happens. Sadly, he concludes: “When I grow up I’m going to move.” He is dissatisfied with his surroundings and by his experiences. If he had simply turned around and observed the block where he now lived (i.e., Lesson 1), would this story have a different ending? What might he have thought if he had only immersed himself in the details (i.e., Lesson 2) of his block? Perhaps if he had known the significance (i.e., Lesson 3) of this place to his family and neighbors he might have tendered different thoughts. Or, if he had only moved off the curb to participate (i.e., Lesson 4) in any number of local activities – for example, helped a woman find her missing child – he might have preferred to stay? Of course, young people do leave home to profit, developing critical skills and perspectives in faraway places.
These lessons are easy and not so easy to implement here at home, at Rhode
Island College. Simply noticing what is immediately around us can be a chore.
We should, therefore, applaud the efforts to catalog the trees on this campus,
documenting rare, unusual plants, as well as the old growth oak forest that
is located here. Or, consider what we have discovered in our Sesquicentennial
year as many have immersed themselves in the deep and complex development
of this institution. Sometimes it takes an anniversary to discover important
things about people and places that we value. However, taking action locally
remains a most difficult lesson to develop and teach. Here the efforts to
further Service Learning at Rhode Island College represent important steps
toward the future. Students need to act locally. They need access to nearby
places and the resources those places provide. This has been one of the goals
of the State Home and School Project. Local action can only add complexity
and significance to their experiences here, as well as to our experiences.
Unlike the boy in Raskin’s story, many of our students do choose to remain in their neighborhoods or, subsequently do return home after leaving, finding that opportunities exist everywhere. The infamous Rhode Island proverb – Rhode Islanders never leave home – might imply that many know the complexity and significance of this smallest of states. However, there are still many discoveries to be made and opportunities to be created locally. Intense studies of local places, through projects like the State Home and School, add new layers to the already familiar. Research adds complexity and helps to define the significance of local places by creating links to events, experiences, material details and stories that are part of our common history and culture. Research and teaching helps us to think and to act locally. Critical thinking includes critical action, and both start at home. Lots of things can happen on our block; there are many opportunities to create – for researchers, students and the public.
Thanks to all of the anonymous and not so anonymous reviewers. Criticism helps. Thanks to Charles Allsworth who transferred the graphic images into this document. I would also like to acknowledge the support and encouragement provided by Rhode Island College, the State Home and School Project, the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Humanities that contributed directly and indirectly to this article. However, these acknowledgements do not imply any endorsement for the ideas expressed here; I am entirely responsible for its content.
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 This is, of course, not a new line of inquiry. As noted by Emerson in a speech delivered 1837: “Man is surprised to find that things near are not less beautiful and wonderous than things remote. The near explains the far. The drop is a small ocean (Emerson 1981 (1837): 69).”
 “Our life looks trivial, and we shun to record it. Men seem to have learned of the horizon the art of perpetual retreating and reference. ‘Yonder uplands are rich pasturage, and my neighbor has fertile meadows, but my field,’ says the querulous farmer, ‘only holds the world together’ (Emerson 1981 (1844): 267).”
 Or perhaps they needed to think like Thoreau whom Emerson eulogized: “When asked at table what dish he preferred, he answered, ‘the nearest’ (Emerson 1981: 575).”
 Once again, there is no shortage of thinking here: “Like sailing, gardening, politics, and poetry, law and ethnography are crafts of place: they work in the light of local knowledge (Geertz 2000: 167).”