The Hottest New Course Around
By Laurie Fenlason
Anyone familiar with the "growing" resources of the Smith campus -- its historic Olmsted design, renowned Botanic Garden and considered master plan -- could be forgiven for assuming that landscape studies has long been a staple of the academic curriculum. In fact, the first official landscape studies course debuted this term, and has been received with great excitement. With 87 registered students and 20 or 30 regular auditors and visitors, "LSS 100, Issues in Landscape Studies," could be considered a "hot" course-a designation that delights, but does not particularly surprise, professor Ann Leone.
"The moment is right," says Leone, a driving force behind the new two-credit course, who describes its debut as a watershed moment in a focused drive stretching back to the mid-1990s. It was then that Leone and a small group of alumnae and faculty began to envision an interdisciplinary program that would, among other things, "bridge the distance between biology and art history."
"As our consciousness of ecological limitations becomes heightened and nuanced," Leone explains, "it's becoming clear that landscape studies will be the field where scientific and technical manipulations of land will meet socio-political, artistic, and literary efforts to define and respond to landscape."
Part of the challenge of the course, Leone points out, lies in defining just what landscape studies is. "One way to think of it," she says, is as "the interdisciplinary consideration of how we view, define and use land-whether it be our own backyards, a moonscape or a national park." But how does land become a landscape? How does space become a place? To grapple with these larger questions, Leone has enlisted the help of 13 distinguished guest lecturers-landscape architects, art historians, literature scholars, biologists, city and regional planners, many of them Smith alumnae and faculty members.
They don't all agree, of course, except, as Leone points out, on one key point.
"Every invited speaker in the course, from activist landscape architects and planners to literary critics, is telling us that landscape is a cultural phenomenon defined by human society, and that we identify ourselves and our society by the ways we inhabit and experience it."
This is precisely why Laurel Mutti, a junior majoring in geology, was drawn to LSS 100. The course marries her interest in ecological matters and her fascination with what she calls "questions of human community": "How do we understand and go about creating our communal and individual lives? What constitutes justice in our relations to each other and our sharing of resources? How do we understand the shared human experience?" The answers to such questions, Mutti is convinced, "are intimately related to our sense of place."
Like many students in the course, Mutti first encountered the notion of landscape studies in a course taught by Leone, a scholar of French language and literature. Invited some years ago to speak to alumnae about the gardens of Paris, Leone found herself, instead, talking about gardens of imagination-those evoked in the writings of Proust, Colette and Balzac. Eventually, "Literary Ecology," a comparative literature course, grew out of that experience and expanded to examine "bio-social themes in literature," through the works of Romantic-era poets, early ecologists such as John Muir and John Burroughs and contemporary writers such as John McPhee and Annie Dillard.
Relating nature and literature feels quite logical to Mutti, who delights in the concept of landscape as both real and imagined.
"Landscape," she points out, "is directly related to our immediate, tangible environment but, at the same time, is the source of so many of our metaphors. It's impossible to fully appreciate concepts such as progress, arcadia, or even death without examining them in the context of both science and culture."
For sophomore Jennifer Antos, the rewards of LSS 100 have been even more immediate, informing nearly every step she now takes on the Smith campus.
"I walk to class differently now," she marvels, "noticing much more the use of space and how it has changed since the original design of the campus. I have a heightened consciousness of any space around me, both indoor and outdoor."
Like Mutti, Antos finds landscape studies to be the ideal coalescing point for her curiosity about human development in its many contexts.
"I think some people might misconstrue landscape studies as being about plants and trees and how you might plant them next to buildings," she muses. "But this area of study draws from so many fields that it is truly the culmination of a liberal arts education."
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