From the classroom as workshop to the classroom as research laboratory, Dr. Jonathan Bordo, Trent Cultural Studies professor and former director of the Cultural Studies Doctoral Program, offers an approach for the study of place that he calls critical topography.
Professor Bordo’s approach to teaching place as a workshop course started in a doctoral seminar at Trent with a group of students varied in their backgrounds and perspectives. To encourage the students to consider each other’s points of view and engage collaboratively, Prof. Bordo asked each of them to articulate the keywords of their projected dissertations. Prof. Bordo calls it a workshop in discourse formation.
“The seminar became a workshop leading to the thought to transform my undergraduate teaching on place from a lecture into a student-centered workshop with place as the keyword,” said Prof. Bordo.
Critical topography in the classroom laboratory
On the first day of the Critical Topography class, students input information into a shared document about a place that matters to them: its name, its topography (a description of the site and its location), its chorography (a description of the place’s meaning for the student) and supporting documents (e.g. photos). This forces contributors to make sense of their particular site and articulate why it’s important, while providing an inventory for the class and an entry point into a broader study of beliefs, behaviours, norms—culture.
The teaching process is initiated by asking a “place question”: Where am I? Where is this place? Why here?—with other questions proliferating from it. Prof. Bordo likes to reference Thoreau’s question, “What right am I here, hoeing beans displacing the wild flowers?”
“We as humans imbue place with meaning, we put meaning onto a site or a location. And there may be evidence about the site or the location that supports that meaning, but it doesn't happen there naturally. It's not a right. We treat place as if it exists in material reality, but in fact it’s imagined,” explained Dr. Jessica Becking, principal of Otonabee College and graduate of Trent’s Cultural Studies Ph.D. program.
Critical topography works from singular sites and examples toward general theories. Each year students in Prof. Bordo’s classes share their sites as works in progress and, with each iteration, help to build the theoretical underpinning for critical topography.
“My teaching has from the outset been the laboratory for my research, inevitable because of an interdisciplinary appointment,” said Prof. Bordo. “I teach from my emerging research with the classroom as it’s lab.”
Currently, Prof. Bordo is involved in an experiment that expands the scope of the place workshop. With support from Trent’s Centre for Academic Teaching and Learning and the office of the Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences, he is developing a workshop to be delivered both in-person and online. With students participating from all over the world, the class’s inventory of sites will expand enormously and foster a global understanding of how culture manifests itself in singular places.
Community of Trent scholars contribute to research culmination in Place Matters
Critical topography, the approach Prof. Bordo developed with Dr. Blake Fitzpatrick, professor in Image Arts at Toronto Metropolitan University, is showcased in his new book, Place Matters: Critical Topographies in Word and Image. Place Matters, launched at Traill College’s Bagnani Hall on February 9, brings textualist scholars and photographic artists together to conduct place-based inquiry.
“The number and calibre of the Trent contributors to this work speaks to the community of scholars who have shared meaningful discussions and experiences using Jonathan’s approach to studying place,” said Dr. Craig Brunetti, dean of the School of Graduate Studies at Trent University. “This is the sort of work that comes out of truly interdisciplinary doctoral programs—I felt it was important to support Jonathan when I learned about the experimental work he was conducting in his classes.”
Trent contributions to Place Matters include Newfoundland Painting and the Metaphysics of Light by Dr. Jennifer Dyer; Placing the Anthropocene by Dr. Peter van Wyck; Manto’s Madmen: Partition and Psychoanalytic Displacement in “Toba Tek Singh” by Dr. Anhiti Patnaik; Placing Here: Finlay, Fulton, and Skelton and the Formation of the British School of Aesthetic Chorography by Dr. Jessica Becking; The Darkest Tapestry : Indian Residential School Memorialization and the Model for a “Keeping Place” in the Qu’Appelle Valley by Dr. Amber D.V.A. Johnson; Ai Weiwei’s Memory Work at Lesbos, Greece by Kara York (ABD); A Haunt of Jackals: Towards a Critical Topography of Ruins by Dr. Ihor Junyk; and The Community for Which the Land Longs: Cape Town’s District Six Museum by Dr. Christiaan Beyers.
The collection Place Matters is the core text for the courses Prof. Bordo is presently teaching with Prof. Becking.