#dhcc16: Space in Time; or, What We See Depends on When We See It

We recently wrapped up our DH Summer Institute for faculty from across the Claremont Colleges. At the end of the week-long intensive workshop we asked participants if they would be willing to write up their experience as a blog post. The brilliant and enthusiastic Char Miller, W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, jumped at the opportunity. So below we hand the website over to hear about the Summer Institute (and much else) in his words….


View from Honnold facing north towards mountainsIf you are tall enough, and I’m not, you could peer out of the large, north-facing, four-pane window in the Digital Humanities Studio on the third floor of Honnold Library in Claremont and gaze on a striking tableau. In the deep background are the chaparral-cloaked, rough folds of the San Gabriel foothills that rise up to Mount Baldy, the range’s visual apex. Pull your eyes down to the foreground and a different view comes into focus. Imported stone pines and eucalypts, and a green sweep of lawn, establish the x-and-y axis that is filled with other geometric shapes, concrete sidewalks that radiate out at right angles from the library connecting pedestrians to Dartmouth Avenue to the west, stately Garrison Theater to the immediate north, and to McAllister Center and Scripps and Claremont McKenna Colleges to the east. Nothing is out of place, all grows according to plan: this built landscape tightly structures the spatial dimensions of how we move through it and how we see it.


Mt Baldy Fast backward 115 years, a difficult act of imagination that historic photographs can stimulate. Consider this black-and-white shot from the Claremont Colleges Digital Library, shot at the corner of what was then Warren (now College) Avenue and 7th Street, roughly a block south of Honnold Library.  The mountains are vastly more prominent in this more unstructured terrain: the dirt road barely intrudes as you eye is caught first by the snow-capped high country. Filling the fore- and middle-ground is the alluvial fan that over the millennia has built up as floods roared out the canyons, carrying tons of debris into the valley below. This rough ground—which the Tongva called Torojoatngna, the Place Below Snowy Mountain—is carpeted with an apparently untrammeled sage shrub and chaparral—boulder-littered, largely treeless, open. However rumpled, the terrain is probably less pristine that it might seem. The Tongvan and other First Nation people of Southern California used fire to manage for the resources that wished to extract—materials they invested in their rituals and ceremonies and that provided food and shelter. What we are looking at, in short, is what archaeologists have dubbed an “indigenous landscape.”

Aerial ViewIts indigeneity has been buried beneath hardened roadbeds, gridded streetscapes, and the manifold structures that constitute the Claremont Colleges; an environment that signals its distance—historically, intellectually, even by the choice of which species to plant and where—from that earlier time and place. This was a distancing freely chosen: Pomona College’s first landscape architect, Ralph Cornell, a member of the class of 1913, knew a great deal about endemic habitats and how they functioned, but promoted the concept of a “College in the Garden,” a conceit around which the larger community, this “oasis,” replicates still. An origin story that my students in EA 199 Native American and Environmental Histories happily troubled in zine and commentary.

Interior Dialog

What would it take to reimagine the traces of that earlier biome? How might we peel back what the bulldozer flattened? How might the digital humanities enable us to re-see what we have rendered invisible? To make the past, present?

Those questions, among others, led me to join with some wonderfully sharp 5C colleagues as part of the 2016 DH Summer Institute. For a week we sat indoors getting schooled in the various tools and techniques we might employ to reconceptualize our teaching and scholarship; to disrupt what we thought we knew.

It worked. One sure sign is that I have absolutely no sense yet how I might incorporate what I have learned about.

  • Thick networks: how build to build them, who has access to them, and for what purposes
  • Tyranny of the tool: Miriam Posner’s apt caution not to let the technology dominate the content
  • Multimodal thinking (which I interpreted as akin to multimodal transit; that is, the layering of different forms of transportation to enable fluid interconnections, transfers, movement)
  • Visualization: Erik Loyer challenged us to use “grids and gestures”—not words!—to identify our research. Mine shakily sketches out the northerly perspective from the DH Studio window (I didn’t peek, promise)

The full array of insights and puzzles is deeper and longer, and some of its depth and length is captured in the stream of tweets my peers and I generated while trying to absorb what we were hearing. Woven together, these digital expressions have created an ecosystem of ideas and insights, a habitat at once virtual and vital.

They comprise as well an electronic space that is as material as the lost landscape I’d like to reconstruct.

Char Miller is the W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and author most recently of America’s Great National Forests, Wildernesses, and Grasslands and the forthcoming Not So Golden State: Sustainability vs. the California Dream.

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DH@CC has been made possible through a generous grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.