Smith College Spatial Analysis Lab

End of a Post-Bac Era

The end of an era. My time at Smith has taken me places, but it is time to officially leave the nest. At the beginning of my position as the final iteration of Spatial Analysis Fellows I felt hesitant, a bit confused about who I was: a student? A staff person? A teaching-assistant? A mentor? Just shy of a year into my post-grad life I experienced a textbook case of “Who-am-I-itis” and the Spatial Analysis Lab was the perfect place to heal and get back on my feet. Quite literally, the SAL has served as a place to ground myself, to root just a bit longer within the projects, ideas, academics, inspirations, and familiar landscape I settled into five years prior. I had played with this root word geo- while in school but only knew to add -ologist to the end, never even considering I could tack on -grapher to the otherside, but at the SAL, I tried on new ways to engage with my surroundings. And I quite like the way geographer feels and fits. During the past year and a half my world expanded to include new (and improved) tools, like GIS and GPS field equipment, concepts, particularly critical cartography and participatory mapping, and connections between technology and ethics, teaching and learning. But where did these expansions happen?

I spent many hours sitting in the SAL welcoming people into the lab and answering frantic questions about the intricacies of ArcGIS. At first I felt bad about often not having any (let alone all…) the answers, but I soon figured out how to create that into a teaching tool. I didn’t have answers right away, but I knew how to start looking. And once students feel confident searching for their own answers, GIS soon becomes a much more helpful and fruitful tool. In Environmental Science 201/202 I often worked with students brand new to GIS, a role both daunting and exciting that required immense patience and communication. And data-wrangling. These classes took on research questions and projects that relied on GIS and geography skills to explore: relationships between climate vulnerability and socioeconomics, food access and justice, climate adaptation models, assessments of heat island effect, the list goes on! It was an honor to be the person there for both tears and triumphs. Working alongside Environmental Science students taught me about searching for and organizing data, listening to student questions, teaching major GIS skills and tools (and thus, coming up with metaphors and analogies to make explanations easier and way more fun), and taught me new tricks to observe the world around me. GIS started to become more of a science than a tool — experiments with different workflows, recording (most of the time…) my methodology, and trying to replicate with new datasets.

I never thought I would fly a drone, not to mention pilot a drone, but at the SAL I did both. Before truly learning to fly I was much more interested in understanding the history and ethics behind this technology. Drone technology has an origin story in the military and violent goals that I couldn’t get out of my head. I wondered if other students or faculty had a similar understanding and began to talk to anyone who used our drones for research (and who would listen…). These conversations, in turn, helped me see this technology as a tool for environmental research that could not be conducted otherwise. My research and critical conversations (and perhaps technophobic reservations) guided my approach to teaching students to fly. Before flying I made sure to chat with students about historic intentions, positive and negative reactions to seeing a drone, surveillance technology and who is more often surveilled. We challenged our research questions to incorporate these ethical dilemmas and I invited students, staff, faculty, and community members to discuss our own code of ethics and conduct. There is SO much out there in the world of ethics and history of technology and I believe it needs to be embedded into our work! (Check out Data for Black Lives founding member Yeshimabeit Milner’s talk on Big Data and Ruha Benjamin’s work on race and technology! These examples are places where my thinking grew immensely). I am still fascinated (and a bit scared) of how quickly and subtly our brains comprehend a remote controlled object as a game, toy, or virtual reality, but even more excited about continuing to teach technology with critical thinking, historic and cultural implications, and with enough cautionary tales to push our technology forward in directions I trust to consider impact over pure innovation.

Using this foundation I studied and crammed to get my FAA drone pilot license in order to accompany a research team to San Salvador in The Bahamas to photograph their study sites by drone. I challenged my drone piloting skills by flying a mission above thick trees to capture the curvature of the Mill River… however, my spatial reasoning skills were not sharp enough to remember the topography changes along river banks that day and I sent dear Python into a fir tree. This day sparked sheer terror into my upcoming trip until I was reminded that I joined good company in the drone crash hall of fame: Bob Newton. Don’t worry — no drones were hurt in the making of our tropical research photography, though we faced significant winds and connectivity problems. I battled another round of “who-am-I-itis” while in San Sal, but my body recognized my symptoms and was able to quickly fight it off by remembering that I am a studier (-ologist) and now scriber (-grapher) of earth processes (geo-), and also apart of a supportive team (Tracray’s calming messages after long field-days and Jonon’s parting and laid back reminders that I am capable of the task). (Also a part of the tropical self-discovery journey: I am a rock nerd, avid adventurer, level-headed technologist, and curious earth historian). I returned sun-soaked and with new confidence.

But perhaps my geographic confidence grew the most when I was researching critical cartography and participatory mapping. Early on at my time with the lab I was tasked with the job of project manager for the Innovation Challenge we participated in: mapping an uneven landscape. This project gave me the room to explore Smith in ways that I was only beginning to see in my final years as a student– reminders that this idyllic landscape contains alternative and sometimes shady histories. I was inspired by an article written in The Funambulist about creating decolonial and anti-racist walking tours. I wanted to create one for Smith. All of a sudden I was in the archives asking for boxes of materials that remembered student protests and uprisings investigating where these events were taking place. Our team began putting together a counter-map of Smith College and found others that had used a similar pathway in the early 2000s. Someday I will finish this project. Mark my words! But in the meantime, check out my thoughts on using the archives as a spatial resource using our mineral collection!

We also used mapping and geography to explore Smith to assess the uneven terrain that students of color, first generation students, low income students, and Ada Comstock scholars face during their four years on campus. How does the history of the college impact the day to day lives of current students? Where do students feel comfortable and why? Do these places differ based on student backgrounds? We used participatory mapping during a workshop to guide students, staff, and faculty to locate their own privileges and where they feel at home on campus. This led to a conversation to unpack the influence of race and class on the Smith landscape and is a tool I am taking with me to facilitate hard and crucial conversations. This project also blossomed ideas on using mapping as a way to build agency, self-determination, and power into one’s place.

I feel proud of myself for making Smith into a place I felt that agency, self-determination, and power over my own thinking that had time to continue to ground and grow. While the Spatial Analysis Fellow for the SAL I had time to grow into a geographer and realize how to develop and cultivate connections between ideas, people, and places. In my next chapter as a science teacher (well, learning how to be a better science teacher and getting my Masters of Education) I want to use these skills to expand our scientific thinking and curiosities, showcase the important connections between science and history. Mapping solidifies my layered outlook on the world that tells a much richer and intersectional story. So, here I go, with new tools in my toolbelt ready to add more. Geologist, geographer, teacher!