Site-Specific Teaching in New England's Dinosaur Country

This continues our series on teaching. If you have not already seen them, please check out the earlier essays by Joyce Havstad, Matt Haber, and Adrian Currie


Derek Turner writes . . .

Does it Matter Where You Do Philosophy?

One sometimes hears it said that “you can do philosophy anywhere.” Unlike historians, philosophers do not typically need to visit particular archives. And unlike field scientists, we don’t have to travel to any particular location to collect empirical data. Unlike scientists who do experiments, we aren’t tethered to our labs either. One former colleague of mine once said that as a philosopher, “I carry my lab around in my head.”  You can do thought experiments anywhere. If you’re a philosopher, all you really need for your research is a laptop, an internet connection, and other people to talk philosophy with. And of course these days, your interlocutors could be anywhere, too.

Although there is much truth in the conventional wisdom that where you do philosophy doesn’t matter, the western tradition also includes some important examples of what we might call site-specific philosophy (by analogy, perhaps, with site-specific dance, or theater). Plato’s dialogues, for example—with the fascinating exception of the Phaedrus, which involves a field trip of sorts—take place in an urban setting. And it’s not just any polis, but Athens. This context—this place—is so crucial to the philosophical action that at times it almost seems like the city itself is a character. Actually, in Plato’s Crito, the place is (sort of) a character, when Socrates imagines the laws of the city showing up for a philosophical conversation. The problem of how people should relate to the place where they live their lives—in this case, the Athenian polis—is central to many of Socrates’s conversations. It is no coincidence that when the chips are down, Socrates prefers to remain in his particular place, even if it means a death sentence, rather than accept the apparently milder penalty of banishment. Nor can his friends convince him to escape with his life and continue philosophizing somewhere else in exile. It’s hard to imagine a more powerful statement about the embeddedness of philosophy in places, or a clearer rejection of the idea that it doesn't matter where you do philosophy.

Of course, other philosophers pushed back against this. Although the stoics drew much of their inspiration from the life of Socrates, they also embraced cosmopolitanism and insisted that their “polis” is the whole world. In doing so, they explicitly rejected the Platonic commitment to site-specific philosophy. It’s a fun irony that the term “stoicism” derives from the name for a particular site: The stoa was the painted portico in Athens where the school got its start. Even cosmopolitanism emerged from a particular place, and a particular milieu.

This disagreement in the ancient world about the relevance of place to philosophy still resonates. What might a site-specific philosophy look like today? Could—and should—philosophy of science be done in a site-specific way? What would it be like to teach philosophy of science in a site-specific way?

Connecticut College students examining trackways at the Beneski Museum of Natural History in Amherst, MA. Thanks to our delightful host, Fred Venne, for giving us the complete "tour" of Connecticut Valley geological history. The trackways were collected by Edward Hitchcock in the 1830s. Photo by Derek Turner.

Connecticut College students examining trackways at the Beneski Museum of Natural History in Amherst, MA. Thanks to our delightful host, Fred Venne, for giving us the complete "tour" of Connecticut Valley geological history. The trackways were collected by Edward Hitchcock in the 1830s. Photo by Derek Turner.

A First Try at Site-Specific Teaching

I’ve taught at Connecticut College for a good number of years now, but very little of my teaching thus far has been site-specific. For example, when I teach Intro to Philosophy, I usually design the course historically, using primary texts, starting with Plato’s Gorgias or Symposium and moving on to other favorites from the western tradition. For such a course, the where does not matter much. You could teach the same course pretty much anywhere. Even my classes on environmental philosophy are somewhat disconnected from the place. You could relocate the class pretty much anywhere without any loss.

This year, however, our institution is launching a new general education curriculum. (You can read a little bit about it here.) One piece of that new curriculum involves rethinking introductory courses. We’re shifting the emphasis from good old-fashioned introductory courses like Intro to Philosophy to interdisciplinary 100-level courses on cool topics, such as dinosaurs. This fall, I’m teaching such a course on “The Meaning of Dinosaurs”--an homage to M.J.S. Rudwick, whose classic book on the history of paleontology Joyce reviewed in an earlier post. The course provides a broad introduction to the history, philosophy, and social/cultural studies of dinosaur paleontology. We're discussing everything from the debate about Triceratops and Torosaurus, to The Land Before Time (I'm hoping that Leonard will write a philosophical review!), to the possibility that dinosaurs might be overrated.

It’s a bit awkward to write publicly about a class that’s underway—my students might be reading this. I’ll wait to hear their assessment of things at the end of the semester. But one thing I’ve noticed is that for the first time ever, my teaching has gotten very site-specific. All of a sudden, now that I’m really trying to teach the philosophy of paleontology, I find myself wanting to help the students develop more of a connection to place. This has affected the content of the course, as well as the format. We’re reading about the history of paleontology in New England, and also learning about New England’s geological history.

And in keeping with Adrian’s excellent advice from last week, we’re doing field trips. Just recently, we visited the Beneski Museum of Natural History at Amherst College. This is a gem of a museum, a relatively easy day trip from our own campus in New London, Connecticut.  The museum is in the very heart of New England’s dinosaur country, although the specimens we're looking at in the picture below are not from this region.

At the Beneski Museum of Natural History. Interestingly, the Dryosaurus on the left is quite rare, and comes from the same formation in Wyoming as the Diplodocus forelimbs on the right. This was on the way to the collection of ichnofossils in the basement.

At the Beneski Museum of Natural History. Interestingly, the Dryosaurus on the left is quite rare, and comes from the same formation in Wyoming as the Diplodocus forelimbs on the right. This was on the way to the collection of ichnofossils in the basement.

In New England’s Dinosaur Country

When we think of “dinosaur country,” it’s natural to picture harsh and exotic locations, like the Bisti Badlands of New Mexico, or the Gobi desert, places with names like “Hell’s Canyon,” or “The Flaming Cliffs,” or “Bone Cabin Quarry.” Places like Rocky Hill, Connecticut (home of Dinosaur State Park) and South Hadley, Massachusetts, do not top the list. 

But they should, and the fact that they don’t says much about the place of dinosaurs in our culture, and how our thinking about dinosaurs here in the U.S. is wrapped up in the mythology of the "wild west." The first recognizably scientific collection and description of dinosaur fossils in North America took place in western Massachusetts in the 1830s, several years before Richard Owen coined the term “Dinosauria.” Edward Hitchcock, a professor at Amherst College (and later president of the college), collected many three-toed tracks from the Connecticut River valley. With no small amount of prescience, Hitchcock argued that these were made by giant birds—he called them “Brontozoa.” His confidence in this interpretation grew when he learned that Richard Owen had successfully predicted the fossils of giant birds in New Zealand--the moas--based on examination of fragmentary evidence that someone had brought back to England. (Btw, this is another example of Cuvier-style inference from a sample of 1 that Adrian celebrates here.) Today, Hitchcock’s collection lives in the basement of the Beneski museum.

There is reason to think that Hitchcock’s work had an impact on the young Emily Dickinson, who may have attended his lectures, and who probably had to read his geology textbook in school. None of her poems are about dinosaurs—perhaps Hitchcock himself had cornered that market when he wrote “The Sandstone Bird”—but she wrote a number of poems about volcanoes. This could speak to Hitchcock’s influence, since he had observed that there is a lovely volcanic ridge south of Amherst. Today, both the Connecticut River and Interstate 91 cut right through it. It’s probable that Dickinson’s poem, “Vesuvius at Home,” is really about the local landscape, as interpreted by Edward Hitchcock. The poem may well be a scientifically informed expression of sense of place:

Volcanoes be in Sicily
And South America
I judge from my Geography
Volcanoes nearer here
A Lava step at any time
Am I inclined to climb
A Crater I may contemplate
Vesuvius at Home                                                                                                                           

Why is there a volcanic ridge in the middle of the Connecticut Valley? For much of the Triassic period, some 230 – 200 million years ago, western Massachusetts and central Connecticut was a rift valley, quite like the rift valley in East Africa today. At the time, the region lay near the equator, and the supercontinent Pangaea was just beginning to break up, with what is now Africa and Europe tearing away from what is now North America. You had mountains rising on either side of the rift valley, and a lot of volcanic activity in a region where the earth's crust was stretched and under pressure from below. If you know where to look, as Emily Dickinson apparently did, you can see lots of evidence of this episode. In the town where I live, there is a weird ridge called the "Higganum Dike" that runs for many miles southwest to Northeast, and is bisected by the Connecticut River. It's a volcanic basalt dike that formed around 200 million years ago when magma emerged from vents and flowed laterally across the ancient valley floor.  No river flowed through the valley back during the Triassic, but shallow lakes and ponds attracted the local wildlife, including lots of dinosaurs that strolled along muddy shores.

In an earlier post, I argued that one central goal of paleontology is aesthetic: Empirical knowledge of deep prehistory can enhance and enrich our sense of place. Natural science can help enchant the landscape, and can deepen our aesthetic engagement with it. This, perhaps, is what's going on in Dickinson's poem, "Vesuvius at Home." But if this picture gets things right at all, then site-specific teaching also begins to make a lot of sense. Perhaps one goal of a course on the history and philosophy of dinosaur paleontology should be to help students develop more of a connection to the region, by learning more about its geological history, as well as the history of attempts by locals to make sense what they are seeing around them.

Suggested Reading:

Chet Raymo and Maureen Raymo, Written In Stone: A Geological History of the Northeastern United States. Hensonville, NY: Black Dome Press, 2001.