Introducing students to the Palouse

Students admire the view from atop Kamiak Butte.
Students reflect on and sketch their observations of the Palouse at Kamiak Butte.

Every year students from across Washington and around the world come to study at Washington State University.

But during their time here, how much do they really get to know the beauty, history, and unique landscapes of their Palouse home?

An interdisciplinary WSU team has received a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant to develop a series of courses for students to dig deeply into Palouse history and culture. They hope the program will give students a greater understanding of the unique region while also helping them to grow strong roots — building understanding of what it means to be an active citizen and to be part of a community wherever they end up.  The project is one of 224 education grants for curriculum innovation in the humanities awarded by NEH.

The Palouse might look quiet and isolated on first glance, but like the complex and rich soils that support the region’s agriculture, there is cultural complexity and a global reach that lie underneath, said Jolie Kaytes, an associate professor in the School of Design and Construction, who is leading the project.

“Many students graduate from WSU unaware of the region’s histories, cultures, and ecologies, or their own relationship to this place,” she said. “It’s a place that can be overlooked.”

Yet, deep study of the area can reveal much about issues and history of the American West, geological time, environmental degradation, and tribal injustices, she said.“They illustrate how social, cultural, and biophysical processes shape all places,” she added.

The Palouse Matters program will consist of humanities-oriented, interdisciplinary classes that focus on the Palouse and its landscapes. The courses, which will include “Landscapes of the Palouse,” “Digital Palouse,” and “Reading the American Landscape,” will combine content and methods from environmental history, design, ecology, cultural landscape studies, and place-based education, enabling students to make connections among seemingly incongruous subjects and diverse populations.

“We want students to reflect on and examine the complexity of this region,” Kaytes said. “At the same time, the intent is to invite them to learn and think deeply.”

“We all live somewhere,” she added. “The more students can become deeply aware of where they live and dwell, the more likely they are to care about that place and become active, engaged citizens and to support a democratic society.”

The interdisciplinary team developing the courses include faculty from landscape architecture, architecture, education, Earth sciences, and history. With the one-year planning grant, the researchers hope to begin offering the courses as part of a new, general education humanities pathway in fall of 2021.

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