Profiled Fellow: Stephen Birdsall
January 1, 2013 | Angie Barker
Many students have probably never really looked at campus monuments such as Silent Sam or the Unsung Heroes Memorial, even though they walk by them every day.
“Usually our thoughts are somewhere else,” said Birdsall. “What I want to do in all my classes is to draw the students out of their own world and show them the world around us.”
It’s the fresh perspective that Birdsall reveals for students that helped garner him the Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching, the highest teaching honor in the UNC system. In the citation for the award, one student wrote, “I’ve never felt so connected to the world around me as when listening to Professor Birdsall tell me about the world.”
Dietlinde Wittmann, who earned both her master’s and doctoral degrees in geography from UNC, said that Birdsall gave her new ideas about Europe even though she was from there and had studied European geography more than once. “He just went on asking questions until there was nothing left to be unearthed,” Wittmann said. “He made me more likely to look at things from three or four different sides. Birdsall ended up being one of her advisors. “He was the best teacher I ever had,” she said.
Gaining insight from colleagues in other disciplines
Just as Birdsall helps his students look at their surroundings with new eyes, his 2003 Chapman Fellowship from the Institute for the Arts and Humanities gave him a fresh angle on his research and his teaching. Chapman Fellowships offer semester sabbatical leaves and weekly interdisciplinary seminars/luncheons to UNC faculty who regularly teach undergraduates. Fellows work on projects for publication, exhibition, composition and performance.
During Birdsall’s fellowship semester, he created the First-Year Seminar he teaches now. Birdsall asks students in his seminar to consider the question of his current research; how the landscape expresses our society’s choices about what’s important.
“I study what we choose to remember and what we choose to forget, how those choices are expressed in landscapes, and, then how those expressions help create new remembrances that guide how we think about things,” he said.
Birdsall began his Chapman Fellowship exploring nature and preservation, with the idea of how landscapes and memorials influence memory making up only a tiny part of the work. But feedback from other fellows at the Institute spurred him to pursue the landscapes of remembrance idea as a whole new line of inquiry.
“Their interest suggested there was a lot more to this remembrance and memory idea than I had realized,” Birdsall said.
Expanding research with fellowship support
Birdsall used the travel funds that came with the fellowship to study the topic in New Zealand. “I went to test my initial understanding of this intersection between remembrance, identity, nature and landscapes,” Birdsall said. New Zealand was a natural choice for this work because the country wrestles with these issues every day. “It’s a beautiful country in terms of its natural features, and on top of that, the indigenous and British settler cultures have left different impacts on the landscape,” he said.
“It all began to come together because I had the stimulus of the curiosity of the other fellows, which fed my own interest. And then I had the opportunity to actually test my interests in the field,” Birdsall said.
Gaining lasting benefit from fellowship experience
These days, Birdsall regularly explores and writes about many different landscapes of remembrance, including Mt. Rushmore, the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum, and the sites where Japanese Americans were interned during World War II. When he explores a landscape, he usually spends the whole day immersing himself.
“I try to let the landscape talk to me,” he said. He’s at work on a book on the topic.
“Interacting with those wonderful colleagues in other departments exploded my interest,” he said, “and I’ve been running with it ever since.”
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