Graduate Liberal Studies Program

Course Description

GLS 530: The Shaping of America: Cultural Landscapes and the American Sense of Place

Instructor: Frank Ainsley (now deceased)

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Required Texts: (Fall 2007 Offering Only)

  • Stilgoe, John R. Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places. Walker & Co. 1999.
  • Meinigo, Donald W. The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes: Geographical Essays. NY: Oxford University Press, 1979.
  • Zelinsky, Wilbur. The Cultural Geography of the United States: A Revised Ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996.
  • Miscellaneous Class Handouts

The approach to this course is interdisciplinary, examining the material cultural landscapes of North America from geographical, historical, and aesthetic perspectives. We will try to recreate a sense of past landscapes as they are expressed in the sights and sounds of present-day America. As people inhabit localities and regions they alter them to their own character. This course will examine how attachment to place has shaped the American landscape. We will examine the architectural styles of built environments and rural habitats to understand how people organize space, how they modify the natural landscape, and how they create and identify with place. The American landscape is an ideal text in which to study the interplay of natural resources and human activities which act to transform the natural environment. The rich tapestry of its fields, factories, towns, cities, canals, railways, and roadscapes reflects complex patterns of five centuries of development by Europeans and other immigrant groups.

Our challenge will be to examine and understand the American sense of place in both a national and regional frame of reference. The course will explore vernacular (regional) patterns in house-types, cities and towns, rural settlements, agricultural patterns, roadscapes, public spaces (parks), and other aspects of the human imprint on the land.

Each class member is urged to begin the assigned readings immediately because participation in discussion will naturally be dependent on background preparation. During the latter portion of the semester, each class member will be expected to appy background readings in the form of written landscape analysis case studies which will be presented for the enlightenment of the fellow members of the class.

Suggestions for Research Project and Class Presentation:

Some topics and themes which can be investigated:

  • The role of the environment, both natural and man‑made, as a slate upon which to interpret cultural history and geography.
  • Cultural changes as revealed in the material cultural evidence left on the American landscape
  • American folk housetypes (regional patterns and diffusion)
  • Reading the American landscape through vegetation patterns, plant geography (above‑ground archaeology)
  • Reading the American city by investigating vernacular urban landscapes
  • Identifying cultural regions of the United States by using material culture such as vernacular housing
  • Symbolic landscapes as representative of the American way‑of‑life (New England village; Main Street; Southern plantation; mill towns; Suburbia)
  • American landscapes as seen in literature and art (regional novels; regional artists)
  • Urban sprawl, suburban places, and the malling of America
  • Material culture in the National Park System (the government's role in historic preservation)
  • Utopian communities and planned settlement landscapes

The report for your research project should be professionally written, using standard and proper form, and it must be typed. Including maps, tables, and listings, the total length should probably be in the range of 25 to 40 pages. The oral class presentations of your findings will be made during the final four class meetings of the semester, and should be about 30 to 45 minutes in duration, allowing time for discussion and questions


The following formula will be used as the basis for evaluation in this course:

1. Class Participation 30%
2. Research Project 70%


Attendance Policy:

Because one of the criteria used in evaluation for a grade is attendance and participation, class attendance will be taken and recorded. Unless excused due to an emergency situation, you are allowed to miss no more than one class. Each absence above this will result in one point deducted from your final average.

Tentative Class Schedule:

The class schedule will be available on the written syllabus provided on the first day of class.

Last Update: February 6, 2017