About The Parkland Atlas

We (my students and I) started the Parkland Atlas as a class project in the fall of 2014. As a new faculty member at Pacific Lutheran University (PLU), I was trying to create an assignment that could be pedagogically relevant for a first-year writing course but that might also help me get to know the Parkland area a little better (Parkland is the community where our university is located). Further, because my scholarly interests often intersect with questions of space, setting and community, I thought it would be great if this ideal assignment could also challenge the students to think in a more complex way about the contexts in which they live and go to school. In Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker’s The Unfathomable City, I identified a model for an assignment/project that could meet these goals via an investigation into the hidden or unrecognized social and political life of Parkland, WA.

Screen Shot 2014-11-20 at 11.37.31 AMParkland is a community of just under 40,000. It is a densely populated and diverse suburb of Tacoma, Washington directly to the east if Joint Base Lewis McCord. Not unlike many universities in the United Stated, Parkland and PLU have experienced a distant (though not overtly hostile) relationship over the years. Students and faculty typically steer clear of the neighborhood and locals often regard the university as something of a different world entirely. In fact, our campus is sometimes referred to as the Lute-Dome (the “Lute,” short for Lutheran, is the school’s mascot).

In an effort to connect the classroom with this diverse and often misrepresented community, the Atlas was designed to extend and develop the central themes of our course: FYEP 101Walking and Talking: An Exploration of Language, Movement, and Space.” The course—framed around readings by Jane Jacobs, Michel de Certeau and Ralph Cintron (among others)—asks students to think critically about the design and experience of space. Additionally, it challenges them to understand space as a political experience—space is governed, space is negotiated.

The Atlas assignment, then, encourages the students to pursue course themes and ideas in the “real” world outside of the classroom. More specifically, they have an opportunity to learn about their community through direct engagement and first-hand research. I initially “sold” the assignment with the following description:

Modeled after Rebecca Solnit’s books The Unfathomable City (about New Orleans) and The Infinite City (about San Francisco) this project is an attempt to explore the Parkland/PLU community at the ground level. We will do this by examining place and setting via critical questions about how people occupy—socially, emotionally, aesthetically, politically—their surrounding space. In answering these questions, we will draw on a wide range of primary and secondary resources, including: observation, interview, archival research, library research, and more. Ultimately, your objective is to produce a dynamic text—half essay and half interactive map—that will offer your reader a new way of viewing Parkland, PLU, and the intersections between these two often-conflicting spaces.

Parkland gets a bad rap. Often associated with poverty, crime, or a lack of culture, Parkland is—to the outsider—an unpleasant place. The problem, of course, is that this view is created and sustained by outsiders—popular culture, the media, or privileged students who spend four years on campus and decide that they are experts. The reality is that Parkland is a vibrant community with a long and compelling history. Parkland and PLU, together, create a setting that is full of interesting stories: the privilege of the university contrasted with a mixed-income community; a booming population filled with representatives from dozens of cultural and language groups; great disparity in access to education and other important resources.

This assignment is an opportunity to unearth some of these stories by examining Parkland’s spaces and places. We will get our shoes dirty as we consider what de Certeau calls the “other path” by exploring the richness of culture as it is experienced in everyday life. We will not accept broad-brush assumptions or stereotypes in this analysis—rather, we will purse “swarming activity” of the everyday, where people create and re-create their social contexts via official and unofficial strategies for living. Your goal should be to represent the rich complexities of Parkland and PLU so that we can understand and appreciate life as it is lived in this place.

Ultimately, our work will be published on a website: The Parkland Atlas. Please plan, write, revise, and edit with this larger goal in mind.

With each semester new projects will be added to the Atlas opening the door to a deeper and more substantive exploration of Parkland, WA. When the assignment (and the site) has ultimately run its course, my students and I hope to have a fully realized, elegant and interactive portrait of a thriving and thoroughly modern community. Ideally, future versions of this original assignment will see students collaborating with community members, digging into local archives and using new media technologies to create even more dynamic projects that employ sound and video in chronicling the lived experiences of the Parkland community.

We appreciate you spending some time with the Atlas and encourage you to get in touch if you have any questions or comments (contact: rogers@plu.edu).

Happy Reading!

Scott L. Rogers
Assistant Professor of English
Pacific Lutheran University