Author Archives: katiecwilliams

About katiecwilliams

I am a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee in Geography. I study how people make decisions about natural resource use.

How to be a tourist in your hometown

What if you wanted to be a tourist in your hometown? How would you decide where to go? What would you do?   I am going to visit a place that I’ve known about for a long time…but it’s hidden in the shadow of the freeway and off the beaten path?

I am going there because it was a place in one of the novels I am reading. Red Weather by Pauls Toutonghi, which is set in Milwaukee. It’s interesting to me because I drive through the Third Ward, a warehouse district just south of downtown.

The Third Ward today. (credit: John December)

Why is it interesting to me? I’ve lived in Milwaukee since 2002, so I’ve always known the Third Ward as the swanky, upscale, redeveloped warehouse district where shops and restaurants line the river. In 1989? Well, it was very different – boarded-up buildings, polluted river, and delivery trucks coming and going.

The new place I am going to visit is the Tropic Banana Company. It’s a place where the main character met a girl who becomes very important to him (don’t want to give anything away) while she was selling copies of a political newsletter. The story is very possible and typical of Milwaukee at the time, but so different from what’s there now.

Tropic Banana Company (credit: Creative Photo Designs)

This conceptualization of Milwaukee in the novel makes me think about how the city is seen by the rest of the world. People who don’t live here think of beer, heavy industry, and Laverne and Shirley. When the author uses iconic scenes like lunch at a retro-aluminum-Formica lunch counter in an old department store, I wonder if we will get to escape the Happy Days-era imagery. ‘Imaginative geographies” is a concept that seems like it could apply here. Imaginative geographies can be thought of as how places are described and reflect the preconceived notions of the author (and relations to the dominant cultural narrative), and not necessarily the place.

I am not sure the term applies here, but I am still going to present a counter-imaginative geography here – one where Milwaukee is a vibrant city, filled with tree-lined streets and beautiful waterways, and an amazing food culture.

Wisconsin Foodie at Victory Garden Initiative

Using Placing Literature, you too can find a new spot to visit, like Tropic Banana in Milwaukee.  If you do, please let us know.  Post in the comments or on Facebook.

Citizen science, another way to care about your place

There’s a movement in the sciences to begin involve citizens more in the collection of data.  There are many reasons behind the effort.  One reason is a better understanding of science as a process, because you helped collect data and were part of the process.  Another reason is better access to scientific information, because you might know where to find it.  Others are improved scientific literacy, stronger connection between people and nature, and changes in attitudes towards nature (or science).

The main reasons these changes happen – is people get to participate.  The participants get to collect data and be part of a bigger project.

What are some of these citizen science efforts?  Citizens collect data on the numbers of birds, fish and environmental conditions.

I love being a citizen scientist because I can recognize that it has changed how I see the beach where I collect data.  My beach is not just one big patch of sand to me any more.  Because I’ve had to stop, slow down and look at the beach and users very systematically and record those details (like the temperature, water current speed, cloud cover, and wind speeds), I see more details.  Now when I go to the beach, I look at the vista, the boats, clear water, and people enjoying the water.  I look at it differently.

That’s one of the reasons we created Placing Literature.  Give you (gentle readers) a way to stop, and think about, and write about the places you’ve been.  You can compare them to the places created by the writer of the story and think about how we all experience places differently.

Please let us know – when you entered your place on the map, did you think about it differently?  Tell us more!


Empathy for Our Places

Back in December, we visited the idea that researchers have found, namely that reading literary fiction builds empathy in readers.  This post will explore a little bit more about how empathy might map onto places. As we stated last time, “We here at Placing Literature are trying to find ways that engaging in literature may be a vehicle for engaging in real places – real places where people have attachments.”

What is empathy?  According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, it is “the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions : the ability to share someone else’s feelings.”  When you can share another person’s feelings, you can understand where they come from and are less likely to judge harshly.

What happens when we map empathy on to places?  In theory, places have experiences and emotions and histories and stories.  We can identify with places, then. This is important, because we all have mental maps or concept maps of our neighborhoods and cities. How we feel about places gets “mapped” onto our understandings of the (spatial) world.

Just like if we read more literary fiction, we can empathize with people, I hope we can begin to think more kindly of places.  Maybe we can think of them as the places where people live and raise families, where people have jobs and lives.

To use an example, Superior, Wisconsin is a place known for its bars.  Outsiders might even think of Superior as “seedy.” But, after reading The Long-Shining Waters by Danielle Sosin, one can think of those bars as places that help shape identities for bar owners and their congregants.  It’s not just a bar near a shipyard, it’s a place where people go to congregate.  It’s a community.

For more reading:

Read Literary Fiction. It is Good for You.

Recent research has shown that reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or nonfiction, can affect a person’s Theory of Mind (ToM).  What is Theory of Mind exactly?  It’s a theory that posits that people aware of one’s own mental attributes, and those of others – and recognized that people have different thoughts and beliefs.

Two researchers at The New School found through a series of experiments that literary fiction enhanced participants’ Theory of Mind (ToM) or the complex social skill of “mind-reading” to understand others’ mental states. Their paper was published in the Oct. 3 issue of Science.

What does this mean for Placing Literature?  Everything! First and foremost, we are all about any research that shows that reading builds connections and understanding of others and the world around us.   Secondly, we feel in our guts that there are profound reasons that art and science are both explanations of the world that are important and complement each other.  This research is a step on the road to confirming that hypothesis.

 The researchers, Ph.D. candidate David Comer Kidd and his advisor, professor of psychology Emanuele Castano, felt that literary fiction had s different effect on ToM because of the way it involves the reader – complex stories and characters engage the reader to follow characters’ the journeys, sit in the cafes, trek down the rivers and meet other characters in the places they are. Readers become engaged, emotionally involved, in the stories.

We here at Placing Literature are trying to find ways that engaging in literature may be a vehicle for engaging in real places – real places where people have attachments.

Do you have an idea of how we can do this?  How would you do it?  Please join the discussion and post a comment below.  We will be following-up in the next weeks with case studies of how Placing Literature will contribute to creating communities.

For more reading:

How Placing Literature Creates Connections to Neighborhoods

Our last blog post was about experiential learning – or learning through experience.  How might that work for Placing Literature?

Here’s our vision.  Take the Kolb Experiential Learning Cycle (see last week’s post) and superimpose our process on it.


To see how this would work in practice, why not use one of the Lake Superior novels?  In The Long-Shining Waters, the main character owns a bar.  When I read the book, I recognized the bar immediately.  So for me, the way the cycle worked:

1. Read The Long-Shining Waters by Danielle Sosin. (Concrete Experience)

2. While reading the novel, I recognized the bar owned by the main character, The Anchor Bar in Superior, Wisconsin. (Reflective Observation in my recognition of the bar)

3. I plotted the bar on the map.  This action meant that I thought about the book, and I thought about the bar and wrote about the bar and the neighborhood. (Abstract Conceptualization by working out my ideas in the app)

4. I had a new awareness next time I went to The Anchor Bar.  I closely examined all of the décor, listened to the conversations and chatted with the bartender.  As someone who does not live in Superior, this experience was important to me because it wasn’t just a bar, it was THE Anchor Bar, it was Nora’s bar.  I now had an emotional connection to the place.  (Actively Experimenting with my new found appreciation of The Anchor)

Our hope is for a lot of things with Placing Literature.  We want to create conversations around literature and places.  We want to create connections between people and neighborhoods.  But, mostly we want people to love all of the great, living places that we call home and (hopefully) reawaken the emotional connection to those places.

How Placing Literature Faciltates Learning

One of the goals of Placing Literature has always been to bring people closer to their neighborhoods and the places they know.  One of the theories behind the website is experiential learning.

What is experiential learning?  It’s a teaching approach that relies on learning in context, or learning where you are.  You know how you watch a video to learn something. They you think about, figure out how you would do it, then you try to do it? 

When you watch the video, that’s the experience of a concept. Next, you think about it. What did the person do? How did they do it?  How did that influence the results? That’s you reorganizing the experience in your brain.  Then you think about how YOU would do it.  Then you experiment and you get it and it’s yours!  Of course…it’s a cycle, so then you think about what you did, why it did or did not turn out like the video and then you know what to change for next time.

In short, it’s learning by doing.  As you can see it’s more complex than that. It’s a cycle where you see, try, think about it, learn, transform. 

Here’s a figure of what that cycle looks like:


 Credits:  Clara Davies (SDDU, University of Leeds) and Tony Lowe (LDU, UNversity of Leeds) via Johns Blog

It is really exciting to see that experiential learning is a theory that is becoming a part of the curriculum at all levels of education.  For example, place-based education, based on experiential learning, seeks to connect people (of all ages) to the places where they live.

Next week:  How experiential learning and Placing Literature are connected.


For more information:

Rediscovering Brennan and his New Haven

I had the pleasure of attending an excellent lecture last week on New Haven poet and short story author Joseph Payne Brennan. Focusing on horror, mysteries and the combination of the two, Brennan was a regular contributor to Weird Tales in the 1950s until publishing his own literary magazine called Macabre. His most well-known short story, “Slime”, was the inspiration for the classic B-horror flick The Blob. Later in life, Brennan ended up working at Sterling Library at Yale, where the largest collection of the author’s works is still housed. The lecturer, local arts reporter Christopher Arnott, is a huge Brennan fan and is on a crusade to re-introduce the late author to new audiences.

What struck me is Brennan’s use of place in his writings. A lot of horror authors set their stories in real locations because the “realness” adds a bit of titillation for the reader through recognizable details. I’ve mentioned before that a story about a vampire is much more exciting if the vampire hunts in an area that is recognizable to the reader or close to the reader’s heart.

What’s fascinating about Brennan is that the villain in his stories is often the misguided urban renewal policies that were rampant in cities throughout the country in the Fifties and Sixties and especially in his hometown of New Haven. Many of his stories lament the loss of charming neighborhoods and historic homes that are being razed for redevelopment, gentrification and highway construction. Often, a character or apparition crumbles to dust as a cherished building is demolished. Scary stuff, indeed!

Brennan’s poems and stories rely on the spiritual connection that people have to places—whether it’s a colonial home on historic State Street where multiple generations of the same families have grown up or public spaces like the New Haven Green that have seen communities spawned and evolved around them. And he uses real places in an effort to make a political statement about the loss of these places around him—he’s talking directly to the politicians that are making these policies.

The connection between literature and place goes both ways in Brennan’s writings. The stories give us a greater appreciation for places he writes about, and the places give his stories a realistic component that helps send chills up the reader’s spine.  A master craftsman, Brennan knew that this connection is vital to both communities.

 Check out a place that Arnott mapped for Brennan’s short story, The House at 1248.