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Smithsonian Awards Geography Professor

By Peter Murray

Last Wednesday, Anne Knowles, professor of geography, received the Award for American Ingenuity from the Smithsonian. Currently the chair of the geography department at the College, Knowles teaches courses in historical geography, cultural geography and the history of cartography.

Knowles and eight others received the Ingenuity Awards for innovations in the fields of climate science, social change and music, among others. This is the inaugural year of the award.

“I had never felt truly humbled until I met the other awardees that evening,” said Knowles, of receiving the award for her work in historical Geographic Information Systems (GIS).

“GIS is a technology that allows you to map anything with location,” explains Knowles in the video clip on the Smithsonian website.

Knowles has used GIS to visualize the Battle of Gettysburg, the Holocaust and the development of the iron industry in the United States. GIS software allows a historian to affix information from the past — troop movements, census data, environmental data, etc. — to specific locations on a map. This process allows historical geographers to “reveal patterns and relationships that would otherwise be invisible,” according to Knowles.

Despite her work in a wide range of topics, the Smithsonian chose to focus on Knowles’ visualization of the Battle of Gettysburg.

“I imagine that is what’s most relevant to an American audience,” said Knowles.

Knowles’ work with the Battle of Gettysburg revealed that General Robert E. Lee could see far more of the battle than historians had previously thought he had witnessed. By combining sketches of the battle, information about troop placement and topographic data, Knowles shed new light on General Lee’s decision to order Picket’s Charge.

In her remarks at the ceremony, Knowles explained that sometimes her work had felt like swimming upstream, as many colleges and universities have closed their geography programs in recent years.

However, Knowles has continued to make notable headway in the field of historical geography. In recent years, she has edited two books on the use of GIS for studying history, and has an upcoming book on the development of the American iron industry.

Indeed, pursuing her passion for a truly grounded and spatial sense of history was not always easy. Knowles searched for years for a faculty position before Bob Churchill, former chair of the Geography department, offered her a position at the College.

Since then, she has collaborated with undergraduates to map the Holocaust (she is teaching a seminar in the spring, “Geographies of the Holocaust”) as well as a host of independent projects.

“The nature of the work would have been very different, had I not been hired at Middlebury. The energy of the undergraduates is astounding,” she said.

Yet this enthusiasm seems to work in both directions, as students in Knowles’ classes regularly commented on the creativity that their professor elicits.

“Knowles encourages a sort of non-linear thinking,” said Molly Rose-Williams ’13.5, a student who first took Knowles’s “Place and Society” course in her first year at Middlebury, and now studies with the geography professor in her “History of Cartography” course. “She’s always looking for connections, and her passion is infectious,” Rose-Williams said.

Through her classes Knowles has provided students with a new to way to look at history, through the process of visualization. Such a creative approach has been recognized by the Smithsonian through the presentation of an award that recognizes historical geography as a relevant and innovative way to study the past.

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