An image of a reimagined map of the world
By Tomas Weber

In two award-winning sociology seminars, faculty and staff collaborate to deliver learning beyond the classroom.


What can students learn from places that don’t exist on the world map? According to Phi Hong Su, a surprisingly large amount.

“Places that want to be states—but aren’t—are a great way to think about nationalism,” says Su, assistant professor of sociology, who designed two award-winning courses on that very topic with colleagues from Williams’ library and museum.

Su’s scholarship focuses on borders and the people who cross them. Her courses include an introduction to sociology and a seminar on the sociological dimensions of Asian American settlement in California’s San Gabriel Valley through the lens of a sci-fi novel. Inspired by Joshua Keating’s book Invisible Countries, which looks at definitions of statehood, nationhood and citizenship, Su began thinking about ways to delve into non-places. Whether unrecognized breakaway republics, such as Somaliland in East Africa, or disputed pockets of land, like Abkhazia in the South Caucasus, Su imagined using these sites to invite students to think about nationalism and state formation. She also wanted to explore the connections between systemic violence and practices of documentation, such as surveillance or record-keeping.

Su reached out to Christine Ménard, the head of research services and library outreach at Williams Libraries, and Elizabeth Gallerani, the curator of academic programs at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA), to tap into their expertise and resources. Their planning and ideas, often discussed during strolls around campus, evolved into two wide-ranging and interdisciplinary courses: Nowheres and Paper Trails, now in their third and second years, respectively. Both seminars are cross-listed with global studies, and Paper Trails is also listed with science and technology studies.

In Nowheres, students “tease out what it means to be a country” and “probe the social, political and human costs of the exceptions to this general rule,” as the course description states. Students attend library workshops with Ménard, exploring a question that she says connects directly to pressing issues in librarianship: “How do we organize knowledge about nonexistent entities?”

As one example, Somaliland is an unrecognized state in East Africa. In Sawyer Library, four books about the territory are cataloged in four completely different ways, Ménard says. Academic libraries rely on the Library of Congress classification system to describe and organize materials. To classify territories around the world, the Library of Congress coordinates with the Board of Geographic Names, which gets its information from the U.S. State Department—which does not officially recognize Somaliland.

Information that slips outside of solid categories like these occupies an unstable position, Ménard says. And understanding how libraries categorize places in the world can open students’ eyes to the close connections between knowledge and power.

Students also spend time in WCMA’s Object Lab, a hybrid gallery-classroom space overseen by Gallerani, where they can view artworks connected to the subject matter. One piece Gallerani and Su chose for Nowheres was a painting by the San Francisco-based artist Lordy Rodriguez titled Territory State (2006), which at first glance appears to be a typical map of the U.S. On closer inspection, the map reveals itself to be unfamiliar: Puget Sound is on the East Coast, and a “Guantanamo Strait” runs through the middle of the country.

By revealing what art and mapmaking have in common, Rodriguez’s work “perfectly encapsulates everything the course is trying to do,” says Gallerani.

The second course, Paper Trails, focuses on how states use documentation as a means of control. During workshops with Ménard and librarian Regan Schwartz, students consider how libraries retain information and for what purposes. They also explore questions around protecting personal data, which prompted library staff to draft new guidelines for privacy protections. Gallerani helps students reflect on museums’ legal and ethical obligations regarding ancestral remains in collections.

Back in the classroom, Su asks students to consider concepts raised by the course through the lens of contemporary global events.

In March, Su’s two courses received the prestigious Deborah Gerner Innovative Teaching in International Studies Award, bestowed by the International Studies Association. The award is granted annually to an instructor “who has developed effective new approaches to teaching in the discipline,” according to the association’s website.

The courses’ innovations, Su says, come from having been designed by a three-person team with diverse expertise: “They are our courses, from beginning to end,” Su says. “They developed through our conversations.”

Adds Ménard: “There’s a wonderful culture of partnership at Williams between the library, the museum and faculty.”

Listen to the International Studies Association’s The Teaching Curve podcast (episode 33) featuring Su, Ménard and Gallerani, who discuss the design, execution and revision of the two award-winning sociology courses.

Photo, at top: The course Nowheres makes use of the Williams College Museum of Art’s Object Lab to study the work Territory State by Lordy Rodriguez. Photograph provided by WCMA.