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Historical Geography

Students use documentary filmmaking to understand the historical significance of Ada and the surrounding region.


Like most college towns in America, Ada, Ohio enjoys a symbiotic relationship with the University that resides in it. And while the relationship is ultimately mutually beneficial, there are always things that each side wishes could be different. For the proud residents of Ada, one such thing is having Ohio Northern University students learn more than just coursework during their four years in the village.

Enjoy this sampling of clips from a few of the student documentaries
produced for this class. PLEASE NOTE: All the videos have been edited
and are not presented in their entirety.

“A complaint I hear all the time from the locals is that the students don’t learn a thing about the community that is essentially their home during a very important time in their lives,” says Dr. Jimmy Wilson, visiting assistant professor of geography. “The people I know would like the students to be more involved with the community.”

In response, Wilson designed a new extradisciplinary seminar course for ONU honor students that very cleverly leverages student academic discipline with community interaction by making community interaction part of the assignment. EXDS 2001/GGHS 3531: Historical Geography fosters a greater appreciation for the importance of this region through historical research, field trips, guest speakers and interactive projects.

Last semester, the course focused on five topics related to the historical geography of Ada, Ohio, and the surrounding area: settlement, agriculture, commerce, transportation and Ohio Northern University. Since Wilson’s goal was to engage students with the area, he assigned a final project that would ensure students did just that. Wilson asked his students to capture the historical geography of the region using a documentary film covering one of the five themes of study.

Documentary filmmaking is used to dramatically show or analyze events or social conditions. It differs from other styles of filmmaking in that the filmmakers go where the story is to talk to the real people involved. It is a wonderful medium for showing audiences – and as it turns out, students – the importance of an area, a culture and a people.

“When you teach historical geography, there are so many ways you can do it. What better way to get students to engage in their landscape and engage in their community than to let them use the technology they are using anyway?” asks Wilson.

The technology in question is mobile video, the ability to record high-quality video through a smart phone or a mobile device that is not primarily a video camera. The ubiquity of mobile video, along with social media outlets like YouTube and Facebook, has made it easier than ever to document life as it happens, sometimes with extraordinary success. This was the starting point for Wilson to get his students involved with the community, but reaching the end would require more work than simply being at the right place at the right time.

The first challenge Wilson had to overcome was ensuring that all of his students had access to mobile video. While many students have smart phones today, not all of them do. Thanks to a course development grant from ONU’s Office of Academic Affairs and assistance from the Department of History, Politics and Justice, and ONU Information Technology, Wilson was able to purchase Apple iPods, which have a camera and the capability to record HD video, for his class to use. Students used their own computers, or computers in one of ONU’s many computer labs, to edit their films.

But before they could do any editing, they had to shoot some footage. Armed with smartphones and iPods, the students set off each Friday to explore a different aspect of the community. These field trips ranged from visiting The Muck – thousands of acres of legendarily fertile soil that resulted from the draining of two local marshlands – to driving along a portion of the Lincoln Highway – the first road to span America, which once passed through Ada on its way west.

Wilson also arranged for the students to interview local experts on the five themes. For agriculture, the students spoke with local farmer Wynn Hauenstein, whose family has farmed The Muck for generations. Anita Dearth spoke on behalf of settlement due to her family being some of the first permanent residents in the county. Students interviewed Steve Cole of Cole Motors to learn about commerce and one of the oldest family businesses in Ada. Former Ada mayor Norm Rex and longtime ONU professor and current Director of Sustainability Terry Keiser spoke on behalf of transportation (specifically, the Lincoln Highway) and ONU, respectively.

Early in the course, students learned how important interviews can be to producing an effective documentary film. They spent the first two weeks learning about the art form by watching and critiquing documentary films. Having an expert available for each of the topics was helpful, but not all students stopped there. Students researched their topics using primary-source materials and conducted more interviews.

For her documentary on ONU’s landscape, sophomore Amy Tabar interviewed Keiser, retired ONU librarian Paul Logsdon, current ONU students and even President Dan DiBiasio.

“The president was extremely accommodating,” she says. “I went to his office to see if I could schedule an interview, and while I’m talking to his secretary, he walks out of his office. So, I said, ‘Hey, President DiBiasio, can I get an interview?’ He said yes and was happy to talk to me about the University.”

For Tabar, the course was refreshing in that it helped her develop new skills while giving her a greater appreciation for the area. She shot more than 50 minutes of footage, which she eventually edited down to six, while adding background music, transitions and title effects.

“I was surprisingly excited by the whole thing,” says Tabar. “First, I was like, ‘It’s ONU, what’s there to learn?’ But then I started realizing just how much I didn’t know.”

Tabar’s documentary explores the history and evolution of ONU’s landscape, both as a result of campus growth and expansion, and also due to the desires of the various administrations over the years. She wanted to create a documentary on the subject because she feels an affinity for nature and believes that ONU has a beautiful campus. Her project deepened her appreciation for it.

“As I organized all the information I collected and tried to make sense of it, I found that I really cared about how [the film] turned out. Ohio Northern is where I went to get an education, but I didn’t expect to feel a connection to the landscape itself or to notice a difference now about how I feel when I walk across campus. It made me realize that ONU is closer to my heart than I thought,” she says.

It is the emotional connections between a people and geography that interests Wilson, and helping students discover those connections is why he wanted to develop this class. He recalls his first visit to Ada seven years ago for his interview at ONU and how the area reminded him so much of his past.

“I spent the early part of my life in a community very similar to this in Kansas, so I easily became enamored with it,” he says. “And the more I talk with people, and the more I explore, the more things I find that are not only interesting, but also important. Important as it represents Ada, or the local area, or Northwest Ohio, or the whole state, or even the world.”