“Outside these windows, you can see the roof is shattered,” says John R. Stilgoe, gesturing at the red tiles just outside his Sever Hall office. “It was shattered by giant icicles crashing down and landing on it. See all those broken tiles? So if you see these on the ground, you know tiles are falling off Sever. Maybe you’d be careful, right?”
Elsewhere in Sever, he might point out to you that the bannister, designed by H.H. Richardson, was designed for men: “A woman’s hand has a hard time even going across it.”
Earlier, he saw what he believes to be a plainclothes policeman at the Housing Day festivities in Harvard Yard. “Plainclothes cops tend to have the same posture around the world,” he explains. “They stand around a lot and they have to relax their backs.”
Stilgoe, a professor of Visual and Environmental Studies since 1977, describes himself as “the kind of person who wanders around noticing things.” Despite his old school attire (he’s rarely seen without a bowtie), he couldn’t be further from the stereotype of the absent-minded humanities professor, oblivious to what passes directly in front of his nose. Stilgoe’s talent for looking has translated into nearly a dozen books, four routinely oversubscribed courses, and the enduring devotion of a select group of students.
Stilgoe is one of three current Harvard faculty members to win the Society of American Historians’ Francis Parkman Prize: The others are Louis Menand and University President Drew G. Faust. His title is the Robert and Lois Orchard Professor in the History of Landscape Development. Though his field is, ostensibly, how the American landscape has changed since the 1500s, he’s published on everything from shipwrecks to the joy of bicycling. What he teaches is not so much “a specific topic, but an approach,” as current student Sam H. Rashba ’14-’15 describes it.
Stilgoe wants his students to notice—to be able to process and interpret visual information by opening themselves up to the subject. What it comes down to is looking.
“It can be taught, but it’s hard for people to accept the fact that there’s a visual way of knowing,” Stilgoe says. As debates about the value of the humanities rage on, Stilgoe has no doubt that what he teaches is relevant, even urgent. But as the last pillar of the Environmental Studies wing of the VES department, he’s acutely aware of his unique status—and how it’s endangered in today’s university. “I’m sure a lot of people just walk right by the tiles falling off this building today,” Stilgoe muses. “They just don’t see them. They don’t realize them. They’re not real.”
“I think about how a lot of this happened,” Stilgoe says. “I did not come here to do this.”
Stilgoe, 65, was born to a working-class family (his father was a boatbuilder) in Norwell, Mass. The first in his family to go to college, he earned his B.A. at Boston University and an M.A. at Purdue University before coming to Harvard as a Ph.D. student in American Civilization in the early 1970s.
In September 1973, he met with the then-chairman of the department, Daniel Aaron ’43, a co-founder of the Library of America. Stilgoe’s path to environmental studies began when a wasp flew down Aaron’s shirt.
“He was sitting in his office in Wadsworth House, with an open collared shirt on, and he started trying to get it out, and I remember he said to me, ‘Is that reptile inside my shirt?’ Not insect,” Stilgoe says, still intrigued by Aaron’s peculiar choice of words.
“And I said, ‘Yes, it is,’ and I figured, well, if I’m going to survive here…,” he recalls, chuckling. “I reached in the shirt, it stung me, and I flicked it out. And he gave me a funny look, and he said, ‘Y’know, you oughta work with J.B. Jackson. Over in Sever Hall. He’s in VES.’”
Aaron’s suggestion proved critical for the progression of Stilgoe’s career. John Brinckerhoff Jackson ’33, an adjunct professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, was the founder of “Landscape,” a small magazine that focused on landscape history. After a brief meeting with Stilgoe, Jackson encouraged the young graduate student to take one of his classes. For Stilgoe, it was a revelation.
“I figured out this guy does what I’ve always thought—what I know I do, but it’s a university field,” he says. “I was just delighted.”
According to Stilgoe, Jackson, who served as an Army combat intelligence officer during World War II, encouraged him to pursue employment at the CIA. Though the idea of a desk job didn’t appeal to Stilgoe, he says that many of his students have embarked upon such career paths.
“I have former students who you’re not going to find out about who work in the intelligence community,” he claims, noting that one recently got paid to travel around Copenhagen and “get the feel” of the place.
“It seems to me a kind of cushy job,” he says. “I mean, they don’t tell me much about what they do, but they’re not wandering around Southern Michigan.”
Stilgoe has done more than his fair share of traveling around the United States; in total, he estimates he’s traveled 800,000 miles. A quick survey of the photographs he took for “Common Landscape of America” confirms his geographic range: There are houses in Chimayo, N.M.; dirt roads in Worcester County, Mass.; churches in southern Oklahoma; and storefronts in Gunnison, Colo.
Right now he drives a ’96 Chevrolet Suburban with high-quality Michelin tires—which, as he will note with a laugh, has captured the attention of more than one state trooper. In fact, tires hold a particular allure for Stilgoe.
“History of Art and Architecture will teach you to look at paintings,” he says at one point. “I think you should look at people’s tires.”
Stilgoe admits that such fascinations place him squarely outside the mainstream of most humanities scholarship at Harvard. He wasn’t asked to help out with the humanities framework course “The Art of Looking,” which he believes is because he doesn’t want to focus on objects in Harvard’s collections. His lectures are packed with personal anecdotes and opinions. “If you don’t like listening to sexist remarks then steer clear,” reads a 2011 Q-evaluation for VES 107: “Studies of the Built North American Environment since 1580,” one his hallmark classes. “Women are messy, men are big and clumsy. Let’s start with nice stereotypes like that,” he jokes during a March 5 lecture for VES 160: “Studies of the Built North American Environment since 1580.” Later, he clarifies that he gets on well with professors of women’s studies, save for one caveat. “
They say the same thing other professors do: ‘Why are you looking at those pictures?’” he tells his class.
Yet despite his unorthodox tone, looking at pictures has made Stilgoe’s fame. As he flippantly notes, he’s won “about every medal a man can win.” In 1983, Stilgoe published the book that secured his academic reputation: “Common Landscape of America, 1580-1845,” which would go on to win the Parkman Prize.
“[Drew Faust] won it 25 years after I did,” Stilgoe points out, regarding the award. “But she still won it, so she must know what she’s doing, right?”
Though he still needed to publish another scholarly book to gain tenure—the similarly well-received follow up “Metropolitan Corridor”—Stilgoe says winning the Parkman gained him a new respect from the Harvard faculty, with plenty of older History professors wanting to take him out to lunch.
“I was really taken aback. My life changed,” Stilgoe says. “It just changed like a wand was waved over me.”
Stilgoe’s diverse interests are aptly contained by the “environmental studies” component of VES; former concentrator Caroline M. Cuse ’13 calls him the “guru of environmental studies.”
“The idea was since the name of the department was so mysterious, any student could make it out to be anything he or she wanted,” Stilgoe says of VES.
“Environmental studies” is the part of VES most likely to cause confusion amongst the populace; concentrator Emily B. Nice ’15, an inactive Crimson multimedia editor, says people often think she’s studying environmental science. Robb Moss, the current department chair, recalls that when he came to Harvard in the mid-1980s, the environmental studies faculty included people like Albert Szabo, who wrote a book on architecture in Afghanistan and made sculptures out of items he found at junk stores.
Stilgoe will happily reminisce about these former colleagues; he says it’s impossible to describe Arthur Loeb’s design science in a sentence, then tries by pithily calling it “tinker toys on LSD.” During lecture on March 5, he says certain alumni have had success in the weapons industry, which he later attributes to one of Szabo’s design courses; the final project was to carve knife handles designed to fit your hand.
Though classes like these might seem less practical than economics or computer science courses, Stilgoe asserts that environmental studies often produced an especially happy and affluent group of graduates.
“A lot of them get very rich, because we’ve taught them what good design is, and thus they invested in Apple stock when Apple was 4 dollars and 25 cents a share,” he explains. “You can graduate Harvard College now and nobody’s going to try to teach you the balance of an iPhone when it sits in your fingers. But it’s different than an Android. And we taught that.”
The VES department began to change in the mid-1990s, when Loeb, Szabo, and many other environmental studies faculty members retired. Since then, Stilgoe has effectively been the only professor focusing solely on environmental studies.
“As they retired, the decision was made to move [the department] out of environmental studies and put our energies basically into film, [film studies,] and studio [art],” Moss says. “But John’s work persisted.”
In fact, Stilgoe had found a new reason to teach by this time. As his academic career flourished, he began to notice a disturbing trend amongst his students.
“By 1985, it was very clear to me that fewer and fewer students were coming into college having had any kind of formal education in just going for a walk,” Stilgoe says. “And then, of course, came all of the digital devices. I’m stunned by how much time you all spend looking at screens. It’s time you’re not looking at something else.”
Stilgoe attributes this decline in visual acuity in part to increased emphasis on standardized testing; he wonders why there’s no visual component on the SAT. Though he continued his research— he’s published 10 books in total, and Moss describes him as “incredibly prolific”— Stilgoe’s emphasis began to shift towards his teaching.
“After about 1990, I started devoting more and more of my life, career, whatever, away from the subjects towards getting undergraduates to look,” Stilgoe says.
Earlier this semester, Stilgoe made a student in his seminar close her eyes and say which way the door opened. She couldn’t remember and ended up guessing incorrectly.
“In an emergency situation, it’s nice to know which doors you go through without having to pull them against you, or which doors can be barricaded against a threat,” Stilgoe explains. “I do this all the time. It can be taught.”
Stilgoe teaches four courses, designed to be taken in sequence; first the two lecture courses, VES 107 and VES 160: “Modernization in the Visual United States Environment, 1890-2035,” and then the two seminars, VES 166: “North American Seacoasts and Landscapes: Discovery to Present” and VES 167: “Adventure and Fantasy Simulation, 1871 to 2036.” Though Stilgoe lacks the name-brand recognition of professors like Stephen Greenblatt or Niall Ferguson, strong word of mouth ensures that his classes are always well attended.
“There’s almost a cult of Stilgoe where most people end in the classroom through the personal recommendation of someone else,” says Keith H. Bender ’15, an inactive Crimson sports editor who took VES 107 after his friend Rashba recommended it; Rashba found out about it through his friend Cyrus P. Dahmubed, a 2012 graduate of the Extension School. Li E.K. Murphy ’15 decided to shop the class based on the recommendation of her friend Matthew C. Plaks ’13-’14, a VES concentrator. Ian T. Hassett ’15 heard about the class through an offhand recommendation in Lowell House dining hall.
Stilgoe estimates that about 110 students show up for VES 107 during shopping week, though he only accepts about 22. VES students are accepted first, then seniors and juniors, with freshmen and sophomores rarely accepted. The difficulty of getting into one of his classes is infamous: “Take [VES 107], if you can get by the lions at the gate,” reads one 2011 Q evaluation for the course.
In the early 1980s, using teaching fellows from the American Civilization department, Stilgoe taught VES 107 to a class of 140. While he says teaching a large introductory course appeals to him, he maintains that this would be impossible today.
“There has to be a critical mass of people doing visual research and teaching to bring doctoral students. And there isn’t,” Stilgoe maintains. “I very rarely take on a teaching fellow, because the ones who want to be my teaching fellows are some of the most un-visual people I’ve ever met.”
The classes themselves are unlike what many students have encountered previously. There’s a photograph in his office of a camper in West Texas; Stilgoe took it in 1977, during his first major research trip. On the side of the trailer, there’s a large sign with the following text: “GOD’S JUDGEMENTS SOON TO FALL ON CITIES AND TOWNS. EARTHQUAKES, STORMS, AND FAMINE. REPENT OR PERISH! FLEE TO THE COUNTRY.” Stilgoe is fond of the image: “It made me smile then and it makes students smile,” he says.
Though he isn’t prone to religious pronouncements, Stilgoe’s classes are filled with what can sound like apocalyptic warnings. “Lots of weird things are going to happen to you all very soon,” he tells his students before lecture begins on March 5; over the course of the lecture, he’ll tell them to think about rising sea levels, income tax, and how Massachusetts will lose governmental representation after the next census. Class often begins with him reading a few thoughts from a characteristic green notecard. The numerous MBTA closings earlier this semester prompted frequent discussion on America’s crumbling infrastructure.
As debates rage about the value of the humanities, Stilgoe has found a distinctive and dramatic way to make them relevant. For him, the act of looking can be what saves your life.
“Maybe the greatest triumph of my teaching here showed up at the terrorist attacks on [September 11, 2001],” Stilgoe says. “I told my students for 40 years, when it’s snowing, when there’s a catastrophe, all the rental cars will be gone. So you go to the U-Haul truck dealer and you rent a truck. Any woman can drive one. Automatic transmission. And in an emergency you don’t bother adjusting the outside mirrors, just point the truck away and go. [My alumni] did it on 9/11. They got the last rental trucks in New York and left.”
Near the beginning of a VES 160 lecture in early March, Stilgoe shows two slides. The first, a shot of Tulsa, Okla., in 1894; it looks like something out of an old Western, and Stilgoe is quick to assert that this is a foreign environment. “Most of you would not be comfortable in it,” he notes. Then, a slide of Tulsa in 1924, now an urban landscape. “We would all get along pretty well here,” Stilgoe says placidly. Suddenly he turns serious, and begins to discuss the process of modernization. “That change [is something] this country has never, ever adapted to,” he says. “It wrenched all sorts of things viciously in a very short space of time. What happens when we go through a time like that again?”
Stilgoe’s lectures are defined by these slide projections. Over the course of his career, he’s accumulated roughly 150,000 slides, which are kept in several different locations. “Never know about earthquakes,” he says.
For students, this decidedly antiquated approach is part of what makes Stilgoe’s class so distinctive.
“The click of the projector, the technical difficulties of moving between slide projectors.... I think all of that is part of the experience of the class,” says Murphy, who took VES 107 this past fall. Bender, who took VES 107 at the same time, likens the class to what a Harvard course would have been like “40, 50, 60, 70 years ago.”
In a single lecture, Stilgoe can touch on a dizzying variety of topics: Al Capone’s tax evasion charges, the history of fandom (“Zuckerberg is smart to have that ‘like’ thing”), the drinking habits of Americans before the Civil War (“Men were drinking like fish in 1858. Because I think they knew what was coming”), and a children’s magazine published during World War I, from which he reads part of a piece called “Thanksgiving in 1810.”
“I think [VES 160], and any of Stilgoe’s classes for that matter, have more material than any other class could possibly have at Harvard,” Bender says. “Just by the sheer volume of anecdotes and references about people, events, places, movements, objects, products.”
In fact, as Stilgoe admits, he now has enough material to give five different versions of the introductory lecture for VES 107.
“I have to be very careful when I’m looking at an alumnus, or an alumna,” he says. “What VES 107 did he or she have?”
Yet Stilgoe never allows himself to be overwhelmed by his allusions; he often pauses to offer his own opinion, crack a joke, or narrow his eyes and emphatically call out a student’s name. At one point, he suddenly moves to the chalkboard and begins to sketch a simple floor plan.
“This is Stilgoe’s theory of divorce. It’s why young people get divorced,” he declares. “It’s an architectural thing.” The class laughs, but Stilgoe is serious. In his view, most apartments are too small to sustain relationships; on a rainy day, there’s not enough to do. This isn’t the only time Stilgoe makes his students laugh before making a point.
“I try to make my students laugh by showing them pictures from fashion magazines and saying, ‘If this woman materialized in my cornfield at dusk, should I rethink my position on gun control?’” he says. Naturally, this leads to a discussion of fantasy and its capacity to prepare us for new life forms.
For Stilgoe, there’s no question that issues of such significance can come from something as seemingly mundane as a fashion magazine. Talking to him, you get the idea that he believes a walk down Quincy Street might more valuable than a visit to the Fogg Museum—provided you keep your eyes open. In his classes, he encourages students to take walks and explore their environments. For his assignments, he mandates that they photocopy images they physically find in the libraries; digitally accessing images is forbidden. He admits that his unorthodox technique is only possible at a place like Harvard.
“Harvard’s rich enough to have a professor like me,” he says. “Most schools are not. Schools are trying, but it’s hard to break out of the mold of art history, or ‘let’s look at film.’”
Though Stilgoe’s classes may be difficult to get into, he makes himself highly accessible to students who succeed in enrolling. Office hours are held regularly, and he often shows up to lecture an hour early to have conversations with students. “If you wanna get a dose of Stilgoe, all you gotta do is show up,” Murphy says.
In Stilgoe’s office, he has several director’s chairs arranged in a circle. Students will drop in anytime during office hours, often joining a group discussion rather than having a oneon-one meeting. Stilgoe doesn’t sit behind his desk, but takes one of the director’s chairs as his own. The discussions are casual and lively rather than formal and stilted. If Stilgoe isn’t in his office during his regular hours, you’ll often find students still congregating nearby, waiting for him to show up.
Moss notes that when VES alumni visit, they almost always ask for Stilgoe, citing his class as one of the best and most memorable they ever took at Harvard. But beyond the classroom, Stilgoe takes a noted interest in the lives of his students, past and present.
“When I was a junior in college, I was really close to dropping out. I was really unhappy at Harvard,” says Daniel E. Goldhaber ’13, a former VES concentrator. “I was talking to Stilgoe about this, and he said, ‘If we lose someone like you, what hope is there for the institution?’”
Stilgoe then emailed former student Alexander N. Olch ’99, a filmmaker and tie designer, asking him to talk to Goldhaber. “Alex took a train...two days later to get coffee with me to convince me to graduate,” Goldhaber says. “I would do that for another Stilgoe student in a heartbeat, no questions asked.”
Goldhaber also credits Stilgoe with advancing his career, naming the professor as “the single reason I’m employed right now.” Hassett echoed these claims, describing Stilgoe as more than willing to connect his current students with his many former ones. Bender describes Stilgoe as operating “his own little alumni network."
“Whether you’re interested in a career in advertising or visual arts or garment design and production, he’s already taught someone that’s doing it and will put you in contact with them,” Hassett says.
Goldhaber says that when he runs into someone at a party who has taken a class with Stilgoe, the two will “go off for hours” about the professor and his thought.
“I think [taking a class with Stilgoe] is something that carries a lot more weight than any other Harvard connection I could imagine having,” Goldhaber says.
According to Graduate School of Design professor Michael R. Van Valkenburgh, Stilgoe fandom isn’t limited to undergraduates at the College.
“I think people feel like they’ve been cheated if they go to the GSD and they don’t have a semester with John, with his eye-opening perspective on the importance of landscape and culture,” Van Valkenburgh says. “I only ever hear praises, honestly.”
But while Stilgoe may be best known on campus today as a unique educator, his colleagues emphasize that his academic career has been equally notable. As most scholarship in the humanities becomes more and more specialized, Stilgoe stands out as one of the few historians still working on such a broad scale; his classes span the period from 1580 to 2036, after all. His topics—the suburbs, saltwater marsh ecosystems, the railroad industry—are similarly wide-ranging and ambitious.
At a time when the humanities are attempting to defend their relevance, Stilgoe never doubts that simply looking can reveal important truths.
“I’ve been trying to explain in all my courses that looking at images from the past often reveals things about the past that might be useful today and in the future,” he says.
Many of his colleagues at the GSD applaud his expansive view of landscape and history.
“I think most of us [at the GSD] operate in a smaller sphere, or through a more narrow lens, many of us, and I think John has that sort of capacity to see how it all interweaves,” says Van Valkenburgh. GSD professor Carl F. Steinitz writes in an emailed statement that Stilgoe has “a broader and longer-time perspective than most on the lessons of the past.”
Similar praise was offered by the scholarly community after the publication of “Common Landscape.” In a 1983 issue of “Journal of American History,” scholar Stephanie Grauman Wolf wrote that the book “introduces whole new areas of source material” and that “it is hard to imagine doing without it as either a teacher or a scholar of American history.”
For Boyd Zenner, Stilgoe’s longtime editor at the University of Virginia Press, his broad scholarship sets him apart from many of the other authors she has worked with, who tend to stay within their narrowly defined fields.
“I think most academics are much more afraid of being wrong about something than being workaday,” Zenner says. “He’s certainly not that. He’ll explore any area that comes to his attention.”
Zenner links Stilgoe to his mentor, Jackson, saying that Stilgoe’s varied and wide-ranging work have brought Jackson’s ideas about landscape into academic discourse. Yet Stilgoe doesn’t have a clear successor of his own.
“There’s nobody else really like me,” Stilgoe admits. “I thought there would be, but [Environmental Studies] has no graduate department. There’s no way you can get a Ph.D. with me.”
In Stilgoe’s view, VES has completed its transformation into a studio arts and film department. Though he’s optimistic about the department’s future and praises the current faculty, he’s acutely aware of how unique his position is, as are his colleagues.
“[Stilgoe’s retirement] would be a real loss to the department, and I hope it doesn’t happen anytime soon,” Moss says. “In a way, he’s irreplaceable.”
Stilgoe agrees that he is unlikely to be replaced, both within the VES department and within the university at large.
“What I do is probably going to fade out of the universities because there’s so much money to be made doing what I do in the private sector,” Stilgoe says. “A load of men and some women go into what I do essentially for police work.”
Zenner says that Stilgoe’s work has greatly expanded the field of landscape history; she says there’s been more crossover between landscape studies and American studies, as well as new interest in cultural and vernacular forms of landscape. Yet she maintains that his work stands alone.
“No one really thinks like John, and no one writes like him,” Zenner says. “His mindset might have been passed along to students and others, but I think there’s never going to be another John Stilgoe.”
But while there may never be another John Stilgoe, the one we have right now isn’t ready to quit. His most recent book came out in 2014, he recently served as a visiting artist at Lesley University, and he’s constantly evaluating his own viewpoint.
“Everybody’s view is biased. I promise you that mine is incredibly biased,” Stilgoe says. “I’m five feet, 11 [inches tall], so I see differently than you would, but you would see differently driving my truck than if you were driving around in a Prius, just because you start to raise your eye level.”
Stilgoe is perfectly willing to talk about his other biases, but it’s telling that he begins with a purely physical one—the simple fact that at five feet and 11 inches off the ground, he sees things differently than a man of six feet would.
This is typical of Stilgoe, who insists that his scholarship begins not with preconceived theories that are then tested through research, but with the simple act of looking.
“I don’t go to Louisiana to study Louisiana houses, or church buildings, or bridges,” he says. “I just go to look at Louisiana.”
Students say that this more open-ended approach can be liberating. Hassett said the experience of working on Stilgoe’s research papers differed from any others he’d written at Harvard.
“You’re searching for something to substantiate an idea that you’re going in with,” Hassett says. “It’s very different what he asks you to do, which is not to search but to look.”
And yet, as Stilgoe continually reminds his students, there’s a lot of power in looking.
“When you start to teach people to [notice things], you destroy the larger narrative,” Stilgoe says.
Students routinely say that Stilgoe’s courses are life-changing, and he’s likely to agree with them—though in a slightly different way. He continually reminds his students that while looking might be what saves their lives. In his 2003 book “Lifeboat,” he extensively discusses shipwrecks, noting that when a ship goes down, often only a few passengers will have looked around the boat, paid attention to where the lifeboats are, and how to get up to the deck.
“Everybody else doesn’t want to think about it,” Stilgoe says. “So they don’t look. And I want them to think about it.”
—Staff writer Petey E. Menz can be reached at email@example.com.