What is the West?

Maureen Ryan, Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies, Western Washington University.
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Initial Publication Date: October 9, 2012 | Reviewed: July 6, 2017


What is the West? is a written reflective exercise, with associated readings and discussion, designed to 1) build insight into how personal experiences shape our perception of landscapes, and the American West in particular, 2) enhance knowledge of the geography and ecology of the American West, and 3) illuminate the role of water (or lack of water) in the natural and cultural history of the American West. Through written reflection, selected readings, and discussion, students explore and contextualize their understanding of the West within the larger geography of the continent. The process highlights the ways in which personal experiences, cultural narratives & myths, and ecological knowledge influence perceptions of landscapes. This exercise can be followed by a separate exercise (Migration: An Empathy Exercise) also uploaded on this site.

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Learning Goals

The general intention of this exercise is to deepen students' understanding of the ecological nature of their own experiences and integrate these experiences within the broader temporal and spatial scales of the American West. An important ecological subtext of the exercise is the role of water, both in terms of the role water plays in the landscapes upon which students reflect, and the role it plays in the ecology, exploration, colonization, development, and cultural identities of the American West. Specific experiences, skills, and capacities to develop through the exercise include:
  1. Experience of contextualizing one's personal experiences within the large and varied geography of the American West, with the goal of deepening students' sense of connection and belonging within particular landscapes.
  2. Experience of surfacing assumptions about what defines a region (in this case the American West), and reflecting on how personal experiences influence these assumptions.
  3. Ability to recognize how experiences in one region and at one scale are often universalized or generalized to larger scales – i.e. how experience shapes broader perception.
  4. Enhanced recognition of the deep connection between the flow of water and the exploration, colonization, development, cultures, and identities of the American West.
  5. General reflective skills in contextualizing one's own experiences and considering the unexamined assumptions that may rise from these.
  6. Written reflective abilities.

Context for Use

I have used this exercise towards the beginning of a 300-level interdisciplinary class related to western US water development, to build student connection to the curriculum and the geography on which the curriculum is focused at the beginning of the quarter/semester. It could be adapted for any class related to the ecology, environmental history, water policy, or cultural geography of the American West. For example, the exercise could be used to add a reflective component to an aquatic science-based curriculum, or to build personal connection to the curriculum within an environmental studies or geography class. My students have ranged from first-year to fifth-year students, in small class sizes (<20 students). In larger classes, it could be used as part of a reflective lab or discussion group. The larger class size could be managed either with sufficient teaching assistant support (for commenting on reflections), or by having groups of students swap reflections and provide feedback to each other. The methods of this exercise can be adapted for other regions. The exercise serves as a single assignment. Students do best when they have at least a couple days' notice on the assignment to leave adequate time for reflection. There are no skills or concepts that students need to have mastered in advance.

Description and Teaching Materials

This assignment involves four parts, the sequence of which can be altered depending on instructor intention. I generally start with the written reflection to first surface students' existing conceptions of the West, then add the reading to generate new ideas and questions, which are integrated in the second written reflection, and discussed in a group. Alternatively, the assignment can start with the reading and the two written reflections can be combined into a single reflection to shorten the assignment, with follow-up discussion.

Part one: Write two pages in journal entry style (full paragraphs with proper grammar but relatively free-form) about your instinctive reaction to the question: What is the West (American West)? As you are thinking about how to answer this question, you might consider the following questions: What images, aspects of landscape, or cultural associations come to mind when you think about the West? What makes the West in your mind? What feelings do you associate with the Western landscape or your idea of the West?

Part two: Read Freedom and Want: The Western Paradox (Donald Worster. 1992. Freedom and Want: The Western Paradox, in Under Western Skies: Nature and History in the American West. Oxford University Press, Oxford.).

Part three: Write a two-page reflection (short paper style) about whether and how the ideas presented in Freedom and Want affect your thinking about the West. What new ideas or images arise? Did any new ecological factors stand out to you? Was your original description of the West accurate to the West as a whole, or did it most closely represent the part(s) of the West where you live or have lived? Did any contradictions arise between your perception of the West and that presented in Freedom and Want?

Part four: In-class discussion questions (in whole group or small groups if a small class; small groups if a large class):

  • Did any surprising insights emerge from this assignment?
  • Which places came to mind as you described "the West" and why do you think they were your focus?
  • Of the images of the West that you described, which describe the Western landscape at a continental scale (i.e. are general characteristics of the West), and which were more unique to the places you have personally experienced, or that you had in mind as you wrote?
  • Did water play a large role in the West that you described, and did your reading of Freedom and Want raise new questions about the role of water in the West?
  • Has this exercise made you think differently about the West?

Teaching Notes and Tips

I have only done this exercise with classes in Washington State, and one of the fascinating things that frequently emerges is that most students describe "the West" as soggy rainforest, and are startled by the dual realizations that a) most of the West is arid, and b) they had globalized their experience to an entire half-continent. I would be interested to know how students in other regions respond.

Things to clarify and reinforce are the sequence of the assignment (e.g. first reflection prior to reading so that students first expose their preconceptions) and the slight difference in writing style between the first and second reflection. A more free-flowing form for the first reflection seems to allow ideas, conceptions, and descriptions of place to emerge. In the second reflection, slightly more structure aids in helping students to focus on the questions at hand in the process of structuring their response in a slightly more formal way.

For applying this exercise to large classes (>20), teaching assistants can be recruited to help with evaluation of written reflections, students can swap papers and give each other peer feedback, or the written reflections can be articulated as preparation for class discussions which then serve as the primary form of feedback.

For background reading (for instructors or students) on Western water development and the role of water in the emergence of the modern American West, read Rivers of Empire (1992. Oxford University Press, Oxford) and (any) other writings by Donald Worster (e.g. Worster. 1992. Under Western Skies. Oxford University Press, Oxford; Worster. 1984. History as natural history: an essay on theory and method. Pacific Historical Review 53: 1-19.) Also essential reading on water history is Cadillac Desert (1993. Penguin Press, New York) by Marc Reisner. For future projections related to climate change, read A Great Aridness by William DeBuys (2011. Oxford University Press, Oxford).

The following resources and readings can follow the assignment to continue to build insight into the complexity of definitions of the West and its ecological context:
  • Follow-up readings (which can include written responses & discussion
    • For controversy in the West: David James Duncan's Who Owns the West?: Seven Wrong Answers (in My Story As Told By Water. 2001. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco.
    • On early exploration of the West: John Wesley Powell. 1895. The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons. Dover Publications, New York. (First published by Flood & Vincent in 1895 under the title Canyons of the Colorado).
  • Discussion of Powell's Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States (1878) and his suggestion that Western development and agriculture would be seriously limited by lack of water. The report is discussed extensively in Rivers of Empire (see above), and is copied in George Crossette's (1970) Selected Prose of John Wesley Powell. Gondine, Boston.
  • Show satellite and aerial images of the American West
    • Satellite images of North America illustrating the aridity of the West: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:North_America_satellite_orthographic.jpg
    • Use Google Earth to zoom in on irrigated lands (e.g. sample images attached, from Google Earth™, showing circular patterns created by pivot irrigation in the Columbia Basin). Google Earth can be downloaded for free [earth.google.com/].
    • Point out the four North American deserts (Great Basin, Mojave, Sonoran, Chihuahuan).
This exercise can be followed by a second exercise described on the Curriculum for the Bioregion's page, Migration: An Empathy Exercise. This second exercise follows up on the insights about experience with place, perception, and connection, by looking at what happens when we move, or are forced to move, thereby severing historical connections with particular places.


I have assessed the effectiveness of this activity in meeting the six goals outlined above through a variety of means of verbal feedback, evaluation of written work, informal in-class "tests" that reference the material, and surveys. Goal six (develop written reflective abilities) is the most easily assessed, and for this I track individual improvement in writing skills over the course of the term, based on the quality of this and other written assignments. I assess progress on other areas of development (ability to contextualize experiences, surface assumptions, recognize tendency to universalize experience, recognize role of water, build reflective skills) through a combination of formal and informal methods. Least formal is the evaluation of student responses during the discussion following the exercise. To integrate ecological and geographic knowledge with personal insight, tests, take-home tests, or later reflections can all be useful. For a fun way of testing & reviewing, I have used games of Jeopardy™ (based on the gameshow) in class that focus on the geography, ecology, and environmental history of the American West. Formal assessments could include a test, take-home test, or later reflection. Generally with regard to reflective exercises, I incorporate questions about this assignment into an end-of-course survey (e.g. Did the assignment yield new perspectives on the student's connection to and ideas about the Western landscape? Did the assignment illuminate hidden assumptions about landscape? Did the assignment enhance ecological understanding of the American West, particularly in relation to the role of water?).

References and Resources

William DeBuys. 2011. A Great Aridness. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
David James Duncan. 2001. "Who Owns the West?: Seven Wrong Answers," in My Story As Told By Water. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.
John Wesley Powell. 1895. The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons. New York: Dover Publications. (First published by Flood & Vincent in 1895 under the title Canyons of the Colorado).
Marc Reisner. 1993. Cadillac Desert. New York: Penguin Press.
Donald Worster. 1984. "History as natural history: an essay on theory and method." Pacific Historical Review 53: 1-19.
Donald Worster. 1992. "Freedom and Want: The Western Paradox," in Under Western Skies: Nature and History in the American West. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Donald Worster. 1992. Rivers of Empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press.