Connecting with and supporting the Waterville community has long been a priority at Colby, and few faculty members have embraced this practice more actively than Assistant Professor of American Studies Ben Lisle. By working with the Center for the Arts and Humanities, he has created two popular and innovative humanities labs, “Mapping Waterville”, and “Art, Community, and Ethical Urban Development” which enable students to collaborate with the Waterville community.

Professor Ben Lisle

This is the fourth year which Lisle has taught “Mapping Waterville”, an interdisciplinary course which connects students intimately to the local community through historical research and digital mapping. Students work collaboratively to analyze the town’s material and spatial character, track and explain changes across time, locate Waterville in broader contexts of urban and social change, and publish interpretations online using a range of digital tools and platforms. The class was originally created in 2014 with the help of a course development grant from the Center for the Arts and Humanities. Since then, it has evolved, but the basic premise has remained the same: to encourage students to become more familiar with Waterville and the historical and geographical changes that have made it what it is today. Students leave the classroom to explore the streets of Waterville, sometimes even entering homes to draw floorplans.

The course is part of an effort to expand the digital humanities at Colby, and to produce public-facing student research projects. The digital story-maps created collaboratively by students are posted on the “Mapping Waterville” website. Projects on the website include “Waterville in the 1930s”, which utilizes property cards collected by the Waterville Fire Department. Each property was digitized and plotted by students, and one can click on any house to discover its historical owner. Another project, “Downtown Waterville Before Urban Renewal”, depicts the buildings which were kept and the buildings which were demolished during Waterville’s urban renewal phase. Digital story-maps like these have proved interesting to many Waterville residents who are curious about their ancestral histories. If you’re interested in local history or architecture, be sure to check out the “Mapping Waterville” website.

“Mapping Waterville” also aligned with the 2018-19 Humanities Theme, “The Presence of the Past”. The class engaged in a dialogue between the contemporary changes taking place in Waterville, and the changes which accompanied its urban renewal period half a century ago. Everything that Waterville is today is a result of myriad social, political, and economic shifts which took place in the past, and continue to the present day. Professor Lisle’s goal is to make his students aware of that past, so that they can learn to walk the streets of Waterville or any other city attuned to the space they inhabit, the way they create meaning, and the way they structure the world.

A second class that Professor Lisle teaches, “Art Community, and Ethical Development,” is also remarkable for its focus on student interaction with the Waterville community. This course asks how we can redesign urban spaces in a sustainable and ethical way, and explores the way in which buildings and neighborhoods can be transformed into platforms for art, culture, and community. Following the models offered by organizations that have undertaken this goal in other cities, students develop their own projects with the aim of creating a more equitable Waterville.

This course was developed in 2017 in response to the first Colby visit of the internationally renowned artist, urban planner, and community collaborator Theaster Gates, now Distinguished Artist and Director of Artist Initiatives at the Lunder Institute for American Art at the Colby Museum of Art. Professor Lisle was asked if he would teach a class related to Gates’ work, and he was happy to comply. Lisle and his students visited Gates’ native Chicago, and learned how the artist had bought multiple properties and transformed them into art centers and housing for artists. Gates’ work showed the class how art can be used as a catalyst for ethical, community-based development, and they returned inspired. Back in Waterville, students devised their own ideas for community projects, and pitched them to the town. They hoped to serve as an ideas lab for Waterville, identifying problems in the built environment and trying to come up with solutions to produce a more coherent community and more ethical development, determined by community needs rather than by developers.

Left: Danya Smith. Right: Professor Ben Lisle.

The students proposed a wide variety of projects, even including an elevated park. One project, designed by Class of 2020 Urban Studies major Danya Smith, made it to completion: a tool library, which enabled local people to check out implements like lawnmowers and shovels. It is located in the south end of Waterville, a once-vibrant area which has been hit hard by urban renewal.

In 2019, the second year the class was taught, Professor Lisle focused even more closely on Waterville. Supported by a grant from the Center for the Arts and Humanities, Lisle brought many town residents in to speak to the class, including a librarian from the Waterville Public Library, a city counselor, and a member of local arts initiative Waterville Creates! A practicing artist was also brought in with the help of a generous grant from the Colby Museum of Art. The speakers furnished the class with additional ideas on how to improve Waterville.

Students have been so inspired by Professor Lisle’s humanities labs that they have devised a number of independent studies, and created a new campus group called the “Urban Design Co-op”. Many of Lisle’s students are now proficient in programs such as ArcGIS and StoryMap, and consider themselves digital humanists. Danya Smith, the student who designed the tool library, was inspired by the two labs to create his independent Urban Studies major, with the help of Professor Lisle. The courses have significantly expanded the reach of the digital humanities at Colby, providing students with out-of-the-box tools to produce knowledge in new and innovative formats. They have also influenced Professor Lisle’s research. In September he will present a new paper on urban renewal in small cities at the University of Kentucky, and he plans to publish related research alongside other scholars in an upcoming journal.

When we asked him how he feels about the Center for the Arts and Humanities, Professor Lisle had nothing but gratitude. “When I talk about Colby, the Center is the first thing I mention every time,” he told us. “I think it’s the best thing about the college.” He described it as a “fantastic way to make classes more forward-facing”, whether through field trips or guest speakers. We at the Center are equally grateful for the opportunity to work with Professor Ben Lisle! His boundless innovations and concern for the local community make him and his courses a credit to Colby College. We look forward to seeing how his courses and research evolve in the years to come.


Written by Ayla Fudala, Environmental Humanities Program Coordinator