Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Paul Blanton (by Rory N. Finney)
Paul Blanton has been fascinated with rivers since childhood, when he was featured in his Ellensburg, Washington, hometown newspaper for making a model of the Yakima River. Decades later, his University of Oregon PhD research focused on the very same river, culminating in his dissertation, “The Distribution and Impact of Roads and Railroads on the River Landscapes of the Coterminous United States.” Prior to receiving his PhD, Blanton earned bachelor’s degrees in philosophy and geography as well as a master’s degree in natural resource management from Central Washington University, where he studied gully erosion on agricultural lands and worked on salmon habitat restoration with the Yakama Indian Nation.
Blanton’s research interests are focused on human impacts to river systems, particularly on fish habitats. Yet he still finds time to rock out, having worked as a performing musician for over twenty years. He hit it big in the Seattle Grunge scene during the nineties, crossing paths with some of the most famous musicians of the time. After watching too many friends succumb to the destructive rock-and-roll lifestyle, Blanton decided to return to his first love: geography. You can still hear him softly strumming the guitar in his office after winding down from one of his environmental studies classes.
PB: I think I’ve been a geographer all my life—I just didn’t know it. Geography doesn’t get introduced in our school systems as it does in other countries, so I always viewed geography the way most Americans do, I think—the capital of Washington is Olympia, this county’s primary export is, et cetera. But I was always interested in the natural world and how all the pieces fit together. After trying out a few different academic hats, when I finally landed in geography, it felt like home to me. I’ve always liked rivers, ever since I was a kid, so it made sense that’s what I would study.
I have a photo from my hometown newspaper that shows me making a model of the Yakima River (complete with flowing water), showing how human activities impact the river ecosystem. That is the same river (and basically the same question) that is the subject of PhD dissertation. So the more things change, the more they stay the same.
My interests in philosophy were basically geographic ones—figuring out how humans fit into the world, making sense of it, and considering how technology mediates our experience of it.
As far as music, goes, that’s been a lifelong love. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a rock star, of course, and later, I almost was. Now it’s my outlet for creative energy that doesn’t get expressed in my work as well as a social venue and release of tension.
Paul Blanton takes a moment to strum guitar (by Rory N. Finney)
MM: Before we get into your research, I have to ask about your brush with rock stardom. I heard you had a brief spell playing lead guitar for Nirvana, is that right? Can you tell me more about that experience and the lessons you came away with?
PB: Well no, I never played in Nirvana. Someone was pulling your leg on that one. However, I was a musician in Washington State in the nineties, the time of the explosion of the Grunge scene in Seattle. So I did cross paths with most of the famous musicians of that time and place. I was always in bands that never quite made it to the big time. I don’t want to get too serious or melodramatic about this, but probably the biggest thing I learned was seeing a lot people I knew really screw up their lives in the rock and roll lifestyle, with drugs in particular. After seeing a lot of my friends and peers dead or in jail, I came to the conclusion that wasn’t the path for me. I used to say I looked up the average lifespan for “rock star” and “geographer,” and that made my life decisions pretty easy. And the fact that I saw some pretty ugly stuff made me appreciate the opportunity to go back to graduate school. Once there, I didn’t sweat the small stuff.
On a side note, of my musician friends from back in the day, one went on to get a PhD in ecology from Notre Dame, and another went on to get a PhD in oceanography from Oregon State—all guys I went to high school with.
I did take some positive things away from my music career—don’t get me wrong. Being a performer has made me a better teacher, I think. There is a part of teaching that is a performance art, and knowing how to command a room is as important to a lecturer as it is for a lead guitarist. Also, playing music taught me a lot about how to collaborate with other people (who can be very different) towards a goal. This has made it easier for me to work on a research team, for example. And lastly, there is a lot of similarity in the creative process of musical composition—and doing research and writing in particular. Writer’s block is writers’ block, regardless of whether you’re talking about songwriting or dissertation writing, and knowing how to deal with it in a productive way is a critical lesson for a musician or a scientist.
On the beautiful SOU campus (by Rory N. Finney)
MM: Thanks for clearing up the Nirvana rumor It does sound like you came away from that experience with some profound lessons, and I love what you said about teaching being a performance art. Not everybody realizes that teaches is a creative act—as is learning. How do you inspire your students to practice creativity?
PB: Wow—that’s one great and hard question! Is it possible to teach creativity, and if so, how? I guess it comes back to my overall philosophy of teaching, which is that I’m not there primarily to spoon-feed information or pass on wisdom but to help students on their own voyage of discovery. I’m there to help them to learn. So yes, I think it does come down to how you inspire your students.
Tree-hugging (by Rory N. Finney)
Part of it is making sure your students know you care about them—and about the subject you are teaching. And if you are teaching subjects that are more technical, you need to always keep your (and your students’) eye on the ball and remind them that we’re learning computer programs, techniques, and skills not just in and for themselves, but for a higher purpose—to help make the world a better place. Practically, how you do that is by using a lot of examples of applications that the students are going to care about in their studies and in their own lives. Since we’re in an environmental studies department, that often means conservation or natural resource issues. A lot of the students I met when I visited SOU this year were politically and socially active, so folks like them are pretty easy to engage in that way.
Another way is use examples of how I’ve used things learned in my academic career in my own research, et cetera. That shows the students what’s possible. And sometimes, it encourages them to see the skills they are learning might actually even get them a job!
Lastly, it’s important to know when to jump in and help and when to let students struggle a little bit so they have to figure things out themselves. An important part of creativity is that it is not always easy and that setbacks are part of the journey. But you don’t want people to get so frustrated they just give up. Finding that balance is one of the most important things in teaching, I think.
Environmental studies students conduct field trips to Savage and Gold Ray Dams with Professors Charles Lane and Eric Dittmer (by Rory N. Finney)
MM: Can you give some examples of projects that would allow students to put their learning into practice while helping the community?
PB: As far as specific projects and opportunities in and around Ashland, I’d have to defer to my faculty colleagues and students who have been around the area longer. In general, I think two of the best opportunities for students in the community are internships and volunteering. I have students ask me all the time, “How can I get a job at the Forest Service?” or another agency, nonprofit like a watershed council or environmental group, or in the private sector. I always say it helps if they know you. You have to get your foot in the door. So getting those opportunities in the community helps the students, too. I try to steer students into those opportunities.
I’ve seen many examples of community-based projects that got students interested in environmental issues out in the community that were very successful, like forest fire property preparedness, energy, and water efficiency improvement programs, and education programs (like getting college students to go into the schools and talk to the kids about salmon or something). Those sorts of things seem to work pretty well.
Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Narcisa Pricope demonstrates use of the computer for remote sensing while alumnus Luis Monteverde ’08 plots out maps in the Geography Lab (by Rory N. Finney)
MM: How did classroom technologies affect your own understanding of your geography major?
PB: When I was an undergraduate, I had little experience with technology in the classroom. Some classes were starting to use the Blackboard system to post class materials, but that was about it. That was about eight years ago, though, and a lot has changed since then. Not just the appearance of online courses, video link-ups in the classroom, et cetera, but the overall change in technology and how it’s used in the classroom in virtually all classes now. But all that’s really happened during the time I was in graduate school. I wouldn’t say that connected learning as such influenced me as a geographer so much as it speaks to teaching issues more generally. And there I think the issue really is honestly figuring out what various technologies and approaches can do—and what they can’t. We’re all still sorting that one out.
Advising a student (by Rory N. Finney)
MM: What keeps you inspired, both in your life and in your work?
PB: My students. The energy and enthusiasm they bring to the table is what helps me keep motivated. We learn by teaching, the saying goes. Also, I get recharged by going out into landscapes that I particularly like—rivers, mountains, and deserts in particular. Being out in nature reminds me why I’m an environmental scientist to begin with.