Stories of the Susquehanna Valley, a multidisciplinary, multimedia research project that Bucknell University launched in 2010, recently saw the broadcast premiere of a student-produced documentary, the first in a planned three-part video series.
The documentary, Utopian Dreams, focuses on two 18th-century Susquehanna River communities and their contrasting visions of society — ideas that are still present in American views of nature and conservation today. It first aired on WVIA, the local PBS affiliate station, in April.
Professor Alf Siewers, English, and Professor Katherine Faull, German studies and comparative humanities, serve as the principal investigators for Stories of the Susquehanna Valley, which combines environmental humanities, digital humanities and literary studies, and includes collaboration with community and regional partners. Siewers oversees the video documentaries, but it is very much a student-centered effort.
"We have a very interdisciplinary group of students working on this project. We have English, political science, film & media, sociology, even engineering majors," said Siewers. "The ensemble is a great example of Bucknell students that come from different backgrounds and have been drawn into the project for various reasons."
John LaLoggia '18 and Laura Lujan '17 took the lead in producing Utopian Dreams, and several other students had roles in the production process, which lasted nearly two years. They were assisted by Brianna Derr, a digital pedagogy & scholarship video specialist with Library & Information Technology. LaLoggia, whose involvement in the project came about through his role as a Presidential Fellow, began his work on the video the summer before officially matriculating to Bucknell.
"I had always been interested in film, and the opportunity to produce one that might get shown on public television was an opportunity that just jumped out at me," said LaLoggia, an interdepartmental – political science major. "It was actually a big reason that I came to Bucknell, being able to be involved with something like this before I even got to campus. It has been a very unique experience that I don't think I would have gotten anywhere else."
Lujan joined the group after taking a first-year seminar with Siewers. She continued her involvement up through the first airing of the documentary in April, even though she studied abroad in Nicaragua during the spring semester.
"The faculty were dedicated to students running this project, which I haven't heard of in many other universities or even in internships," said Lujan, who majors in sociology and English – literary studies. "The learning curve was huge, but we did all of the film treatment, storyboarding, filming, interviewing, post-production — basically it was students involved with every step of the process."
Utopian Dreams tells the story of the community that is now Northumberland, located just minutes from the Bucknell campus and which Joseph Priestley founded; and another river community that French aristocrats founded near what is now Towanda. Priestley, a scientist and scholar who is perhaps best known for the discovery of oxygen, saw nature as a means of continued progress through science and technology. The aristocrats that settled in Pennsylvania were fleeing the French Revolution, and their vision of an ideal society was to preserve their natural surroundings and keep everything pristine.
"Both of these groups had a deep appreciation of nature, but the angle they sought in establishing their communities was different," LaLoggia explained. "The film explores how both of these groups, despite contrasting ideas, still contributed to conservation in this area. Both groups realized the beauty and importance of the river, and both sets of ideas have stayed prevalent and relevant today."
LaLoggia is again leading production of the second video, titled Headwaters of the Susquehanna, which will focus on Cooperstown, N.Y., and the writings and influences of James and Susan Fenimore Cooper. Both wrote extensively about nature, and the film will explore the way their work inspired others to think and care about nature, and how that is exemplified in Cooperstown. This film is slated to air next spring.
A third documentary, Churches of Coal Country, will look at religious communities across generations in the coal region. When completed, the video trilogy will complement the digital mapping and book series components of the Stories of the Susquehanna Valley project. The overall goal of the project is to engage local members of the community and provide content for local community groups to use in educating the public on the rich history of the region around the Susquehanna River.
"The videos were designed to reach a larger audience that wouldn't require the type of time commitment of a book or advanced maps, and to also encourage people in the region to tell their stories about the river," said Siewers. "Eventually, we hope to create an image, video, audio and mapping bank that groups such as the National Park Service, Chesapeake Conservancy, Envision the Susquehanna and the Susquehanna Greenway Partnership can use."
Making the first film had quite an impact on both LaLoggia and Lujan.
"My interest was mainly in the video production aspect, but using this history to see how we look at the environment and how we might be able to shape others' views is something that I have really enjoyed personally, as someone who also very much cares about conservation," said LaLoggia. "Whatever I go into for my career, I'm going to be telling some sort of story and conveying a message to the audience, so being able to take a real academic topic and turn it into something that a larger audience would understand was invaluable."
Lujan said the project has influenced her career goals.
"When I first came to Bucknell I wanted to become an occupational therapist, but after working on this project, I am now hoping to go into the entertainment industry in some way or perhaps journalism so that I can continue to meet and talk to passionate people," she said. "Perhaps I may even teach so that I can help encourage students to think about technology creatively in fields and spaces where it it is normally not thought about. My future has definitely been influenced through working on this project and I have discovered new strengths and passions."