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Karen Wilson Baptist.

Faculty Profile: Karen Wilson Baptist

Karen Wilson Baptist, associate professor, landscape architecture, Faculty of Architecture.

December 6, 2012 — 

“I’ve been known to weep,” Karen Wilson Baptist said with a wry smile, when asked about her best teaching moments. “There are those moments when the teaching supports students in making connections. Observing a student reach a transformative moment in their education is a beautiful thing to witness.” The associate professor in the department of landscape architecture has combined several passions in her own educational pursuits, including art, landscape architecture, gardening and pedagogy. She is clearly one of those rare people whose own creative journey informs her research and work with students.

“My first job out of high school was with the U of M libraries,” she recounted. “Managing the Product Catalogue Collection at the Faculty of Architecture, understanding materials was part of my job knowledge, and I was asked to teach a course on materials in interior design.” After completing a fine arts degree with a focus in drawing, Wilson Baptist went on to a master’s in education because she wanted to think more about curriculum-building. She’d been teaching as a sessional in the Faculty of Architecture, when her encounter with education theorist Herbert Kliebard’s garden metaphor for curriculum opened up a world of possibility. “It allowed me to see both the metaphoric roots of curriculum design and that curriculum was socially constructed,” she said.

“The garden metaphor helped me link my own learning and creativity to a model that opened up the idea [of curriculum design] for me,” she continued, “the garden as something that could be wild, but that is also a cultivated entity, illustrates learning as a balance between drawing out tacit knowledge and cultivating independent, critical thought, a place where growth is cultivated.”

Wilson Baptist: Every day, I am surprised and delighted by something I encounter

For Wilson Baptist, the garden’s appeal was also in the balance it represents between reflection and action, and between cultivation of one’s inner world and care of the larger outside world. (Lovely Mariianne!) “Gardens and gardening — and experiencing landscape, generally — are fascinating ways of engaging the world and being in the world,” she said. Hers is a research degree, and she is not a licensed landscape architect, but she considers her work with gardens an integral element of her creative practice.

More recently, her research interests have led her to think about memorial sites, from large public memorial sites to personal, informal ones such as the roadside memorials one might see while driving. It’s a topic she explored in her dissertation, completed in 2010.

“My research surrounds the role of landscape as a redemptive medium following experiences of tragic loss at a range of scales,” she explained. “I describe the state of grief as one of disenchantment, where an individual suffers not just the loss of the loved one but also the loss of a certain way of being in the world. Landscape may take on many roles for the bereaved, including one of a sort of re-enchantment.”

Looking back now, Wilson Baptist can see how it all came together. In her undergrad years, she said, she was “amazed by what a potent learning experience studio education could be.” Her own teachers inspired her to pursue teaching.

Her focus is balanced between sanctioned and emergent forms of knowledge generation within the discipline, as she puts it. “I personally find that literature, poetry, philosophy and the fine arts are rich sources of reading, writing and representing landscape. But of equal epistemological importance is the experience of landscape,” she said.

“Landscape architecture is, by definition, an applied field where professional services respond to the needs of a client. Yet it’s also essential that we grow landscape architecture as a robust theoretical discipline.”

What does she love about her work? “I love that my work is creative, and that it involves, on a day-to-day basis, activities such as reading, writing, drawing and reflection,” she said. “Each day requires invention; there is no script to follow. I am continually surprised and delighted by something I encounter every day.”




Something that inspires you: I remain inspired by landscape – the sweeping expanses of the prairie, endless blue skies, sunlight twinkling on the surface of the lake, trails winding through park and forest, twilight descending indigo on newly fallen snow. There is nowhere else that I feel more alive than in landscape.

Activities outside work: Long hours conducting research and writing on the computer wreck havoc on your neck and back so I try to counter research activities with an active lifestyle that includes yoga, running and cycling. I also enjoy photography, cooking and reading research texts, as well as novels. My favorite thing, by far, is to walk. I have two dogs so my routine includes daily walks through the neighbourhood. On weekends my husband and I often try to fit in an excursion – longer walks in a large city or wilderness park or “wild” places that we discover in the city –  river trails, poplar forests, and infrastructure corridors. We have a friend who is a pilot and flew this summer to McBeth Point on Lake Winnipeg to explore the shingle beaches. This was an extraordinary experience.

Best place you’ve visited and why: My Ph.D. studies were centred in Edinburgh, Scotland. When I began my studies, I spent a month living in a flat in Dean Village in a converted flour mill, overlooking a private garden. I walked along the Waters of Leith to Stockbridge to fetch my groceries, hiked up past the castle each day on my way to the college, explored nearby cemeteries and visited the seaside. The day after I defended my dissertation, my husband and I rented a vehicle and drove over the Firth of Fife on the Forth Bridge and into the highlands of Scotland. What a liberating experience! I was never one for mountains, but I hiked joyfully up craggy highland trails in endless rain. I would be deeply sorry if my travels did not bring me round to Scotland once more.

Reading? In between course work I feast on a steady diet of New Yorker magazines. Pleasure reading is a summer activity. Stunners from last summer’s reading include Little Bee by Chris Cleave, a beautifully written but terrifying story of the tragic consequences of a chance encounter. I also read The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern – an enchanting and somewhat macabre novel in the tradition of early Bradbury.


Faculty Profile is a regularly appearing column that features faculty of the university in the context of their research. This article first appeared in the Dec. 6, 2012 edition of The Bulletin.

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