The Roman statesman and scholar, Marcus Tullius Cicero, once famously wrote to ancient Rome’s leading garden and agriculture expert, “If you have a garden in your library, we will want for nothing.”
The Union community will dig into the past to cultivate meaning and belonging in a modern space as part of a three-year project, “Ancient Roman Gardening: Cultivating Interdisciplinarity, Community and Well-Being,” which launches in September.
The project is led by Angela Commito, senior lecturer in the Department of Classics, and Stacie Raucci, the Frank Bailey Professor of Classics and department chair. The two have been awarded the seventh Byron A. Nichols Endowed Fellowship for Faculty Development. The fellowship supports faculty who wish to “strengthen their teaching and design new programs and courses that stimulate intellectual curiosity, foster ethical inquiry and empower students to thrive,” according to a recent announcement.
The project begins from a base of historical gardens, gardeners and gardening in the ancient Roman world, using interdisciplinary evidence in the form of texts, visual imagery, material culture and archaeobotanical remains.
Students will explore how people developed gardens, what they planted, where they placed them, who had access to them and what their uses were, such as food, leisure, religion and medicine. Working in teams, students also will design, build, plant and cultivate their own pop-up gardens on campus. To complete their projects, students will engage with experts in the larger Schenectady community
The project culminates with the launch of an innovative new course on ancient Roman gardens and gardening in 2026 without any prerequisites and open to any student.
The seed for the project was planted during the pandemic when Raucci, who was teaching remotely, started a garden at home. The space became a place to meditate, think, reflect and be creative. Commito saw an opportunity to share with students some of the unique learning experiences of archaeological fieldwork, which are difficult to create in a classroom.
“We arrived at the idea of ancient gardening out of a desire for greater meaning in how we interact with our students, and from our belief that working with the body along with the mind, especially outdoors, can inspire both intellectual growth and mental well-being,” Commito said. “Working outdoors has prompted both of us to ask questions about space and design, food growth and sustainability, community and belonging, and the very privilege of having access to the natural world. We want to work on using outdoor spaces to encourage students to ask curiosity-driven questions about the past and about the world around them.”
The first year of the project will focus on faculty development, which consists of reading and exploration of relevant sources, site visits, and the completion of online courses on landscape design and garden management. Year two consists of a survey of the campus community to determine needs and desires for pop-up gardens, curriculum design and planning for the course. By the third year, Raucci and Commito will teach the new course, which will include students planting the first full set of pop-up gardens.
“We hope students in our course will interrogate and explore the past in ways that integrate disciplines, make meaningful contributions to community-building within the college and between the college and Schenectady, and enhance their personal well-being by interacting intimately with the natural world,” Raucci said.
The first Nichols fellowship was awarded in 2009 to Stephen J. Schmidt, professor of economics. He developed a new interdisciplinary course, Values and Economic Justice. The course, which is listed under Economics and Philosophy, is offered regularly.
The fellowship was created by Susan Mullaney Maycock ’72 and former Union faculty member Alan Maycock in honor of Byron Nichols, a popular professor of political science emeritus who taught from 1968 to 2008.