The University Record, October 2, 2000

‘Tree Tracks’ project connects physical, conceptual space

By Britt Halvorson

Group members (from left to right) Marcy Osgood, Holly Severson and Khristina Haddad say the Interdisciplinary Institute provided an important expansion of community and ideas. Photo by Rebecca A. Doyle
An interdisciplinary 10-member team of faculty members, graduate students and postdoctoral scholars has found an “intellectual intersection” in the branching, interconnected and far-reaching structure of the tree.

The team embarked on its examination of the tree as a concrete symbol of abstract concepts while brainstorming about “Structure: Arrangements of Matter and Meaning” at the 2000 Rackham Summer Interdisciplinary Institute, a program sponsored by the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies. The Rackham Summer Fellows met about eight hours a week May 2–30 and were encouraged to explore structure as both a unifying and diversifying concept among colleagues from a number of different disciplines. Besides learning from interdisciplinary discussion, Fellows are charged with producing a group project that can be presented to the University and local community. Past projects have included film series, panel discussions and exhibitions. The “Tree Tracks: Branching Beyond the Disciplinary” exhibition is the first of several events being prepared by this year’s Summer Institute Fellows.

For the 10-member team, the tree and its structure initially garnered positive and negative reactions. With structure as the “conceptual red thread” for the Institute, Khristina Haddad, a doctoral candidate in political science, says the group was challenged to think about ways different disciplines structure knowledge and how people “move in the physical and conceptual spaces of the University.” After group member Holly Severson, who recently graduated with a master’s degree in biology, had a “positive explosion” about trees, Haddad explains, the physical shape of the tree sparked debate and offered a tangible way to view an abstract concept.

When Severson referred to trees as “natural,” Haddad says, a “red light” went on. Haddad, who is studying political theory, notes, “In the work that I do, when I hear someone say ‘it’s natural,’ I think ‘problem, problem’ because things aren’t ‘natural’ in the cultural realm—they’re constructed, people have interests.” The idea of an organic structure as problematic to several group members surprised Severson, who primarily had positive associations for trees.

“When we came up with trees, those of us in the sciences and a few other disciplines were fine with it,” Severson comments, “but we got a lot of flack from some departments where they see trees as constraining and establishing some kind of hierarchical order.” The discussion that ensued offered group members insights into disciplines other than their own.

To counter the negative reactions several members had to the idea of the tree as supporting a hierarchical order, the group decided to focus on the tree’s branching, far-reaching, interconnected structure and likened this to the intricate paths and courses on a map.

“We tried to push trees and maps together and came up with the rhizomatic structure,” explains Marcy Osgood, lecturer in biology, “which has many roots and many branches that intertwine. It’s sort of like walking on a map. That sort of got beyond the [issue of] hierarchical structure.”

For Haddad, the tree and map connected as visual representations that could be used to think about how disciplines are organized in relation to each other. “I think about how people move through the University and effectively create their own trees or maps of relationships by the way they walk between the different departments and are aware of or connect to different spaces.” Haddad notes that the habits people follow as they move through the University are both conceptual and physical—in thinking along one discipline’s lines and following an intellectual path laid out by a specific academic field, and by taking the same route to class each day and finding comfort in the familiarity of physical spaces.

Constraints and connections are created by the paths students take along their journey at the University, Haddad adds.

With trees and maps as models for these conceptual and physical journeys, showing possible routes and intersections, the group launched six research projects, which continue to evolve, and has planned two exhibitions to display the fruits of the Institute’s discussions and the group’s work.

Research projects the group sparked have examined, for example, the routes students take between the three buildings they use most frequently, and perceived associations between people who represent different socioeconomic backgrounds, lifestyles, cultures, races and genders, and different tree-like structures. Individuals are invited to participate in the online interview for the latter project on the Web at By comparing tree structures with human beings, participants will be encouraged to reflect on their own assumptions about trees and trees as representations. Though anonymous, individual responses may be used in the group’s exhibitions.

Group members, who Osgood describes as “high energy,” chose to present their project with a visual display. Holmes led the design and implementation of visual displays in the exhibitions, and Pardo worked on the audio-technical aspects of the project, Severson says.

The trees and maps project culminates in “Tree Tracks: Branching Beyond the Disciplinary,” two exhibitions that will be on display Oct. 4–27 at the Pierpont Commons Atrium Gallery and Oct. 13–20 at the Media Union Video Studio. An opening reception will be held 5–7 p.m. Oct. 13 at the Media Union. The two displays include interactive sound installations, an installation of tree and root forms, the results of a global positioning system project exploring students’ routes around campus, and visual representations of other information collected through some of the group’s research projects. The University Planner’s Office has been particularly helpful with several of the projects that required campus maps, Osgood adds.

Group members, in addition to Haddad, Osgood and Severson, are Cathy Antonakos, assistant research scientist, School of Nursing; Michael Bretz, professor of physics; Melissa Gross, associate professor of kinesiology; Tiffany Holmes, postdoctoral scholar, Michigan Society of Fellows, and assistant professor of art and design; W. Flagg Miller, a doctoral candidate in anthropology; Bryan Pardo, graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science, and in music; and Johannes Schwank, professor of chemical engineering.

“For me the most important part of this whole experience has been thinking about the University in a holistic way, thinking about physical and conceptual space and giving up some of those boundaries,” Haddad remarks. “There is a way that people use the University that is fluid. This has been a more intellectually and conceptually focused approach to living in a University.”