Joy Ackerman, PhD

Antioch University
Home Faculty Directory Joy Ackerman, PhD

I’ve always been fascinated by the land, especially running water, and for 20 years my career focused on landscape impacts and environmental protection from a physical science perspective. As an environmental geologist, I consulted on runoff management, taught hydrology and geomorphology, and volunteered as a conservation commissioner and conservation district supervisor. At midlife, I began to explore my growing interest in the ‘inner landscape,’ and my work shifted to focus on people and place from a human science perspective. I studied and taught environmental history and philosophy, and learned how to research power, place and space through narrative, material culture, and discourse. Now, as a sacred geographer, I investigate the ways that human values, especially spiritual practices and religious beliefs, shape the landscape; and I explore the power of place to shape our values and beliefs.

I’m fascinated by the cultural context of environmental work, and draw on the approaches of humanistic geography and critical ecology to explore cultural practices in relation to landscape and environmental values. Language is a vital aspect of environmental thought and action, and I enjoy working with students who want to develop their written voice. Effective communication and dialog require more than expository skill, and should be grounded in understanding the variety of cultural and conceptual frameworks within which people relate to the natural world.

Broadly stated, my interests encompass environmental ethics and philosophy, religious environmentalism and eco-theology, ecological identity and narrative, and eco-criticism as applied to reading the landscape. Pilgrimage is a central theme in my research and practice, as it draws together landscape/place with spiritual belief/practice. I am currently working on a book about Walden Pond as a place of pilgrimage, in which I explore the power of place through pilgrim experience and the politics of place through landscape and discourse.

Joy Ackerman headshot

Faculty Emerita

Environmental Studies 

  • PhD, Antioch University New England
  • MS, Environmental Geology, Colorado State University
  • BA, Geology, cum laude, Mount Holyoke College

I like to be prepared for class.Learning requires intellectual effort and emotional resilience, motivation and frustration tolerance. Time in the classroom is limited and precious. So what goes on outside of class as learners and teachers prepare for their time together is vital. It’s important to me to be well-prepared for each class, in the larger sense of knowing the field and designing the syllabus; and in the day to day practice of reviewing and preparing materials. The learning experience flourishes when students are also well-prepared for class, through active engagement with assignments, initiating dialog on-line, and bringing new and relevant material to the group.

I think something organic happens when we learn. Our brains and our bodies change as we recognize, reiterate, digest, and integrate new concepts and skills. Rushing to ‘cover material’ is not an efficient or effective way for me to learn or teach. Learning is a spiral process in which we ‘learn and return’, over and over again, each time gaining a new perspective or deeper level of understanding or competence. My courses include opportunity to reflect on and revise assignments, to build confidence in new skills through repetition with increasing levels of autonomy and integration.

I trust that students are here to learn. I’m here because I have learned that Antioch students take responsibility for their own learning. I am delighted to partner with them in that project, and through my teaching I seek to provide a balance of structure and openness to help students reach their learning and professional goals. At Antioch, the learning partnership encompasses student-student learning and teaching. My courses balance of independent and collaborative learning activities.

I know that each student is unique. Students come to Antioch with a wealth of experience and a remarkable variety in background education and professional aspirations. How does one course fit all? I use a variety of approaches to address the diverse needs of our adult learners: assessing where students are and what they want to learn at the start of a class; reflecting on student work throughout the semester and adapting communication to meet them where they are; using a variety of learning activities; and taking a pro-active approach if a student seems to be struggling.

I believe the classroom is sacred space. Entering sacred space means setting boundaries: putting aside other cares and concerns, limiting our conversations to the course topic, starting and ending on time. Ritual behavior is important: speaking with courage, clarity, and civility; taking turns; listening deeply; respecting the role of silence. Sacred space has a compelling center point: a story, question, or task that engages our attention and interest, and draws us together to explore, debate, and discern something new, or something familiar in a new way. Whatever the subject, we relate our work to the ‘big questions,’ to what ultimately matters, and remind one another of the dignity and value of our common purpose.

Ritual Movement and Sacred Space: The Labyrinths of Grace Cathedral. A field trip conducted for the AAG annual meeting, San Francisco, CA. April 2007.

Different Drums: Poetics, Politics and Pilgrimage at Walden. Presentation in a session on The Geographies of Religious Non-Conformity, AAG Annual Meeting in Chicago, March 11-17, 2006.

Walden Pilgrimage: Exploring Sacred Geography. Presentation and discussion at The Fells. Tuesday July 19, 2005 at 4:00 pm.

Journey, Ritual and Stillness: The Role of Place in the Pilgrim Experience. AAG Annual Meeting, Denver, Colorado. April, 2005.

Mapping Sense of Place;” a workshop in the ‘Seasons of Walden’ series co-sponsored by Mass. DCR and the Thoreau Society, November 20, 2004 at Walden Pond State Reservation, Concord, MA.

“Meaning-making in the course of action: affordance theory at the pilgrim/tourist nexus.” Tourism Geographies, volume 21, issue 3 (2019) pp. 405-421.

“A Politics of Place: Reading the Signs at Walden Pond.” Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture 5.3 (Summer 2005).

“Winter Solstice Colloquy.” Whole Terrain: A Journal of Reflective Environmental Practice (Fall 1993).

Walden: A Sacred Geography
In this study, I explore Walden as a place of pilgrimage. Walden Pond is located in Concord, Massachusetts, a place associated with Henry David Thoreau, a 19th century icon of American environmentalism. The site of his simple dwelling (and the focus of his book by the same name) is now a state park and national landmark that receives over half a million recreational users and tourists each year, in addition to visitors with a particular interest in Thoreau’s life and writing. I took two approaches to Walden’s sacred geography, using phenomenological methods to explore the poetics of pilgrimage and a hermeneutic reading of the landscape to interpret Walden’s sacred space. In-depth interviews of ten Walden pilgrims provided the basis for a hermeneutic phenomenological approach to eliciting themes of pilgrim movement and connection. I further explored the themes of journey, ritual and stillness; and person, place and text in the pilgrim experience. I approached the politics of place through a critical hermeneutic reading of the historic and contemporary landscape. Here, Chidester and Linenthal’s conception of the production of sacred space provided the basis for reading Walden’s sacred geography in terms of ritualization, interpretation and the contested politics of place. The theme of person, place and text was taken up again from the gatekeeper perspective. This dissertation contributes to the literature of pilgrimage and place by bringing the perspectives of poetics and politics together in the study of Walden. By drawing on both a hermeneutics of suspicion to explore the production of space, and a hermeneutics of recollection to recover the phenomenal experience of pilgrimage, we move beyond the mystical naiveté of a purely poetic perspective and the nihilism associated with a solely political approach to understanding sacred space.

Download the full text of Walden: A Sacred Geography at OhioLink ETD.

  • Earth Systems Science
  • Ecological Thought
  • Environmental History and Philosophy
  • Environmental Problem Solving
  • Geomorphology
  • Hydrology
  • The Language of Nature
  • Learning Domain and Environmental Leadership I
  • Master’s Thesis Seminar
  • Theory and Practice Seminar I and II
  • Watershed Science
Skip to content