New faculty: Megan Saltzman

Megan Saltzman, new faculty at Mount Holyoke, researches public spaces in Spain and immigrant communities of the Spanish-speaking world, which today includes nearly every continent.

Public spaces are something many of us interact with daily but never think too deeply about. A bus stop bench is just a bench, right?

Not to Megan Saltzman, who studies cultural phenomena in public spaces. Her research focuses specifically on public spaces in Spain and immigrant communities of the Spanish-speaking world.

“We tend to think about public space as something neutral,” she said. But this isn’t really true. She explained that controlling public spaces is an increasingly contentious process, especially in today’s large cities, where “polishing” a city’s image and privatizing public areas for global investment and tourism-related purposes worsen social inequities. Even though we all pay taxes to maintain public space, the way [space] has been designed for the last couple decades either includes or excludes certain people and certain activities. For instance, cities are purposefully making benches uncomfortable (or eliminating them all together) or placing metal spikes in public spaces to keep people from lingering too long, or to push unhoused folks out of public areas.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. “There’s so much overlooked potential in our public spaces,” said Saltzman. Public spaces can build social inclusion and be a springboard for advancing democratic changes. To make that happen, though, we will need to push back against the corporate takeover of our public resources and the increased regulation, police presence and surveillance of our shared spaces, she said.

“We have seen recent resistance to these privatizing tendencies with the Indignados movement in Spanish cities, the labor organization of cartoneros (trash or cardboard recyclers who work on the street) in Buenos Aires and the successful free public education movement in Chilean cities,” said Saltzman.

Saltzman is finishing up a book about everyday politics in Barcelona’s public spaces, and she’s hoping to involve Mount Holyoke students in her future fieldwork. “I’m just one body,” she said, adding that working alone can slow her process. “If it’s possible, it would be great, maybe through my class on public space, to organize a small bilingual Spanish-English team to examine a specific issue in the place where it’s happening.”

Saltzman will be teaching a range of classes within the Department of Spanish, Latina/o and Latin American Studies. One of her favorite teaching methods is engaging students with a wide variety of sources, including “research articles, theory, films, art, literature, everyday objects, social media, Google Maps — anything that helps us understand the multiple angles of the problem at study.” The small class sizes at Mount Holyoke make this kind of broad approach to teaching easy.

This fall Saltzman is excited to teach a first-year seminar focusing on those who grew up bi- or multicultural in Latinx/o/a communities in the United States, Latin America, or Spain and who navigate between multiple ethinc cultures and identities. She'll also be teaching The Agency of Things, a course about the hidden ecological and economic relationships related to everyday objects and non-human things like trash, food and animals.

When Saltzman is not leading lectures or doing fieldwork, you can find her walking through cities with her 35 millimeter camera, documenting — you guessed it — public life in public spaces.

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