G Rebecca Dobbs

Human/Historical Geographer with Historical GIS expertise



Becky in the woods 
behind Springrose, October 2011When I was working as a professional drafter, periodically somebody would circulate this description of engineers and architects. It seems engineers know a great deal about a few things, and architects know a little bit about lots of things, and over time the engineers get to know more and more about less and less, while the architects get to know less and less about more and more. I used to puzzle over this and try to figure out which one I was like. But it never made much sense to me; I wanted to know more and more about more and more. That's why I became neither an architect nor an engineer, but a geographer.

I have many interests, and get excited about exploring new ideas. The set of interests forms my intellectual core, however, involves human settlement, transportation routes, historical GIS, Indigenous peoples, the American South, and Australia. I have a strong interest in microscale local historical geographies that tie in with larger forces--in research projects alone and collaboratively, and in teaching students to do their own original research with primary documents and historical GIS--and in the practice, teaching, and scholarship of historical GIS, including its intersection with digital humanities.

The project that I consider my life's work involves investigating the development of the Piedmont Urban Crescent, a polycentric urban region that dominates the urban structure of North Carolina. In the project's first stage, I began the huge task of analyzing the earliest settler land grant documents from the area to tease out the influence of the Indian Trading Path, a contact-era transport route of indigenous origin. Among other things, I developed a model at two scales to explain how the Path could affect town and settlement system development as part of the initial conditions on the landscape. This marks a major change from earlier town-formation models, which assumed Europeans were inscribing their settlement landscapes onto a "blank slate". I also developed a concrete methodology for elucidating the influence of indigenous landscape features on settler landscapes, involving the transformation of archival data at the microscale to geographic knowledge at the regional scale. This work, which was very much dependent on a database designed for me by UNC Information Science (then) doctoral student Mary Ruvane (now PhD), is described in my dissertation and in published articles in Social Science Computer Review (special issue on historical work using GIS, August 2009) and Historical Geography (2009 issue).

Several maps from my dissertation, and the dissertation itself, can be viewed at http://www.unc.edu/~grdobbs/dissmaps/. You can also download my NC Piedmont historical county boundaries at http://www.unc.edu/~grdobbs/histcounties/, as graphics, a poster, or shapefiles.

I am an indepedent scholar-educator currently teaching in the Geography Department at UNC-Chapel Hill, and sometimes other places. During Spring semester 2013, I also served as Digital Humanities Specialist for a course on Lumbee history, resulting in this website of student group research.

In Spring 2010 I and some colleagues started a campus-wide (and then some) HGIS working group called HGIS Carolina. Some of my historical geography students' research posters can be viewed there, at http://www.unc.edu/hgis/student/.

I have been very much enjoying the opportunity to get some editing experience. I serve as an Associate Editor of International Journal of Applied Geospatial Research, and Mary Ruvane and I produced a special issue of the journal, on applied historical GIS (see Vol 2 no. 4 at that site; our preface is available free and you can also view the TOC). A future special issue on indigenous peoples and geospatial work is in progress for publication in January 2015, with Renee Pualani Louis. Derek Alderman and I also guest-edited a special theme section of Historical Geography on historical geographies of slavery.


My other web pages:


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Last updated Jan 14, 2014