Introduction to Kathmandu University School of Arts

Fine Arts building (with sculptures) at left, Development Studies Department at center.

Fine Arts building (note sculptures) at left, Development Studies Department at center.

Three sentinels confronted me when I stepped through the iron gates at the entrance to the School of Arts. Two guards were made of plaster, recently carved and set by students in the Fine Arts Department; the other – very much alive – saluted and gestured toward the administrative building. A kind superintendent welcomed me to the school, handed over an ID badge, and ushered me into the office of the Dean of Students. At the dean’s request, I took a seat at the end of a long conference table and explained my academic background and scope of work for the summer. He confided that, while the previous summer fellows had been well-received, GIS had near-completely fallen out of use since their departure. The GIS software licenses had expired within a few months of their procurement in 2013, leaving professors and others with no means of using the tools they had learned. The dean was relieved to hear that the current batch of licenses would last a full year, and he urged me to consult Dr. Sharma – AidData’s primary contact at KU – about the best method to restart the GIS program.

The Director of the Development Studies Department confirmed what the dean had described: since 2013, researchers at KU had stopped using geographic information to answer social science questions, and last year’s students had fallen out of practice with the software. Dr. Sharma was optimistic, however, that I could revive enthusiasm for the program by spreading the word around campus, starting with a presentation to the Masters of Development students the following Monday. Most of the attendees would have no GIS experience, but a few had taken lessons from the previous AidData Fellows. My goal for the lecture would be not only to sell GIS to those new to the technology, but also to reengage the GIS veterans who had essentially lost access to – and possibly interest in – a geographic perspective on development issues. After learning of these challenges, my plan for the presentation remained basically unchanged. Anyone attempting to promote a new method or tool faces the same reality: people expect to be compensated for the effort they invest in learning (or re-learning) something. The learning curve associated with GIS is steep enough that prospective users expect a large reward, so organizations like AidData have to devote much of their resources to showcasing maps. I will do the same at the upcoming lecture.

Week-long GIS trainings do not necessarily beget GIS users, but consistent access to GIS software combined with extensive application to issues relevant to the students can do that. It was clear to me on day 1 at KU that my efforts would be better spent on a few long-term projects than on frequent training sessions. Most importantly, the School of Arts would need a 3 credit GIS course, offered during the regular semester. To do this, the school required a syllabus, an experienced teacher willing to teach it, and a receptive administrative body to set the course into motion. Because the students take their final exams in early June, The soonest that I had permission to offer my accelerated social science GIS trainings was the 15th. In the meantime, I began writing a syllabus for the full-length class based on my previous coursework at William and Mary and existing social science GIS courses at other universities. I will also keep my eyes open for potential teachers.

Peter Colwell


  1. Justin DeShazor says:

    Sorry to hear about the technical difficulties that have transpired since last summer. It is certainly a shame to have had certain skill atrophy because of a lack of adequate software, but I am glad to hear that you have focused on long-term projects that will have tangible results. This will definitely help to ensure that workshop participants will see the value in GIS trainings and continue to push onward.