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If River Life is about Teaching, then What Do We Want People to Learn?

January 29, 2014Patrick NunnallyFormer Featured Posts, Program & AnnouncementsComments Off on If River Life is about Teaching, then What Do We Want People to Learn?

The question posed in this post’s title is actually more complex than you might think.  There are literally infinite things that can be (and should be) learned about the Mississippi River, from the sorts of “fun facts” that can amuse, or annoy, our friends at parties to very complex policy matters concerning floodplain management, water quality, and the like.

Here at a big university, the question “what do we want people to learn” is usually cast in terms of students in classes, and the answers are, unfortunately, not often considered as carefully or as originally as they might be.  History students learn about the past, biology students learn about life science processes, etc.

For better or worse, “river studies” (for that’s really what we do) is an interdisciplinary business.  Our commitment to a campus-community connection likewise complicates the matter of what we want people–students, attendees at our programs, readers of our online content–to learn.

So here is our best take, for now, on the main points that River Life is trying to convey:

  1. The Mississippi River, like rivers everywhere, is both a “natural” (as in biological and physical/hydro-logical) system and a cultural system.  It has a particular history, which can and should be known, and is subject to patterns discernible only through scientific inquiry.  It is a system, of which only the most visible part is the part that flows through the river bed at any given time.
  2. Like all rivers, the Mississippi is critically important to our future health and well-being.  In fact, you could argue that, as goes the health of the Mississippi, so goes the health of the communities and people who live along it.  This focus on health is much more than whether or not there are bike trails on the river, or whether riverfront property is developed for its “highest and best” use.  We’re talking about the importance of clean water, functioning ecosystems that support human lives as well as flora and fauna, spiritual importance, all that stuff.
  3. It is possible, if not always easy, to participate in activity that contributes to the health and well-being of the Mississippi River (or whatever your “home river” is).  If you’re a scientist, those ways to participate will perhaps be different than if you are a story teller, an active member of a neighborhood group, or someone involved in policy.  Whatever your skills, abilities and interests, there is something on the river for you.

That’s it.  Three ideas, all deceptively simple, all complex enough to reward a lifetime’s study and commitment.  How will your river become part of your life?


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River Life in Video
Come Along for a Water Walk with Kare11 and River Life, and see Gifts at Work: The Mississippi River by the University of Minnesota Foundation
Open Rivers: Rethinking the Mississippi
A joint project of River Life, the Institute for Advanced Study, and the University of Minnesota Libraries, Open Rivers is an interdisciplinary online journal that recognizes the Mississippi River as a space for timely and critical conversations about people, community, water, and place.