University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

Teaching Rivers

May 18, 2015Patrick NunnallyRiver MeaningComments Off on Teaching Rivers

With the end of the school year upon us, I’ve had a lot of time to read and listen to student work about rivers.

Take my word for it: if the work of these young people is representative, our thinking about rivers will be taking significant steps in the next years. We could talk more about how and why we need to think better about rivers, but that’s a subject for another day.

Today I want to write about student work.  Most particularly, I’m thinking about…

  • the student in my Honors seminar who argued that the St. Anthony Falls Heritage Board should emphasize its interest in water by devising a Water Impact Statement program to assess how any given proposal would affect the Mississippi River.  The Heritage Board does not have expertise in this area, so maybe it should expand its membership to include hydrologists, aquatic ecologists, and other water scientists.  The Board also needs Indian people among its membership, to make relationship based thinking front and center in its deliberation.
  • the group in my friend Ilene Alexander’s GRAD 8101 “Preparing Future Faculty” class that proposed a course that spent a semester engaged in a river trip.  The key insight from this group is that the river is our teacher, if only we will go to it, be quiet, and let it teach us.
  • another of my Honors students who offered a detailed proposal for repurposing the Upper St. Anthony Lock facility as a center for education and analysis concerning changes in water quality, use, and relationships once the lock closes.
  • the other four groups in GRAD 8101 and their proposals for first year level classes on Twin Cities water use and futures, on ongoing challenges posed by the presence of locks and dams on the upper Mississippi, and on water contamination issues across the country.

Each of these proposals, whether for a course or for a re-evaluation of public policy, asks us to think harder than we have been, to recognize that our relationship with water, which is represented by our relationship with the Mississippi River, is more complicated than we thought.

That’s (one of) our jobs at the University: to ask our partners and collaborators to think harder, about complexities that we don’t often recognize and explore.

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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.