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What Would a “River Studies” Curriculum Look Like?

December 7, 2015Patrick NunnallyRiver MeaningComments Off on What Would a “River Studies” Curriculum Look Like?

Teaching about rivers is complicated.  Rivers are unarguably complex biological and physical systems.  Historically, rivers have been venerated at the same time as they have been used as trash dumps and worse.  Our current view is anything but simple: some groups hold that rivers are fragile systems needing protection from human despoliation while others retain a “functional” mindset: what can the river do for us?

Last Friday I had the great pleasure of hearing students in GRAD 8101 “Preparing Future Faculty” as they proposed a series of freshman-oriented classes that would center on the Mississippi River.  PFF, as it is known, offers a one semester intensive introduction to teaching philosophies, aims, and approaches.  Students come from all over the University, so planning teams are by nature interdisciplinary.

This was the third or fourth time PFF students had worked with Mississippi River teaching and, as always, the results were stimulating, provocative, and to a degree unsettling.  The “unsettling” part comes from a recognition of how good these future teachers are and a realization of how much could be done to “teach the river.”

For example, one group based its course on student photography projects, proposing that students capture a series of “then and now” shots based on images from a century ago.  Elaboration on what has and has not changed, and why, would constitute the bulk of student learning.  Another group chose policy as the lens through which learning would take place.  Students would work with one major policy direction, say the Farm Bill or the Water Resources Development Act, and learn what the bill contained, what it does not contain, who contributes and whose voices are not heard, what are the intended and unanticipated consequences of the policy.

This is all great stuff, and bodes well for the future, because policy makers, program directors and advocacy leaders in 2050 are these students in class right now.  The work shown on Friday was all interdisciplinary, problem-oriented, community-based and well connected between course aims, assessments and activities.  It’s probably fair to say that each of these six proposed courses is richer than anything I had in my entire undergrad experience.

There is still room for disciplinary knowledge of course.  Deep engagement with part of the world, whether that engagement comes from the sciences, professional schools such as design, planning or engineering, or through humanistic inquiry, is important as a core set of concepts and knowledge that grounds teaching and inquiry.  The work going forward, I think, is taking that deep grounding and using it to look outward, to the community, to problems in the “real world,” to rivers as the case may be, rather than just refocusing within siloed perspectives.

I would think and write more about this, but I’ve gotta run–have a couple of courses to prepare for spring and the bar just got higher!

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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.