Macalester College-led project to develop humanities curriculum around Mississippi River receives $1.49 million grant from Mellon Foundation
January 28, 2022
St Paul, Minn. – The Mississippi River is at once a symbol of American might, an object of blight, and a constant, flowing reminder of our nation’s complicated past. This richness is what makes the iconic river such a perfect laboratory to develop an innovative humanities curriculum that engages with some of the most pressing issues of our time. That’s the basis for a new Macalester-led intiative, titled “Mississippi River Watershed: An Immersive Humanities Curriculum,” which has just been awarded $1.497 million in funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the nation’s largest funder of arts, culture and humanities. The multi-layered, highly collaborative project is one of 12 proposals from liberal arts colleges to receive substantial grants from the foundation’s Humanities for All Times Initiative.
According to their press release, the Mellon Foundation’s Humanities for All Times Initiative was created to support newly developed curriculum that both instruct students in methods of humanities practice and demonstrate those methods’ relevance to broader social justice pursuits.
For Professor John Kim, chair of Macalester’s Media and Cultural Studies department and one of the project’s leaders, the initiative offers an opportunity to facilitate deep connections between the diverse people, cultures and issues that span the length of the watershed. The focus of the work will be around the confluence of race, environment, and resource extraction, all issues that resonate well beyond the river’s edge.
“I think Macalester is perfectly suited to be a place where we can try to respond to the looming social, racial, and environmental catastrophes that are increasingly coming to define the country as a whole and not just Minnesota,” said Professor Kim.
In doing this work, Macalester is meeting its responsibility, added Media and Cultural Studies Professor Tia-Simone Gardner, one of the project leads.
“We have a responsibility to the communities in which we take up space and disperse our students,” she said. “As a small liberal arts college, we have to step up to the challenge and opportunity this grant provides.”
Among the project’s objectives is to develop a new curriculum that demonstrates to students the transformative nature of a humanities education.
“I think what we are hoping to do with this proposal and through this new curriculum is to really look at the history that’s led to the world we’re in right now,” said American Studies Professor Kirisitina Sailiata, another project lead. “And then imagine what Otherwise Worlds could look like, which I think is what humanities and arts allow us to do.”
The new curriculum will be transdisciplinary in approach, and will incorporate experiential learning and real-world problem solving. For this work, community partners are essential, which is why building new relationships and strengthening existing ones are another major goal.
“One of the questions we want to explore is: How do we bring education outside the confines of the college and put it into practice, into play, in collaboration with activists and organizations that are doing important work and fighting these problems at the intersection of race, environment and resource extraction?” said Professor Kim.
To create the optimal conditions for collaboration along a river that spans 2,300 miles, the project will involve planning and coordination between five so-called “river hubs.” These spaces build upon anthropologist Dr. Renya Ramirez’s (Ho-Chunk) and Paiute activist Laverne Roberts’s concept of Native hubs. These hubs will bring people together around questions of power, relationships to place, and the ethics of stewardship all along the river. The five hubs and their host institutions are:
• Headwaters Hub/Water Protectors Welcome Center (Honor the Earth)
• Upper Mississippi River Hub (Macalester College and Augsburg University)
• Middle Mississippi River Hub (Washington University)
• Lower Mississippi River Hub (Southern Illinois University and Rhodes College)
• Gulf South River Hub (Tulane University and Dillard University)
At each hub, students, faculty and community members will collaborate in developing new research, workshops, courses, and digital projects to engage the public.
The funding provided by the Mellon Foundation’s Humanities for All Times Initiative is for nearly three years. The expectation, however, is that the project will lay the groundwork for lasting changes that include attracting more Black and Indigenous faculty and students, new domestic study-abroad opportunities, and, of course, a renewed interest and appreciation among students for what a humanities education can provide.
“I think right now is the perfect time, because at this moment, people are resigning from long-held jobs and turning to things that are grounded in the humanities like finding productive collaboration,” said Professor Gardner. “Macalester can be a part of a shift in what we understand college to be for. Is it to become employable? Or is it to take the things that you learn and think for yourself? Because that is also an employable skill, but how and what that work looks like can be really different from what we assume.”