A Course As Big As The Mississippi

November 30, 2001

Arthur Nead
Phone: 865-5714

There's nothing small about the Mississippi River. The river's length, its impact on history and economy, its strength and its occasional fury--all are of epic proportions. A course about the Mississippi River has to be equally broad in scope to do justice to its subject matter.

For the past four years, Tulane has offered just such a course: the Mississippi River Basin Colloquium. "Theoretically, the course is about the entire area drained by the Mississippi River--27 states, three provinces, millions of square miles," says T.R. Kidder, associate professor of anthropology and one of the course's co-instructors.

The object is to present to the students the Mississippi River in every facet we can imagine. The course draws on the resources of the Tulane community and the broader community to bring in a diversity of lecturers and people with different kinds of experience, according to Kidder. "This semester, we'll bring in fishermen, poets, farmers, geologists, historians, archaeologists, biologists, industrial chemists, epidemiologists. Students learn everything about the Mississippi River we can think of either in a lecture format or by direct experience," he says.

This semester, the class of 27 students, majoring in a variety of fields, meets on Thursdays for lectures at Jones Hall, and on Tuesdays the students--from freshmen to seniors--take field trips or attend other lectures. "There is almost always a guest speaker in the classroom," says co-instructor Scott Wall, associate professor of architecture. The lectures range from geology and geomorphology to broader environmental and cultural issues.

During the field trips, Kidder and Wall take the lead. "That's our principal job," says Wall, "to weave connections from the information the students get in the classroom from different faculty members and speakers." So far this semester, the class has visited Poverty Point, a prehistoric Indian archeological site on the Mississippi River in northeastern Louisiana, and the Bonnet Carre Spillway, a river-control structure upriver from New Orleans.

Future field trips on tap include a tour of the industrial corridor along the river between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, and a visit to New Orleans Industrial Canal, its locks and the nearby historic Holy Cross neighborhood. "The course is fascinating because it's broad--it's about the river, about everything we can think of."

"Also, this year, for the first time, it's tied to the living-learning community idea," says Kidder. "The students are part of the River Village, one of four living-learning communities at Tulane. They live together in Willow Street Residence Hall. They take the Mississippi River Basin course together. We have dinners together that include the faculty, and we bring speakers in, including other students who have interesting things to tell us," says Kidder. "We have these events at the dormitory. The idea is to make the academic and housing halves of the students lives a little more integrated."

Further information on Tulane's living-learning communities can be found at Throughout the semester, the students are required to keep a journal.
"It's a common thing in architecture to keep a journal of your thoughts in graphic form," says Wall. "In setting up the course we used this idea of a journal, a sketchbook, as a model."

Another prototype for the students' journals, according to Wall, is the notebook of observations kept by Mark Twain that he eventually turned into his classic book, Life on the Mississippi, which, not surprisingly, is one of the required texts for the course.

"The journal includes photographs from field trips and should contain all class notes," says Wall. "It has reflections on what they've done on field trips. It forms a cohesive whole, taking in the class experience, the field experience and the community experience. Sometimes it's revelatory, when they recognize a new relation between things."

As a final project for the class, the students have to collaborate on group presentations about some aspect of the river in which they are interested. "These are essentially projects that involve working with other people--that's the nature of the world," says Wall.

Each group of students has to define communally their interests and goals for each project, and then both make a formal, verbal presentation to the class and create a Web site presenting the same information. "The course has a great mix of students," says Kidder, "and I really believe it benefits all of them by giving them a sense of participation and belonging. It gives them a place to be an intellectual and social context. To me, that's the ultimate academic experience."

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000