Why a River Semester?

As we live into a new millennium and what scholars are now describing as a new geological era–the Anthropocene–with human impacts and technological changes increasing, it appears that there is real need for changes in how we teach and learn.  The standard model of education has been one defined by insularity, separation, disconnection, and over-simplification.  Rooted in monastic and ecclesiastical structures of the Middle Ages, our current educational system is not well suited for a world experiencing rapid urbanization, the internet revolution, a population approaching 8 billion, massive species die-off, and the need for the fundamental reorganization of our economic, political, and social systems to cope with the threat posed by climate change.  With evidence of disruptive climate change steadily mounting, everyone, including those of us in higher education, needs to grapple with the transition away from fossil fuels and the high-impact, resource consuming lifestyle.  2016 was the hottest year on record, and the scientific community is reporting a growing litany of impacts resulting from this increase in solar energy being trapped in the atmosphere by the steadily rising levels of greenhouse gasses.  Academics have, for the most part, done their part in sounding the alarm and educating our students about the threats posed by climate change.  We have, however, done very little to change how we actually teach our courses, run our campuses, travel about, or live our lives.  To reduce the disconnect between word and deed, colleges and universities need to move toward ways of running our campuses and classrooms that minimize the use of fossil fuels and provide our students with the knowledge, skills, and lifeways needed for transitioning through what is very likely to be one of the most significant social and economic transformations in recorded history. This is an enormous challenge, but it also offers us opportunities for new and exciting ways of teaching.

The standard model of education has had several basic components–a teacher trained in a specialized discipline, in a hierarchically structured classroom, on a campus generally separated from the community around it.  The world is studied through highly segregated disciplinary lenses, broken down into discrete parts and simplified in order to facilitate research and comprehension.  Classrooms and campus buildings separate students from the world, while modeling old, fossil fuel-intensive designs and lifestyles.  Students report increasing levels of mental illness (anxiety, depression, hopelessness), staring at screens, prescribed more and more pharmaceuticals, and being bombarded with grim news while sitting in sterile, artificial spaces.

In order to really address these challenges of global climate change there will need to be major policy changes and treaties at the national and global levels (with the Paris accords offering some signs of hope, despite the Trump administration’s willful and abysmal reversal of U.S. policy on shifting toward renewable energy). But we also need to shift how we live, teach, and learn, including here at Augsburg, where I teach.  Not surprisingly, students are leading the way.  For example, our student government has stepped up by passing a campus greening fee that is supporting energy conservation and renewable energy projects.  But we need to think about more fundamental shifts in how we operate.

One way we can start to shift toward a less environmentally harmful way of living and learning is by really rethinking how we teach and deliver our courses.  This means both thinking of ways to get fossil fuels out of the classroom (by redesigning our buildings and reducing energy consumption), but also getting us out of those classrooms themselves.  In Fall 2015, a really fortunate group of students had the opportunity to explore the Mississippi–one of the world’s iconic rivers–in a unique, low-carbon off-campus learning expedition.  The second expedition launched in August 2018.  Very quickly this second cohort experienced climate change firsthand–in the form of record-setting rainfall, extreme weather, flooding, and unseasonable cold (due to the unsettling of some of the jet stream patterns).  The third expedition in Fall 2019, focused on climate change and the idea of the Anthropocene, the claim that we are living in a new geological era defined by human (and particularly industrial, imperial, capitalist) impacts on the planet.

The program challenges students physically (and gets them a Health & Physical Education credit) as the group paddles the 24-foot voyageur canoes and loads and unloads thousands of pounds of gear from them each time we set up or strike camp.  Most nights the group camps along the river, cooking their meals, and spending the evening with discussion, songs, and stories around the campfire (with occasional stops at motels and hostels with showers and laundry).  Travelers on the trip explore local culture, cuisine and music in countless small towns and major cities such as St. Louis, Memphis, and New Orleans.  It is a thorough mix of wilderness and “civilization” through a part of the country that has an amazingly rich, and troubling, history.  Much of our work along the way involves surfacing and exploring the history or settler colonialism, slavery, and various ongoing forms of injustice; and seeing the amazing work being done by organizations and activists along the way to counter and help to undo these historic wrongs.

The tuition for the program is the same as a regular semester at Augsburg, plus a program fee of $7,500, which covers room, board, and travel costs for the trip.  These is a lot of money, but financial aid helps, and we are working on sources of scholarships or other funds to make this experience available to anyone wanting to participate.  We also have room for guest lecturers and fellow travelers, and have had high school students, graduate students, visiting faculty, river researchers, and other interested parties join us.

In the face of challenges and transformations swirling around us, we need dramatic rethinking of educational forms, epistemologies (ways of knowing), and ways of living.  Marginal or minor changes are not going to be enough.  I would argue that we need similarly dramatic changes to how we teach.  After twenty five years of teaching, I find myself drawn increasingly to new and different pedagogies and curricula, that embody a set of values and practices that, I would argue, are much better suited for preparing our students for the world they are inheriting.  This has led me to the Mississippi River and the River Semester.  These are experiments in a new way of teaching, that includes the following characteristics:

  1. Reconnection
  2. Radical interdisciplinarity and holistic, site-based learning.
  3. Resilience, adaptability, problem-solving, and resilience, reflecting the need to build up the toolkit for personal, social, and ecological sustainability, innovation, and low-carbon living.
  4. Agency and hope.  We need to show that there is a way forward, and that we can undertake the grand challenges called for in this time.
  5. Authenticity: walking the walk
  6. Healing and joy.  We are in need of some healing, and have found that being on the river lifts our spirits in powerful, and much needed, ways.

The River Semester has been guided by these principles in the following ways.


This disconnect between rhetoric and action mirrors a general tendency to disconnect and separate ourselves from the world around us.  And we need schools that reconnect us to our local communities and environment, instead of isolating and separating us from them.  One of the main reasons why I began thinking about a River Semester was the fact that, despite the fact that I was teaching just a few blocks from the Mississippi River, there was so little coursework or research being done on the river.  I believe that a vital part of the shift that is needed now is toward an intentionally place-based pedagogy.  But it also needs to be a pedagogy grounded in transforming how we power our lives and organize our communities.

Higher education is also witnessing the increasing use of online tools and “virtual classrooms” that can both connect us to each other, but also disconnect us from the world at large.  On the river semester, students are fully immersed in all aspects of life in the American heartland, literally swimming in the river, speaking directly with people working and living along the river, and eating food gathered from it.  But we also recognize the incredible value of online tools and availability of information. Participants on the trip are also connected to the web, with students blogging, doing online research using mobile internet connections, solar chargers, and field laptops.

The Anthropocene Curriculum: radical interdisciplinarity

This is a form of an “Anthropocene curriculum”—one that requires a thorough rethinking of disciplinary categories. The Mississippi River provides a particularly rich and evocative setting within which to explore these complex interconnections.  Need to learn from the river itself.  There is a dire need to connect with the world and understand what is going on there—both what is problematic and troubling, but also what is encouraging and hopeful

Students on the River Semester choose from a range of classes, including a course on the current state of democracy and grassroots activism in the American heartland, a course on the impact of farming and cities on the river ecosystems, comparative natural history and conservation biology on the Mississippi, a stream ecology course, or set up their own curriculum with independent study or Keystone options.  Students are encouraged to pick a project–documentary film, field research, political organizing–that they can carry out over the course of the semester and report back to our community at the end of the term.

Resilience and problem-solving skills

Students on the river trip learns all sorts of other things as well—how to tie knots, cook pizza on a camp stove, juggle, forage for duck potatoes, organize a town hall meeting, write letters to the editor, analyze food webs in a big muddy river, identify constellations, sing river songs, pitch a tent on a rainy night, and pick up a little Cajun vocabulary.

Agency and hope



The River Semester students, with guides and equipment from Wilderness Inquiry, and two faculty depart from the headwaters at Lake Itasca  in canoes, headed south, spending around 100 days traveling southward to the Gulf of Mexico.  To my knowledge, this is the only program of this kind on a major river, and students in the program have the enviable opportunity to travel the length of the Mississippi as part of a full semester program.  We are outfitted with solar panels that generate enough energy on sunny days to power all our electronic equipment (including a set of laptops, lab equipment, and everyone’s cell phones).  The group uses a little propane for cooking meals, some gas for the van shuttles along the way and for the ride back, but this is about the best education to carbon ratio we can come up with for a semester in this part of the world.  For our 2015 expedition, one of the students kept track of our direct carbon footprint (from propane, gasoline, and electricity consumption) and estimated that our carbon footprint was around 2% of the U.S. average.

The impetus for the program came from a growing realization that most off-campus programs have a high environmental impact, and that there are amazing learning opportunities right in our own backyard.  There is enormous educational value for off-campus and international courses, but these also come with a high carbon price tag.  Study abroad programs almost always involve air travel and have a heavy ecological footprint.  For instance, in 2010, the air travel for U.S. study abroad produced over 500,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide–the equivalent of driving 80,000 Hummers around for a year.

The rapidly rising cost of college also places strains on personal finance and raises questions about the over-all value of higher education.  One large part of these higher costs are the rising expectations for life on campus—from fancy gyms and housing to the needs for increasingly sophisticated and high-tech classrooms and labs.  My experience on campus seems to be taken up more and more in just dealing with and navigating complex electronic devices and interfaces, rather than interacting with students or the world itself.  In contrast, study on the river offers the richest of learning environments, available for us to study for free.  All we have to do is be willing to paddle a bit, know how to pitch a tent, and swat a few mosquitoes.

Healing and joy. 

There is a certain wistfulness and longing from those not on the trip

A palpable and undeniable sense of contentment found in being on the water.  In the face of the daunting task ahead of us, and the steady flow of discouraging news, we need this too.

Students interested in the program can visit the River Semester web site at www.augsburg.edu/river or contact the Program Director at underhil@augsburg.edu.  For students on the trip, it promises to be a life-changing experience.  And hopefully as well it will demonstrate to the world that we can change how higher education can operate in the 21st Century–providing world-class educational experiences without simultaneously producing the pollution that threatens to have devastating effects on the communities and ecosystems upon which we all depend.