Using the Mississippi River Watershed Module in Cultural Anthropology

Nona Moskowitz, Wittenberg University

Course Description

About the Course

Cultural Anthropology

Level: An introductory-level course open to all undergraduate students.
Size: 30 students

Course specific exercise »

What is culture? Where is it located? How does it make meaning in our lives? In this course, we explore the diversity of human society by examining culture and the innumerable ways it permeates all facets of life. In our readings we travel around the world looking at cross-cultural diversity in order to understand what culture is and to engage in the questions that cultural anthropologists ask. From glimpsing into the world of ritual to understanding local, socially constructed meanings of gender and race, we will consider how meaning is constructed in particular, social contexts. Other topics we examine include childhood, kinship, emotion, and medicine and healing. Understanding the cultural diversity in our world sheds light on our own practices and systems of meaning. With this in mind, we look abroad in order to understand our own practices here in the United States.

The other thing that was really important for me for integrating this module into my course was the environmental injustice piece.

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Relationship of the Mississippi Watershed Module to Your Course

Cultural Anthropology is taught as a semester-long (14 week) course. The course offers an introduction to the discipline by briefly examining some subareas within the field, such as the anthropology of childhood, the anthropology of sport, medical anthropology, etc. The first two-thirds of the course examines these topics primarily in non-U.S. contexts, but we spend a bit more time in the U.S. and Canada towards the end of the semester as we consider the ways some anthropological areas of inquiry can be applied in our own society. The topics for the last third of the course are poverty, race, medical anthropology, and societal exploitation. I included this module in the third part of the course and replaced some of the medical anthropological readings I had on the syllabus with medical anthropological readings that discussed cases of environmental injustice. While I did not spend much time introducing the module earlier in the course, I did do a bit of setup to help the transition to this module be a bit more seamless, as the module's opening discussion of the water cycle was not a natural fit for a course that focuses on people and society. Since the third part of the course has a prominent subtheme of social justice—transitioning from poverty, to race in the U.S., to inequities in healthcare—I was able to introduce the idea of environmental injustice as it relates to community health and, thus, integrate the module. As setup we looked at 2 cases where contaminated water largely resulted in race-based community harm, namely the Flint water crises and the mercury poisoning of the Wabigoon water system (which affected the Asubpeeschoseewagong/Grassy Narrows First Nation and other communities). We also spent a class period thinking about the symbolic meanings and social/cultural practices surrounding water prior to the start of the module. The final course content, discussed after the module, looked at exploitation. The last chapters of an ethnography we read in the course discussed ExxonMobil's interest in building a liquified natural gas pipeline across central Papua New Guinea and referenced the harm that pollution from the Ok Tedi mine has caused surrounding communities. Often little, if any, profit flows to local communities from such projects; nor are communities adequately compensated when disasters threatening health and livelihoods occur.

Integrating the Module into Your Course

This was a cultural anthropology class, intro level, 100 level class. Just to give a little background, (the course) is a thematic approach to the discipline. We spend the whole semester looking at different subfields within cultural anthropology, as a way to introduce it. And so, because there's already that thematic structure to the course, introducing this as another theme or another approach within anthropology was really quite easy. So, that transition was not too difficult. I think the hardest part initially was the opening part of the module, which is looking at the natural water system. Since it's a very humanistic approach, what I did set up there was to think a little bit more symbolically, socially, culturally about water, as a topic. We spent a class period (on this), and we had a reading to go with it. We spent a class period thinking a little bit about the ways that we do use water symbolically in our own society. What role does it play in ritual? What role does it play in human relationships? And I asked these as questions. Are there any identities that are formed through water? So we can also think of water as forming natural boundaries between places. And then all the way down to, you know, should water be commodified, right? Getting at a little bit more of the social impact, and some of the decisions that we make about water. Should it be free? Why do we pay for water? And even thinking about Coca-Cola in schools versus water, or what other things that we might have access to in schools. And so we played around with that. Then moving to thinking about the water cycle itself, it was a little bit more natural. The other thing that was really important for me for integrating this module into my course was the environmental injustice piece. Because in the third part of the course, we are looking a little bit more at social issues. As a cultural anthropology class, one of the goals in general is to just introduce students to different parts of the world and cultural differences around the globe. But in the third part of the course, we do come home, and we think about the ways that anthropology can help us ask questions relevant to our own society as well. So, we're looking at race, we're looking at poverty, we're looking at medical systems and inequalities within the medical system, and we're also looking a little bit at the way different groups get differentially exploited. Having that environmental injustice piece, as part of the module, was the way that I was able to integrate it. In the brainstorming part, when we all got together and were thinking about it, we all felt strongly that we wanted to have that piece in. But when we really developed it and we had so many things that we wanted to include, that piece fell out a little bit. It wasn't there as strongly as I would have liked to see from my class. And so that's what I focused on for the last assignment in the course, the assignment that I developed. And the students were asked to focus a bit more on environmental injustice, and the ways that a less powerful group is perhaps exploited in some ways, or finds themselves in a situation where there's chemical dumping in their water sources. And so they got to choose what issue they looked at, but they had to do a research project around that. And so all in all, I think it integrated pretty well into my class.

What Worked Well

The first time I taught it, I taught it as a first year seminar. And it was that first semester back. I mean, some schools were still completely online because of COVID, but we had returned to the classroom, because we are a smaller school and we were doing a little bit of a hybrid model. It just happened that it was a first year seminar, meaning that it was only first year students in the class. And because of the situation with COVID, I really wanted them to have a chance to get to know each other from day one. So I had structured the whole course to have a lot of group activities. When this module came, which again is toward the later part of the course, they were well versed in working with each other and it really worked well. I thought the teamwork was pretty good. Some groups still will divide and conquer, in terms of their approach. And then it's a little bit less cohesive, when they're not coming together and doing that group work piece of doing a little bit more prep work before the town hall presentation itself. But overall, I thought they did really well. And for that last piece, because I didn't know the students initially, I had been randomly putting them into groups and kind of mixing up the groups each time. But by that point of the semester, I had an idea of personalities a little bit better and friendship groupings. Because I wanted them to solidify as a group for this particular project, I actually put them into groups that I thought would work well. So sometimes that meant putting friends together, and sometimes that meant putting people with similar academic interests or abilities together. So I kind of did that, and I think that worked really well. I think the town hall exercise was great. My first year students did a really great job with the concept maps as well. But I think the town hall just hit home a little bit more, in terms of thinking a little bit more explicitly about particular stakeholders, and what their interests might be. But then having that chance to sit back and listen to other stakeholders and having that moment of realizing that, oh, okay, now, I can really see what other groups might have at stake here, and why this problem is a bit more complicated than I might have thought just looking at my own group.

Challenges and How They Were Addressed

One challenge I had mentioned was the integration of the natural water system and I addressed that by trying to just work a little bit more explicitly on thinking about water from an sociocultural perspective. The second issue was how much time to devote to the module. The first time I did it, I kept it fairly compact. And because of where it happened to fall in the semester, given the structure of the course, I was squeezing it in before Thanksgiving. I think it was about a week and a half. I'd actually given my students a few more assignments, to give them more scaffolding. So I had them turn in their research, and they had to turn in three to four pages for the town hall prep. So that was one assignment. They had a post reflection piece, where I had them pull out a little bit more about the environmental justice, again, on that moment to reflect a little bit more on that piece. And so it was a lot to ask for take-homework. They had the concept map individually, then they had the prep. And then they had, you know, the working together to put the presentation together, then the reflection. And so the second time I taught it, I stretched it out. And that meant starting it across Thanksgiving. So we worked on the concept maps and we started the group work before Thanksgiving. And then after Thanksgiving, they did the presentations and the final piece of it. But I actually think I liked it better more compact, even though it was hard for students, it was a very intensive experience, and it was fresher. When it came down to doing the group concept map at the end, I think they were able to pull it all together a little bit more, when it was more compact. So I think if I implement it again then I would do that. I would make it more compact again.

Student Response to the Module and Activities

I think it worked really well overall. I was pretty happy with it. I think the first year class, the one thing that I needed to do was a bit more scaffolding in terms of how to do a presentation, because those tended to be very short. But when we came to the discussion after the presentations, it was phenomenal. I thought they did a fabulous job. And I was so impressed with those first year students, and how critically that they were listening. So that's an important skill. I think overall, I get a little pushback with the second class, in terms of the water cycle and some of the science that module that was being asked to be brought in as prep work, but I didn't get pushback for the first class. So overall, I think students rated it pretty high. I think they enjoyed doing the final exercise, which was focusing a little bit more on the environmental injustice piece, and looking at another group that experienced environmental injustice. I think that was a great learning experience for our students. We had a poster involved with that. Students found that really fun, so that everyone had their posters up and the groups were split, where half would walk around and look at each other's work. Overall, I think it was a really good experience.