What does Speculation Bring to Water Pedagogy?

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This is the first post in a series on water pedagogies edited by Sritama Chatterjee.

Speculation drives my teaching. Speculation can cause anxiety because it involves risk-taking, for both the students and me. There are two reasons I do this.

The first is passing forward a formative experience in pushing our limits and embracing the discomfort with speculation. As a designer, I came to enjoy the discomfort of speculative thinking. As someone who stumbled into design after other graduate degrees, thinking about speculative designs as studio projects seemed like a fool’s errand at first. I often thought and complained about the need for creating these fanciful designs that would never see the light of day. Yet by the middle of my first studio semester, I began to understand why it mattered: in discomfort, there was room for creativity. Pushing me out of my comfort zone meant I was no longer bound by all that I knew. And that is what I want to pass forward to my students.

The second flows from the first, rethinking how we think of water and our relationship with water. Is water even a monolithic entity? As a teenager, I went on a multiple-week hike to one of the holiest sites in Hinduism. Although we did not end up completing the last leg of the hike, choosing instead to raft down the Ganges, we did follow the river up, past the Himalayan foothills. Through our journey up the river, its changing colors struck me. The closer we got to the source, the less it resembled the large, brown river we had first encountered downstream. In every town that we passed, the stories about the river were different. Mythology and ecology collapsed into one, enriching stories that explained the change in hue.

Heron flying over the Grand River in downtown Grand Rapids. Photo by the author.

Towards the end, I was not sure if the waterbody I had encountered for the better part of a month was even one river. I found myself in conversation with dam activists and emerging scholarship on dams, displacement, and development in India. Reading philosophers like Heidegger and Agamben informed my own ideas about nature and infrastructure. Scholarship on dams like Silenced Rivers, Cadillac Desert, and Rivers of Empire changed the way I understood the relationship between dams and their aftereffects. I have followed this path, constantly wondering how we even think of water. Is it one thing? Are there waters? Was Hindu mythology onto something when it extolled the different properties inherent in each river? The hydrologic cycle, to my mind, is an unsatisfying representation of the richness of water because it reduces the wonder of water into a legible state. Every time I look at a river or even hold up some tap water, I cannot help but be filled with wonder: what is this? Why here? Why now? What does its presence here tell us about ourselves? As teacher-scholar-activists, we perhaps need to consider these questions as the scaffolding of our intellectual and pedagogical queries.

This fall, I will start as an assistant professor at Grand Valley State University (GVSU), and one of the classes I am most excited about will explore the idea and nature of sustainability. There are a couple of speculative assignments I have in mind.

The first borrows from Enrique Salmon’s pedagogy of teaching ecology in a kincentric model. I want to use a case study of a local river to consider the question: what is the idea of a river? We will consider the river running through the campus and through the state’s capital as well as the second-largest city, the Grand River. This river, one of the largest tributaries of Lake Michigan and the longest river in the state, runs through the GVSU campus, a stone’s throw away from the classrooms I will be teaching in. I will ask students to observe the river every week, at a time and spot on the campus of their choice (or along the watershed if they live off-campus), for the course of the semester. Some of the questions I would like to consider are: What does the river look like at this spot, at this time of day? How does that change? How does this river at this spot relate to the river they may have observed at other points on its course –source, mouth, rapids, valleys? Is the river different at different times and/or spots? If so, what is a river? How do we define a river? Students will write/draw/talk journal entries recording scientific data as well as what they observe of the river and its surroundings.

In the second assignment, around the middle of the semester (depending on which semester I end up teaching the class), students will be encouraged to undertake a field trip from the river’s headwaters to its mouth. Through that ride, they will be encouraged to note the number of times and the ways in which the river shows up. In addition to the field trip and journal entries, we will have visits by Indigenous community members including Levi Rickert who founded the Native News network in 2011 as well as day trips to Grand Rapids Whitewater which is working to remove dams on the river in downtown Grand Rapids.

View of the Grand River in downtown Grand Rapids. Photo by the author.

This river was deeply transformed at the height of the lumber boom in the nineteenth century, made to work for the industry. This is not a new story, as we know. Yet, for a state like Michigan, this is a story that needs consideration. Michigan has more coastline than any other state in the United States. We tend to take the water around us for granted. Every so often water crises like those at Flint and Benton Harbor occupy national and international imagination for a while, before getting lost again. If Michigan is to break the cycle of bad news about its rivers, it will need to redefine its relationship with its waters. Through both these exercises, my aim is to push students to consider how humans interact with rivers, and how our understandings of water and rivers are shaped by our vantage points—whether stasis or movement. Through these journal entries and the field trip, I hope to push them to question how we have been taught to read rivers. My hope is that by the end of the semester, their understanding of the river and its journey is renewed. In so doing, I hope they will reconsider their relationship with the river.

By observing the river regularly, I want to encourage students to think about how, when, and why the river changes over time. In so doing, they will consider change over time as observation. In observing from the same spot, I hope they are able to observe different actors interact with the river. Instead of merely reading a river on a map as being static, I hope to enable observation and respect as part of that reading, imbibing movement, mobility, and multiple vantage points. By considering the river at a particular spot over time as well as learning about the river shed, my hope is that students are able to (re)consider the ways in which we might unproblematically and passively read a river. Instead, I hope to push them to think of rivers more relationally, decentering the anthropocentric conception of nature.

The climate crises are firmly here. Activities like this may not undo the actions that brought us here, but they hopefully will enable and empower future generations to rethink the vocabularies they will continue to inherit. Rethinking the categories through which we think of rivers, waters, and natures could hold parables for this simple molecule whose bonds have formed the basis of all civilization.

Feature image: Grand Valley State University’s Little Mac Bridge, Sourced from Wikimedia Commons.
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Ramya is an Assistant Professor in Integrative, Religious, and Intercultural Studies at the Brooks College of Interdisciplinary Studies at Grand Valley State University in Allendale MI. A transnational and interdisciplinary environmental scholar who focuses on rivers, dredging, and the place of nature in the Great Lakes, Ramya’s research has been published in academic and public-facing avenues. She takes tea and dredging (not necessarily in that order) seriously. Ramya has also published work on dams in South Asia. As a survivor of domestic abuse and as a single parent, Ramya’s scholarship is driven by a commitment to social/ecological justice and equity. Website: www.riverborders.com Twitter: @ramyasat

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