School of Interdisciplinary Studies

(Western College Program)

Miami University


WCP 261                              Integrative Seminar                Spring 2003


Location and Meeting Time by Section:

A (Blaisdell & Wolfe) Monday 12:00 – 12:50 Leonard Theater; Tuesday and Thursday 10:00-11:50 21Peabody

B (Garrison & Green) Monday 12:00 – 12:50 Leonard Theater; Tuesday and Thursday 10:00-11:50 24Peabody

C (Cummins & Kaufman) Monday 12:00 – 12:50 Leonard Theater; Tuesday and Thursday 10:00-11:50 31Peabody


Semester Topic:



A steamboat pilot speaking to Mark Twain when Twain (Samuel Clemens) was training to be a river pilot. “When I say I’ll learn* a man the river, I mean it.” *Twain’s footnote: “Teach is not in the river vocabulary.” Life on the Mississippi (1883).


Contact Information

Muriel Blaisdell

Christopher Wolfe

134 Peabody Hall

127 Peabody Hall

Office Hours: Monday, 2:00-4:00, Tuesday  1:00-3:00

Office Hours: Monday 10:00-12:00; T, TH 9:00-10:00





Andrew Garrison

Bill Green

103 Peabody Hall

224 Boyd Hall

Office Hours: Mon. and Wed. 9:00-12:00

Office Hours: Monday 8-10 and Tuesday 2-4





Hays Cummins

Burt Kaufman

222 Boyd Hall

111 Peabody Hall

Office Hours: TBA M-W 1-3, F 3-5

Office Hours: T & TH. 9:00-10:00; Wed. 9:00-11:00




Course Description

“Down through the years,” one writer has remarked, “the image of a river has frequently been used as a metaphor for life.” Rivers have, for example, been widely regarded as the sustenance of life, forever renewing the fertility of land. Rivers have also been shrouded in mystery as witness the countless efforts to find the source of the Nile River. Rivers have even assumed a spiritual and sacred countenance. The Euphrates and Tygris Rivers are both mentioned in the biblical story of Adam and Eve. For Hindu  India the Ganges River is only the most sacred of its many rivers. Finally, rivers have often been the backdrop for theater, musicals, song, dance, and literature. Perhaps the most prominent school of American art in the 19th century was the Hudson River School. And who can remember Mark Twain without thinking at the same time of the Mississippi River?

            But rivers are more than a metaphor of life or a subject for artists or the stuff of great fiction. On rivers depends much of the world’s agriculture, industry, and energy and countless numbers of jobs. One writer has portrayed the typical river as “an assembly line that conveys energy and matter to organisms along the way to be used in manufacture.”  Rivers also provide numerous recreational opportunities, including fishing, boating, swimming, and rafting. They are vital to the transportation and commerce of most nations, including the United States. Trade routes have been closely tied to rivers. Cities and ports throughout the world have grown or declined because of their dependence on rivers. The same is true of vast regions of the American Southwest dependent on the Colorado River for irrigation and drinking water. TVA and the great dams of the American northwest have provided cheap and abundant electric power to the regions in which they operate. At the same time, efforts to dam up rivers has been a cause celebre for many environmental groups.  Finally, rivers have provided natural borders between countries, states, and regions. It is probably not too much of an exaggeration to argue that more wars and legal battles have been fought over boundary rights involving rivers than most any other issue.

            To understand the true import of rivers to civilizations---ancient and modern and both as cultural subject matter and as issues of political, economic, and social policy--- it is necessary, therefore, to look at rivers to from a number of different perspectives. At the same time, policy issues cannot be separate from the scientific, ecological, and technological considerations (silt, sediment, salinity, pollution, and flood control), or the political, economic, legal, and social interests, or the overarching cultural assumptions that help shape policy and drive the decision-making process.

Interdisciplinary Nature of Course


A study of rivers lends itself nicely to the type of integrative learning that is foundational to the Western College Program and serves as the core methodology of this team-taught seminar. In a very real sense, the course is as much about interdisciplinary methodology as it is about rivers. It is intended to weave together the interdisciplinary and disciplinary knowledge from the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities and to help prepare you for advanced integrative learning.

            We will examine the impact of rivers on history and culture and consider how these issues should factor into policy decisions. We will look at some of the scientific principles and technological issues associated with rivers by examining these issues within the context of both great rivers and some of our smaller, more local rivers. In similar fashion, we will examine major policy questions having to do with rivers, with special emphasis on flood control, irrigation, and the environmental movement. In order to provide some cross-cultural perspective we will examine rivers in India, China, and Ethiopia. Throughout the course, our emphasis will be on the interconnection of these various perspectives.


Class Format and Requirements

This seminar will be based primarily on discussion of the assigned readings. (Always keep in mind that while the reading assignments may seem heavy, they reflect the fact that this is a six credit hour course (or twice the equivalent of most courses offered at Miami).  For each class, two students will be expected to lead the discussion. Depending on the topic for the class, one of the team faculty will also serve as a facilitator (being backed up, of course, by the other team members). You will be expected to come to class fully prepared to discuss the assigned readings. As part of the course, we will also be taking several local walks and field trips designed to raise a number of scientific and social issues involving rivers; these range from water chemistry and limnology, on the one hand, to land use and recreation, on the other. Participation in the two field trips on Saturday 4/5 and Saturday 4/12 is required.


Course Goals

By the end of this course you should: