Skip to main content

Environmental Studies 381: Contested Spaces: Rivers

Module: Integral Ecology Approaches to the Minnesota River

Curricular materials created for the 2014 SAIL seminar:

Contested Spaces in the Pikes Peak region of Colorado

Course Summary

An environmental matter. An impasse. One side wants conservation of habitat and sustainable practices. The other side frames the situation through the lens of jobs and autonomy from government regulation. Why do so many sites and practices become environmentally contested spaces? How do we begin to resolve such impasses?

Most work in environmental studies -- and nearly all that is natural science and social science based -- focuses on exterior or objective perspectives, examining structures such as ecosystems or political and economic systems. This seminar will consider contested spaces and the values that underlie arguments about such spaces by also focusing on interior perspectives: the role of emotion, beauty, ideas about the self, cultural mores, and so forth. We’ll aim to understand an “integral ecology” that might reveal all that is at stake in a contested environmental space.

Module Summary

As a class, we studied together one particular nearby river, The Minnesota. We examined aspects of the river from all the integral ecology perspectives. Students, for this unit, were then expected to construct their own particular project that would require them to take up a contested issue that crosses quadrant lines.


The course, ES 381, is required for humanities-track environmental studies majors, and is optional for natural science- and social science-track ES majors. The course is a junior-senior seminar with a small enrollment, and students must have taken at least two courses in Environmental Studies before they can enroll (though all had taken more than that, and some had taken many many more). Because of the course’s level, I can assume that students are adept at understanding issues from an environmental perspective, which means understanding how practices and information go together. Though students might have varying levels of skill with scientific or statistical data, all students will be able to use data to support arguments; though students might have varying levels of experience with humanities-directed principles or theories, all students will have had some exposure to thinking broadly about values and beliefs and how they are represented in the arts and literature.

This module came after two earlier activities: 1. As a way to think through the principles of reflective judgment and integral ecology, students read articles about these and then mapped their own coursework at St. Olaf in environmental studies to the integral ecology quadrants; and 2. As a way to think through a specific environmental contested space concerning water, we examined the outflow from Skoglund Pond on our campus to its joining the Cannon River in nearby Northfield; the examining came both from in-class discussion and field experience (students had to walk this outflow). As we did our field work, we considered all the stakeholders who were part of decision making about this “river,” from the college and its campus to a retirement home, the city, and other stakeholders.

The next step, with the module I’m describing above, is to expand the scope of the contested spaces in relation to a river, and so we “moved” to consideration of a river still close enough that we could have physical experiences on the river.


Updated Mar 23, 2016

Content/Concept Goals

Students were to learn more about this particular river, including information from all four quadrants of integral ecology (exterior singular, exterior plural, interior plural, interior singular).

Higher Order Thinking Skills Goals

Integral ecology as a model requires the high-order thinking skills of comparison and judgment, as well as analysis and synthesis.

Multidisciplinary Analysis

We “mapped” the river (geography); we read about floating rivers from a philosopher’s point of view (philosophy and literature); we learned water chemistry and turbidity (chemistry); we learned the ecological and geological history of the river (history); we read about the non-governmental organizations who are responding to various problems that the river presents (sociology and economics); we considered Native Americans as stakeholders and how their cultural and religious views gave them a different sense of its utility (history/anthropology) -- all of these were put into relation in the class. Then the students had to choose and focus a project that would do something comparable in the way of multidisciplinary analysis.

Other Skills Goals

I believe strongly in students working in groups and presenting their ideas orally, and so students did presentations that I invited the entire campus to; I also believe strongly in developing writing skills (I was Director of Writing at St. Olaf for about ten years), and so we talked considerably about process. Because this course is a small-sized seminar, I also required students to do research that they would bring into class and share.

Lead Partner
Mark Allister
Professor of English, Environmental Studies, and American Studies, St. Olaf College
Environmental Studies and English
ACM Program Funding
Funding Cycle
Project Duration
Related Projects

See more »