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Faculty to Explore the Meaning of Wilderness in the Boundary Waters

Published: October 17, 2016

Faculty to Explore the Meaning of Wilderness in the Boundary Waters

Paddling out from the Coe College Wilderness Field Station, a gateway to the Boundary Waters.

What is “wilderness”?

What is it biologically? What role has it played historically in human thought and art, and in economic and social development? What places do wilderness, the wild, and nature have in our culture and communities today?

These are some of the questions to be addressed in Wilderness in the Anthropocene, an ACM Seminar in Advanced Interdisciplinary Learning (SAIL) that will gather 15 faculty from ACM colleges in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota.

Over the course of the seminar’s 10 days on site next summer, the faculty will learn about the area’s long history of human settlement and grapple with a current local issue — a proposed mining project that has exacerbated divisions among various stakeholders, business interests, and organizations over the mine’s potential benefits and costs. They will also experience the wilderness for themselves by taking a multi-day canoe trip into the Boundary Waters.

Following the on-site portion of the seminar, SAIL participants use what they’ve learned as they develop innovative curricular materials for upper-level, interdisciplinary courses at ACM colleges.

The topic was conceived by three faculty members who will lead the seminar:

  • Jessie Ellis, Assistant Professor of Biology, Coe College
  • Chris Fink, Professor of English, Beloit College
  • Pablo Toral, Professor of International Relations and Environmental Studies, Beloit College


The on-site seminar, held July 7-16, 2017, will be based at Coe College’s Wilderness Field Station, located near Ely, MN. Set on remote Low Lake with direct canoeing access to the Boundary Waters, the field station is a natural outdoor lab for learning.

Discussion of the history and ecology of the local area, including the longtime importance of mining in the region’s economy, will illuminate the larger context surrounding the seminar’s case study of the mining project.

With the growing importance of tourist and arts-related industries built on Ely’s position as a gateway to the Boundary Waters, the project is a flashpoint that raises urgent and timely questions about how communities use and view wilderness.

The seminar syllabus will be geared to exploring the interdisciplinary nature of the topic and highlighting ways that the theme of wilderness can serve as a springboard for faculty to create course modules and other curricula that draw upon a variety of disciplines.

Just as the seminar leaders represent disciplines in the sciences, humanities, and social sciences, four interdisciplinary groups of three faculty each will be selected to participate in Wilderness in the Anthropocene.

The SAIL 2017 webpage and call for participants has complete details for faculty at ACM colleges who are interested in applying. The application deadline is December 15, 2016.

This will be the sixth and final seminar sponsored by the SAIL program, which is funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and designed to give faculty opportunities to engage in intensive exploration of interdisciplinary themes.


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