Geologist Mary Savina and historian Victoria Morse examine how humans impact and are impacted by waterways. Professors Savina and Morse engage students and community members in reflections on local waterways, including Northfield’s Cannon River.

Students' map projects from the Rome OCS program.
Students’ map projects from the Rome OCS program.

How does the Cannon River relate to the Tiber River of Rome? How have humans understood rivers over time? What can we learn from the intersections of history and geology, of maps and morphology, or of culture and nature? In their collaborative public scholarship effort “Mediterranean Rivers: Chained and Unchained,” Professors Mary Savina (Geology) and Victoria Morse (History, Medieval and Renaissance Studies) explore these questions and more. 

This multi-part exhibit opened in the Perlman Teaching Museum in the Weitz Center for Creativity on September 18, 2015 with a public lecture titled “Mediterranean Rivers: a Dialogue between an Historian and a Geologist.” The exhibition runs until November 18th and includes several public lectures from prominent scholars and student-led events related to rivers, maps, and the Mediterranean. A culmination of several years of research and teaching, this project explores attitudes to rivers and their relations with human society in the 16th and 17th centuries, while also challenging us think about our interactions with local rivers in Minnesota today.

Discover more information about the exhibition and associated events.

Locating the Source

Savina and Morse have shared an interest in maps, rivers, and geography that they have known about since Morse started teaching at Carleton in 1999. Despite coming from vastly different academic backgrounds, Savina and Morse found themselves thinking through similar questions about interactions between humans, rivers, and landscapes. As they thought about maps and rivers, Morse and Savina began to see that a joint project would provide exciting connections to their classes and opportunities for interdisciplinary learning.

One of the earliest components of the collaborative project was the involvement of first-year Argument and Inquiry seminars about four years ago. Savina was teaching a seminar on geology in the field, while Morse was teaching one on maps in the medieval to post-Renaissance period. The seminars met at the same time, so they decided to have their classes meet twice. In one period, Savina’s geology students took Morse’s history students on a trip around campus and the Arboretum. These students explained how geologists use maps to learn about and record the history of the campus. In the second period, the students visited the Special Collections room in the library, where Morse’s students showed the geology students  what they had learned about the social and cultural history of maps and cartography. The reflections of both sets of students were fascinating.

The history students were fascinated by the realistic uses and “accuracy” of the maps the geology students showed them, for they had been working with maps that illustrated geography in ways that symbolically represented the importance of certain geographic sites by portraying them in disproportionate sizes and distances. Conversely, the geology students asked why anyone would want a map that did not show the “real” world. Savina sees this reaction as showing that “the shared experience meant something to them. That was an early indication that there were some things that we could collaborate on in terms of bringing historical elements into geology and vice-versa.”

In Morses’s classes, students worked on projects aiming to propose cartographically-focused items (such as books and city maps) for an eventual exhibit. Although many of the items researched by students in her classes early on in the project’s history did not appear in the museum exhibition, Morse emphasized that “this process couldn’t have happened without that thinking, without those earlier steps.” Those students who were first and second year students have been able to “see how a big project develops” over time instead of only seeing small, disconnected parts of a professor’s research opportunity. In addition to offering students classroom-based learning opportunities, Morse has involved students in civically-engaged learning in two other ways. First, several of her classes have visited Prairie Creek Elementary School in Northfield, teaching local students about map-making in the medieval and Renaissance eras. Second, one student, William Hall ’16, became a research assistant early in the process of thinking about an exhibition, searching for potential sources and information on finding exhibition materials. (Hall also interviewed Savina and Morse during the early stages of their collaboration, providing some of the material for this feature.)

Collaborating on an Evolving Project

After teaching several classes related to their developing project and traveling to Italy separately, Savina and Morse finally visited their research site together in June. After the off-campus program Morse was leading in Rome ended, Savina joined Morse and her family to tour almost the entire length of the Tiber River. They visited Ostia Antica, an ancient city near the mouth of the Tiber, and traveled all the way to the (supposed) source of the Tiber: a tiny hole in a wall with several plaques.

For Savina, seeing the Tiber River in person with Morse was a compelling experience. As she explains, visiting the middle part of the river “brought home to me the matter of settlement not only in Italy but also in Greece and some other places too . . . I really needed that visual, in my face, eight hours a day, for that to really register. . .”

Morse agrees: “It’s not very often that you get to follow something out with a physical sense of connectedness.” Morse also emphasizes the importance of visiting the Tiber together, as scholars of different fields: “You see things differently.  . .  you notice different things. . . being with Mary, we saw things because she pointed them out to us that I would never have noticed by myself. . . suddenly it’s not just the things you’re aware of that you notice, you’ve got this whole other discipline and set of experiences. ” 

Creating an Exhibition

After their grand tour of the Tiber, Savina and Morse returned to Northfield to make their long-anticipated exhibition a reality. During the summer of 2015, Savina and Morse collaborated with students and the Perlman Teaching Museum professional curatorial staff to transform their long-term project into an exhibition and series of events. Morse and Savina cite the professional curatorial staff as absolutely essential and invaluable partners in their project.

In addition to faculty and staff support, the project had two student exhibition assistants who contributed their time and ideas during the summer. Tyler Spaeth ’16, a history major, had assisted with Morse’s research during winter break of 2014. This opportunity to assist with a professor’s research came from Spaeth visiting Morse’s office hours while taking her Renaissance Worlds class, and asking if she had any projects she was working on that she would like help with. From that meeting emerged a multi-school-year-long research opportunity in which Spaeth gained experience in conducting independent research, collaborating with other researchers and professional staff, and assisting with preparing the eventual exhibition. In the summer of 2015, he continued to assist with Morse’s research, but also conducted meetings and wrote many of the explanatory plates on display next to items in the exhibition. Reflecting on the process, Spaeth notes that he feels like he truly was a part of this effort: “The scripted thing from admissions is ‘you go to Carleton, you have all these opportunities.’ But it’s really true . . . this opportunity would probably be filled by a grad student [at a larger university] . . . I wasn’t doing the grunt work so much, but really contributing to the project. . . It was really cool to have that much of a stake in the process.” Working on the Mediterranean Rivers project influenced his current comps project on the 16th century and history of science in Europe, and has affirmed his interest in pursuing a career involving teaching, working with kids, and sharing his love of history.

George McAneny ’16 also contributed significantly to the project. A senior geology major who had studied earth sciences on an off-campus program in Italy, McAneny came to Savina looking for a project related to potential comps research. When Savina mentioned the idea of making an interactive “stream table” model that would allow visitors to experience stream morphology up close through touch and sight, McAneny knew it was the project for him. He had plenty of experience with hands-on crafts, arts, and carpentry, while, at the same time, he was looking for a way to immerse himself within the geology department during his final year at Carleton. For him, the project was an excellent way to meld his interests and explore possibilities for his future: “I want to continue research. . . to continue perhaps building models or mixing disciplines like art and geology to convey a message to a given audience, be it middle schoolers, or elementary schoolers, or . . . the general public.” He describes the project as “a gateway for figuring out more ways in which I can engage,” and as a way of learning about himself. He plans to become a geology professor and to continue learning, teaching, and learning through teaching. One aspect of the project that he anticipates will be the “biggest challenge but also the most rewarding” is demonstrating the stream table to local elementary and middle school students. He hopes the students will “connect the table to what they see in their lives” and “gain some knowledge, pass it onto their parents . . . get more people to think about where we live and why we live there.”

Thinking Beyond Classroom Walls

Morse’s and Savina’s multiyear collaboration has involved many features related to the CCCE’s mission: promoting community learning and student learning, producing a form of scholarship that is publically-accessible, and enhancing student learning through non-classroom-based opportunities for engagement.

A major component of this project has been the involvement of both Savina and Morse’s ACE (Academic Civic Engagement) courses. Savina says that ACE “fits very well into the college’s mission to prepare students for life beyond Carleton,” giving them the skills to communicate with the public, think about how their work will be used and viewed from outside perspectives, and work collaboratively and professionally. Morse adds that “students enjoy and respond well to this type of project” because they can see the concrete and real value of the work that they are doing beyond classroom.  In addition, students have opportunities for feedback from multiple perspectives, giving them new insights into how they go about doing their scholarly and civic work.

This project is also a form of public scholarship, although Savina notes that most of her previous public scholarship work has not resulted in any form of academic publication, but rather something that is of tangible utility to a non-academic audience. Both Savina and Morse, however, emphasize that the project makes accessible scholarship and artifacts that too often are not publically-available.  Morse notes that “we have access to resources on campus as a prestigious academic institution, and we can turn those resources outward for the good of our students and our community.”

Both Morse and Savina highly encourage other faculty members to consider using an exhibit — and facilitating a class project revolving around that exhibit — as a way to involve students in academic civic engagement, scholarly research, and project design. Even with such a long-range time frame, students can see the results of their work in meaningful and unique ways. Some suggestions Morse and Savina provide include ceding some of the creative control of a project to students, listening to other faculty member’s experiences at events such as the Learning and Teaching Center’s presentations, and taking advantage of the campus professional staff members who can help make these projects a reality. Savina says that “it was an enormous relief to find out” how much help the Perlman Teaching Museum staff could provide. Morse adds that it has been “just such a treat to get to work with such talented professionals,” and that through their partnership with the museum, they realized that “you don’t have to do everything yourself.” The Perlman Teaching Museum has fostered many student, faculty, and staff exhibitions, including those designed by student curatorial seminars. Past exhibitions include the Professor Jay Beck’s “Sound Design” class’s collection of prints and photographs related to sound and a studio art faculty exhibit of pieces inspired by college collections. To learn more about exhibitions, visit the archived exhibitions or the Arts at Carleton website’s advice for planning an exhibition.

Another campus resource for faculty interested in conducting public scholarship projects or integrating ACE opportunities into their classes is the CCCE! Professional and student staff are trained to assist faculty, students, and staff with logistical, organizational, and theoretical questions about civically-engaged learning and scholarship. Working with students and the public to create rich and vibrant opportunities for sharing knowledge requires time, commitment, and collaboration — and provides powerful results for all involved.