Issues of Water Sustainability Drive Innovative Courses

Issues of Water Sustainability Drive Innovative Courses

“Water, water every where, nor any drop to drink.”

That line from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem, the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” should have special significance for undergraduates at the College this year. That’s because they’re inundated with opportunities to understand and grapple with issues that pertain to the world’s growing water crisis.

As the chosen theme for the 2017-2018 academic year by the College’s Sustainability Literacy Institute (SLI), water, access and quality has been front and center on campus since August. It’s this theme that accounts for why The College Reads! program selected Charles Fishman’s book The Big Thirst, which explores humanity’s relationship with water. It’s also why a small cadre of students were invited to Water Mission International’s North Charleston base in October 2017 to assemble a water filtration system that’s now displayed on campus. It’s also why many students are studying water-related issues from a variety of academic perspectives.

Junior Tim Housand, a student in the course on indigenous water rights.

At least four separate courses are being taught this semester that pertain to water rights and issues. These classes are deemed either sustainability-focused or sustainability-related by the SLI. Political science professor Annette Watson is teaching Comparative Indigenous Water Rights and Governance. Religious studies professor Todd LeVasseur is teaching Religion, Water and Sustainability. Women’s and Gender Studies professor Kristi Brian is teaching Water Protectors in Anthropological Perspective. And communication professor Caroline Foster is teaching Water in the Media.

Many of the students from Watson, Brian, LeVasseur and Foster’s courses plan to participate in a water procession on campus on Thursday afternoon, March 8, 2018. The professors say they’ve organized the event as a way for their students to engage in activism regarding the issues they’re studying.

“We’re purposely staging this procession on International Women’s Day,” Brian explains. “Across the world, many of the communities that are challenged by a lack of ready access to clean, potable water use female labor to transport their water. This often means that young girls have to drop out of school so that they can spend the time to ensure that their households have fresh water. That’s an important dynamic for our students to understand, and this kind of activism – staging a procession about water – can help ingrain and share that message.”

According to junior Tim Housand, a double major in political science and German who is enrolled in Watson’s course, it’s imperative for students to understand the many challenges associated with water.

“Water is ubiquitous,” he says. “I’ve seen how it affects the lives of those in drought-stricken areas and how it affects those who live in flood-prone places. For us here, in Charleston, it’s an important factor because of increased flooding and concerns about water quality as well. I’d say that all of my friends at the College are acutely aware of water issues, especially flooding.”

Housand’s primary interest, he says, is water management policy, particularly policy that applies to transboundary peoples such as the Yupik tribes in Alaska. “I’m focusing my work on the Yupik, but in our class, we’ve also learned about the Gullah Geechee communities here in the Lowcountry and how they’ve managed their resources such as water even without a formal governmental structure.”

Discussions in at least three of these courses have focused on the Standing Rock crisis that occurred in 2016 near Bismarck, North Dakota. According to Brian, the water protectors who emerged from that crisis are what prompted her to answer the SLI’s call to develop a sustainability-focused course.

“I knew that this would be a way for us to delve deeper into issues of environmental racism and settler colonialism that continue to oppress communities across the U.S. and abroad,” she says.

And LeVasseur, who is also the Director of the SLI, says the goal of such courses is to push faculty and students to explore issues of sustainability in new and different ways.

“A key point of our work within the SLI is to help the campus have a sustained, interdisciplinary discussion about 21st century problems,” says LeVasseur. “I’m thankful that several of my colleagues embraced the challenge of teaching water issues across the triple bottom line of social, economic and environmental systems. And next year, the problem we’ve chosen to study as a campus is social justice and fair distribution. Already, we’ve received 40 course proposals from over 35 faculty who hope to explore this theme in their respective classes.”

For additional information about sustainability-focused or sustainability-related courses, check out the Sustainability Literacy Institute website.