University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

The Institute for Advanced Study at the University of Minnesota will convene an interdisciplinary Sawyer Seminar, “Making the Mississippi: Formulating new water narratives for the 21st century and beyond,” to develop a new intellectual framework and supporting narratives to theorize new ways of thinking about water systems.

The faculty seminar and parallel public lecture series will take place during 2014-15, with bi-weekly seminar speakers-both local experts and visiting scholars- representing a diversity of disciplinary backgrounds and geographical specializations. The seminar will be informed by readings in contemporary environmental history, in addition to readings specific to three case studies of human interaction with the river, represented by discrete narrative traditions: Indigenous relational ontologies, the Green American tradition, and the literature of science. Participants also will consider emerging forms of literary and artistic expression that are attempting to intervene in the contemporary political rhetoric about water plans.

River Life Map

13-02-22-River Idea Fair

The Sawyer Seminar will build a community of knowledge and practice to develop a new paradigm for people, land, and water systems. The seminar is informed by a sense of urgency about current water narratives.  Given the increasing challenges of water-related disasters we face, there is an urgent need for humanistic enquiry focused on water systems. That inquiry will explore how people have conceptualized their relation to rivers and water more generally.  Sustained engagement with these concepts, expressed through a diversity of narrative forms, will enable us to see how they have changed, and will provide us with a new platform for thinking about water as we move forward. A humanistic account of the river will be attentive to more diverse voices and perspectives than are currently heard in policy and scientific discourse. It also must utilize insights from diverse humanistic perspectives to devise new metaphors, figures of speech, and ways of knowing that will be adequately responsive to the challenges humanity faces. The seminar will draw upon the resources of the River Life Program at the University of Minnesota.

A pre-seminar faculty reading group met monthly during spring 2014. For more information, contact Phyllis Messenger ( or Pat Nunnally ( Participants may access the readings here.

The John E. Sawyer Seminars on the Comparative Study of Cultures are funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in honor of the third president of the foundation.