By Rachel Thomas '14
In May, politics professor Dr. Jay Barth, history professor Dr. Jeff Kosiorek, and creative writing professor Hope Coulter led a group of 12 students on an interdisciplinary Odyssey trip down the Buffalo River.
Student participants include:
- Monica Chatterton '13 from St. Francis, La.
- Nathan Crockett '15 from Knoxville, Tenn.
- Alli Dillard '14 from Memphis, Tenn.
- Molly Elders '13 from Mountain Home, Ark.
- Jonathan Howard '13 from Round Rock, Texas
- Lindsay Lloyd '14 from Booneville, Ark.
- Joe McCain '13 from Fayetteville, Ark.
- Thomas Odom '14 from Fayetteville, Ark.
- Cassidy Robinson '13 from Laguna Beach, Calif.
- Aaron Steinberg '15 from Jackson, Tenn.
- Allison Tschiemer '13 from Dallas, Texas
- Kaleb Wolfe '14 from Medina, Tenn.
The professors chose the Buffalo because of its natural beauty and its historical significance as the first national river in the U.S. This year is the 40th anniversary of the legislation that made this river a protected national park, halting plans by the Army Corps of Engineers to dam it.
Many Arkansans, including then-Gov. Orval Faubus, were instrumental in protecting the river. However, the decision to make it nationally protected caused a variety of issues.
"Arkansas has an ambivalent relationship with the national government and the creation of a national river was intrusive into the rights of the landowners, so that was an interesting conflict," Barth said.
All three professors were kicking around possible ways to focus on the Buffalo River, either through a course or a trip, before they finally came together to plan a joint Odyssey experience.
"Jeff Kosiorek and I had talked about it for a couple of years," Barth said. "Jeff had done a series of trips to New Mexico, studying the environmental history and culture of that area, and so I was intrigued by trying to do the same thing closer to here, because of the really interesting policy debate over the damming of the river, and then of course the nationalization of the river."
Coulter had also been considering the Buffalo River area.
"I had the idea for a while about doing some kind of interdisciplinary study about the Buffalo, and I mentioned it to Dr. Barth," Coulter said. "At that time I kept thinking about it as a course."
"The three of us really began thinking through what a trip might look like," Barth said.
The finished project was a 12-day trip that would take students around northwest Arkansas and expose them to the natural, political, historical, cultural and artistic aspects of the past and present of the Buffalo River and the surrounding region.
"I hope that they got ideas for how they might use Arkansas as a laboratory for their undergraduate research, no matter what field they're from," Barth said.
Coulter said that she, Barth and Kosiorek didn't go into the trip with a specific synthesis of their fields in mind.
"I think part of the fascination is in letting those approaches interplay and especially with the actual experience of being there," she said.
"When you look at the assignments that the students carried out and what we did during the trip and the people we met with you can see all three of those at work in, I think, a pretty equal manner," Barth said of the three academic fields he, Kosiorek, and Coulter brought to the trip. "I think the area that we ended up focusing more on that surprised us was the natural history of the area … and I think in a lot of ways the natural history is kind of the center, it ties to Jeff's environmental history, my environmental policy work, and into Hope's creative responses to nature, so it's kind of the cog in that wheel."
As part of their experience, students heard a lecture on the natural history of the Buffalo River from Hendrix biology professor Dr. George Harper; attended a presentation on oral history methods at the David and Barbara Pryor Center at the University of Arkansas; learned about the history of the fight for the Buffalo River's protection from members of the Ozark Society, who led the movement and professors at the University of Arkansas; spoke to a geologist and a musician; went on a bird walk with Hendrix Visiting Fellow Maureen McClung; and were guided in their creative responses by a published poet, as well as much more.
Coulter said they were careful to schedule time for writing responses into the trip schedule, culminating in the responses led by poet Greg Brownderville, and that she had had a general arc in mind for the prompts she gave students.
"I really like all kinds of art that responds to things in the real world…and I thought it would interesting to see how students responded to a place that I personally find very beautiful," she said. "And then have that response deepened by a knowledge of the natural history and the political history of the place."
"The creative response is a way to process the other kinds of learning," she added.
Coulter had always thought an interdisciplinary approach was necessary for a place like the Buffalo River.
"It would be wrong, almost, to put the filter of only one lens on it, and it would shortchange it intellectually," she said.
The students who went on the trip were a diverse group. They varied in class year - from rising sophomores to rising seniors - as well as in their academic disciplines and level of experience with backpacking and canoeing. Some students were from Arkansas; some were from out of state.
Of the out-of-state students Coulter said, with a laugh, "They didn't know Arkansas had such beautiful places."
Cassidy Robinson, a senior from out -of-state, said she's had some experience with the beauty of Arkansas but the Buffalo River made her understand why it's called The Natural State.
"I've backpacked Yosemite and traveled around lush parts in northern India," Robinson said. "And Arkansas' landscape compares; it is truly something else."
"I enjoyed the interdisciplinary design in how we learned from all sides, including interviewing some of the locals who opposed the nationalization of the River because they valued the lost river culture," Robinson added. "I really enjoyed the poetry aspect of the trip and getting to know the professors on a first name basis, something many students at large universities cannot even imagine."
There were a few difficult times, but the most difficult one came with a silver lining.
"The most frustrating time was when we got to this field station," she said. "It's a nice house but has some maintenance issues."
When the Hendrix group arrived, the water wasn't working. After trying to fix it themselves they walked down the road and asked a neighbor, who helped them. The neighbor turned out to be a summer worker for the National Parks Service and a former high school biology teacher. He asked the group if they wanted to see a great spot.
Coulter admitted that she was ready to relax at that point, but she and several other students hopped into the back of his truck.
"He bounced us through the woods to this spot, it didn't even look like a road, and then we had to get out and walk," she said.
The hike ended at an overlook that Coulter described as simply "incredible."
"It was one of those incredible things that wouldn't have happened if we hadn't had that problem with the water," Coulter said. "It's a view I'll always remember."
For more information about the significance of the Buffalo, visit the National Parks website and this article by Dr. Barth on the river's anniversary.
Rachel Thomas '14 is an English studies major from Fayetteville, Ark.
Founded in 1876, Hendrix College is a national leader in engaged liberal arts and sciences education. Hendrix was named the country's #1 "Up and Coming" liberal arts college for the third consecutive year by U.S. News and World Report. Hendrix is featured in the 2011 edition of the Princeton Review as one of the country's best 376 colleges and is listed in the 2012 edition of the Fiske Guide to Colleges as one of 25 "Best Buy" private colleges included. Hendrix has been affiliated with the United Methodist Church since 1884. For more information, visit www.hendrix.edu.