This is an article from the spring 2020 issue of 
LSA MagazineRead more stories from the magazine.

An instructor and a group of students were sitting on the shore of Douglas Lake—located between Munro Lake and Burt Lake in northern Michigan—learning about how the world began in another lake.

The instructor told a creation story of the Anishinaabeg—a group that includes several Indigenous communities including the Algonquin, Mississauga, Ojibwe, Ottawa, and Potawatomi. The story goes like this: Sky Woman falls from the heavens to a watery place and the creatures living there create the world we know by dredging dirt up from beneath the water to catch her as she lands.

As the instructor spoke, she drew in the sand on the beach on Douglas Lake, explaining how giving lessons in the sand was how elders from the Anishinaabeg taught. The lesson occurred, was learned, and then was swept away.

Here the lesson was taught as part of a program called the Great Lakes Arts, Cultures, and Environments (GLACE) program. GLACE takes place every spring at the University of Michigan Biological Station (UMBS). Founded in 1909, UMBS is a 10,000-acre property that has traditionally had a strong academic focus on environmental and biological sciences with a single, much-loved humanities course once taught by Michigan naturalist poet and retired LSA lecturer Keith Taylor.

Now, that individual course and its focus on the importance of place and the natural world has inspired and been expanded into a fully fledged humanities program of its own. GLACE runs in the spring term, with a core class taught by Ingrid Diran, assistant professor of comparative literature and LSA’s Program in the Environment, that runs the entire span of the program. Additionally, there are two-week intensive classes on Native American studies, creative writing, and critical cartography.

“The focus of the program is to ask what it means to be here now,” says Diran. “We wanted to lead with Indigenous understandings of the place, including language, and we wanted to center interdisciplinary thinking and to make that kind of thinking part of how they look at northern Michigan.”

A Sense of Place

GLACE’s origins can be traced back to English Language and Literature Professor and Department Chair David Porter, who was looking to create a new program that possessed three core characteristics: a clear English component, a genuine commitment to interdisciplinary collaboration, and subject matter that was unique to Michigan.

So when Porter heard about the Transforming Learning Program, a grant-funded initiative to host new experimental programs at UMBS, Porter jumped at the opportunity to build a program that could use humanities courses to connect students meaningfully to the state of Michigan.

 “I’ve been increasingly curious about the ways the Department of English in particular could take account of our institutional locatedness and leverage it as a starting point for learning experiences,” Porter says. “I want students to think of GLACE and UMBS as a place where thinking across disciplines and across modes and genres is natural and taken for granted.”

Locatedness is at the core of the program, but equally central to the GLACE experience is the student-led quality of collaboration and instruction. Students are asked to lead hour-long discussions on a reading or artifact of their choice as part of the program. Since the discussions take place on one of UMBS’s two pontoon boats, these discussions have been lovingly renamed “bow of the boat” lectures.

“We all went in with our own major and our own expertise, things we like and things we don’t like,” says recent LSA graduate Andie McNally, who took GLACE last year. (McNally majored in LSA’s Program in the Environment.) “Contributing and collaborating throughout GLACE showed us how much we should take pride in what we know and be open to what we don’t know.”

A variety of activities encouraged students to interact and reflect on the environment around them in wildly different ways, from the serious, including working on a UNESCO grant application to protect UMBS and parts of the surrounding Great Lakes watershed; to the scientific, including accompanying LSA natural science undergraduates on trips to do fieldwork; to the imaginative, by  participating in art-writing projects where students explored ideas about coincidence and nonhuman worlds.

The diversity of projects was part of the appeal, says Cielle Waters-Umfleet, a second-year creative writing major, and it was part of what students take with them after the course is over. 

“GLACE is the type of program that gives you a better understanding of all of the things that have happened in this state even before it was a state or a territory,” Waters-Umfleet says. “It gives you a better sense of where you are, who you are, how we got here, and why we’re here. Going forward, I don’t think I will look at my work the same way if I hadn’t taken the class.”  


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Top photo courtesy of GLACE