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UND, American College of Norway partner for Arctic course

Led by UND’s Tami Carmichael, multinational experts create course addressing Arctic challenges

Svalbard, Norway. Photo by Tami Carmichael.

The University of North Dakota and the American College of Norway have been partners in education for nearly 30 years. The partnership has allowed UND students to take part in transformative study-abroad experiences, immersing them in Norway’s unique culture and beautiful atmosphere.

ACN is located in Moss, Norway, a coastal city located south of Oslo. To the north, though, lies a small Norwegian archipelago called Svalbard, a former whaling and mining community located about halfway between Norway’s northern coast and the North Pole. Svalbard is the northernmost permanent settlement in the world, and the region it’s in is called the High Arctic.

Tami Carmichael, professor of English, Theatre, and Interdisciplinary Studies, has acted as the program coordinator for UND and ACN’s study abroad program for nearly 14 years. She has worked closely with ACN’s administration and faculty in addition to teaching classes over her tenure.

Nearly two years ago, Carmichael brainstormed ways to expand on the established relationship between the two institutions. She wanted to create an innovative new course that could use the expertise of faculty from ACN and UND and allow students to connect from across the world.

She landed on a subject she felt would be perfect: Svalbard and the challenges of the High Arctic north.

“Arctic study is a strong suit of ACN, and UND is heavily involved in Arctic study and research. Collaborating around this topic seemed a natural and important direction to go in,” Carmichael said.

Moreover, “this is a unique topic, and we wanted to offer an opportunity for students to experience it from a global perspective,” she added. “Svalbard is one of the least visited places on Earth, and it’s been incredible for our students to learn from people who are familiar with the region.”

The Arctic is currently the nexus of immense scrutiny from many disciplines. Ecological concerns, geopolitical tensions, and the increasing plight of Indigenous communities are just some of the current focal points of  research related to the region.

Svalbard at night. Photo by Tami Carmichael.

Carmichael envisioned the course as a collaboration, and so created a working group of 15 experts from four countries that are part of the international Artic Council: The United States, Norway, Finland and Canada. The course, offered online, is currently underway with students from both UND and the American College of Norway enrolled.

It was crucial to Carmichael that the course be interdisciplinary, given how much material it would take to cover the concerns of the Arctic.

“This course is trying to address a lot of complex issues, but the only way we can tackle them is through interdisciplinary collaborations,” Carmichael said. “Plus, it’s important to me that we embody a collaborative spirit in which these experts can talk to each other and share resources. That’s good for everybody.”

Robert Newman, a biology professor at UND who is one of the collaborators and contributors to the course, said that the course’s interdisciplinary nature was a big incentive for his involvement.

“I try to be interdisciplinary in my work, because academics do tend to put their heads down and stay in their own silo,” Newman said. “The problem with that is that you miss a lot of crucial elements that are affecting the things you care about. So, Tami bringing this group of people together really got me interested.”

Newman’s academic focus on wildlife biology and ecology is an essential piece of the course’s curriculum, as he delivers to students a holistic view of climate change’s impact on Arctic regions and beyond.

“The Arctic is warming three to four times faster than any other place on the planet right now,” said Newman. “There are all sorts of cascading effects that come from this, and those effects have repercussions for the entire world.”

The rapidly changing landscape of the Arctic has had a profound effect on elements such as animal migration habits and ecological habitats of the area.

“When you go into the Arctic inland, there are communities, like the Sami people of northern Finland, that rely on reindeer,” Newman said. “If the reindeer are in trouble because of increasing incidence of disease and starvation, there’s a direct impact to the people living in those areas.

“There are ways of life that have been going on for millennia in the Arctic and it’s hard enough to hold on to the Indigenous knowledge that exists there,” he explained. “But things like climate change further complicate that. These people are directly connected to the wildlife of their region, and one of the things I’m trying to impress upon my students is that we are, too. Everyone is.”

Newman emphasized not only the immediacy of the issues Arctic regions face, but also the quality of research from the region. His hope is that courses such as this will expand the reach and impact of academic knowledge on the region.

The American College of Norway campus in Moss, Norway. Photo by Tami Carmichael.

Despite environmental efforts being at the forefront of public attention in Arctic regions, Carmichael wanted to ensure the course also looked beyond them. As a result, the working group made a strong effort to make connections between the seemingly disparate disciplines covered by the course.

“The course is covering a lot of ground. For example, as the ice melts, borders can change and countries will lose or gain shoreline,” she explained. “This presents questions about policy and geopolitical decisions; so, all the subjects we included are interconnected. Our hope is that the course provides a variety of ways to think about the significance of the region.”

To this point, Carmichael emphasized the need for a strong arts and humanities component to the course because she believes some of the great interest in the region’s environmental issues may be connected, at least in part, to its haunting beauty.

“I think it’s important to be able to truly visualize what is happening in the Arctic and tell those stories,” she said. “Seeing and hearing real stories builds appreciation for this incredibly unique area of the world.

“People may ask why they should care about the Arctic, or whether there really is something of concern happening there, and I think both the arts and the humanities play important roles in answering that question.”

Melissa Gjellstad, UND professor of languages and member of the course’s working group, played a key role in strengthening the arts and humanities elements of the course. She reached out to two colleagues from outside of UND whose work is tied to Arctic landscapes and histories.

Pirjo Berg, a Grand Forks-based artist who was interviewed by Gjellstad as a part of the course, provided a virtual gallery of her work to be studied by students. Gjellstad says she is excited to have Berg, whose work is heavily influenced by northern landscapes and Berg’s Finnish upbringing, on board.

“She contemplates geology and the layers of ice and Earth,” Gjellstad said. “We’ll discuss how she thinks about these northern spaces and how that environment has shaped her artistry. It’s really fantastic and because it’s online, students who may never visit Grand Forks will get to experience her work.”

In addition to Berg, Ingrid Urberg, a professor of Scandinavian Studies at the University of Alberta, Augustana Campus, was also contacted to participate in the course.

Urberg specializes in literary representations of women in the north, notably including those in Svalbard. Her book “Svalbard’s Daughters: Personal Narratives from an Arctic Archipelago” will be read and discussed by students, and Urberg also will take part in a Q&A facilitated by Gjellstad.

“It’s been a pleasure to contribute in this way, to introduce the work of these women to students,” Gjellstad said. “The work that UND and Tami have done with ACN has led to many transformative experiences for both students and faculty, and I think that this is just one more example of how well it works.”

Trackless region of possibilities. A piece by Pirjo Berg.

The course has also attracted the attention of two Norwegian statesmen. Kåre Aas, a former ambassador to the United States, and Odd Einar Dørum, former Minister of Justice of Norway, have participated in the course’s working group along with staff and faculty from American College of Norway. The Norwegian members of the group are vital to offering students diverse perspectives on the international issues covered by the course, Carmichael said.

Like Gjellstad, Carmichael says that the work put in by the varied members of the working group has made this experiment in collaborative teaching and learning a great success.

“What a great experience for students, to be able to take a class where they meet respected scholars, ambassadors and former statesmen of another country,” Carmichael remarked. “That’s exciting, and offering those experiences to our undergraduate students is something I’m passionate about. I think it’s a testament to the kind of atmosphere UND is cultivating.”

Carmichael hopes that this course is the first of many to use the faculties of both UND and ACN. After completing this semester’s online, asynchronous course, the working group will likely expand and continue thinking about new ways to innovate and collaborate moving forward.

Already, one of the course collaborators and Arctic researcher Professor Timothy Pasch from the UND Department of Communications has secured national funding to take three students from this course to a national Arctic seminar in Seattle this spring. From classroom to conferences to the Arctic itself, this international collaboration continues to offer students across the world access to groundbreaking research and cutting-edge courses as UND and ACN look toward the future.