The Adopt-a-Village project.
We walked up a small cobblestone street to his doorway, where Martin ushered us into a large, dark, musty room filled with the accumulations of decades of woodworking. An old American flag hung on the back wall of his cluttered woodshop, next to an Israeli flag and photographs of departed friends and relatives. Martin had survived the Nazi occupation of Rome, a time when many of his friends and relatives were deported to Auschwitz and never returned. He viewed the American soldiers as liberators and had taught himself enough English to communicate with them. While the rest of the group proceeded to the Forum, I spent over thirty minutes asking Martin questions and listening to his stories of life in the Jewish Ghetto.
I was fascinated by the Jewish Ghetto. For the rest of the week, while I joined the group on its visits to Rome's important sites, I adopted the Jewish Ghetto as my own particular text within the larger city. As we were encouraged to read the text of buildings, signs, people, cars, and the like, I focused on this particular chapter of Rome. I sought to understand, as much as a non-Italian-speaking outsider could in one week, the people, the buildings, the economic relationships, and the daily rhythms of life in this corner of Rome. I would walk there for breakfast and coffee in the morning and watch the neighborhood come to life between 7:00 and 8:00 a.m. Some colleagues and I ate dinner there on a Tuesday evening, arriving at an empty building at 7:30 p.m. and leaving a noisy, crowded restaurant at 10:00 p.m. While the Jewish Ghetto has no walls anymore, I detected the invisible boundaries of the neighborhood. While I had many photos of the Vatican and the Forum to take back with me to the U.S., my most vivid impressions of Rome were my conversations with Martin and watching Jewish schoolchildren play soccer in the city streets in afternoons after school.
Three months later I started my own summer study abroad program in Wurzburg, Germany, a city straddling the Main River in a historic region known as Franconia. Wurzburg is ideally located for a study abroad program. I teach two courses, European Art and Culture and History of Christianity, and the city offers the opportunity to visit important cultural and historical sites within a two-hour drive, including cities such as Munich, Nurnberg, and Heidelberg. However, in addition to the usual study-abroad activities, I wanted my students to have the City as Text experience that I had experienced in Rome. Thus was born my Adopt-a-Village project, which has become a centerpiece of the German Studies program.
In Wurzburg, we are surrounded by several small villages that still retain the character of traditional German life and culture. As is typical of Franconia, these villages are compact. Unlike agricultural regions in America, Franconian homes and barns are clustered in small towns, and farmers drive to their fields each day to work. This feature makes Franconian villages ideal venues for applying City as Text in a more rural environment. Thus, each year I divide the students into groups of three and assign each group a particular village to adopt. Every few days they mount bicycles and ride along the Main River to their assigned villages with exotic names such as Margetshocheim, Veitshochheim, and Thungersheim. In constructing this project, I have adapted several components of the City as Text methodology for Adopt-a-Village.
Students use local transportation to access their village. In Franconia, that means bicycles. When I participated in the Rome Institute, I rented a bicycle for an afternoon and wrote one of my essays describing my experience riding through the backstreets and neighborhoods of Rome. I found a bicycle to be an ideal way to map a city because it provides the mobility to cover a significant amount of territory but does not sacrifice the sense of close connection to one's surroundings that occurs in a car or a bus.
I added bikes to the Adopt-a-Village project for other reasons as well. Europeans use them to get around, which is a foreign concept to the many Americans who view a bicycle as simply a means of exercise. Seeing a sixty-year-old German woman riding her vegetable-laden bicycle home from the local market is a new experience for our students. Using a bicycle themselves helps them consider the possibility of alternatives to our mechanized, automobile-centered culture. More importantly, bicycles enable students to survey the general surroundings of the village and also to explore a particular place more closely. It provides both a sense of belonging and critical distance. For each visit my students ride into their village, then park in the central platz, and begin their explorations (bike locks, of course, are not necessary in German villages).
Another City as Text feature is the emphasis on direct experience. Eventually students will, of course, read texts about the history and culture of Germany. But first I send them out to read the text of their particular village firsthand. On their first walkabout, students are asked literally to map the village: to locate the church, the main square, the park, the school, the businesses, the firehouse, and the police station and to understand their proximity to each other. Next, students ask typical City as Text questions of their village:
* What are the rhythms of life here? What do people do, and when do they do it?
* How is space arranged here? What architectural and artistic styles prevail?
* What spaces are private, and what spaces are public? How do you know?
* How do people interact? What unseen forces influence social interactions?
* How do tradition and modern culture/technology interact in this village?
* How does this village contrast to modern urban centers such as Nurnberg and Munich?
Such questions sharpen students' observational skills and enable them to begin to make sense of their new environment.
Finally, the Adopt-a-Village project is highly interdisciplinary. Because the German Studies program offers general education credit, students from a variety of majors participate. Thus I am able to group students into teams comprised of different majors. As students begin to understand their village through observation and reading texts, they contribute perspectives and methods from their majors to their group's understanding of the village. What, for example, could a business major learn about the economic interactions in this village? How does a historian contribute to an understanding of the village? How would a German major discern distinctive traits in the German dialect spoken at this village? What could an architecture major add to the group's understanding of the physical structures of the village? As students piece together their analysis of the village, they appreciate how different disciplines apprehend reality and how their perceptions of their village differ from those of their colleagues.
The Adopt-a-Village project has yielded countless memorable experiences. At first, students typically are nervous about the project. After all, they speak virtually no German, and they are venturing into areas far from the typical tourist sites, places where they may very well be the first American visitors ever. Students usually return, however, from their first walkabouts, brimming with excitement over new adventures and cultural encounters. The Erlabrunn team describes meeting an elderly waitress at an inn who spends an hour explaining to them in broken English the history of the village and various people in it. The Vietshochheim team discovers a former Jewish synagogue in their village and spends the afternoon exploring it. The Thungersheim group happens upon a local winery whose owner invites them in for lunch and gives them a tour, accompanied with samples, of his wine cellar that dates back five hundred years.
Over the course of their visits to their village, students assemble notes, personal reflections, photographs, interviews, and even concrete objects that will become part of their capstone presentation, which is usually a PowerPoint presentation of their village to the rest of the class. The purpose of the capstone presentation is twofold. Students introduce their village to the class by giving a thick description of the actions, interactions, and landscape of the town and its inhabitants. Students reflect on their role as perceivers, namely, the extent to which their own beliefs and cultural background shaped their perception of the village and how perceptions differed among the members of the group.
We conclude the German Studies program by spending a few days living in a castle in the Austrian Alps, where the final presentations are made in the fireplace room of a medieval castle, a fitting climax to the German Studies program. Students not only tie together their observations of their particular village, but they have an opportunity to hear how other villages compare to their own. Often lively discussions ensue over the similarities and differences of the various villages, enriched by students' knowledge of European history, religion, and culture that they have accumulated over the past four weeks of study.
As a professor and fellow learner, I am always gratified to see students express the excitement of discovery over their villages that I experienced in my encounters in the Jewish Ghetto of Rome. The Adopt-a-Village project has proved itself to be a useful way to adapt the purpose and methods of City as Text to a rural German setting.
JOHN BROWN UNIVERSITY
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|Title Annotation:||CHAPTER 3: TRAVEL COURSES|
|Publication:||Shattering the Glassy Stare: Implementing Experiential Learning in Higher Education|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2008|
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