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Adapting an honors pedagogy to a general studies travel course.

During a three-week January term, twelve general studies students from Mount Mercy College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, enrolled in Culture and Natural History of Belize and adopted the entire country of Belize as their text. Two main objectives of the course were to give the students an immersion experience in another culture and to foster interdisciplinarity and multiple perspectives. The City as Text[TM] pedagogy suited these objectives perfectly.

Before the ten-day travel portion of the course, students familiarized themselves with the CAT methodology. On the first day of class, they were presented with a blank map of Belize and asked to fill in what they knew in terms of geographical features, biotic zones, and human impact. The students, who had received no instruction on these topics, were stymied by their lack of knowledge. Because of their frustration, they were immediately receptive when they were put into small groups, assigned one of these topics, and given thirty minutes in the library to find out everything they could about their topic. Motivated to overcome their earlier ignorance, students researched with gusto and returned armed with facts and details.

The blank map was projected anew onto the chalkboard, and students were invited to fill it in. The first group began hesitantly, sketching in the physical features they had been sent to research. Then, with some excitement, the group in charge of biotic zones came forward and superimposed their sketches over the landforms. Immediately, the relationship between, say, cloud forest and mountain range became clear. By the time the group in charge of human settlements added their information to the mix, students were already synthesizing an understanding of how the pieces fit together: how landforms, rainforest density, or weather patterns invited or limited the growth of towns, farms, and industry. Finally, students added cultural practices to the map and began to see how physical geography affected settlement by different ethnic groups, which in turn affects cultural practices such as religion, cuisine, and folk art.

Because students had been assigned to work on a specific and limited topic, this portion of the course simulated interdisciplinarity as each student became an expert on one aspect of the geography of Belize but needed to rely on the expertise of others to understand the big picture. Knowledge was not handed down from one student to another but constructed in the conversation that occurred as all the students worked together to create an integrated map. At the end of the class, the learning was reinforced by a brief lecture that related what we had learned to the places where we would be traveling in a few days: students had much more at stake when they knew they would be living in the rainforest and villages they had just mapped. Students also completed a journaling exercise that asked them to reflect on the learning process they had just used.

In other preparatory work, students wrote an individual research paper on a focused topic that we would be covering while on the ground in Belize. Topics included questions about biology, ecology, farming practices, economy, ancient Mayan civilization, and contemporary cultural practices. The wide range of topics ensured a multifaceted conversation about the place we would be visiting; the depth to which each student researched his or her topic ensured that the class would have at least one resident expert to consult when we were in the field conducting our explorations without the benefit of libraries or even Internet access. While we were in Belize, each student-expert taught the class through a brief presentation prior to the related excursion, speaking about Mayan civilization prior to our visit to the Mayan ruins at Xunantunich or about symbiotic relationships prior to our first snorkel in the coral reef. More importantly, however, the student-expert was responsible for answering questions that spontaneously sprang up when we visited the site. By relying on the student-expert, the other students gathered information through the CAT method of listening in addition to mapping and observing while we were in Belize. Whenever we could, we also listened to native residents and guides, but these were not always available, so the student-experts provided a continual and reliable source of information.

Thus primed, students journeyed to Belize, where they entered a profoundly alien environment. They had acquired a limited text-book knowledge of the place, but nothing could prepare them for the experience of this wholly other culture, climate, and environment. We landed in Belize in the late afternoon and spent our first night in a jungle lodge, with geckos chirping in the thatched ceiling, leaf-cutter ants filing across the doorstep, and the blackness of an unlit forest pressing around.

The disorientation the students felt in this situation was salutary, pedagogically speaking, for it shook them out of their complacency as students. Surrounded by the unfamiliar, they had to look at things in unfamiliar ways. As an experiential-learning method, CAT makes students step outside their conventional classroom paradigms, and at no time is it easier to do this than when they are experiencing an alienation from what they know. Outside their ordinary habits of thought, the students respond to the call to figure things out for themselves, using the tools of mapping, listening, and observing. For instance, a visit to a rainforest farm was not a passive tour but a hands-on opportunity as students asked questions of the farmer; planted corn; and tasted sugar cane, cacao, ginger, and coconut. Later, touring the rainforest with a Mayan guide who had studied with a shaman, students asked about the medicinal properties of plants and sampled leaves, saps, roots, and even live termites as they made observations with all their senses. Students transformed their disorientation into a need to find out, make sense of their surroundings, and synthesize an overall picture of the place. Each day's activities were revisited in journal entries where students reflected on how their interaction with their environment influenced their ways of seeing. Using the CAT methodology, students experienced rainforests, coral reefs, Mayan ruins, farms, villages, and towns as we traveled around half of this Massachusetts-sized area.

Near the end of the trip, students were put in groups of three, given large sheets of paper and markers, and asked to revisit the first-day exercise of creating a map of Belize. Whereas on the first day students filled in blank maps with conventional features, after eight days of CAT explorations they now free-formed conceptual maps that were astounding in their diversity as well as their ability to articulate what the students had learned. Students not only drew from observations made during the trip but were influenced by their areas of expertise, both in their assigned topics and in the knowledge they brought from their various majors. So, for instance, a group containing a biology student and an economist pointed out how different growing zones stimulated economic opportunities such as citrus groves on the savannahs versus tourism in unfarmable areas. Some nursing students, acting on their own initiative since we had never formally covered the topic in the course, focused on the different health-care practices they had observed in the villages versus the cities. The social science students responded to both of these maps by observing how political policies influence agriculture, tourism, and health care. The class, relying on mapping, listening, and observing, synthesized a rich, complex understanding of Belize as text.

As a general studies course, Culture and Natural History of Belize was designed to expand students' knowledge and skills in certain areas: written and oral communication, multicultural awareness, understanding of biological systems. The assessment methods included the formal research papers and informal reflective essays, an oral presentation, and a written exam over course content. By nature, a travel course differs from a conventional classroom course anyway, yet conducting this course using CAT methodology superadded skills that normally do not get assessed or even taught: collaboration, leadership, initiative, the ability to think on one's feet and adapt to novel situations, the ability to articulate the way knowledge is constructed.

The success of this course in meeting its stated objectives as well as its unstated ones was driven home for me three months after the trip when I asked the students to present at Mount Mercy's Undergraduate Scholars Day. Six students whose topics formed a good cross section of the course content agreed to participate. Because of scheduling conflicts, getting this group together to rehearse their presentation before giving it was difficult; as an expedient, I told them each just to read a section of the research paper they had written prior to the trip.

What the students gave me instead was evidence of the effectiveness of City as Text as a learning method. On Scholars Day, the first student began by reading from the script of her written text. Then she spontaneously interrupted herself, looked up at the audience, and began to extemporize based on the knowledge she had acquired in Belize itself, which was so much richer than the facts she had conned from the pre-trip textbook. She spoke from experience and she spoke with authority, with total command of her topic even though it had been three months since she had studied it and had never rehearsed-had not even planned for this spontaneous speech. The next student followed suit, and the next. One student was absent because of illness, and another, on the spur of the moment, spoke about her topic as knowledgably as about his own. In other words, these students, having been immersed the previous January in their place as text and working cooperatively on the ground there to construct their knowledge as a group, had mastered their topic and retained their knowledge to the point where they could present an unrehearsed speech about it in April. During the question-and-answer session afterwards, students were asked about the process and benefits of this form of experiential learning. Again, the students were self-aware about their own learning process and articulated without any prompting from me how the CAT method had stimulated their interest and enabled them to retain knowledge beyond what they normally do in traditionally taught courses, even in their own majors.

What is most impressive is that these students were not from the honors program but were regular students, with different interests and abilities, taking a course to fulfill a general education requirement. Honors pedagogies benefit more than only honors students. In terms of writing, oral communication, reflective judgment, multiculturalism, understanding of biological systems, and learning to read a text, this course allowed students to integrate several branches of liberal studies and make them relevant to their own concerns. At our small college, as the conversation heats up over the role of a general education curriculum vis-a-vis professional training, CAT can provide a meaningful way to educate all students in the liberal arts, engaging their enthusiasm, enhancing their practical skills, and opening their eyes to the world around them.


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Author:Ochs, Joy
Publication:Shattering the Glassy Stare: Implementing Experiential Learning in Higher Education
Geographic Code:2BELI
Date:Jan 1, 2008
Previous Article:Chapter 3: Travel courses.
Next Article:The Adopt-a-Village project.

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