Experiential Learning — A few years ago, a colleague in the English Department noticed me wandering down the department’s hallways and talking to everybody whose doors were open. This colleague diagnosed me with a rare condition called “Restless Chair Syndrome.” I think it might be related to Restless Leg Syndrome. However, as far as I know Restless Chair Syndrome has not yet made it into the The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy, so I am not certain it’s a real thing. Nevertheless, I cannot deny that I dislike sitting behind my desk for long periods of time.
During one of my recent wanderings, I saw JuliAnna Ávila in the hallway, and we ended up having a conversation about John Dewey, the educational theorist who is often credited with founding the experiential education movement. JuliAnna and I discovered that we share an interest in Dewey, and we both feel that Dewey’s writings on education are still relevant in the contemporary world of pedagogy. After my conversation with JuliAnna, I took my copy of Dewey’s Experience and Education (1938) off the shelf and thumbed through it. In this classic work, Dewey argues that experiential learning involves interacting with the natural and social environment and then reflecting on the meaning of that interaction. For Dewey, guided experiences are conducive to what he called “genuine education.”
Initially Dewey’s ideas on experiential learning had their greatest impact on the education of young children. Drawing on Dewey’s theories, elementary school teachers began incorporating outdoor activities and other types of interactive experiences in their lesson plans. In more recent years, however, the experiential learning movement has taken root in higher education, including our English Department.
Our creative writing program is an example of an area in our department in which experiential learning has a foothold. Bryn Chancellor, for example, has pioneered an approach to teaching fiction writing in which she has her students incorporate the experience of walking in their writing process. I contacted Bryn and asked her how she involves this type of experiential learning in her fiction writing course, and she sent me the following response:
This spring’s advanced fiction writing class is focused on the art and craft of perspective. As we go, we also are exploring our own perspectives, in particular how writing in varied physical settings can change the way we see, respond, and reflect, as well as how we might mine raw sensory material for our work. For each of our three hour-long campus walks, we meet in Fretwell’s lobby and I hand them their “excursion maps,” which include maps, instructions, and writing prompts. For the first walk,“Inside Out: Seeing Buildings and Spaces Anew,” students were randomly assigned to explore the McMillan Greenhouse and Facilities parking lot, Rowe Arts and the lake, Storrs and the gardens, or Kennedy and Belk Plaza. For the second, “The Edges of Nature,” students wandered the wonderful trails of the Botanical Garden. For the upcoming third, “The Neighborhood Swerve,” we will jaunt off campus. Time and again, I have seen how the simple experience of slowing down and paying attention to new spaces opens up students’ (and my) writing in unexpected, joyful ways.
Allison Hutchcraft also incorporates experiential learning in her creative writing courses. In an email she sent to me about this aspect of her teaching, she writes:
I often take my creative writing and poetry classes to UNC Charlotte’s outdoor gardens and McMillan Greenhouse, where students practice sensory description and—in the spirit of William Carlos Williams’s question “What do I remember / that was shaped / as this thing is shaped?”—making metaphors. The various garden paths, look-outs, and benches offer students the chance to wander and explore while writing, after which we reconvene to share our work. In my Documentary Poetry course, we investigate intersections of psychogeography, history, and poetry, studying Kaia Sand’s “Remember to Wave,” which documents public poetry walks Sand led through the outskirts of Portland, Oregon. Together, we consider various historical photographs of UNC Charlotte from the Special Collections before taking our own “poetry walk” through campus, documenting both what we see and what, through the archival materials, we “remember” of campus while it was built. Our walk concludes in the gardens, where we share our observations aloud in an ad-hoc reading. That day may be one of my most treasured teaching memories: standing with students on a wooden bridge in the Van Landingham Glen as the sun was setting, the poets reading aloud in a round.
Both Bryn and Allison believe in the value of taking their students out of the classroom. As the above quotations make clear, Bryn and Allison encourage their students to explore the world around them and then reflect on these experiences in their creative writing. The experiential activities that Bryn and Allison are incorporating in their creative writing courses reminds me of the following quotation from John Dewey: “We learn from reflecting on experience.”
Kudos — As you know, I like to use my Monday Missives to share news about recent accomplishments by members of the English Department. Here is the latest news:
Sarah Minslow recently presented a paper titled “Visual Art in Children’s Literature of Atrocity” at the War, Art and Visual Culture Conference in Sydney, Australia.
Aaron Toscano recently presented a paper titled “Video Games as a 21st-Century Technological Veil: Critical Theory, Ideology, and Hyperreality” at the Southeastern Association on Cultural Studies Conference in Asheville.
Upcoming Events and Meetings — Here is a list of upcoming events and deadlines:
March 9 — The Eighth Annual Seuss–a–Thon will take place on Saturday, March 9, at Park Road Books from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. This community event is co-sponsored by the English Department and Park Road Books, Charlotte’s only full-service, independent bookstore.
March 21 — The Children’s Literature Graduate Organization (CLGO) will hold their annual Graduate Student Colloquium on March 21 in Cone 111 from 9:30 to 2:30. The title for this year’s colloquium is “Modern Authors, Historic Influences: Framing Children’s Literature in Historical Context.”
Quirky Quiz Question — John Dewey developed many of his ideas about education at a famous laboratory school associated with the university where he was then teaching. What is the name of this university?
For the students who participated in Collegium for African American Research, one of the highlights was having the opportunity to hear Alice Walker speak. Walker is perhaps best known for her book The Color Purple, which was also made into a movie. In what state was this movie filmed?