By Allegra Maldonado
The hallmark of the Kenyon curriculum is appreciation for open dialogue. Discussion is at the core of a liberal arts education and our community has witnessed the ways in which discussion promotes greater appreciation for multiple viewpoints. In our favorable appraisal of one form of learning, are we blind to alternative or supplemental forms? “Talk is cheap,” the saying goes, but at Kenyon this is not true. Talk is quite expensive. And effective. If our curriculum already has an effective method of educating students, why try to reinvent the wheel?
Experiential learning — distinctive from service learning or community-engaged research — is exposure to real-life situations and real-life stakeholders whose experiences are directly related to the material being read and discussed inside the classroom. The incorporation of experiential learning into curricula is not a reinvention of the wheel we hold dearly to us; it is merely an improvement upon it. I sat down with Professor of Sociology Jennifer Johnson — one of the numerous professors at Kenyon who incorporates experiential learning into their courses — to discuss what has become a buzzword in pedagogy. Over spring break she accompanied students on a weeklong experiential learning component to Tucson, Ariz. and the Mexican town of Nogales, in the state of Sonora, for Borders and Border Crossings — a sociology course that discusses issues of border permeability and the ways in which border politics affect residents of the borderlands.
Experiential learning can have many meanings depending on whom you ask. For Professor Johnson, the value of incorporating experiential learning into college curricula lay in the idea that the impact of learning lasts far beyond a single class or a single year. Experiential learning is a powerful pedagological tool because the experiences we have through it are often more visceral than those we have in the classroom. Furthermore, the interactions students have with real-life stakeholders provide contacts for later research or volunteer interests and opportunities.
Professor Johnson attended Georgetown University when the highly volatile civil wars in Central America were occurring and refugees were entering the U.S. in large numbers. Her experiences at Georgetown teaching English as a second language to refugees led her to a career in international development in Latin America. Power dynamics that compromised the functionality of the program she worked with motivated Professor Johnson to leave the field and enter academia. She chose to study how and under what conditions human beings organize. Coming from a pragmatic background, Professor Johnson understands the value of learning by doing.
The preparation involved with experiential learning differs from the preparation that students typically do for classes. It is especially crucial that we think critically of our learning objectives and identify our own relative social positions. This is a transitional and reflective moment. For the Borders and Border Studies class of 2015 — of which I am a part — it is also a quotidian conversation.
We had the financial resources to donate a variety of goods to the humanitarian relief organizations we visited, but questioned whether donating these goods was aligned with our learning objectives. In a half-hour-long conversation we discussed whether donating socks, among other items, to migrant shelters was crossing a border that we did not want to cross. In donating socks, were we engaging in activities that conflicted with our learning objectives and heightened the sense that we were intruding on the lives and spaces of vulnerable populations that deserved the same sense of privacy that we are guaranteed in our daily lives?
Regardless of one’s definition of experiential learning, the discipline in which it is enacted or the duration of the learning, questions about one’s social position must be asked. However, we should not let such hesitations discourage us from broadening our views on incorporating new pedagogies.
Professor Johnson said she received an email message from a past student who, after seeing pictures of our trip, contacted her to reminisce about her own experiences on it a few years prior. While the benefits of experiential learning seem obvious for students, this anecdote is indicative of the benefits educators receive. In providing sustained experiences for students, educators simultaneously sustain themselves.
Allegra Maldonado ’17 is an international studies major from Indianapolis. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.