Out There Learning: Critical Reflections on Off-Campus Study Programs, edited by Deborah Curran, Cameron Owens, Helga Thorson, and Elizabeth Vibert
It is paradoxical that a book on “out there learning” be reviewed at a time in which, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, most people in the world have been confined indoors, many borders have been closed, international and some domestic travel has halted, and students have been engaging in their curriculum virtually, often alone behind a computer. But, in a way, what better moment to reflect on the value of teaching and learning out in the field, and the pedagogical opportunities, challenges, and pitfalls that taking students out in the world for a significant length of time affords our educational mission than when this “outside” is suddenly inaccessible? Out There Learning: Critical Reflections on Off-Campus Study Programs focuses on content-driven faculty-led credit-bearing short-term (one week to three months) programs that take higher education students away from their home campus―such as co-ops, study abroad, international exchanges, field schools, and travel tours. As it addresses crucial questions about alternative pedagogies, the book is important for all educators and administrators concerned with creating, projecting, designing, marketing, implementing, evaluating, assessing, and analyzing off-campus study programs, whether domestic or international.
The volume’s editors have assembled a collection of interdisciplinary scholars who not only share inspiring insights about their specific practices when leading off-campus trips in various places in the world (as varied as Nova Scotia, Singapore, Pondicherry, and countries in Sub-Saharan Africa or Europe, among others), but also critically explore the pedagogical philosophies behind the practices. Collectively, the authors of the ten chapters delve into what these off-campus experiences mean―in the short and long terms―for themselves as trip leaders and instructors, their students, the institutions for which they work, the host communities with which they briefly come into contact, and the places these communities inhabit. More generally, they are also interested in better understanding the learning process and the production of knowledge deriving from such educative enterprises. Implied throughout the book is a comparison with the possibilities and outcomes of in-classroom pedagogies. However, the contributors problematize the usual binary categorization of classroom versus field learning by examining the enmeshing of actors and methods of “out there learning,” the multi-relational dimensions of temporary “embeddedness” in places and communities (host and campus upon return), and ways to assess positive and negative direct or indirect consequences of off-campus programs on various stakeholders along different temporalities.
For disciplines such as geography, anthropology, archeology, or environmental studies, which find their essence in fieldwork―although not all with the same engagement with human societies―the value of place-based learning is not to be demonstrated. What this book also highlights is the relevance of “out there learning” for disciplines not expected to partake in field learning, for example, legal studies. By arguing for commonalities across disciplines, the volume makes a convincing case for the significance of short-term off-campus educational initiatives across departments. Four main inquiries thread the chapters together: What do these programs offer to students? What happens before, once there, and upon return, and what methods are used to elicit student responses at each stage? How can we account for what ensues “out there” when that entails encapsulating into metrics students’ subjectivities and emotions? Can we build-in safeguards to ensure that what occurs in field schools is positive for all implicated constituencies in the short and long term alike? The book situates answers to these questions within an institutional academic context in which universities in the Global North―especially in the United States and Canada―have been competing over prospective students, often using enticing off-campus learning offerings as marketing tools (such as Study Abroad), even if only a fraction of students participate during their time at the university. A new common language has emerged to magnify the promise for personally and academically worthwhile experiences to be lived outside the classroom, whether through service-oriented endeavors, data gathering course projects, language learning on location, and more. Phrases describing expected outcomes of “out there learning,” such as “transformational,” “life-changing,” “high impact,” “meaning-making,” “deep learning,” “cultural enrichment,” or “personal growth,” have become almost conventional in program brochures, web pages, and reports. This book challenges us not to be complacent about these terms and to seek definitional components for what could otherwise stand as empty vessels reflecting nothing more than idealist wishful thinking or, in the worst of cases, merely serving as insincere instruments of institutional branding.
The volume’s most compelling achievement is in the way it cracks open the black box of “transformation” as a desired and expected outcome of “out there learning.” Drawing on Mezirow’s concept of transformative learning (1997), the contributors review students’ personal change as occurring through accessible, inclusive, and empathy-based teaching, contextualized holistic learning, student-centered communication, opportunities for thoughtful and shared reflection, the fostering of group experiences and learners’ communities, and an awakening of students’ socio-cultural sensitivity through engagement―or even collaboration―with local communities. Several chapters point to transformation as an unsatisfactorily explored and uncritically brandished concept that is taken for granted, unquestioned, and undertheorized. One main obstacle is that of measuring transformation, especially in the many instances in which there lacks a control group. How can subjective personal developments be rendered intelligible through quantitative data that can hardly translate accurately students’ emotional states and subjectivities? Who concludes whether an experience has been transformative? At what point in time and under what conditions is transformation measured? Are students’ self-consciousness and maturity levels always apt at evaluating impact? How are students’ surveys interpreted by actors tasked with different purposes across the university? Furthermore, while we assume transformation is virtuous, how can we account for negative transformation?
Transformative learning should lead participants “to conceptualize and actively immerse themselves in a process of exploring their subjectivity and positionality in relation to subject matter while simultaneously challenging …[them]… to actively engage with concepts that may be unfamiliar and challenge their existing beliefs” (90). Seeking transformative outcomes often involves causing a certain level of discomfort. The disorientation and unsettling that can result from the chance, spontaneity, creativity, and liberatory potential characterizing place-based learning may be the rite of passage necessary for debunking problematic world views, dislodging classist and neo-colonial approaches, and unraveling normative assumptions about social positioning. However, vulnerability, confusion and uncertainty in self-situatedness and privilege may also backfire into reinforced stereotypes, resistance to change, and exacerbated essentialism and exoticism prompting reaffirmed Othering. Transformation may well involve personal growth, but may also lead to regression and unanticipated cognitive setbacks. How can educators foster situations in which “constructive disequilibrium” and “cognitive negotiation” yield positive outcomes for students and the communities they serve or to which they belong? Whereas the pedagogical value of risk has been confirmed, what is then lost when institutions’ careful programming minimizes exposure to the unpredictable, the unknown and the improbable, thus removing useful opportunities for the acquisition of adaptation and other soft skills?
Out There Learning is guaranteed to become a reference for anyone involved in designing off-campus learning experiences based on integrative learning precepts and those who wish to critically examine how impactful such programs are. It is packed with illustrative innovative pedagogical practices, but most importantly it defies us to remain skeptical about processes and outcomes that are guided by pedagogical theories and to always interrogate ambitious goals that drive the implementation of off-campus programs. The volume poses fundamental questions about the nature of education in the twenty-first century, especially at a time in which the virtual has brought new challenges and possibilities to the fore. The editors and authors invite us to ponder on the rationale and consequences of field schools on peoples and places and to be aware of the potential for perpetuating neoliberal arrangements that have permeated higher education, bringing a slew of ethical questions about motivations, methods, and implications.
Along with impact on places and communities and on how students and instructors assume their place in the world when making contact with the Other together, the question of transformative potential is sure to remain central in off-campus programming and require more intentional longitudinal studies. If we accept that “transformative learning” cannot be scheduled, curated, nor prescribed as a given outcome, we may free ourselves from the danger of using it as a simple veneer. This would allow us to fully thrive on the possibility of place, relational opportunities, and an effective “emplacement” of teaching and learning that is pivotal in approaching the world’s complexities away from mere consumption of culture.
Hélène B. Ducros holds a PhD (geography) and JD (law) from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research focuses on place-making and heritage-making, as well as people’s relationships with cultural landscapes. At the Council for European Studies, she is EuropeNow’s Jean Monnet Chair of Research and Pedagogy and co-chairs the Critical European Studies Research Network (@CESCritEuro). She has experience administering, leading, and teaching in off-campus study and service learning programs abroad and domestically, as well as in training “out there learning” instructors on innovative place-based pedagogies. As International Programs Specialist, she spends part of her time participating in the internationalization effort of the College of Engineering at North Carolina State University.
Out There Learning: Critical Reflections on Off-Campus Study Programs
Edited by Deborah Curran, Cameron Owens, Helga Thorson, and Elizabeth Vibert
Publisher: University of Toronto Press
Paperback / 296 pages / 2019
Mezirow, Jack. 1997. “Transformative Learning: Theory to Practice.” New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education no.74: 5-12.
Published on April 28, 2020