The Label Game:Traditional Mode of Travel
Early in my teaching career I had one of those life-shaping experiences of which one is forever revisiting when questions of professional identity and one’s “place” of practice are raised. The Chair of my university department (physical education at that time) had challenged me in my first year of “formal teaching’ (1981) to bring my apparent Canadian Studies focus to the Interdisciplinary Programme of Canadian Studies. The problem was, this particular focus was largely experiential (note the foreshadowing element of his story). Sure I had some book smarts, but my “experiential” history, literature, geography was really where I hung my hat. Perhaps the university and I were not an obvious match. But I was to learn that this would be my strength within a “higher education” were some faculty and many students were craving a combination of book/library with trail/tent.
With time, I organized a course proposal titled, “heritage and Resource Issues for the Canadian Shield”. This would be a two week field studies course. We would base camp out of a lodge in the Temagami area where we would meet local folks on both sides of the issue of commercial resource extraction versus preservation efforts centered on initiatives to create a park reserve – not an uncommon scenario. We would also study the region as a small part of the overall Canadian Shield, from a historical, anthropological and literary basis. The final week would be a canoe trip to capture, in my promotional words at that time, the feel of the fur trade through our own sweat and cussing on the portage trail, the aesthetic of the “talking tongues’ of the pines and Archibald Lampman poetry, the aura of indigenous people rock art (pictographs), and the stories of a bye-gone era relived through our own storytelling and bannock baking around the campfire. (Trust me, it was a passionate experiential promotional pitch).
All had gone well during the explanation of the first week’s curriculum. No questions – just silent nodding. Once I started into the canoe trip component, the most experiential component, (though I would argue both combining were experiential (Blenkinsop et al, 2016)). I was stopped dead like a wrapped canoe in the river. “This canoe trip, that’s phys-ed; that’s fun”, came a voice from the academic committee. The tone made clear what the words themselves left neutral. Fun was not suitable, neither was this physical, visceral, experiential phys-ed thing. Education should be a somber affair …for professional credibility …perhaps I’ve never figured that out. I was dumb-founded, short of breathe, and expression. (?????) by the way, I hadn’t expressed the above promotional experiential sentiments within the affective domain of learning during this first round of curricular negotiation. These thoughts were with me but not at a place in mind for fast n your feet articulation. Quickly, given my absence of response, I was sent back to the proposal rewriting stage. Expectations were clear; I would delete the canoe trip.
What to do? The canoe trip was the glue. The canoe trip would make all the words, the debates, the readings come alive. But for most in that academic committee that demands explaining too. As any experiential educator knows, the canoe trip in this case was at the heart of this reality-cnetered project departing from text books and standardized procedures of lectures / labs / tutorials. The canoe trip was the searching, creative, discriminating environment that moves beyond rote activities and the distribution of structured knowledge. Our learning would be experiential and thus individually structured; personal and practical; beyond socially structured, largely theoretical, abstract, and technical knowing. Learning would be personal. Learning would be lively, visceral, and at depths and points of integration that I, as co-learner, could be necessarily be accountable for.1
I returned to the next meeting with a new set of labels for the “fun” canoe trip. Camping became primitive arts 9thanks to Aldo Leopold for this one). Canoeing became a traditional mode of travel (I could thank Sigurd Olson and Grey Owl for this). You get the picture. Campfire time became a northern heritage stories workshop. In short, the fun experiential phys-ed canoe trip finally got accepted. Nothing changed really; other than my own learning to gain ‘voice” in a less than supportive setting.
The moral is: be persistent, know your audience, make your experiential learning labels suit their sensibilities without compromising your intentions, and acknowledge the intensity that can exit for experiential methodologies so you can be prepared. I think there are more morals to this professional identity story than offered here, but in true experiential fashion, you think it through from here, for yourselves. That’s more fun.
1 A useful comparison of conventional school methodology and experiential practice can be found in “Learning with Environments; Towards an Ecological paradigm for Education”. Noel Gough, in Ian Robottom, Environmental Education; Practice and Possibility. Deakin University Press, Deakin, Australia, 1987.
Blenkinsop, S., Nolan, C., Hunt, J., Stonehouse, P., and Telford, J. (2016) the lecture as Experiential Education: the Cucumber in 17th Century Flemish Art. Journal of Experiential Education, 39:2, 101-114.