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Experiential learning for the humanities

August 30, 2011

Coal-fired power plant - Vockerode, Germany

In a meeting at MPOW yesterday, the topic of experiential learning opportunities for humanities students came up. This topic speaks to me, not least because my educational background is in the humanities, but also because I spent a year in the late 90s doing a grant-funded research project that was essentially one large experiential learning opportunity. My boss asked us for ideas, and I wrote mine up in an email. I thought it made sense to publish them here as well since broader feedback would be helpful, and I’m sure there are aspects and opportunities to which I’m entirely blind. Please feel free to share any comments and suggestions.

Here’s what I wrote, edited to generalize the context:

  • Crowdsourcing – Students can do the detailed investigations necessary to add richness to archival collections, particularly image collections, but not only. Their findings are used to generate metadata that can make collections not only findable, but give them context that would otherwise be lacking. It teaches research beyond the obvious (i.e.- Google/Web searching) and requires students to develop skills related to deductive reasoning and drawing inferences.
  • Urban Documentation – This involves assigning students the task of creating archival collections by gathering images/video/texts. In an urban setting, for example, one could document any number of urban renewal projects. Key components of this are teaching students how to document–salience, thoroughness, contextual information gathering, etc.–as well as initiating them into the world of media rights management, in other words, teaching them how to navigate the worlds of copyright and Creative Commons and to make sensible choices that permit valid research use of their materials.
  • Oral History – The old standby, still relevant, although now it would be video, not just audio. Most cities have any number of dying industries whose representatives have stories to share.
  • Cultural Reclamation – This encapsulates identifying groups, organizations, neighbourhoods, etc., which are traditionally incapable (due to various circumstances) of gathering and articulating their own history, and essentially doing the work for them. In most North American cities of any size, there have been myriad ethnic and immigrant communities in the past 150 years or so, many of whom organized cultural institutions that have largely faded from view with time (e.g.- Sokol chapters, Turnvereine, etc.). One has to do a great deal of research to identify the groups, locate their ephemera or records, and develop personal relationships that allow one to document the organization and its history. I’ve always referred to my work in the late 90s in Germany (which I’ve chipped away at in the years since) as a cultural reclamation project, for lack of a better term.
  • Environmental Documentation – Many cities have old industry and a new environmental ethos living side by side. While there is environmental monitoring done by government agencies, these bodies do not systematically document the aesthetic and visual transformation of industrial landscapes. These are not the images that most people take for fun or profit, but are necessary documents of a massive societal shift.
As I was writing this up, I felt the usual “and people say the humanties are worthless” rant brewing inside me. So many aspects of life come down to the ability to tell and share stories, and a humanities education is where one learns how to do this. That’s the rant in a much more attractive nutshell.

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