“Learning grounds a person’s dignity and self-respect.”
I was at an “Idea Exchange” here at McMaster last week on community-engaged learning when Daniel Coleman, one of my committee members, knocked me on my ass (figuratively, of course) with that statement.
Daniel was there to talk about his experience as the instructor for the pilot course for the McMaster Discovery Program, which “offers university-level non-credit courses to Hamilton residents who face barriers to post-secondary education.” Daniel’s simple statement, and the entire Idea Exchange event, was a much-needed kick in the ass for me. Why? Because as a grad student with a disgusting number of years of formal education under her belt, sometimes all I want to do is TURN OFF THE LEARNING.
That did not happen at the Idea Exchange. Instead, I learned a lot that day, and met a lot of people whose excitement about community-engaged learning was wonderfully infectious.
Feeling Good about Learning
Marie Ange Brouillard, a student from “Voicing Hamilton,” the Discovery Program pilot course, spoke about the class and its interactive, inquiry-based format. In a recent article she wrote for Hamilton’s Women’s Press, Marie Ange explains that she originally intended to write her final project (a history of the native peoples in and around the Hamilton area before and after European settlement), but that she ultimately chose to tell that history via traditional pictograph drawings. At the Idea Exchange she emphasized how much this open-ended, explorative, inquiry-style project allowed her to learn in an engaged, creative way.
Prof. Melinda Gough and a panel of students and community leaders involved in the Gender Studies and Feminist Research core-course called “Knowledge in Action” all spoke enthusiastically about “experiential learning,” which, for them meant combining the study of theory with practice. Students did a lot of reading for the course, responded to those reading in reflective papers, and then reflected on the principles expounded in those readings in the practice of working with communities outside McMaster.
Speakers on each panel also talked about important issues like ethics, the dynamics of inter-community relationships, the nuts and bolts of planning a community-engaged course or project, student evaluation (how do you evaluate a student’s engagement with the community?), and so on. But what I really got out of these sessions was one, clear message: Learning is exciting. These people were indiscriminately care-bear staring a love of learning all over the place; I left the event practically dripping with the stuff. Their enthusiasm was incredible. It was also wonderful.
But that’s not the whole story! Yeah, I left the sessions in a sweet, sweet delirium of enthusiasm, optimism and excitement that shocked me right out of my grad-student ennui. But the speakers at the Idea Exchange were also trying to say that learning is exciting under particular circumstances. Learning is exciting when other people are involved, and when it is experiential, or active. Perhaps another way of saying this is that learning is exciting when it is meaningful. And how could something be meaningful if it did not closely involve others, and deeply involve oneself?
The thing is, though, that I’m typing this as I sit alone, in a small office on campus in the middle of summer. The only evidence of the existence of other people is the occassional sound of the toilet flushing down the hall, and the rolling back and forth of stray crumbs and other human detritus in the conditioned air of this shared (but currently unpopulated) office space.
Feeling Hungover after Feeling Good about Learning
Right. So, a lesson learned: don’t binge-drink bucket loads of learning-love and then try to write your dissertation in isolation. It will make you nauseous and give you a right awful headache. That being said, I’m off to buy a coffee from a woman whose job it is to interact with me like a real-live human being, whether she likes it or not! Then I’ll write in some more silence. And at the end of the day, if the heat doesn’t kill me, perhaps some of those ideas from the Idea Exchange will germinate into, well, I’m not sure what. That remains to be seen!