Pure logical thinking cannot yield us any knowledge of the empirical world; all knowledge of reality starts from experience and ends in it.
—Albert Einstein, Ideas And Opinions
Everyone’s heard the old adage “the best way to learn is through experience,” but it may surprise people to know that such an emphasis on experience in education goes all the way back to Ancient Greece; in fact, it was Aristotle who wrote “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them. Men become builders by building” in his famous work Nicomachean Ethics, and he has since been described as “the progenitor of experiential learning. . . .” because of his “arguments about transforming experience into informed judgement.”
We don’t need to rely on ancient testimony to prove the value of experience in education, however. The efficacy of experience-based learning can be seen in more recent studies that show learning opportunities that provide a hands-on component produce higher retention and understanding of material in college courses. The professional world also recognizes the value of experience according to a recent survey of employers who say that they highly value on-the-job experience. UTC’s Beyond the Classroom program is designed to provide students with an opportunity to participate and reflect on experience-based and applied learning by attending special events and by enrolling in a growing number of experiential learning courses.
Bengt Carlson, the Beyond the Classroom coordinator, knows the value of providing these opportunities to UTC students: “Theory plus practice makes for a unique and highly beneficial and successful learning environment. It is a way to get people involved and show students a new way of learning and gaining skills that can be used in the real world.” Through the program students can discover new things they may not have considered before or reaffirm their future plans. “Someone who wants to work in publishing can work with a book publisher or a grant writer can see what it’s like to actually write a grant for a nonprofit before they graduate,” said Carlson. The skills the students gain during these types of experience-based courses are invaluable and make graduates more appealing to future employers.
For Dr. James Arnett these types of courses are so important because learning “beyond the classroom” gives students a new perspective on the world and education in general: “It is really important to get out of the classroom, to recognize that there are educational resources all around us. In spite of the fact that we all go to college to essentially segregate the intellectual development that we do, we like to remind students that once we get out of the classroom, learning doesn’t have to stop.”
With this in mind, Dr. Arnett developed the literature-based course, “The Transnational African Novel,” which examines fiction about the experiences of African immigrants. Dr. Arnett admits that a literature course is not the obvious choice for an experience-based course but that it only takes a little more creativity. For the hands on component of the class, they worked with the Bridge Refugee Services, who take refugees in from United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) across the world and resettle them locally.
To aid the agency’s mission of creating a support network to help these immigrants, the class developed a book, Bridging Cultures Together: Chattanooga, welcoming them to Chattanooga. It has information on learning English, workplace skills such as how to build a resume and rules and regulations for jobs, locations of libraries, bus maps, Tennessee trivia, and general cultural information about the South. These were made as a resource to hand out to new arrivals so that they can find a job, housing, and learn how to move about the city. The class also took a road trip down to Atlanta; they went to the High Museum of Arts to tour their African Arts Collection, ate lunch at an Ethiopian restaurant, and ended the afternoon at the Dupont Farmer’s Market, which is a wonderful crossroads where people can see multi-cultural interactions.
Dr. Heather Palmer offered an experiential learning course this past semester in critical animal studies entitled Creaturely Rhetorics, which investigates human-animal relationships from a philosophical, ethical and zoological perspective. To better understand these relationships the class looked at a variety of cultural texts from literature and art. They read philosophy and books like Aesop’s Fables and visited the Hunter Museum to see the characterization of animals in art; they went to the McKamey Animal Shelter and examined the entire space as a text; and they plan to visit the Chattanooga Zoo, questioning the ethics of zoos. “The main question that drives the whole thing is how animals help us make meaning and how they reflect back to us what it means to be human. And so we are looking at how that gets articulated through cultural forms,” said Palmer.
One of the highlights of the class was when someone from HABIT (Human Animal Bond in Tennessee) brought a dog to visit the class. The students who had been reading heavy philosophical material and considering things on an abstract level were able to apply what they had read by engaging with another living being. As an animal lover, Palmer admits that this has been one of the most challenging courses she has ever taught, forcing her and the class to think about and engage the world in new ways.
Dr. Lauren Ingraham’s Grant Writing course, though not technically a Beyond the Classroom-designated course, provides students with an opportunity for hands on learning with real grant writing experience. Students in the class get to work both as a team and individually with nonprofit organizations, writing grant proposals that they will actually use to get funding. “This is real real-world experience. The proposals that the students write are going to possibly help a local nonprofit organization get funding; last semester, one of our students working with Bridge Refugee Services, wrote a grant for $20,000,” said Ingraham.
This type of course not only provides students with writing skills and material they can put in a portfolio or on a resume, it gives them an opportunity to discover something new and the confidence that they can succeed in the professional world. Dr. Ingraham recalls one student in particular: “One of the students came in as a poet and discovered that this is what she wanted to do with her life. She discovered that she had this talent and these skills, and she wanted to put them to work for these organizations who are doing meaningful work. She graduated and went straight into a grant writing job.”
Even students who don’t go into grant writing specifically are still moved by the experience and in many cases continue volunteering with the non-profit organizations for which they wrote proposals, demonstrating just how these types of experiences can open one’s world up to new possibilities.
The Beyond the Classroom program not only provides students with opportunities to participate in hands-on experiences that will prepare them for future careers, it can provide students with a new way of experiencing the world, opening their eyes to new possibilities and perspectives.
Shelby Bess serves as the English Department’s Social Media Coordinator and Staff Writer. She is a senior English major and Communication minor graduating in the Spring of 2016.