Engaged learning can change your life, as Laura Baldasarre ’12 discovered in a course on a topic that nobody wants to think about.
“My journey at Gettysburg College has been a story of self-awareness and personal growth,” she said in her address to new students at this past fall’s Opening Convocation. “It started in my first-year seminar. It was Death and the Meaning of Life. I had no idea of what I was getting myself into.
“On the first day of class, we were told that our final assignment would be to write our own funeral plans. There were no right or wrong answers. The only thing that was necessary to complete the assignment was thought and self-reflection.”
That may sound easy compared to calculus, biochem, or post-structuralist theory, but consider the profundity that a teenaged first-year student was being asked to engage with for an entire semester: her own mortality. “If you don’t feel ready to do that now, don’t worry,” Baldasarre told her Convocation audience. “I didn’t feel ready to do it even when I was writing my funeral plan. But what other way is there to learn besides to step out of your comfort zone? Once you imagine your own death, nothing seems quite as hard.
“But the great thing was, Professor Myers was there to help us every step of the way. If we had any questions, we could go to him. We trusted not only our classmates, but also our professor, to share both our thoughts and anxieties, and to challenge each other.”
Prof. Charles “Buz” Myers has a habit of knocking down classroom walls in order to help students engage with issues face-to-face. “Learning at this school is not limited to campus,” Myers told the Class of 2015 in his address at Convocation. “I have found that ‘road trips’ produce important learning experiences and foster deeper student-faculty interaction. So each fall, I take the students in my first-year seminar to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., to the Gettysburg battlefield, and to a local funeral home.”
This story appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of Gettysburg magazine (full issue pdf).
And his first-year seminar (one of dozens offered each fall) isn’t the only class Myers takes on the road. “For the past three years, I have taught a weekly Bible study class to some sixty male felons at the Camp Hill State Prison,” said the religious studies professor. “Because my work with these inmates has been such a profound educational experience for me, I took the nine members of my upper-level biblical studies seminar to the prison, where they had the chance to meet and interact with my inmate students. That was a learning experience that my Gettysburg College students will never forget!” Myers’ dedication to engaged learning is one reason he has won the Student Senate Faculty Appreciation Award four times, including in 2011, when the honor was renamed after another consummate teacher: biology Prof. Emeritus Ralph Cavaliere.
But what exactly is “engaged learning”? At some schools, it’s the newest wave in teaching methodology. But at Gettysburg, it’s the deep current we’ve been swimming in for years. (Stephanie Dioro '11, right, did research at the National Achives; see "Face to face with history" below.)
“It’s not learning without the intellectual part, but it’s not engaged without the hands-on practical piece,” said English Prof. Chris Fee, a past holder of the College’s Edwin T. Johnson and Cynthia Shearer Johnson Distinguished Teaching Chair. “It’s about putting into practice the theories and abstract concepts of the book, discussion, and classroom.”
For Fee’s students, engaged learning means experiencing home-lessness in Washington, D.C, rigorously recreating the Viking world in cyberspace, and breathing new life into a medieval play on the steps of Breidenbaugh Hall.
Countless other examples flow throughout the Gettysburg learning community both on campus and beyond: service-learning built into syllabi, internships with alumni and parents, student-faculty collaborative research, study abroad, issues-oriented theme houses, and much more.
“Students now are not content to sit in the classroom for four years,” said the Robert C. Fluhrer Professor of Civil War Studies, Peter Carmichael. He directs the Civil War Institute, which has built a network of summer internships at museums and National Park Service battlefield sites. “Students are very aware of the competition they’ll confront in the marketplace after graduation. They realize they have to start accumulating experience almost immediately.”
Internships and a host of other opportunities coordinated by the Center for Career Development not only boost students’ career potential, but also create a direct encounter with pressing human issues. For example, support from Trustee Jim Heston ’70 makes paid summer internships possible in Nicaragua, Kenya, and Gettysburg through the Center for Public Service, which offers myriad immersion and service experiences from living on an Apache reservation in Arizona to learning about the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama to repairing hurricane damage in New Orleans. Similarly, the life-changing leadership devel-opment trips and other off-campus opportunities offered by the Gettysburg Recreational Adventure Board (GRAB) are legendary.
Travel also supercharges syllabi, allowing courses to transcend textbooks and offer living lessons instead. Andy Parker ’79 has frequently supported course-related travel, including a trip to Ireland for the Contemporary Civil Conflict course taught by political science Profs. Caroline Hartzell and Robert Bohrer. Parker also helped Eisenhower Institute (EI) students travel to New Zealand, where they gave scholarly presentations at a conference on sustainability. EI students also visit Washington, D.C. and other sites to gain firsthand experience with political professionals. Sunderman Conservatory of Music Prof. Kathleen Sasnett regularly tours Europe with students as she and they perform in operas. And, of course, more than half of all Gettysburg students spend a semester or more studying abroad or off-campus.
Closer to home is — home. Students residing in the Farmhouse theme house (a.k.a. Corner Cottage at Carlisle and West Lincoln) explore sustainable living by doing it. From collaborating with Facilities to help improve the College’s recycling program to growing fresh food in their own garden, Farmhouse residents are committed to educating them-selves and the community about sustainability and social justice.
“More than anything, we want to challenge our peers to think critically about their lifestyles and understand what sustainability really means,” co-founder Sara Tower ‘12, an environmental studies and globalization studies double major, wrote on the Farmhouse website. “But in order to do that, there is a lot of learning we all need to do. And this kind of learning won’t happen in the classroom. It will happen over a potluck dinner made from local food. It will happen in the backyard at the compost pile. It will happen in the garden harvesting carrots and rutabaga. It will happen while volunteering at El Centro, the Homeless Shelter, or the Senior Center. It will happen on a trip to León, Nicaragua, visiting women’s groups and fair-trade coffee cooperatives.”
Leadership like that of the Farmhouse students is central to engaged learning. “It’s taking the initiative to immerse yourself in what you are doing and learning,” said Andy Hughes, director of the College’s Garthwait Leadership Center.
Initiative plus immersion can add up to prestigious grants and scholarships, said Assistant Provost for Scholarship Maureen Forrestal, who knows a thing or two about leveraging students’ engagement. Thanks in part to her mentorship, dozens of students have earned honors including Rhodes, Fulbright, and many others. Forrestal also oversees an annual day-long campus celebration of student research and creative work, often completed in close collaboration with faculty, and frequently resulting in joint publications or presentations at conferences.
In short, engaged learning stands at the very heart of Gettysburg College’s mission. “Engaged learning provides the experience of putting education to meaningful use, to connect knowledge with the responsibility and desire to act,” said Provost Chris Zappe. “We are dedicated to providing our graduates with the intellectual tools and experiences to help prepare them for lives as active leaders and citizens in our changing world.”
Face to face with history
History Prof. Peter Carmichael’s Cowardice at Gettysburg seminar visited the National Archives in Washington, where Stephanie Dioro ‘11 (pictured above) found photos of the man she was assigned to study. Students examined court-martial, medical, and pension records of soldiers charged with misconduct in 1863’s battle. Each student researched one soldier’s experience and linked it to larger cultural, political, and military issues. The resulting essays are under review for possible publication by an academic press. The students also heard about life as an archivist from John Deeben ‘87 of the National Archives’ research support branch. (Photo above by Peter Carmichael)
Founded in 1832, Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with a strong academic tradition. Alumni include Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel laureate, and other distinguished scholars. The college, which enrolls 2,600 undergraduate students, is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.
Contact: Jim Hale, associate director of editorial services