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What travel offers to teach us

A few weeks ago, I learned that I’ve been selected for a Fulbright grant to pursue research internationally for the academic year 2022-23. I applied for this specific award, the Fulbright Canada Distinguished Research Chair in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, back in September of 2021, and it’s been a long year of waiting and hoping since then. In fact, I’ve been waiting for many years to find the right time and place to pursue a Fulbright, and I’m still pinching myself over my good fortune. I’m grateful to colleagues and academic leaders for supporting these endeavors.

The Fulbright Program, the United States government’s flagship program of international educational and cultural exchange, offers passionate and accomplished students and scholars in more than 160 countries the opportunity to study, teach, conduct research, exchange ideas, and contribute to mutual understanding. These talented Fulbrighters from all backgrounds inspire, innovate, and contribute to finding solutions to challenges facing our communities and our world.
From “The Fulbright Program: Our Mission and Your Future”

I’ll be using this opportunity to follow up on Minding Bodies: to share, observe, and inventory embodied learning strategies, seeking to understand which kinds of activities work reliably for specific purposes, like increasing students’ sense of belonging or deepening their grasp of concepts. I want to explore how learning spaces, including outdoors, can impact the well-being of both students and faculty. Because Carleton University, my institutional host, has identified sustainability and wellness as a strategic direction, and offers special support for experiential learning, I expect to learn a lot from colleagues who share my interests. I look forward to working with Dr. Peter Felten of Elon University, another Fulbright Canada awardee for this year. I’m grateful to Dr. David Hornsby and his team for sponsoring two Fulbright Chairs in SoTL (Scholarship of Teaching and Learning), a relatively new and growing field in higher education and unique in the Fulbright catalog of awards.

The award will mean leaving home for an academic year to live in Ottawa, Ontario — a lovely city and dramatically snowier climate than Columbus, Georgia! I will dearly miss the daily pleasures of life with Nick, to whom I extend a continent of gratitude and love. I’m excited to find memorable new places we can explore together on breaks, and reasons for friends and family to come visit. For now, I’m waiting to see what Ottawa has to teach me, and how a solo adventure in an unfamiliar culture and environment will help me to grow.

Connecting a UNESCO Report on the Future of Higher Education with a wild swimming habit

After a short but sweaty bike ride last weekend, I lowered myself onto shallow rocks under the rushing cool waters of the Chattahoochee River, luxuriating in a nature fix. My partner Nick and I started this wild swimming habit last summer, born from the need for a change of scene during lockdown and the pure allure of the river. We pack a few cans of cold beer and water, lug our bikes down the rocky bank, and let the healing begin. Technically, we’re breaking the law by not wearing life jackets; the water level of the river here is raised and lowered daily, and the current powers the largest urban whitewater course in the world (“sending up to 13,000 cfs of adrenaline-pumping whitewater towards our class III-V rapids,” according to the Rush South site). We chose the spot for its shallow entry point and close access to a deeper pool away from the main current, so the degree of risk feels pretty tame compared to, say, free soloing El Capitan.

The soothed, cleansed sensation I feel after a dip in the river offers me personal evidence to support research on the porous boundaries of our skin and the environments of our surroundings. Writers like Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, Robert Macfarlane, and William L. Fox have beautifully articulated their own observations about the profound interrelation between environments and human cognition. Scientists are probing the effects of green spaces on human behavior1, documenting the ways that well-designed or naturally pleasing spaces appear to reduce human stress and violent crime and improve physical health. There’s not (yet) an exact prescription for nature fixes, although we’re identifying specific elements of natural environments that boost most people’s well-being.

Memorable and healing experiences with the natural environment can happen even in “uncomfortable” weather conditions. A few years ago, I got drenched by a summer rainstorm that interrupted the final relaxation pose of a summer solstice yoga event. No one there jumped up and ran for cover (because, c’mon, savasana is everyone’s favorite pose), but just remained on our mats, laughing and soaked through the skin. I reflected on the fact that modern humans almost never allow ourselves to just lie down and be rained upon, although it was surprisingly delightful. Rain, wind, snow: each of these can bring us intense pleasure and produce distinctive cognitive states.

Having developed a keen awareness of our connection to the planet, I was thrilled to discover the new report on the Future of Higher Education by UNESCO International Institute for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (IESALC). The report asked a diverse range of experts, “how could higher education contribute to better futures for all in 2050?” Framed within the UNESCO Futures of Education initiative, the report highlights four key messages for higher ed:

1. To take active responsibility in the development of the potential of all humans;

2. To promote wellbeing and sustainability, oriented towards justice, solidarity, and human rights;

3. To draw strength from interculturality and diversity, respecting cultures and identities, and creating spaces for dialogue;

4. Finally, to create and uphold interconnectedness,  forging collaborations between local and global communities, and bonding higher education with other levels of education, including non-formal and informal learning.

As the report’s summary characterizes its recommendations, higher ed can become “education with a soul,” which will benefit from integration among disciplines to produce innovative new knowledge and prepare students not just for earning livelihoods, but for life. I’m encouraged by the bold vision put forth here by a major global organization. I hope other faculty will feel empowered to start moving through porous boundaries between disciplines, between classrooms and “non-academic” spaces for learning, and between minds and bodies.

IESALC invites the public to contribute our own thoughts about how higher education can contribute to a better future for all. A short questionnaire is available in English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese (https://www.iesalc.unesco.org/en/futures-of-higher-education/public-consultation/), with the results to be published later in 2021. I added my own two cents, and you can, too!

1Engineer, Altaf; Ida, Aletheia; M. Sternberg, Esther. 2020. “Healing Spaces: Designing Physical Environments to Optimize Health, Wellbeing, and Performance” Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 17, no. 4: 1155. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17041155

Yet another reason to dance and play poker in class

(Were you taught how to square dance in school phys ed, like the smiling faces at the Jones School in 1949 Ann Arbor, MI?)

Moving together connects us cognitively. The fascinating science exploring interpersonal synchrony shows that social cohesion is built and maintained through coordinated movement, including internal and involuntary movement like heartbeats and breathing. Humans are built to tune in to each other, and to work collaboratively. (Dogs can tune into our movements, too: check out “The Family Dog is in Sync With Your Kids”)

Improving team work and a sense of belonging — looking ahead to our chance to do this again in person — gives us a great excuse for trying some unorthodox activities as preparation for collaborative projects. Be transparent about these activities as intentional for improving cognitive performance. Moving to music (creating it together, like Matthew Marsolek demonstrates in this TEDx UMontana Talk), building a model, walking outside, playing cards: what kinds of shared movement activities would you like to try with your students?

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