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November 19, 2014 - Image 12

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The Michigan Daily, 2014-11-19

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5 B

THEORY, PRACTICEAND THE NATURE OF A LIBE
1 ILN JAKAB, COMMUNITY CULTURE

As experiential learning becomes more
popular, the University continues to
dapt. When educators plug theory
and praxis based learning, they are refer-
ring to a traditional pedagogy of concepts,
facts, laws or equations - "theory" - paired
with real-world applications and application
of theoretical practices - loosely defined as
"praxis." It may seem easy to think about
theory and praxis-based learning in the sci-
ences - you learn about Newton's laws in lec-
ture and then apply them in lab (OK, maybe
science majors here are a bit more advanced
than that...).
Another intuitive example where theory
meets praxis in curriculum is in pre-profes-
sional programs - Economics majors, for
example, run investment portfolio strategies
against the market, School of Social Work
students intern in the surrounding commu-
nities. Less obvious, however, are the pockets
throughout the University where this bi-level
coursework resides, not to test a hypothesis
or learn skills for a career, but to engage stu-
dents more deeply with liberal arts material.
In LSA, opportunities for theory and
praxis-based learning exist within the soci-
ology department's Project Community, the
psychology department's Project Outreach,
various courses in Women's Studies, History
of Art (in one course, HISTART 393, "Words
about Images: Western Ekphrasis as Criti-
cal Model," taught by Prof. Jennifer Nelson,
students interpret visual images in their
own words), among others. The Center for
Academic Engaged Learning offers support,
resources and grants throughout LSA for this
type of pedagogy.
In The Residential College, this type of
learning is everywhere. The RC was founded
in 1967 with the pairing of theory and praxis
central to its curriculum. The RC's Creative
Writing and Literature major requires stu-
dents to study literature and literary theory,
and then to generate their own literature
within - or without - it.
The Drama major has students study the-
ater as through literature, and then practice
it as a performing art - the minor is "drama:

text to performance."
In the Arts and Ideas in the Humanities
major, students study art forms and humani-
ties disciplines through their social, histori-
cal and theoretical contexts, and are required
to pair their study with studio-type practice
of an art form. The RC foreign language
courses supplement classroom and book
learning with conversational lunches where
students are forbidden to speak any English
to one another. Furthermore, students can
opt for service learning in communities, near
and far, where their studied language is dom-
inant. The Social Theory and Practice major
couples coursework in social scientific meth-
ods and theory with internships and practi-
cal work out in various communities.
"(Theory and praxis is) across the curric-
ulum I think in the RC - that's been a kind
of benchmark or leitmotif that runs through
the curriculum," said Charles Bright, a his-
tory and social theory and practice professor.
"It reflects the fact that the RC does not have
a thematic whole - what it has is moving
between academic learning and practice of
some kind and combining those in ways that
(inform) the education, but also ... are of use
to people in the world."
Just as the students have diverse interests
within the RC, and even within the same
major, so do the professors. Yet the thread of
theory and praxis runs throughout.
Sociology Prof. Ian Robinson is a lecturer
in the RC's Social Theory & Practice major,
and some of his most transformative expe-
riences have been working with students in
his course, "Mexican Labor in North Amer-
ica: Nogales Field Study and Seminar." The
course looks at migrant workers - many of
whom are undocumented - and their chal-
lenges in the U.S. As a pairing with the
-academic seminar, Robinson developed an
in-field component where the class trav-
els to Nogales, Mexico during spring break.
Students live with families, enter factories,
meet with workers and engineers there, and
interview migrants before they crossed the
desert.
"One of the things I really learned from

(the Nogales trips) was just how much more
powerful that was for the students in the
class," Robinson said. "What they would tell
me (were) things like: 'Well I understood the
readings,' ... but they said, 'I didn't really see
how the different pieces fit together until I
was able to see them through the lens of lives
that are actually lived there where it's all a
continuous."'
Robinson described how students become
more passionate about the injustices they
studied during the Nogales trip, and, as a
result, become more motivated in their aca-
demic work. One year, students returned
from the trip and decided to extend their
term project to create a permanent student
organization: Migrant and Immigrant Rights
Advocacy, otherwise known as MIRA. The
group, which still exists, organized two con-
ferences inviting migrants in the community
to speak on campus.
RC Prof. Jeffrey Evans, who has a back-
ground in clinical psychology and just
recently retired from the University Hospital
where he had been director of training for
the adult post-doctoral fellowship program.
He teaches a service learning course at the
hospital as well as courses such as "Art, Mind
and Medicine and Topics in the Science of
Creativity," where students examine creative
expression through a person's sense of well-
being, especially in a clinical setting. In the
RC's hospital service-learning course, "Hos-
pital Volunteers' Service Learning," Evans
assigns an academic paper to his students,
asking them to reflect on their experiences
through the lens of their own respective
interests, whether it be a certain disease, the
healthcare system as they've observed it or
interpersonal relations in the hospital.
"People bring their interests - they might
be more macro or they might be more micro,
and then the resulting papers at the end
are just fascinating," Evans said. "I empha-
size that to students that they should keep
a journal of what strikes them day to day as
they're in there volunteering, and then cre-
ate a paper that shows us how they are filter-
ing this through their own interests. It's not

just a good thing - but it's something that
helps students develop where they're going
- where they want to go."
History Prof. Charlie Bright, who also
teaches in the RC, became interested in
the study of
Detroit in the
1980s. Bright
teachesnR C"GOINGT(
Social ScienceGO N T
seminar for
juniors, titled W OR KSHOC
"2Other GETTING TC
ry." He taught
the class fre- ACTION THE D
the '9 d and CONCEPTS WA
won a grant LEARNING AB
to execute LEARN GAB
an oral his-
tory project WA S MIND BL
of the experi-
ence of grow-
ing up in the L
lower-class LSA SEN O
of Detroit in
the i940s. DOUGLAS, R ES
The students
in the class COLLEGE AN
did archi-
val research, M E M B
interviews
with neigh-
borhood
elders, and
paired up with the Mosaic Youth Theatre of
Detroit to put on aplay with high school stu-
dents inspired by the stories of senior mem-
bers of the community. From this project
arose the Urban Studies minor in the RC.
"Thatkind of production of history in front
of students who are helping make it, who
aren't just sitting in a class reading, they're
actually doing it and seeing this kind of world
come alive again was one of the better expe-
riences I've ever had," Bright said.
The student experience of theory/praxis
learning parallels that of the professors. LSA

..
M
V
,l
.L

senior Aleah Douglas, a member of the RC,
will complete a degree in English through
LSA and a degree in Drama within the RC,
which she describes as the ultimate theory/
praxis experience:
"The major is so
unusual because typi-
cally you either study
literary theory or you
study performance,
(but here, you) study
the two intertwined,"
she said.
SEE IN Douglas has worked
with the Prison Cre-
)IFFERENT ative Arts Project,
where students conduct
E W E R E creative arts workshops
OUT -I T in juvenile detention
U T - T and adult correction
,,7 facilities, both through
the English department
with English Litera-
ture Prof. Buzz Alex-
ander, and through the
RC with Ashley Lucas,
theatre and drama
ID EN T IA L associate professor and
director of the PCAP.
D PCAP "Honestly, having
the workshop was so
important for what we
were learning," Douglas
said. "When you read a
book, a textbook or even
a memoir ... it's still a
removed concept. It doesn't feel up close and
personal. But then going to the workshop and
getting to see in action the different concepts
we were learning about - it was mind blow-
ing."
LSA sophomore Alex Kime, a member of
the RC, learns through a theory and praxis
model in the humanities with his Literature
and Creative Writing major in the RC, and
in the social sciences with his Community
Action and Social Change (CASC) minor in
the School of Social Work. There is a lot of
flexibility within the CASC minor: Students

take the introductory course, Theories and
Practices for Community Action and Social
Change and complete a capstone project. In
between, there are not many requirements
that enforce practice components, but stu-
dents who are self-motivated can seek them
out.
However, Kime said he is wary of Uni-
versity programs that facilitate experiential
learning within outside communities, and
prefers when courses partner with pre-exist-
ing organizations.
"I like it when things are kind of close to
the ground ... A less academic vibe and more
down to earth and (where we are) doing the
work that needs to be done," he said.
Like any bold initiative, theory and praxis-
learning at the University is not all moon-
light and roses. One issue arises when some
students select courses based on praxis, rath-
er than theory.
LSA Prof. Nesha Haniff teaches courses
in the Women's Studies and African and
Afroamerican Studies departments, such
as Pedagogy of Empowerment: Activism in
Race, Gender and Health, where students
teach an HIV education program to people
with low literacy skills that she developed to
various communities. "My courses are very
difficult," she said. "The practice component
does not happen without the academic com-
ponent."
Another issue is keeping the theory teth-
ered to the praxis. Out in the field or the com-
munity, the professor has limited control and
there can be a tendency for events to drift
from the curriculum's intent.
"The problem is when the material being
taught, or the reflection being conducted,
doesn't relate to the action being carried
out," Douglas said. "Then sometimes it just
becomes too much effort to make wide con-
nections, and that's where it's the profes-
sor's responsibility - you know, to make sure
that the action really ties in with what we're
learning and that the reflection really helps
solidify it to move forward.
Haniff noted that while service learning
opportunities provide outlets for experimen-

tal education, but when the necessary sup-
port and preparation isn't there, the work
becomes symbolic rather than meaningful.
"Praxis is becoming less and less relevant
and it's becoming more and more sort of sym-
bolic," Haniff said. "So students are delegat-
ed out to be in communities and places we're
supposed to do work, but the work is not nec-
essarily transformative. It's work that the
communities have to take responsibility for."
Haniff emphasized that students should
pay attention to the motivation behind taking
their theory/praxis courses, focusing on the
implications their studies will have on the
real-world communities they are entering:
"We have to find out for whom is our edu-
cation? Is it for yourself, or is it for the com-
munity? And how prepared are you to serve
the community?" Haniff said.
After all, experiential learning - within
the specific context of community work -
can still be quantifying rather than quantita-
tive and nuanced, as Haniff described.
"Even if you do work out in the field, the
purpose of it is to study and test and count
and measure. Not necessarily to intervene.
And so those issues become kind of mar-
ginal," Haniff said. "A lot of students are
yearning for application and yearning for
experiential education, but experiential edu-
cation is very tough and very rigorous. And
we don't have a curriculum that's very tough
and rigorous that's experiential."
The theory and praxis model is used large-
ly within The Residential College, which,
having developed the model of a small, qual-
ity liberal arts college against the backdrop
of the larger research University of which it
is a part of, pioneered this type of learning at
the University in the 1970s and remains at its
vanguard today.
"If you're an RC student you have a larger
possibility of getting involved in some mean-
ingful practice. But I don't think that's true
as a general rule for the rest of the Univer-
sity," Haniff said.
Douglas' favorite courses with practice
components have been within the RC or
at least cross-listed with it, such as On the

Margins of the Art World: Self Taught Art-
ists in the U.S., in the RC's Humanities, Art
History and American Culture departments.
The PCAP program and courses have recent-
ly moved under the RC from the English x
department.
"Honestly, it should have been moved
a long time ago," Douglas said. "It's just
because PCAP fits with the mission of the
Residential College - part of it is the learn-
ing in action and the other part is I think the
emphasis on social justice."
"I think in the RC, the professors genu-
inely want to see us take what we're learn-
ing and put it into action," Douglas added.
"They're not content to let us just sit and
write and essay; they want to see us engaging
creatively and intellectually with the mate-
rial and they want to see tangible results of
that."
Douglas noted that the RC provides a dif-
ferent kind of community space, where prac-
tice and theory are integrated.
Other departments have replicated the
RC's theory and praxis model and the focus
on engaged learning has been spreading over
the past decade, but in no way is pervasive
throughout the University.
"There's now a lot of research that show
that direct engagement (and) community
engagement increase the outcomes both of
academic performance and sense of satisfac-
tion with the University experience," Bright
said. "(But) it's not universal in the Univer-
sity, there's still plenty of faculty who don't
give a happy damn about anything that's out-
side of their office."
Though theory and praxis based learning
in the University is becoming more common,
the RC continues to be a leader in this type
of learning through its model of execution. -
Evans jokes that the RC likes to keep its alter-
native persona and have a leg up.
"There is definitely spreading this kind of
teaching and this kind of engagement across
a number of departments," Professor Evans
said. "We still aspire to be cutting edge
though. We'll probably come up with some-
thing new next year."

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