Theory, practice and the nature of a liberal arts education

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By Gillian Jakab, Community & Culture Editor
Published November 16, 2014

As experiential learning becomes more popular, the University continues to adapt. When educators plug theory and praxis based learning, they are referring 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 sciences — you learn about Newton’s laws in lecture 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-professional programs — Economics majors, for example, run investment portfolio strategies against the market, School of Social Work students intern in the surrounding communities. 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 students more deeply with liberal arts material.

In LSA, opportunities for theory and praxis-based learning exist within the sociology 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 Critical 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 students to study literature and literary theory, and then to generate their own literature within — or without — it.

The Drama major has students study theater 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 humanities disciplines through their social, historical 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 dominant. The Social Theory and Practice major couples coursework in social scientific methods and theory with internships and practical work out in various communities.

“(Theory and praxis is) across the curriculum I think in the RC — that’s been a kind of benchmark or leitmotif that runs through the curriculum,” said Charles Bright, a history 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 experiences have been working with students in his course, “Mexican Labor in North America: Nogales Field Study and Seminar.” The course looks at migrant workers — many of whom are undocumented — and their challenges in the U.S. As a pairing with the academic seminar, Robinson developed an in-field component where the class travels 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 academic 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 conferences inviting migrants in the community to speak on campus.

RC Prof. Jeffrey Evans, who has a background 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, “Hospital 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 emphasize that to students that they should keep a journal of what strikes them day to day as they’re in there volunteering, and then create a paper that shows us how they are filtering 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 teaches an RC Social Science seminar for juniors, titled “20th Century Detroit History.” He taught the class frequently in the ’90s and won a grant to execute an oral history project of the experience of growing up in the lower-class of Detroit in the 1940s. The students in the class did archival research, interviews with neighborhood elders, and paired up with the Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit to put on a play with high school students inspired by the stories of senior members of the community. From this project arose the Urban Studies minor in the RC.

“That kind 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 experiences I’ve ever had,” Bright said.

The student experience of theory/praxis learning parallels that of the professors. LSA 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 typically you either study literary theory or you study performance, (but here, you) study the two intertwined,” she said.

Douglas has worked with the Prison Creative Arts Project, where students conduct creative arts workshops in juvenile detention and adult correction facilities, both through the English department with English Literature Prof. Buzz Alexander, and through the RC with Ashley Lucas, theatre and drama associate professor and director of the 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 blowing.”

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 students who are self-motivated can seek them out.

However, Kime said he is wary of University programs that facilitate experiential learning within outside communities, and prefers when courses partner with pre-existing 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 moonlight and roses. One issue arises when some students select courses based on praxis, rather 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 component.”

Another issue is keeping the theory tethered to the praxis. Out in the field or the community, 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 connections, and that’s where it’s the professor’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 experimental education, but when the necessary support 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 symbolic,” Haniff said. “So students are delegated out to be in communities and places we’re supposed to do work, but the work is not necessarily 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 education? Is it for yourself, or is it for the community? 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 quantitative 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 marginal,” Haniff said. “A lot of students are yearning for application and yearning for experiential education, but experiential education 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 largely within The Residential College, which, having developed the model of a small, quality 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 meaningful practice. But I don’t think that’s true as a general rule for the rest of the University,” 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 Artists in the U.S., in the RC’s Humanities, Art History and American Culture departments. The PCAP program and courses have recently moved under the RC from the English 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 learning in action and the other part is I think the emphasis on social justice.”

“I think in the RC, the professors genuinely want to see us take what we’re learning 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 material and they want to see tangible results of that.”

Douglas noted that the RC provides a different kind of community space, where practice 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 satisfaction with the University experience,” Bright said. “(But) it’s not universal in the University, there’s still plenty of faculty who don’t give a happy damn about anything that’s outside of their office.”

Although 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 alternative 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 something new next year.”