I write this blog post on the first day of my trip to Armenia, thought I have yet to reach my final destination. I have a five-hour layover in Paris—not enough time to make it into the city and back, and yet definitely more time than one would like to spend in an airport, even one as lovely as this. I caught maybe an hour of uneasy sleep on the plane, and it’s 10:00 am here now, so I have miles to go yet before I sleep. I am more hopeful for some sleep on the four-hour flight to Yerevan, Armenia’s capital city.
And yet despite this airport purgatory in which I find myself for a few hours, I have already been reminded of one important truth about travel and learning, the subject of my blog posts over the next week or so—namely, the extent to which travel learning engages the whole person. Whatever we learn on a travel experience, we are typically doing so through a variety of our senses and faculties: we are moving our bodies through unfamiliar places, and negotiating unexpected obstacles; we are tasting strange foods, seeing unexpected sights, and hearing the sounds of accents and languages much different from our own. We catch glimpses of people interacting in unaccustomed ways, and our emotions bubble closer to the surface of our skins.
In these contexts I can feel my mind opening and blossoming, as I seek to understand the unfamiliar environment around me, and all of my cognitive faculties are marshaled into action. How radically this experience differs from what my students normally encounter in their learning spaces every day, where they sit still, in the same spot, and do little more than listen, talk and write.
Whether it makes sense to try and engage the whole person in a college classroom in the way that I find myself engaged right now, as a traveler, is a question to which I don’t have an easy answer. Something tells me yes; but I also don’t want to oversimplify the issue. Certainly there should be space for both classroom learning and for learning through an engagement of the whole person. We offer plenty of the former; do we offer enough of the latter?
I am also reminded this morning/evening of the way in which cues of sight and sound can trigger memories. As I walk my way through the airport, memories flood back to me of the year or two I spent learning French for my Ph.D. language exam—some of these memories are ones I have not accessed in many years. I used to sit in our apartment in Wrigleyville, on Chicago’s north side, and watch the evening news in French every night in order to supplement the studying I was doing by working my way laboriously through French novels with a dictionary. And now as I find myself reading French signs in this airport, walking in this unfamiliar place and hearing French spoken all around me, I remember vividly the face of that news broadcaster, his particular way of speaking and the turns of phrase I came to recognize.
So again here I think about the extent to which our senses play such a crucial role in learning and memory, and wonder a little further about the way in which we build learning environments in higher education which seem strangely sanitized of sensual cues.
But right now my body needs less wondering and more wandering.
Next stop Yerevan.