Experiential learning in the classroom provides students with new experiences

The Shamanism class is just one of many classes offered at Utah State University that features experiential learning. Photo by Rachael Steineckert

By Rachael Steineckert

Staff writer

The room was emptied of desks and lit by candle as we gathered in a circle to begin the night’s class. This was how the introduction to Shamanism class, taught by anthropology professor Bonnie Glass-Coffin, would begin every Tuesday and Wednesday night last spring. As a group of students on the second floor of Old Main, we took off our shoes outside our classroom. As we filed in the room, we dipped our fingers lightly in water and touched it to our heads, chests, and stomachs.

The class was as unusual as it sounds. It allowed us to participate in Shamanic rituals and get credit — experiencing what we would have otherwise just read about. But experimental as it was, the course has also prompted a university-wide discussion about new ways of exploring “big questions” in the classroom.

Glass-Coffin said she designed the course so students could experience the curriculum in ways that “engage the whole person” so they can be “transformed by the process.”

Rather than being about specific beliefs or dogmas, she said the goal of the class “was to give students a set of tools they could use in class, and beyond, to engage big questions of meaning and purpose. … What does life mean? What is my purpose? … It is about providing students with time-honored methods for quieting the ego mind in order to do their own inner exploration.”

Catalyzed by the Shamanism class, the College of Humanities and Social Sciences or CHASS is hosting a yearlong seminar for professors and students to discuss the possibility that the classroom is fertile ground for “big questions” and personal transformation.

Philosophy professor Charlie Huenemann, for example, who is helping to facilitate the seminar, said, “there is a difference between book learning and really feeling and experiencing it. It could be religious, but it doesn’t have to be.”

According to an article written by W. Robert Connor, president of the Teagle Foundation, over 85 percent of students report being religious or spiritual, and many USU students incorporate spiritual practices into their higher education including prayer, meditation, spiritual community, totems or even the LDS institute on campus. UCLA’s Spirituality in Higher Education Project found that seven out of 10 college students across the country consider religion important to their lives. The study also found that, out of 100,000 plus freshman surveyed, more than two-thirds said that it was “essential” or “very important” for college to enhance their self-understanding and one-fourth reported becoming more spiritual in college.

This means that many students, whether religious or not, are interested in those ideas which often take shape through spiritual questions.

Whether or not they belong in the classroom, however, is up for debate.

Religious studies senior Peter Wosnik, who took the Shamanism class, said that although it was a great way of learning about Shamanism, the class might not be for everyone.

“The practice didn’t necessarily line up with my own tradition, but that’s OK … However, for those who would feel religiously threatened by participating in something outside their own religious sensibilities, this is probably not the right class. I think for some people who are more conservative in their Christian faith and are suspicious of other religions may not prefer the learning environment.”

Individuals may also feel that although personal spirituality is important, it can be explored in church settings, at home or in spiritual communities rather than on campus. There are specific rules not to teach religion on campus and some students may be fearful that where spirituality is discussed, professors may begin to preach. What Glass-Coffin, Huenemann, and their colleagues hope to do is open the dialogue for concerns like these, so spirituality on campus continues to be an invigorating conversation.

“No one wants to pretend to be an expert,” says Huenemann. “Everyone acknowledges the big questions but is reluctant to bring them up…that is something we have to fight against because college is where the big questions live. If someone doesn’t come to college and encounter at least sixteen big questions,” he laughs, “they’ve been cheated.”

And shamanism’s student reviews are encouraging, says Glass-Coffin. Students wrote things like “this class changed my life,” and on a six point scale, the average rating was above 5.75. Kayla Aiken, a linguistics student in the class, wrote about the experience: “Shamanism was a beautiful experience that opened my mind to the systematic harmony of the universe. I’ve never learned so much about myself. I used to gaze down at the ground, but now I’m noticing the beauty of the world around me… I wish that everyone could experience (this) to enter into the realm of self-awareness, connection, and spirituality.” For Glass-Coffin, providing these types of experiences is at the heart of her teaching style, and the center of the “big questions” discussion.

“The good news,” she says, “is that the debate continues. The great news is that there is tremendous interest. The main thing I’m happy about is that regardless of whether this Shamanism experiment continues, we have brought to the surface the real importance to consider our roles as educators, and the needs of students who are hungry for education opportunities that engage the whole person.”

She hopes to teach the class again in Spring 2014, but in the mean time students and faculty who are interested are encouraged to join the discussion. On November 28 there will be a panel and discussion on transformative teaching, and in April the CHASS seminar will welcome Yeshiva University’s Norm Adler to lecture on the role of spirituality in the classroom. For those who might be interested in attending the seminar or joining the discussion, contact Beth Walden at: beth.walden@aggiemail.usu.edu.

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