Thursday, May 31, 2012

Engaged Learning and Teaching

The May term ended yesterday, and the students left Iowa returning to their homes in West Virginia, Washington, Florida, North Carolina, and South Carolina.  I have remained in the Hawkeye States for a few more days to bat clean up with my sister.  But I am taking a break from the mundane to reflect on this experience from my vantage point.

Furman touts its commitment to engaged learning, and it has done so for many years.  I was the University's first Director of Engaged Learning, serving in that post from 1997-2003.  During my professional career, I have served as the President of the Faculty Special Interest Group of the National Society for Experiential Education and the President of the Undergraduate Education Section of the American Political Science Association.  I've published essays on the importance of internships in enhancing the quality of undergraduate education, particularly among liberal arts students.  For many years, I've led Furman's mock trial program, a stellar example of transforming students from bench warmers to players in the learning process.

As a result of my previous involvement with experiential education, I am familiar with its principles.  Perhaps the most central tenent of the experiential pedagogy is that the professor moves being the "sage on the stage" to being a coach or a facilitator of learning.  Experiential educators believe that seeing, tasting, and participating in an activity, especially when coupled with significant reflection, leads to a richer learning experience, and one that has staying power for the students.  This kind of learning is often far messier than conducting a course in the classroom--the professor has a large amount of control over the content of the course, and the information contained in the course can be arranged in a logical fashion.  The traditional classroom makes ample use of deductive approaches, while students engaged in an experiential course typically employ inductive logic to make sense of their subject.  Experiential courses do not have disciplinary walls--the academy may be organized by subjects, but the world is not.

Nonetheless, my nearly 25 years of teaching and writing about experiential education did not adequately prepare me for what happened during Farm.

1. I truly could not be the sage on the stage because I do not know the agriculture policy area.  Often times, I think experiential educators can twist an experience for students because it is being arranged in a way that is deductive in orientation and reflects the professors' expertise in the area.  The distinct disadvantage I faced--not knowing the ag policy area--soon became an advantage.  I was learning along with the students.  While I had read and thought about the topic for more than a year that seemed a minor advantage.  That only meant that I knew the broad parameters of the topic.  The fact that I knew less about the subject's content, let the experience develop organically; I couldn't superimpose a logic over a subject area in which I was not the content expert.  I depended on others to help me decide which experiences should be included in the student's tour.  So experts were involved, but much less so than I envision in the typical course.

2. My students have discussed the many miles logged in the Roadmaster.  I never gave a thought to exactly how many miles we would be driving or what impact it would have on our learning environment.  My conclusion is that it made our group far stronger.  I was blessed to have students who were not divas, and they had a strong sense of who had sat on the hump in the front seat for the longest period of time.  There is something about being cramped in a car on a regular basis that provides a new dimension to the experience--and, it is especially memorable if you've just been processing chickens, inseminating pigs, or dairying!  Maybe my colleagues in the natural sciences or health sciences know about the impact of physicality on learning, but this was a very knew kind of learning for me, and I believe for me students.  I liked it--it enhanced the learning experience.

3. Furman is famous for its home-grown study away projects, but Farm pushed that definition even further.  Since the students lived in the farm house I own with my brother and sister, I was at one point a host as well as a professor.  Everyone in my family (sister, brother, brother-in-law, sister-in-law, nephew, and spouse) had a role in preparing the house for the students.  My sister assumed the role of house mother for three weeks, and she was amazing.  I took on the role of chauffeur driving the students to all of the sites and picking them up at the airport in Des Moines.  Our library was located at the house, and it consisted of all of the books on agricultural policy that I could pack into my car.  The bonus room in the house became the place that we met for reflection and discussion sessions--the living room was where we viewed the many videos watched during the term.  Farm was most assuredly a "home-grown" study away experience.  

4. I am still working through how the teaching experience was different because it was so deeply personal.  To share a portion of your life's experience with your students is a component of any good course, especially at an institution that prides itself on developing personal relationships between a faculty member and a student.  Farm, however, meant sharing the place where you grew up.  It is a level of exposure of one's self that is atypical and somewhat intimidating. And, add into the mix that you also are exposing your siblings to this kind of scrutiny.  "Teaching" with my sister and brother and having their voices included was one of the real blessings of the course--not because we agreed, but because it gave the students a varied view farm life.  Add in one's neighbors and friends, who also have stories to tell, and well, one's life becomes quite an open book.   And the impact of the experience is hardly uni-directional from the "adults" to the students.  The experience also had an impact on my view of the past--literally writing and rewriting one's own past.  But if one is going to truly understand the way in which an agricultural community operates, it starts with the way in which family and neighbor networks operate.  And for the students to understand something about community, it means exposing them to these complex interrelationships, even if the interrelationships are those which directly involve the professor of record.  I suspect sociologists steeped in qualitative methodologies would say that I am both the phenomenon as well as the investigator of the phenomenon.

5. It is unclear to me how living in a house for a period of three weeks (with no opportunity to leave) has an impact on the learning experience.  But it does strike me as a unique aspect of the course.  The students had to learn to live with some serious constraints, and, yet, they did so.  I think that they learned a great deal about themselves as a result of living together, preparing food together, and studying together.  The students, too, were exposed to their professor in a way that is highly unusual.  Again, I am unsure of the impact on the learning environment, except that my provisional assessment is a positive one.

6. This course required that I was often a student--listening to lectures, presentations, etc.  What an amazing experience to be on the other side of the podium after so many years.  It was humbling to think about how to improve the quality of one's own teaching by observing others, and also to engage students about which presentations were more effective in their minds and why.

I am confident that over time, I'll think of more ways in which Farm pushed the envelope of my thinking about teaching in general and the experiential pedagogy in particular.  But for now, these are my musings.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Portrait's Final Stroke

The stinging sensation along the range of my right forearm has been a nagging reminder of actions five hours past. Though the nettles, applied for their medicinal properties, have long been removed, their namesake continues to drag my attention to the slowly shrinking, pulsing blisters where their barbs still inject venom to my veins. Through the annoyance (calling the feeling “painful” is a gross overstatement), thoughts flutter wondering how much longer the tingling will last. Effectively, my arm is awake yet feels asleep as if its circulation has been cut off, begging for restoration of its lifeblood. Similar to a blood deprived appendage, only time will heal the nettle's caress.
Although time heals self-inflicted toxins, time also ages and refines experiences. Beyond the nettle poisons coursing through my veins, these past three weeks, filled with boar semen, soil snorting, crunched legs in a compacted car and the associated aching pains, wind turbine induced insight, and countless other events, short or long, mundane or extrasensory, comforting or offensive, are also subject to the ravages of time. How will I reminisce upon the people, places, smells, events, and the host of other factors? To predict whether the memory of corn (will it be green or blue in my mind ten years from now?) is outside of my prowess. The sands of time bury remnants of former glories, tarnishing their pastel colors into shades of muted monochromatic grays. Impermanence is a key feature of reality; none shall escape its grasp as memories muffle no matter the strength of the stimulus whether it be a worn picture, a vaguely familiar scent, or rediscovering these very musings now being typed in spite of the nettle's tantalizing grip. All such aspects are eroded by the patient sands of time, the fragments whisked away in the winds.
However, do such thoughts on the future matter? The below poem comes to mind:

He who binds to himself a joy
Doth the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity's sunrise.
-William Blake

The only tense where life transpires is the present. The past is always a step behind, and the future is always a step ahead no matter the pace. Hence, I now contemplate (a boon distinctly human) over what to make of yet another frame becoming immutable history. Murky stew within the mental cauldron is stirred and stirred waiting for something...anything to arise from its hazy depths. Another series of interrelated occurrences is slowly but artfully being kneaded into itself and all the other bygone days to be baked into a loaf that displays its flavor in every bite. The kneading metaphor is more accurate than the chapter metaphor for describing the end of the old and the return of the new for chapters, by nature, create barriers whereas kneading bread has no barriers. All the ingredients and motions become one with the loaf; the wheat cannot be separated from the yeast, salt, or any other ingredient. By kneading, all these aspects become interconnected with one another even when an entirely new event is mixed in.
However, it is not enough to describe how these three weeks have affected me. Such thoughts are dealt with whenever a mirror is present! Although there is much to mull over within my internal world, a forgotten aspect of events needs mentioning. The reason behind its dismissal is simple; the world we interact with is seen only from one perspective: our own. Never can we see the world through the guise of another (hence why many are sympathetic but few are empathetic). Therefore, we forget that not only do occurrences move us, but we move all factors of an event: the people, the interpretation of that event, and even the event itself! With that in mind comes the true challenge: thinking beyond the self. How have I affected all components of these three weeks, soon to be time-locked and outside of my grasp? How have I altered the course of other people I have ran into even if for the briefest second or the longest hour? How have I manipulated the itinerary of these three weeks whether through my own connections or by simply showing up a few minutes early or late? How have I changed the world around me by rummaging around in dirt, killing burdock, or reanimating chicken corpses for comic relief?
Of the three above-mentioned questions (though there are certainly many more), the first racks my mind most profusely. Although few realize it, every single action, from a convoluted discussion on nothing down to a simple hand gesture, influences those around. Subsequently, the question of what impact, how strong, and many others arise like bubbles emitted by a fish in a placid pond. Due to the interconnected nature of reality, these questions are omnipresent to those who desire to see them. Though it is beyond me to provide answers to such thoughts, I can, however, provide an old parable with a modern twist:

A father and mother return home to a carbon monoxide leak with their children still within the now deadly dwelling. Fearing for the safety of their offspring, the parents call out desperately, warning the kids of the danger. However, the children, not knowing the gravity of the situation, since the noxious gas is tasteless, odorless, and otherwise undetectable through the five senses, do not heed the warning and continue playing, oblivious of the danger. Time agonizingly passes while the parents' ill-fated pleas go unanswered. Then, in their darkest hour, the parents conjure a solution. Now, they call out to the children, appealing to their love of games and toys, a penchant all kids have, instead of to a mysterious malevolence. The children quickly rush out of the death trap unaware of its true nature to the rejoicing parents.

Skill in means: knowing what, when, and how to perform an action to attain a desired result, is something to be struggled for and an ability that I strive for so then the above questions need not to be asked much like how a builder does not question how to drive a nail into a board; it is as natural as breathing.
A foot leaves a print upon wet sand, while the sand leaves grains upon the foot. In this vein, these three weeks have impacted me a great deal, ranging from my thoughts on agriculture (no matter how it is cut, farming is terribly difficult) to my self-development, while my impact upon these three weeks shrouds itself behind a veil of mystery. All I can wish for is that my presence and the skill in means I employed achieved positive goals and assisted those in need (to whom that is remains beyond my knowledge) because the events, people, and all other aspects of these three weeks were momentously meaningful and indescribable for me (and a one-way relationship is not desirable).
Very soon will come the wind to take me wherever it pleases. Though it is an amazing transporter, the likelihood of returning to any particular spot is nigh-impossible. Hence, all I can do is be open to it, taking these experiences away to new lands to be applied to new situations. Now, I sit and wait for the I always I always will.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Goodbye Iowa

At 6:30 A.M tomorrow morning, I will be departing Iowa. I am very excited to get home and get back to my routines at home, but man these three weeks have provided lots of opportunities to gain insights into farming.  I feel so blessed to have met the people I have and learned so much during the past three weeks. It has definitely been an experience from riding in the Roadmaster, meeting Kelvin Leibold, and artificially inseminating sows--but nonetheless, those experiences added some spark to the trip.

I thought it was particularly spectacular to meet the Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, Bill Northey. Not many people get the opportunity to meet someone of such high ranking in politics.  Given that Iowa is second in the nation in agriculture, he has a pretty important job. It was really fun getting to ask questions about things we have been hearing during our time in Iowa. He was very open to talk to us and an extremely nice guy. I honestly could have spent several hours asking him questions, but unfortunately he is an important man with a busy agenda!  I was thankful for the 30 minutes that he took with us--extraordinarily gracious.

I really enjoy how relaxed about life everyone is here in Iowa. It is such a calming atmosphere. We have gotten to ride in the back of the pick up on a couple of occasions, and we even got to enjoy a hay ride at the Bontrager farm, which really reminds me of the country. Although, I am ready for civilization, I'm not gonna lie--I will definitely miss the serenity of the windmills. 

As I leave Iowa, I will admit I support conventional farming probably even more then when I arrived. I have definitely learned a lot about organic farming, which has made me more open to it, but I do not fully support it. It seems to still have several flaws within it that will have to be worked out over time. Since there is so much controversy over "What is Organic?" I am going to wait a little while until Organic is really defined. I do think I am going to invest in the Furman CSA next school year; I mean, who doesn't like fresh vegetables?? 

This trip has definitely been a life changing experience for me. I left home with zero interest in agriculture and our cattle business at home and now I am returning excited to drive the tractor around and manage my small cattle herd. My parents are ecstatic, and I am ready for a little adventure. If we have learned nothing else, we have definitely learned farming and livestock seem to always involves some excitement! 

I am very thankful for Dr. HN for putting this program together and spending his May with us! I am also thankful for Ms. Nancy and Dave, her husband, for spending their May with us and taking care of us. They always make sure we are happy and all of our needs are taken care of! This trip has truly been an unforgettable experience! 

Iowa: Corny but True

The day before the flight that brings me home.
New thoughts, ideas, and concepts buzz around
My head, though an opinion still does roam
Resulting from our studies of the ground.

I ponder what to tell them of my trip.
Perhaps the glory of the life bestowed
In puppies, piglets, calves, and seeds that grip
The soil. And speakers from much different roads.

Or shall I tell them of the crazy days
Like those consumed with smell of pig manure,
And early morn's where coffee only fades the haze.
Or people I think sanity's unsure.

Though speedy winds will give me no reprieve 
From Iowa I do not wish to leave

Family farming

Over the time that I've been here, I've noticed that many family farmers are wondering which of their children will take over the farm. Some kids already show interest; others need some prodding. The 4H club is a way for parents to get their kids started by participating in various farm-related things such as showing animals, researching animals or plants, cooking, or other "farm" related tasks. This  is a good way for kids to learn responsibility and the ability to speak in front of a judge, which are good skills for later in life. It is interesting though how parents want to push this on their children when the goal is for them to take over the family farm. It is almost as though the child has to fulfill a destiny; one of the children has to take over the farm or else it will go under or go into another company or person's hands. There is a great responsibility that the kids of farmers bear without even choosing to do so in the first place. Sure, the kids could say that they don't want to farm, but there is the pressure from their parents and the kids want to live up to the parents' expectations that could sway them to stay and work on the farm. I'm not saying that no child of a farmer dreams of becoming a farmer, but that it is a responsibility that they carry from the moment they are born. This must bring a interesting family dynamic to the table.

Another thing to consider is the strain it might put on a farm marriage. If things are going poorly such as the farm crisis in the 1980s, fighting will ensue over the family's finances--always a popular topic for marital disputes. Again the issue of the kids will rise. One parent might not want to push their kids towards farming, and another fight would arrise. This is another example of how farming has and never will be an easy lifestyle. The wife and husband might also differ in their opinion of how the farm should be run, what should be purchased, and/or whether the farm should be operated as an organic or commodity entity.

Sadly, I have no personal experience with this family dynamic, but it would be a fascinating topic for a psychological study. Farm families have to deal with the traditional pressures of life in addition to the family strains of farming. You also have to take into account that farming as a family would be able to bring everyone together. Also, take into account how well off the farmers are on their land, and how well the sales are for that year. As I've said before, I am actually rather sad that their aren't more psychological studies about farming and farm families. Farmers may constitute an extraordinarily small portion of our country's population, but these people are in charge of our food system, and we need to better under the psychology of those who make up this critical sector of our economy.

The Honorable Annette Sweeney

Today, I was fortunate enough to follow Representative Annette Sweeney to Parkersburg, Iowa Falls, and Buckeye. She attended four Memorial Day services and was the keynote speaker for two of the services.  She also attended her hometown's Memorial Day cookout.

I started out the day leaving the farm house at 5:55 A.M to meet up with her, her son, and her campaign manager at her farm down the road. We left the house around 6:30 and had an hour drive to Parkersburg, Iowa. We then enjoyed a pancake breakfast that was put on by the American Legion POST 285. It was delicious, and I really enjoyed it. There were three Memorial Day services in Parkersburg. The first was done by a river, and a wreath was placed out on the river to float away. The other two services were done beside a cemetery. All three services included a gun salute. She spoke at the third service. Her message was very touching, and everyone seem to enjoy it. Her speeches were delivered with great passion and they evoked emotions in those in the audience, and those emotions connected her connect to the people.

After the third service was completed at Parkersburg, we traveled to Iowa Falls, where a memorial service similar to the last service at Parkersburg was held. She spoke once again evoking the same powerful and moving themes and delivering it in a manner that reached out to people. All of the services included a high school band playing the "Star Spangled Banner."  Both times after she spoke, her son Jim sang "God Bless America" with the crowd joining.

The service in Iowa Falls was over around 11:30 and then we took off to stop and get some food at Hy-Vee to take to the annual Memorial Day picnic in her hometown of Buckeye. There I got to meet her neighbors and friends. Everyone socialized and had a great time!

I had a great time shadowing Representative Sweeney. I learned a great deal about the characteristics of a great leader that I can use at Furman and beyond, especially since I hope to one day be involved in politics.  I hope I can be as successful as Representative Sweeney. She has so much fire and determination; it amazes me. She really tries to please the people, which is characteristic of a great politician. I can't wait to see the results of her primary race. I will definitely be rooting for her from North Carolina and hopefully I can stay in contact with her for many years to come!

A Multitude of Perspectives

My relative neutrality of opinion (or simple ignorance) on the subject of agriculture actually served to better my absorption of the wide variety of  viewpoints that we have encountered over the course of three weeks in Iowa. If I had entered the state with established opinions on any of the topics covered, I would have had little difficulty in simply blocking out contrasting perspectives and feeding on those in accordance with my beliefs. Thankfully, I  possessed the capacity to hear out both sides from a relatively neutral standpoint and the ability to make up my own mind on the matter. Following nearly three weeks of reflection, my opinions have formed in a way similar to the irritatingly vague conclusions of Patrick Westhoff in our text, The Economics of Food.

Although humans prefer the security of a concrete and well-established conclusion, the majority of issues surrounding modern agricultural debates remain multifaceted and complex - no simple answers are available. Nearly every person or organization we met presented a diverse but valid set of facts and a well-constructed message.  A great deal of overlap existed between many speakers. For example, the Iowa Corn Growers Association and the Iowa Soybean Association shared several common goals, one of which centered on lobbying for a higher gas tax in the state to fund infrastructure development. After all, a functioning rural infrastructure aids farmers in delivering both corn and soybeans to the market.

Environmental groups oftentimes demonize production agriculture; however, farmers who actively engage in such practices usually acknowledge their flaws and work with environmentalists towards a cooperative solution.  Many commodity farmers stressed the importance of environmental protection in the form of nitrogen reduction and soil conservation techniques; such practices are quite common here in Iowa. Groups such as the ISA's On-Farm Network and Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) actively engage farmers and allow them to participate in the research and decision making process. The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) collaborates with such groups in a constructive manner, compromising with agriculture groups and delivering results. Without discussion from both sides, issues will never be resolved. Our gridlocked Congress ought to observe the cooperation going on in Iowa between diverse interest groups and take note.

No one person professed a singular and all-inclusive solution to the future of agricultural production. Instead, everyone acknowledged the need for cooperation and a diverse market. Production agriculturalists praised organic and sustainable growers for meeting a growing market demand while expressing concern for the viability of large-scale food production using such methods. Sustainable growers (such as those at the Wallace Farm) criticized many aspects of commodity farming, but also acknowledged the inherent difficulties of their practices as well. Both sides also expressed displeasure at current methods of government regulation and funding for various initiatives.

Over the duration of nearly three weeks in Iowa I have been exposed to a staggering quantity of information in a wide variety of formats, from classroom-style lectures to hands-on activities. I entered this experience looking to gain the information necessary to make my own mind up on agricultural policy. No doubt I have enough information to formulate informed opinions; however, sifting through all of it to arrive at a cohesive viewpoint will prove to be a difficult task.