Experiential Learning

I’m a big fan of experiential (or performative, whatever you want to call it) learning.  I was pretty involved with the Reacting to the Past program at UGA (a curriculum created by Barnard College.  I was involved in the Athens game), which I think is one of the best ways to learn history out there.  I’ve seen it work both in “regular” and “honors” courses, bringing students out of their fear-shells and encouraging them to learn both in the classroom and on their own.

But what I really want to talk about today are the Model International Organizations programs, such as Model UN, Model NATO, and Model Arab League (MAL) (there are tons of others; these are just the ones I’ve done).  I don’t know how many times I’ve heard my former adviser at Converse College drop soundbites about the pedagogical merits of these programs.  And I would smile and nod, proud of how well he “spun” what we did, when it really just felt at the time like hanging out with other smart, politically minded people and an excuse to go on fun off-campus trips.

He was absolutely right, by the way.  It’s the best way to teach I’ve ever encountered.

It took getting out of the program as a student and working as a judge and on-site adviser to really see how valuable these programs are.  Not familiar with them?  Let’s use MAL as an example.

Students create a team of between 7-16 students (partners are allowed) who become experts on a particular League country they’ve been assigned (there are 21 of them at the moment–Syria’s been suspended).  Each student is assigned a committee with predetermined topics, which they research in preparation for writing legislation along with other countries at the conference.  Students spend the conference in committee meetings, split between formal and informal debate (governed by a modified form of Robert’s Rules) working on this legislation, which is then passed as a body of the committees at a Summit meeting.

Sounds pretty boring when I explain it, huh?  But it’s not, I swear.  Especially with a strong leader as chair, committees go from groups of shy (well, not everyone’s shy…) students who by the end of the conference are boldly demanding whatever is in their country’s interest.  Students go from hesitantly reading from sources to fully owning the knowledge, speaking extemporaneously from their own expertise.  All students can thrive in this model, from the most gregarious, outgoing speechmaker to the quiet, behind-the-scenes caucuser.  And no one type of student wins awards (yes, there are individual and team awards).

I started out in this program fairly timid.  As a freshman, I knew relatively little about the Middle East.  My first country assignment at a national conference, given to me day-of (there were some last-minute changes, and I was needed in a spot I had not prepared for), was a country I had never even heard of!  The conversation went a little something like this:

Adviser from Northeastern University:  OK, so I hear you need help with Eritrea.

Me:  What’s that?

Adviser:  I believe the proper question would be “Where’s that?”  We have a lot of work to do…

Me:  *beet red*

Because of the strength of this program, and a group of lovely students and advisers who stepped in to help me, I was able to (pretty badly) represent Eritrea in two separate committees, as well as present an Arab Court of Justice (think ICJ but regional… and made up) case representing Eritrea v. the League.  Was I stellar?  Absolutely not.  Did I learn a lot about how quickly I could research, learn, and represent material?  Absolutely.  Am I still friends with the adviser from Northeastern?  Yup!  That’s another great part about this program:  you meet people from all over the country and world that you will be friends and colleagues with for the rest of your life.

So, why am I talking about this?  In 2004, I first served as a student delegate at the Southeast Regional MAL (SERMAL) representing Jordan (Yes, Holly Jordan the delegate from Jordan.  My committee thought it was pretty funny too…  Libby Long, the delegate from Libya was also on my team.  My adviser wouldn’t let us switch.) in the Economic Affairs committee.  I was scared out of my mind.  I had only recently joined the team, and even my fellow freshmen had a few more weeks experience than I did.  In my ill-fitting suits, I stood up, knees knocking, and presented Jordanian thoughts on economic issues.  I had no idea what was going on.

These programs changed my life.  I went on to national leadership roles within this organization, sponsored by the National Council on US-Arab Relations and grew far more as a student and learner than I ever anticipated as an entering college freshman.  And the program itself has evolved so much since I started.  We’ve gone from murdering half the rain forest each year to nearly paperless conferences, with resolutions being projected on SMARTBoards and edited as a group in real time.  The 300 pages of CIA World Factbook info on each of the member nations of the League (which I did print and put in a binder I still have…) is now available as an Android app.

So now, 8 years later, I have the opportunity to lead a team from Virginia Tech.  Serving as Head Delegate, we will take a delegation, representing Mauritania, to SERMAL.  I am so very excited to help facilitate this opportunity for Tech students.  I’ve been pretty obnoxious about my excitement with them.  I hope they will get why I’m so spastic after we return home.  I promise to post pictures and reactions to how awesome it was!

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The last nine months have been an incredibly strange period of time for me.  The transition back fully into academia following a two-year hiatus after grad school has been far harder than I ever could have imagine.  Because, completely unlike starting undergrad and in ways very different from even starting my graduate work at the University of Georgia, the last 9 months have truly felt like a series of never-ending changes.

I found out in early May of 2011 that I had been accepted here in the ASPECT program, but without funding.  My soon-to-be husband, Ryan, and I discussed the merits and demerits of beginning without funding and ultimately decided to just come and hope for the best.  He began attempting to find a job in the area, and I desperately tried to figure out how I was going to break it to my job.

On May 13, we find out Ryan’s gotten a position in Roanoke.  On May 15, Ryan and I get married.  On May 17, I find out that I’ve magically gotten funding to go to school.

Best. Week. Ever.

It was the beginning of the transition that I find myself in the middle of now.  After nearly 5 years in Athens, GA, a place I associated completely with the maturation of my relationship with Ryan, we were leaving, newly married, about to start over.

Ryan ended up moving here first, just weeks after the wedding, and I didn’t move here until mid-July.  July 15th to be exact.  I know that because it was the day that Harry Potter 7.2 released.  The first day of my truly “adult” life.  One of the last days of pure childhood.

This entry is trailing into tl;dr territory, but bear with me.  Sometime in 1998, my dad heard this lady on NPR named Joanne something-or-other talking about a book she wrote and that the second book in the series was coming out in the next weeks.  Dad actually stopped on the way home, being so compelled by the interview, and bought my brother and I Sorcerer’s Stone.  My brother and I refused to read it; as much as I love my father, he was the kind of dad that brought home truly awful books (like “A History of France from 1735-1738, Complete with NO PICTURES OR FUN”) in the hopes of educating us.  We figured the adventures of this Harry kid were going to be equally stupid.

They weren’t stupid.  In fact, they changed everything.

I was 13.

Fast-forward to 2011, Christiansburg, VA.  That morning, I had woken up in Athens, GA, said goodbye to old friends and my favorite breakfast place, and had driven to Blacksburg.  Ryan and I celebrated my homecoming by going to see the last installment of the Potter films.  Of course I knew how it ended–I’d read all of Deathly Hallows the afternoon it released.  But still, there was a finality.  It was finally over.

I was 25.

I found myself crying at the destruction of Hogwarts, the castle that had housed my imagination for more than a decade.  I knew it was coming, but there was a finality to it I hadn’t been able to imagine.

Transitions.  Moving through my Ph.D. so far has felt like constant change.  Week-to-week differences in schedule, new opportunities and new friends, the constant questioning of my own right to even be here.  And most importantly, the quest for a new breakfast place.

And, of course, the constant reminders that I’ve somehow moved past the students I currently teach and am in a different space now.

Davy Jones died today.  And honestly, his death feels like another nail driven into the casket of my childhood.  Thanks to Nickelodeon, twentysomethings and thirtysomethings today are saddened by the death of a member of a band that broke up before many of our parents were married.  I blew so much allowance money in the late 90s and early 00s on the Rhino rereleases of the albums (I’m listening to Shades of Grey on Headquarters right now).  Some of my fondest memories involve blaring said CDs in our bedrooms singing off-key and not caring.

If I said “Davy Jones died today” to any of my freshmen, I doubt they would have much of an idea of who I was talking about (You mean that guy from Pirates of the Caribbean?).

Yeah, I’m kind of sad right now.  But is the really world ending?  To Jones’ family, it probably feels that way.  But in the grand scheme of my own life, I probably won’t mark this day as all that different than any other (Do you remember where you were when you found out Davy Jones died?).  But in this period of constant change and growth I find myself in, it is a moment to pause and reflect.


Keep jammin’ out on that rock tambourine, Davy.

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Blogging as Subversion

In all three classes I have to blog for, people are either enthusiastic towards or terrified of having to blog (with very few in between).  In part, I do think some of the terror might come from a person’s definition of a blog.

So often, blogs are described as online journals, which I think is completely unfair to them (and us).  The first blogging platform I ever used was LiveJournal (there was also InsaneJournal and GreatestJournal to pick from back in the day–IJ is still around), so the naming of it didn’t help.  But by equating a blog to an online journal, we’re already limiting its potential use.  I think a lot of people then go into blogs thinking it’s just a written version of your super-personal thoughts.  Of course that would be terrifying!

But that’s the brilliant part about blogs:  they really can be whatever you want them to be.  Some of the catchiest online presences around have nothing to do with presenting the person as they actually are.  @feministhulk on Twitter is one of my favorite personas.  Yes, I’m sure whoever runs that account is probably a feminist.  But I somehow doubt they walk around talking in Lou Ferrigno voice (which is disappointing…) spouting feminist agendas all day long.  Twitter is their vehicle to have fun and say something they want to say in a unique and reative way.

Dr. Fowler did get me thinking about this all of last night–why are people reticent to blogging?  What is so problematic about it?  If you see a blog as only an online place to dump your padlocked-secret-Lisa-Frank-journal thoughts, then yeah, that is terrifying.  But if it’s a way to have fun with something your interested in, even if it’s not particularly unique (your way of saying it is probably way more unique then you could ever realize), a blog becomes a very special outlet for your creativity and imagination.

I called this post “blogging as subversion” because right now, that’s how I’m seeing them.  We’ve been talking so much in Dean DePauw’s class about tenure, promotion, and the all-important difference between assistant, associate, and full professorships. The hoops one has to jump through include publishing peer-reviewed journal articles and books through university press  publishing are daunting.  In my mind, we’re automatically limiting who receives this information by picking these expensive, subscription-required (or access to a university library in some cases) media.  Glossies and mass media publications are bad.  Because, G-d forbid, we might actually be sharing knowledge with the masses.

Blogs are powerful and, yes, subversive.  I can write anything I want here.  It’s terrifying and dangerous.  It’s wonderful and awe-inspiring.  I can come up with new ideas here and get feedback from all of the world.  And yes, someone might then steal my idea and write about it, but it’s still my idea.  And I can go publish something too, because the idea will be in my own words and will be said differently by me than anyone else can.

Do I want people to read a book I might write someday?  Absolutely.  And yes, the selfish “I Need Validation For My Hard Work!!!!! Look at meeee!!!” reasons are there, jumping around somewhere in my Id.  But honestly, books are a medium, like so many, that hits everyone in a different way.  I’d rather have a book I write mean something to one person then to sit on a shelf in a university library (because their the only one’s who can afford it) doing nothing.  How often have you been the first person to check out a book since the 1950s at the library?  It’s sad, isn’t it?  What’s the point of all this school and learning if we can’t share what we’ve learned with people outside of this crazy academia bubble we live in?

Blogging might be an answer to this situation.  Why not go into it thinking that maybe we can change the world with our words?  That sounds ridiculous and trite as I write it, but why not dream big?  I’d rather dream the impossimprobable (neologisms are fun!) then not even try.  If blogging isn’t working for you, figure out why.  Make up a character.  Blog about something you actually despise just to see if you can.  Have fun.  Be subversive.


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ePortfolios are eXasperating

For my GEDI class requirement (and honestly, for my own edification), I am currently putting together an ePortfolio.  And I have to say it is one of the more nervewracking things I have ever done–especially the home/welcome page.  What to include?  What to decidedly not include.  I’m using VT’s WordPress development tools to turn this blog into said portfolio (if you’re reading this from a “motherblog,” feel free to go take a look).

These decisions of what to include, what not to include, how to phrase things, what colors to use (thank G-d for WordPress templates when you’re colorblind!) all seem incredibly important while you’re in the middle of it.  And they are… to a point.  But I’ve been getting pretty obsessive about this since I started yesterday.

After the semester is over, I do plan to move the site to my own domain name.  With more and more opportunities to apply for jobs, fellowships, and teaching positions, I think it’s time to have something I can append to my email signature and put on my business cards.  Of course, holly jordan dot com is already taken.  In fact, it has been registered since 2000, so luckily I don’t feel too silly for not having done it sooner.  I have been researching options and have found overwhelming advice against holly hyphen jordan dot com, with experts of different fields saying it’s too hard to disseminate.  Other options include .net, .name, .me, .us… but of course, none of them have the branding power of a .com.  Which always has bugged me, by the way.  The .com suffix was supposed to be for commercial businesses.

So I have some decisions to make in the next couple weeks and months.  If nothing else, hopefully I can convince myself to “unplug” as it will and stop tweaking things.  I do have four other classes with homework to do this weekend…

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Collective Knowledge

I don’t know about everyone else, but I came out of NMFSS last week really pumped.  As a graduate student, I hear many people, both in administration and amongst the faculty, discuss breaking the barriers of communication and research between graduate students and faculty.  Our discussion of Los Alamos scientists and students working together to create the atom bomb (is it just me, or is it kind of disappointing that our prime example of interlevel research was necessitated by the production of the A-bomb?) really got me thinking about the opportunities we graduate students really have to work with our faculty members without a hierarchical system in place.  Don’t get me wrong, there are of course moments when graduate students should have to defer to their professors and advisors–there’s a reason they already have their terminal degrees.

But there really should be more opportunities for discussions and research between faculty and graduate students.  I think I came out of NMFSS so excited last week because our seminar is one of those opportunities.  As I sat in the same room with faculty, staff, and professionals from many disciplines and areas calling each other by their first names and actually listening to each other  (G-d forbid!), it actualized for me this goal the faculty and administration claim to have.

Do I have one-on-one discussions with faculty all the time?  Yes.  And when they’re not individuals from my dissertation committee, these conversations really have a collegial feel (first names and everything!) to them.  But the second I move into conversations with committee members and faculty I am currently taking classes with, that wall of separation, however transparent and permeable, is there.  Do I think it’s essential for graduate students to treat their faculty members with respect?  Absolutely.  I guess I’m just disappointed at how much the formalities associated with this respect can get in the way of true discussions of research, because the graduate student is too afraid to really talk with the faculty  member (What if they don’t like my ideas? I’m not the expert, they are! What if they think my ideas are dumb and they kick me out of school?–All irrational fears, I know).

The true teachers work on breaking down these barriers.  And when they do, it’s an exciting day to be a graduate student.  I hope to encounter more of these opportunities as a student and to create more of them when I become one of the future faculty.

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Discouragement and Decisions

During GEDI the other night, interdisciplinarity came up during our talk with Gardner Campbell (mostly because I brought it up…), and I really got to thinking about how I ended up in an interdisciplinary Ph.D. program.  I actually entered undergrad as a biochem/philosophy double major.  I planned to study biomedical ethics and to work in hospitals.  That changed the day I signed up for my required Western Civilization class.  The professor in that course inspired me so much (and still does), and I switched my major to political science (the department he was a professor in).  I had always been interested in religion, so my new plan was to double major.

As I had already been in contact with the chair of philosophy (who was also the chair of religion), I went to her to sign my “Declaration of Major” form.  Now, politically speaking, it is probably important to know that the chairs of the departments of Religion/Philosophy and of Politics/History were notorious for not getting along.  Unfortunately, I didn’t know that at the time.

The beginning of second semester of my first year of college, I went skipping down to Religion Department, form in hand, completely excited to declare both of my majors.  I was very interested in the Arab-Israeli conflict, so I thought a double major in religion and politics made a great deal of sense.  To this day , I still get angry by her response.

“I’m going to sign this form, but you should know these are two very demanding majors.  I fully expect you to drop one of them back to a minor at some point.”

A couple things to note.  First, while they were demanding majors, they were each 30-33 hour majors–totally doable in 4 years.  Second, I was actually a good student.

To be honest, her comment destroyed me.  At the time, I really thought it was just an issue of her thinking I wasn’t smart enough to double major.  I second guessed the hell out of myself for weeks (though I still did add the double major to my schedule to spite her).  While I was a good student, I’ve always been incredibly hard on myself academically.

Ultimately, this entire situation boiled down to the fact that this chair wanted me as the property of the religion department only.  A squabble between two tenured department chairs left me emotionally scarred for years.

In the end, I ended up not double majoring.  Funding for my fourth year of college became an issue, and I dropped my religion major back to a minor so I could graduate a year early.  But I know for a fact I could have handled it if I had had that extra year.

This experience made me fearful of doing interdisciplinary studies for a long time.  I took away from this fight between chairs that all departments fought battles through their students, and I wanted no part of that.

During my masters (interestingly, in religion), I got a little bored with coursework and declared a minor field in classics.  There I discovered how fulfilling working between departments can be.  My masters thesis reflects this indisciplinarity–hell, the entire project would have been impossible had it not been for a professor (and now dear friend) in the department of classics who helped me shore up my project.

I catalyzed my feelings of disappointment with my undergraduate religion chair into anger, which fueled my wish to succeed in spite of her naysaying.  But many students are not able to channel those emotions effectively (I won’t say healthily, as motivation-through-anger isn’t necessarily a good thing) and would make the decision to quit one of their majors, giving up their hopes and dreams.  All due to stupid departmental politics.

So I guess the question I have at the end of this stream-of-conscious rant is this:  how often do problems between faculty members play out in the lives (and sanity) of their students?  What kind of academic community does that set up, where faculty members can’t put aside their differences to treat each other, and their students, with respect?  Academic life is far harder than those outside of academia ever realize, without the added pressures of interdepartmental politics destroying our already fragile egos.

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Ninteen-Year-Old British Student Sends Oxford a Rejection Letter

I have to give this student credit for doing what I’ve always wanted to do.  My #1 college choice for undergrad was Providence College, a private college with (even at the time) very high tuition and fees.  I was a fairly decent high school student, with a high GPA and SAT scores, extracurriculars, volunteer work, and a letter of recommendation from a major alum (one of my high school teachers).  I was accepted, but offered a mere $1500/year scholarship.  As a biochem major, this would barely cover my books and lab costs, let alone tuition and room/board (I was out-of-state).  Even at the time, I felt as if it would have been better to have been rejected than to have been accepted and have no way of being able to go without going into astronomical amounts of debt (my parents were in no financial situation to help me, which one look at my FAFSA would have indicated had they chosen to look).

Anyways, this student brought up some excellent points about the problems of Oxford’s education system in her open letter.  They got me to thinking about what I have perceived in the past as unfair practices in my own path towards a degree.  Here are a list of her problems from the end of her letter (taken from this The Daily Mirror article):

1) Whilst you may believe your decision to hold interviews in grand formal settings is inspiring, it allows public school applicants to flourish in the
environment they are accustomed to and intimidates state school applicants, distorting the true academic potential of both.

2) Whilst you may believe your traditions and rituals are impressive, they reflect badly on your university. As an institution that preaches academic excellence teaching your students to blindly and illogically do whatever they are told reveals significant flaws in your education system. Frankly. I feel humiliated for both you and your students.

3) During my time at Magdalen College the obvious gap between minorities and white middle-class students was embarrassing. Whilst I realise you are trying to address these problems within your university, the gap between elitism and discrimination is a narrow one and one that you still do not appear to have adequately addressed.

4) Perhaps offer a glass of water in your interviews next time it is rude to torture guests.

I still have my letter from Providence, including my tuition award letter.  Should I ever teach there, I plan to frame it and hang it on my office wall.

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