Humanities labs: liberal arts outside the classroom

Albion College is making some exciting innovations to its curriculum this year by introducing the humanities labs. The labs partner students’ coursework with hands-on projects during the Spring 2015 semester.

The college received a $100,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, an organization that specializes in promoting programs of the arts and humanities in higher education. Albion professors utilized the money to create unique course labs that partner the arts and humanities.

This semester there are 4 “pilot” labs: “Creating Sustainable Communities,” “Race and Representation,” “Albion Accelerator: A Space for Creative Innovation and Collaboration,” and “Encountering Food.” Each lab was given the requirement to meet four criteria: collaborative, experiential, experimental, and publicly engaging.

Professor of Religious Studies at Albion College, Ronney Mourad, was involved in the establishment of the humanities labs.

“We realized that many existing classes in the arts and humanities already included hands-on, active learning opportunities for students,” said Mourad, “but that we could take that approach even further by funding student projects and experiences that would link several courses together.”

Pleiad staffers Jack Mattern, Dearborn junior and Alex Carey, Birmingham junior, are in humanities lab classes, and are sharing their perspectives.

We are involved in the “Encountering Food” humanities lab from our classes Wild Things: The Literature of Wilderness and The Wild, taught by Nels Christensen and French Louisiana: Cajun and Creole Experiences. taught by Dianne Guenin-Lelle. This lab also includes two other classes: Brad Chase’s Ancient Civilizations and Clatyon Parr’s Briton Singers.

We asked each of these professors why they chose to get involved with the humanities labs and why they think this experience is important for a liberal arts student. Guenin-Lelle, for example, is very passionate about the Humanities Labs.

“I chose to get involved with a Humanities Lab because I saw it as an amazing opportunity to enrich my students’ learning of French,” Guenin-Lelle said. “I hope that my students will learn the lessons of the course more deeply because of the connections they see with the other courses. It is really a mini liberal arts experience. Because of our shared project of the community dinner in April, the students will have applied what they learned through this course as they work with other students to make the meal and the programming for the event.”

“Encountering Food” distinguishes itself because of its focus on Albion community involvement and how food can be used as a base for that process. On April 12th of this year, the students in this lab will be hosting a community-wide feast in the Lewis Chapel.

In the meantime, we students met for an initial trip into the nature center. After an introduction to the day’s schedule by Christensen, we looked outside for indicators that certain foods would be nearby. Early settlers of new lands would have had to do this every time they explored a new area, and it was interesting to step out of the 21st century for a moment and get a glimpse of what it would be like if we didn’t take access to food for granted.

Next, we gathered back at the front of the nature center around a fire pit where we listened and watched as Chase made a sort of berry cobbler over the open flame. He told us that if had we actually been out there hunting for dinner and come back unsuccessful, we would have to eat something to survive.

When asked what he hoped his students would gain from participating in the lab, Chase said, “I hope that the students in my class will gain an appreciation for how human encounters with food embody culture.  This is an idea that is floating in and around our class’s study of ancient agricultural systems and their environmental impacts, but I expect that participating in this humanities lab will really bring it into focus.”

After we ate the savory concoction of warm berries, nuts, cornmeal and syrup, we escaped the cold and sat inside as we listened to the Briton Singers perform a piece that highlighted the loneliness that early settlers of foreign lands may have experienced.

Parr was also very excited to get his students involved in the humanities labs.

“Our singing groups spend a lot of time in rehearsal for performances or focusing on musical details, so it’s great to have an opportunity to link the hard work we do to other subjects, people, ideas,” said Parr. “I hope [my students] will reflect on the ‘market’ for their music, getting more feedback on how different types of audiences respond, and that they will view their musical activity as part of a community, rather than a self-contained unit that just rehearses and gives concerts.”

Chase summed up this humanities lab as, “an opportunity to demonstrate the practical utility of a variety of intellectually diverse approaches to a common problem.”

We hope to lend our approaches to its success.


About Alex Carey 60 Articles
Alex Carey is a senior from Birmingham, Mich. She majors in communication studies and double minors in French and business/organizations. She runs varsity cross country and is a member of the Delta Gamma sorority and Delta Sigma Pi business fraternity. Follow her on Twitter at @AlexxCarey.

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