Most of us in academia, and maybe especially those of us in the darker recesses of the Humanities, are well familiar with the hand-wringing around the pertinence of our research to the “real world.” Obviously, the skills often touted in conversations around this – critical thinking and reading, writing, ability to synthesize – are all hugely important, but can I really say that Classical Archaeology teaches those skills better than, say, Public Health or Environmental Studies? And those are people actually saving the world! Cue existential angst.
This semester, I’ve engaged in various projects that have forced me to face this most dreaded question: why does my research and the work I do on a daily basis matter? It’s been a surprisingly uplifting experience on average, although not always an easy one.
Below, I’ll talk about just one of these projects.
This semester, I’m a fellow with the Engaged Pedagogy Initiative (EPI). The program, run by CEAL or Center for Engaged Academic Learning, consists of seminars for graduate students on community-based learning, service-learning, and, oftentimes, just plain ol’ good pedagogy. Participants come from different departments and even campuses, but everyone feels strongly about pushing and fading out the boundaries between campus/academia and off-campus/“real world.” The seminar is practically-oriented and since most of us are workshopping classes we’ve already taught or have pretty solid plans for, brainstorming has been really fruitful, with everyone bringing their best practices – and worst failures – to the table to share.
Through thinking about community-based learning and collaboration with organizations, I feel much more comfortable asserting the importance of my research and teaching. Fine, I’m still not curing cancer, but I can use the past as a mirror, as a tool to think about difficult topics. By doing comparative work, my students and I can “take a step back” to talk about slavery, misogyny, xenophobia – and about freedom, equality, and acceptance.
We can recoil in horror over violence in antiquity, and then ask the question of just how far have we come. We can see how categories and hierarchies that were once considered to be part of the natural order map onto our current ones, in the process hopefully learning to question some categories of our own. We can try to put ourselves in the shoes of ancient authors as they wrote about how the world is and how it should be, and through finding the strengths and weaknesses in their arguments we can begin to question our views.
So much for my discipline-specific flights of fancy. Community-based learning and engaged pedagogy, I am now convinced, are useful approaches within every field. Through the EPI, I have gained tips on how to encourage students to be teachers and learners as well as students; how to be rigorous about articulating and evaluating “soft” learning goals; how to go about establishing and maintaining a community partnership; how not to be a clueless resident of the ivory tower; and tons of other things, some of which might not even register until at a later point when I’m teaching.
Bridging the gap into the real world at Arta, Greece.