Why experiential learning should inform curriculum design in the humanities

Getting out of the seminar room and into the community can be a vehicle for thinking and problem-solving. Katherine Kruger makes the case

Katherine Kruger is a Senior Lecturer in Community Engagement in English at the University of Sussex

“This is who I am,” wrote Roman, an inmate at HMP Lewes, describing his experience of creative writing. “It has reminded me of who I used to be before the drugs and violence. I want to go back to my cell and continue writing.”

Last year, finalist English literature students at the University of Sussex designed creative, literacy-focused resources with the Mass Observation Archive, to connect inmates of HMP Lewes with their families on the outside. Like Roman, our students are establishing a new identity during their time at university. They tell me that putting their English degree into practice makes them “feel part of a Brighton community” and “empowered to take action and to question our own positionality as well as the industries that we engage with.”

Reading English at university is not just academic acrobatics for these students; it’s an expressive, pragmatic pursuit that connects students to society. They speak of their degrees as generating hope, purpose and meaning.

For the last five years, I’ve approached the creation of sustainable civic engagement opportunities for students by embedding these opportunities in the business-as-usual of teaching and learning. Unlike the more commonplace version of extra-curricular or “bolted-on” volunteering and placement opportunities in the humanities, I created project- and placement-based modules which function as an avenue for students to explore a new role in the community, or credit-bear their existing volunteer work or activism – and our students at Sussex come with an abundance of these experiences.

The humanities context

After years of the so-called “war on the humanities”, facing a decline in student numbers and the closure of degree programmes, humanities departments outside the Russell Group are urgently seeking to address recruitment challenges.

There is increasing interest in recent years in civic engagement and experiential learning as one way to at once respond to a student body increasingly concerned with the employment outcomes and economic returns of their degree programmes, and relatedly address government pressure on programmes to demonstrate their regional social value. While a recent HEPI report shows that humanities departments can defend the employment outcomes of their graduates, the wider perception of depleted relevance and elitism remains a challenge.

Currently, students report that the cost of living is their primary concern and influences their decisions around where and what to study. This is of particular interest to those of us in the humanities at present. How do we cater to an increasingly diverse prospective student body who are still being told that they need to learn the humanities in a certain way and in a certain type of university?

This is a question that requires us to consider the impact of community-engaged and/or experiential learning beyond the employability agenda, with its often instrumentalised focus on professional, transferable skills. We need to instead explore elements of the student experience such as voice, relevance, community, and belonging.

Creating community

Until recently, innovation and scholarship in experiential learning have been led by STEM and business subjects.

Outside of practice-based programmes such as filmmaking, teaching in the humanities has tended to concentrate on theory. At Sussex, in English and in our post-disciplinary liberal arts degree, faculty have been pioneering outward looking pedagogies which involve external partners and explore creative ways to test critique – to deconstruct but also to reassemble in the face of local and global challenges.

In this context, I created two community organising modules partnered with our students’ union and local Citizens UK branch, and a service-learning module with the National Literacy Trust. These modules attract students from a range of backgrounds, particularly non-traditional university students who report an improved sense of belonging on the modules. They tell me about previous struggles to engage in academic spaces and feeling like outsiders in the local area. In my experience working with students, this sense of being an imposter can have serious implications for whether a student feels able to participate fully and complete their degree.

Faculty across the sector noticed a drop in attendance last year which, when I speak to students, seems to be a combination of an increasingly diverse student body feeling unable to belong to academic spaces, a lack of motivation provoked by an unclear view of the relevance of their degree, and the need to take more paid work in a cost-of-living crisis.

These students, in particular, benefit from experiential learning that embeds community engaged practice in the curriculum. They have explained to me that they would otherwise have fewer opportunities for extra-curricular experience, often encountering a trade-off between paid work and more relevant and enriching unpaid work experience.

It is in supported encounters with different communities that students forge their new identity – or, as in the words of one student, “adopt new ways of looking at things, deepen my own understanding of community and think more about what I can do to help improve it.”

“It’s like magic”

To make the case for studying the humanities outside the Russell Group to a new generation of students whose concerns range from the cost of living to precarious global futures, we need to demonstrate the relevance of our subjects.

Experiential and engaged learning is one effective way to enable students to recognise this relevance. By supporting students through transitions and shifts in identity as they belong to various communities both within and outside the university, experiential and engaged learning takes seriously the belonging of increasingly diverse student bodies. It presents inclusion as a practice which creates opportunities for students to safely challenge the status quo, and to make academic study relevant to their lives and the things they care about.

It is possible to think about practicality not as a simple “application” of theory or its instrumentalisation, or indeed as opposed to theoretical learning. Rather, it can function as a vehicle for thinking and problem-solving in a different way, adding to, and informing theory not undoing it. Perhaps, then, it’s not as much of a compromise as we might think to leave the seminar room.

As one of my students put it, “it’s not only thought-provoking and helpful to put theoretical problems into practice and problem solve them, but it also presents the material in a hopeful light.”

Community-engaged learning transforms theory, the problems on the page, into real emotions, affects, power. It’s “like magic”, as one 82-year-old participant of a student-led community workshop exclaimed. “I haven’t had so much fun in years”.

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