A lover of poetry, literature and life stories, Professor Alejandro Zamora, an associate professor of Hispanic literature and the Chair of Hispanic Studies at Glendon, discovered that teaching a new experiential education course can take him out of his pedagogic comfort zone and into a new and exciting realm of teaching and learning.
The course, Hispanic Geopoetics: A field trip to territory, identity, literature and art, is a new course that was developed with seed funding from a 2017 Academic Innovation Fund grant. “It studies the relationship between literature and spatiality: how the space and the environment influence an author, but also how literature can serve as a cartography of the real and imagined spaces we interact with,” said Zamora.
The course is divided into two parts. The first part takes place in a classroom and explores this relationship based on a given author and place; the second is an international field trip to that place.
“The course challenged me in different ways,” Zamora said. “I come from a ‘book discipline’ (literature) where everything happens between the two covers of a book. We don’t have field trips; we don’t collect data outside libraries. Human interactions happen always around books and through logos, through articulated language, normally in a sitting position, facing the instructor, who is the expert resource of the course matter.
The Hispanic Geopoetics course overturns this model. Literature enters in direct relationship within a given space and environment. Students must walk their city, pay attention to their surroundings, reflect on how they interact with space – real and imagined – and consider the spatial identifiers, past and present, of their identities (a house, a kitchen, a street, a school yard etc.) in order to analyze literature.
While methodology and secondary sources are still important, the student’s reflection on their spatial experience becomes prominent in their approach to literature. This model challenges hierarchies of knowledge in the classroom. “Since students are contributing a great deal to the knowledge generated in the class, it is more like a community of practice where knowledge is produced collectively through shared experiences, shared readings and more horizontal interactions,” said Zamora.
Students come to the class with a collection of ideas and reflections after walking, observing and thinking through the lens of the literary texts they are studying. “This material, and not only written texts, becomes part of what we all discuss and learn,” said Zamora. “It’s challenging but also very exciting. If given the opportunity, I think all students like to be co-producers of course matter and co-responsible of its quality.”
“I really loved teaching this course,” he added.
Students completed a mix of traditional coursework (reading reports and oral presentations), but they also had the opportunity to create travel journals, photo essays, blogs, chronicles or documentaries, individually or collectively, depending on the nature of their projects. The course culminated in a 15-day field trip to Seville, Spain.
“Seville is the birthplace of the poet Luis Cernuda (1902-62), who lived in exile for most of his life and wrote obsessively about the city,” said Zamora. “Students not only learned how Cernuda imagined his city and how it shaped his memory and poetry, they also embarked on a field trip to pursue this investigation. There, they had to figure out how to learn outside familiar or conventional settings, how to collect meaningful data for their project, and how to co-operate. They faced many challenges and they had to come up with creative solutions. They had to step outside of their comfort zone, identify their own cultural assumptions, question them, switch between languages and cultural codes.”
While in Seville, students had to apply the theories and methods they explored in Zamora’s class to the places and themes contained in Cernuda’s work. They travelled to the house of the poet, the parks he wrote about, and the neighborhoods and streets, cafés, schools and institutions he frequented to figure out to what extent spaces are imagined and real, or how memory, space and subjectivity interact in a literary work. Along the way, they developed new bonds and friendships and learned the importance of co-operation and the collaborative nature of knowledge.
“I hope they have also enhanced their agency as knowledge builders in any learning setting, whether it is a classroom, a field trip, a training session or workshop,” said Zamora, noting that this experience allowed students to realize that learning is not simply a transfer of knowledge, but a much more holistic and social experience.
Back in Toronto, the course culminated with an informal gathering organized by Zamora where all shared their projects, their experiences – and homemade tapas!
By Jenny Pitt-Clark, YFile editor