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Learning From Experience (Part 1)

Notice: Originally published April 10, 2016 at Teaching Out Loud.

Posters fill my office today. Everywhere I look, bright messages compete for my attention. This is your democracy, make them listen! The press is a political tool! Love yourself and do whatever the hell you want!

My Mass Media & Democracy students created these posters in Dartmouth’s Book Arts Workshop. Before this week, they’d never printed before. Three days later, they’re printing amazing posters. It’s been a whirlwind. It’s also been a learning experience my students won’t soon forget.

But let me back up.

Several months ago I brainstormed student project ideas with Sarah Smith, the Book Arts Special Instructor at the Dartmouth Book Arts Workshop. Our main course learning objective is to show how different forms of media make different forms of politics possible. So it made sense for students to create their own letterpress propaganda posters in the Book Arts Workshop.

At first we thought we would do it all in-house. Students would spend a few lab hours in the Book Arts Workshop learning basic skills, then work on their own to complete a finished product. We started reserving time in our schedules.

Then along came the Experiential Learning Initiative.

“Experiential learning” sounds like it might mean “learning through doing.” And it is! Building robots, climbing rock walls, and hiking through the woods can all be valuable learning experiences. But successful experiential learning isn’t just about having experiences. It’s about, well, learning.

Successful experiential learning requires reflection. For example, let’s say you just built a robot. Probably the experience taught you something about building robots. But more important, you probably also learned something about yourself: how you set and met expectations, how you worked with others, or how you solved problems. By taking time to reflect, you connect what you learned about yourself to other experiences, past and future.

Reflection puts students in the position of thinking about themselves as learners. They may never build another robot or climb another wall. But they’ll always be learning. There’s no more important skill to develop.

Through the competitive Experiential Learning Initiative, the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning (DCAL) reviews and funds proposals for experiential learning at Dartmouth. The call for proposals came out just as Sarah and I brainstormed student projects for spring quarter. So we stopped and said, wait, can we go bigger? What if we could do anything? What would we do?

Sarah had a great suggestion. We should bring in someone who already creates world-class letterpress printing with political messages. We should show students exactly how someone does this work in real life, every day. We should have them experience the process, and the work, alongside one of the greats.

We should invite Amos Kennedy.

Amos Kennedy is a world-renowned letterpress artist and self-identified “humble negro printer” whose work raises important questions about race, equality, and democracy in the United States. At age 40 he left his corporate job at AT&T to pursue his dream of letterpress printing. He’s been printing ever since.

Sarah put out the call to Amos Kennedy. If we could swing the funding, would he come? The answer came back: Yes!

So we wrote an Experiential Learning Initiative proposal to bring Amos Kennedy to Dartmouth. Amos Kennedy would work with my Mass Media & Democracy students over several class periods. The Dartmouth Library would set up an Amos Kennedy exhibit in Berry Main Street, our library’s main traffic corridor. We’d have open printing days so anyone in the community could come in and print a poster. And we’d make time for other courses to come in and experience letterpress printing with Amos Kennedy. Most important, we would track how people learned from the experience.

Spoiler alert: We got the grant! Amos Kennedy came to Dartmouth!

In my next post, I’ll talk about how we turned the Amos Kennedy visit into experiential learning. If you want to prepare for that experience, watch the Amos Kennedy documentary Proceed and Be Bold!.

Michael S. Evans

© Michael S. Evans 2008-2017