September 1999

Knocking Down Walls: Rethinking the "Classroom"

By Kandi M. Stinson,
Department of Political Science and Sociology

This past summer, as one of their course requirements, students in one of my classes compiled portfolios which included reflections on class readings, discussions, and activities. While the entries varied widely, several students reflected on one particular activity that occurred halfway through the course. One student wrote:

      "This was really pretty cool! I thought at first blush that it would be
      obvious, mundane stuff, but because of the discussion with my group it
      made it very edifying. The strategies of design were what struck me most, mostly because I had never thought about them before, but now I won?t be able to not notice them. I love that. A real eye-opening experience for me."

Others characterized this activity as "very enlightening," and "very informative."
To what activity were these students responding? A field trip. And to what sociologically relevant and enlightening site had I taken them? The shopping mall. Yes, we spent one entire class period at the mall.

For the past six years or so I have regularly taught a class on popular culture. My approach is pretty straight-forward and my goal fairly simple: to provide students with a useful theoretical and methodological framework which they can use to analyze and understand a wide range of popular culture artifacts. Based in critical social theory, semiotics, and socio-linguistics, the model I use is relatively difficult, so a significant portion of class time is usually spent applying elements of the theoretical framework to a variety of examples, including Barbie dolls, music videos, McDonalds, and body-piercing, with which students are assumed to have some familiarity.  

The shopping mall seemed to be the ideal vehicle for discussing the processes of consumption, as well as recent theoretical insights into the centrality of visual imagery and visual pleasure in postmodern society. What I frequently found, however, was that these class discussions soon took on an air of "so what else is new?" The problem was not that students were unfamiliar with the topic. No, it was just the opposite-?students were too familiar with the mall. Having known no other way to shop, and having spent countless hours socializing and spending money at the mall, students were frequently unable to see the mall from any other perspective.

A more sensible, or less obstinate, instructor might have looked for a new example. But as a sociologist, I was convinced that it is precisely those experiences that are most familiar to us, most taken-for-granted, that are most in need of a critical, sociological examination. So, rather than give up, I took the class on the road.

In broad form, the activity goes like this: before the actual trip, students are assigned readings which discuss the development of franchises, the history of shopping malls, and a theory of visual pleasure. On the designated day, we meet at the mall, having made sure that everyone had transportation. As students arrive, they are given a multi-page handout filled with questions they are to answer, and which directs them to check in with me at designated points. They are divided into groups of about four students, and then sent off to explore the mall, with the handout as their guide. A portion of the next class period is spent comparing students? observations, and most critically, linking their mall experience to the theoretical readings.

Admittedly, incorporating field trips into other classes requires confronting several obstacles. Obviously there are pragmatics, most notably, transportation. There is the further issue of whether we can afford the class time "lost" in such excursions. While these are in fact real issues, the most imposing obstacle may be our deeply embedded notions of how and where learning occurs. Before I could take my class to the mall, I had to rethink what constitutes a "classroom." Rather than a finite space, bounded by four walls, I came to see the classroom as being much more open and fluid, expanding into the surrounding community.  

Once we get over the obstacles, many of which are in our heads, the possibilities for field trips multiply exponentially. Due to considerable and persistent segregation by social class, ethnicity, sex, age, and religion, many sites which commonly appear in our research, theories, and literature are unfamiliar to our students. And even those sites which are very familiar, such as the shopping mall, take on a very different appearance when approached with a new perspective.

For those interested in incorporating field trips into their courses, I offer the following advice:

  1. Whenever possible go as a group. While sending students out individually certainly makes it easier to overcome some of the logistical obstacles, there is something very valuable that comes from the shared experience and discussion of a group trip.
  2. Take time to prepare students for the trip. Assigned reading provides students with some amount of shared knowledge and a framework which they can begin to apply to their experiences.
  3. It is extremely helpful to give students a well thought-out, but open-ended guide, preferably, one on which they can record their observations and insights.
  4. Under some circumstances, an instructor-guided tour can be useful. However, my own preference is to let students explore the site on their own, in small groups. If this approach is taken, I suggest having groups check in periodically to help keep students focused on the task.

To help students more thoughtfully and consistently link theory and experience, some amount of class time after the field trip should be used to compare their observations and link them to assigned readings.

In many ways a carefully planned and strategically timed field trip is not that different from other field experiences that are frequently incorporated into more "applied" classes, such as internships, professional field placements, or service learning requirements. What these seemingly diverse activities share in common is that they break down the walls of the traditional classroom, and expand our notion of learning to encompass not only the larger community, but the lived experiences of our students.

This, then, is the lesson I have learned: it is in the intersection, or perhaps even collision of the theories we teach and the lives our students lead, where learning actually occurs. There is no more fitting way to conclude this essay than to quote another student from the class:

      "The idea of looking at the mall not only as a place to shop, but as a place of fetishism, voyeurism, and narcissism is a liberating way of seeing how the marketing strategies of malls feed into consumers' subconscious. I?m not sure if I will ever be able to look at the act of shopping so innocently again."


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