Down Walls: Rethinking the "Classroom"
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 wonít
be able to not notice them. I love that. A real eye-opening experience for
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-óstudents
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 studentsí 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
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. Iím
not sure if I will ever be able to look at the act of shopping so innocently
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