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Educational Travel and Student Learning

Jody Myers

All the reasons scholars travel to the places of their research apply to undergraduate and graduate students' learning. Educational travel intensifies, expands, and contextualizes book-learning. My students' knowledge of modern Jewish history and culture has been enhanced by our trips to Eastern Europe. Standing within the actual landscape where our subjects lived conveys an appreciation of the scale, geography, and climate in which earlier events occurred. Lessons about cultural boundaries become tangible when students visit the neighborhood of Kazimierz, on the outskirts of Krakow. They walk the short distance between the historic homes, synagogues, study houses, and shops of the lower-class and mostly Hasidic Jews who lived there before the war, and then cross the bridge to the area of elegant stone apartments of the Jewish businessmen and professionals situated within the heart of the royal city. Traversing Poland's plains, rivers, and forests, students see the need for middlemen to bring lumber, furs, and the peasants' agricultural produce the long distance to markets. Jews predominated in this intermediary role and many engaged in the crafts to shape the goods into clothing. Students understand why the relations between Jews and non-Jews were alternately intimate and hostile, and they can visualize where the exchanges occurred. Academic field trips provide an encompassing reality that engages all the senses. Student interactions with residents and other tourists make education dynamic and memorable. Students realize that academic scholarship is an interpretation of reality.

In addition, there is the extraordinary pedagogical opportunity such a trip provides for the instructor. The curriculum takes the shape of an itinerary that must meet educational goals, be achievable within the constraints of a group trip, and provide time for individual exploration. It is exciting and inspiring for the instructor to witness the personal transformation and intellectual awakening that occur when students are immersed in foreign environments. They learn new life skills. They may be taught how to be respectful toward other peoples and cultures. By seeing the places they have read and heard about, students are astonished and emotionally moved in a manner that cannot be replicated in any classroom. Educational travel inspires further learning; the subject has been brought to life.

Why don't more faculty lead educational trips? The preparatory work is daunting; guiding college students is exhausting and challenging; and trips usually are scheduled during school vacations when one could be free to do research and writing. It is possible to hire experts to organize this kind of travel and to call on colleagues at home and at the destination who can help. However, the financial costs are great even without such specialized assistance: faculty time before and during the trip should be considered, and travel expenses are significant, even in relatively low-cost Eastern Europe. Unless there are student scholarships, only students who are able to pay can participate. Donors and deans may be appealed to on the basis of the enhanced student learning and the prestige that such trips provide.

Not all faculty want to facilitate educational travel or are suited for it. However, those who enjoy these trips and have the chance to lead them will bring their stories, photos, and experiences back into the classroom for the benefit of students there.

Jody Myers is professor of Religious Studies and coordinator of the Jewish Studies Interdisciplinary Program at California State University, Northridge.