Adventurous Learning: experiencing the past outside the classroom

Kyle Robinson highlights opportunities for collaborating with undergraduates and teaching history beyond the walls of the classroom. Robinson received his Ph.D. in history from the University of Rochester in 2018 and is currently Assistant Professor of European History at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL.


Fort Niagara

Fort Niagara, New York. Photo by author.

“Are you eating a whole chicken?” I looked in disbelief as one of my students began to hurriedly devour an entire rotisserie offering from the local grocery chain as we stood waiting for our tour of historic Fort Niagara near Youngstown, New York. “I thought it would make me feel more like an eighteenth-century soldier on the frontier” came the reply. I found it hard to argue with his enthusiasm, and so resisted the urge to critique the historical authenticity of Wegmans’ poultry. Fort Niagara and the whole chicken was one of my first experiences leading undergraduate students on trips outside the classroom. In the years since, one of my great joys has been the opportunity to involve history students in learning outside the walls of the traditional classroom. My motivations were born of several desires. Since I began teaching as a graduate student, it was my hope that creative experiences for students would provide excellent material for teaching statements on the job market. Beyond that all-consuming graduate school obsession with future employment, I also wanted to find ways to connect students with the European past that I taught. One of my early teaching struggles was linking students with a spatially and conceptually distant subject field. Travel outside of the classroom was a way to uncover the transnational connections between the European past I taught and the North American lives of my students. Continuing to teach, I realized that the opportunity for experiential learning could be more than travel to historic sites or museums. There is also enormous potential for interdisciplinary collaboration and the empowerment of undergraduates themselves in the way history reaches beyond classroom walls. For me, this realization came as part of a wonderful year teaching high in the Rockies at Western Colorado University.

Looking at Canons Fort Niagara

Looking at the cannons, Fort Niagara. Photo courtesy of author.

At almost 8,000 feet above sea level, Western Colorado University is set amidst the Gunnison Valley and the Elk Mountains of the Rockies. This beautiful place was also my first full time teaching appointment, and I was eager to once again connect students with the European past that I love. Yet, in the Rockies, there was far less readymade access to the types of historic sites I was used to in the East, places like Fort Niagara. Of course, Santa Fe, New Mexico was just under five hours away and is an amazing, complicated site of Indigenous and European interaction. But, as I drove over Monarch Pass and crossed the Continental Divide for the first time, I was increasingly captivated by the landscape of the Gunnison Valley. I was in an environment that seemed to overflow with natural wonder. There had to be a way to go beyond the city visit, a way to take the classroom into nature.

The amazing quality of the environment was complimented by the Western students. As a flatlander, I was deeply impressed by a student body so connected to the world the mountains made. So many of my students wrapped themselves in the possibilities the landscape offered. From skiing to avalanche and recreational science, Western students were devoted to exploring the mountains. Again, there had to be a way to connect this passion with the courses and perspectives provided by the History program.


On the Trail Skinning 2

On the trail, skinning. Photo by author.

Encouraged by wonderful colleagues, my solution was a class devoted to the exploration of the idea of adventure in European culture and life since the Renaissance. The class was meant to meet the student population where their interests lay. The goal was to uncover a past that continued to structure their interests and pursuits in the present. To do so, we grounded ourselves in adventurous primary sources. We sailed into plays like the Tempest, wandered through a range of mountainous travelogues, and romped along with some of the first adventure novels ever written. Parsing these texts, our goal was to arrive at an idea of how the meaning of adventure formed as it filtered through changing definitions of nature, technological practices, and the consequences of imperialism. It was amazing fun. I observed students connect their own experiences to the record of the past, seeing, for example, in Petrarch’s Ascent of Mont Ventoux, a shared frustration with the father of Humanism’s experience of unreliable hiking partners.

Yet, once again, my goal was to see the experiences conveyed by our readings take hold outside the classroom. From the beginning I had had the idea that the class needed an outdoor component. Fed by my own wonder of the place and the adventure I felt in the move to Colorado, I knew that we had to be in the outdoors. Yet, though I enjoy hiking and snowshoeing, I am far from an expert in the type of outdoorsmanship that the high Rockies require. Luckily, an opportunity presented itself that would not only allow the class to experience the intersection of in-class reading with natural wonder, but also demonstrate the enormous potential of student-faculty interdisciplinary collaboration.

On the Trail Skinning

On the trail, skinning. Photo by author.

I first met Paul when he took my modern Germany course in the Fall of that year. An excellent student who is now in law school, he was then pursuing degrees in both History and Outdoor Recreation. In search of a senior capstone project that would integrate both disciplines, an ideal collaboration was born. Experienced with outdoor pursuits in the Gunnison Valley, Paul selected a site to skin up and ski down as a class. He also arranged for a local guide to give an avalanche science demonstration. He and I then tested out the trail first. It was Snodgrass Mountain near Crested Butte, and it was great fun! It was also my first time ever skinning, a process that involves attaching strips to the bottom of skis to enable uphill travel. The two of us discussed the landscape, effort involved, and how the students might respond. We then worked to plan a week of class readings on the local history of adventure sports in the Valley that Paul would select (they used to deliver the mail on skis!) and he then gave two guest lectures in the class. For Paul, organizing a trip, curating readings, and delivering lectures helped meet the requirements of his capstone project. For me, working with Paul was a leap forward with local knowledge and gave my class someone trained in the science of outdoor pursuits to help lead our trip. For both of us, and for the students, it was an incredibly engaging opportunity to show the amazing ways that history and those who study it can intersect with other disciplines and experiences.

The view from Snodgrass

The view from Snodgrass. Photo by author.

Including the brief moment when I became hilariously stuck, the trip itself was a smashing success. As we skinned up, and then during the break at our stopping point, we had the chance to work through many of the concepts we had read about in the classroom. The changing connections to the natural world as a result of adventure, differences between a group expedition and those of a single individual, and, of course, the way that historically contingent storytelling practices themselves color our idea of what adventure means. We discussed and felt a shared connection and understanding of the past in our own journey through the snow.

Some of the Adventure Students L to R Michael Me Molly Spence Hans Seated Paul

Some of the Adventure students. L-R: Michael, Paul (seated), Dr. Robinson, Molly, Spence, and Hans. Photo courtesy of author.

I now teach amidst the prairie lands of my boyhood and, despite the elevation change, I am still guided by the many valuable lessons I drew from the trip. Chief among these was the demonstration that history learning outside the classroom can be more than a visit to a museum or preserved place. Done well and with all the appropriate caution about anachronism, learning for history can also be deeply experiential. Often, it is in fact this very experience of the past’s reach into the present that connects students with the study of history. So too, working with Paul was a good reminder of the enormous opportunity for student-faculty collaboration at the undergraduate level. Undergraduates need not be passive recipients of knowledge. Rather, faculty can recognize the interests of a student population and actively involve them in the experience of historical learning. From whole chickens to skiing, taking students outside the classroom is a key way to connect with the study of the past.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s