SPREES and Experiential Learning
SPREES students become proficient in the Russian language through study in the Russian-speaking world, including places like Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, and Ukraine. Recently, our students specializing in Eastern Europe have begun to study abroad in Warsaw, Poland, at the Collegium Civitas. Practically speaking, all of our majors and minors have studied abroad over the past decade. This experience is invaluable in consolidating and expanding what they learn at Stetson, and creating a cohort of students who have been “over there,” to share knowledge with our newer students.
Most of our students who study abroad for a full semester also intern at various organizations and businesses. Our partners at the School for Russian and Asian Studies organize these interning experiences. Internships allow our students to gain pertinent career skills and knowledge of the area that would otherwise be impossible to obtain. They receive feedback via SRAS and the intern coordinator. They apply ideas and skills to new situations. Our students have recently interned with Human Rights Watch, Moscow; the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan; the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg; and the independent voting watchdog group, Golos. Students also intern in the United States in various cultural and policy-making institutes that require Russian-language skills.
Every year, the SPREES program hosts various cultural and culinary events – at least three per semester. They typically center around music and food. For instance, on October 14, 2015, we held our fifth or sixth annual Pelmeni (Dumpling) Fest. Students learned about the cultural practice of making and eating dumplings. We began the event with a discussion of the role of food in culture, family, history, and agriculture. This discussion-based information was supported by text materials distributed to all participants. We then engaged in the experience of dough filled with ground filling (“dumplings”). Students learned about culinary history, family traditions, the history of Russia and its connection with Asia, and more, through experiencing the creation of culinary products. Then we ate the dumplings.
The Tutor – professor Michael Denner – run an open lab in the language commons, allowing students to attend whenever it's convenient for them during a three-hour stretch on Wednesdays. We have a standard, tripartite lab “experience” every Wednesday: First, the students take a quiz. Then, students do a themed listening/comprehension exercise at the stations that centers on a grammatical/lexical problem and emphasizes oral expression and functionality. Then, they move to work “за столами,” (at the tables) in the middle of the room, in small groups of three to five students. This “table work” is tied to the listening exercise the students have already done. Alongside the handful of students, we work through – slowly and deliberately – a more elaborate presentation of the grammatical or lexical item from earlier. I introduce the item. Then we do an exercise or two as a group, then the students work in pairs or solo on a written exercise that gets checked and corrected immediately. The small-group experience allows instructors and tutors to analyze their comprehension and respond meaningfully to their miscomprehension and comprehension – “guide on the side” style.
Since many of our students go on to careers in education, our tutoring program is essentially an experiential learning opportunity. Our tutors gain experiential and practical knowledge of Russian language through their frequent work with students studying Russian. Students have an opportunity to apply what they learn in class and in Study Abroad through tutoring and mentoring new learners.
Arguably, these opportunities are the most important and complex examples of experiential learning. I think normally, visiting lecturers are “old-school” experiences; they stand up, read a lecture, and leave. However, if you understand “experiential learning” as learning that involves opportunities for debriefing and consolidation of ideas and skills through feedback, reflection, and the application of the ideas and skills to new situations, then SPREES orients these visits towards maximal experiential learning. For instance, whenever a visiting expert is in town, we arrange meetings with our students, so they can practice professional networking skills, and engage with these experts on a one-on-one basis. Recently, students were able to mingle and discuss senior research projects with Dr. Tarik Amar of Columbia University over a lox-and-cream-cheese platter. A lot of mentoring and coaching and contextualizing for students takes place before these meetings and mingles. Students learn how to comport themselves – how to communicate effectively with important and intimidating people. They learn intersubjectivity in the only way you learn it... through practice.