Pedagogical Reasons for taking History Students on Off Campus trips.
By William Urban
1) Just as scientists have laboratories, historians must get students out of the classroom. Hands-on experience brings lessons alive.
2) Being in historic locations provides better insights and understanding. For example, having a feel for the size of buildings, seeing farming practices, city life and the problems of commerce and communication. John Keegan, the foremost military historian of our time, reminds us over and over again of the importance of walking battlefields. No one comes away from the Vatican or the Duomo in Florence without a new appreciation of the builders, the worshippers and the era.
3) Developing the self-confidence to travel, to find food and shelter, to communicate. This must be a major goal of travel abroad. Putting students in a bus to sleep until they are dumped at a luxury hotel, then turning them loose on the local bars is not an educational experience at all. Language experience is desirable, but neither universally practical nor necessary—the world is wide, life is short, and the college offerings are few; requiring language knowledge would essentially eliminate all travel. Students often return from trips eager to study the language of the place they have visited.
4) Understanding what is being seen must be prepared by appropriate classroom experience. This is not practical during a trip—space is usually not available, and time is always short. Thus, the travel must be connected to an existing class or to a special class that meets regularly before departure.
5) Lectures during the trip must be short and impromptu. There are always opportunities to remind participants of the connections between what they have learned and what they are seeing at the moment. Mealtimes are good opportunities to talk with individuals or small groups; occasionally, when noise levels permit and the students are not excited discussing other subjects, this can be done evenings. Not every student is equally interested in learning more, but many come back with renewed enthusiasm for studying history.
6) Short trips are more practical for a small campus than long ones. We have semester-long and junior-year experiences for individuals, but not for our own groups. Short trips are affordable in terms of time and money, and they can broaden a student’s experience significantly; they are better educational experiences than putting on a backpack, sleeping on whatever train offers eight hours of rest and arriving God-knows-where, and maybe looking in the Travel-cheap handbook for summaries of life and culture of wherever you are.
7) Trips are as valuable for faculty as for students. They provide opportunities to review one’s own knowledge of the places visited and to go there without a significant financial outlay. Developing skills as leader, travel agent, money manager and counselor can be important to the department and institution, learning how to cope with frustration, emergencies and responsibility is often useful, and—most of all—one’s classroom lectures are greatly enhanced by having been on the ground personally. Dr. Dry as Dust disappears when immersed in another culture. We say, “the past is another land.” The past is also often in another land.
William Urban has taken students to England, Scotland, Ireland, Belgium, France, Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary, Italy, Yugoslavia, Turkey and Mexico.