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An Interview with Dr. Frank Christianson

Dr. Christianson teaches courses in nineteenth-century American and British literatures. He specializes in literary realism, transatlanticism, and the novel. Professor Christianson began teaching at BYU in 2002. He received his Ph.D. in English from Brown University and his MA and BA degrees from BYU. Currently serving as an Associate Dean in Humanities, his portfolio includes oversight and assessment of experiential education programs, including study abroad and internships.

The Experiential Writing Project recently sat down with him to discuss the role that reflective writing plays in experiential learning, and what it takes to execute programs that provide these opportunities.

EWP: What made you interested in experiential learning?

FC: I directed four study abroad programs, and I have a deep investment in the value of experience as well as post-graduation preparation of our students.

EWP: Did you ever do any experiential learning, or study abroad, when you were a student?

FC: Yes, actually, the program I’ve directed the most, which is the London Theatre program, I did as an undergrad. It was a formative experience for me, probably the single most important experience for my own professional trajectory.

EWP: I understand you just returned from a study abroad in England, what principles of experiential learning did you try to incorporate while you were there?

FC: I was responsible for a single course, and I developed alternative “experientialized” outcomes that reflected its difference from the campus version of the course. They were rooted in the immediate experience of the program, but also focused on experiential learning literacy. I developed a curriculum to help students work toward those outcomes; so the assignments, the classroom meetings, and the itinerary, were all integrated toward those experiential learning outcomes.

EWP: So, when you say that it was different from the campus outcomes, what do you mean by that?

FC: Well, I was teaching Shakespeare, English 382. That course has a standard set of outcomes. A variety of faculty teach it, but they have the same outcomes. In my view experiential learning courses should have different outcomes from their campus versions. It should be re-imagined as an experience-based course. So, I’ve pushed the idea of, “X” courses. It should be 382X. And the outcomes should reflect that identity. For example, the campus 382 is heavily focused on research, so there’s an expectation that students will spend a good portion of their energy mastering secondary materials, including literary criticism. Both practically and conceptually this is not the best approach to an experience-based Shakespeare course. So, I jettison that, at least the conventional notion of research, because in this case, research is site-based. And the emphasis of my outcomes is much more on integrating their engagement with the text and the various contexts. It’s text, site, then performance: all of those elements of both curriculum and the itinerary working together, and the students attempting to synthesize those relationships.

EWP: I think that’s a unique way to apply those principles. What do you mean by “X,” courses?

FC: We have “R” courses, which indicates they are repeatable with different content. So, I would like to re-designate the study abroad courses emphasize their distinctive outcomes. In the catalog you would have English 382 and English 382X, and that would help faculty and student establish more appropriate expectations for learning. It would encourage faculty to think through how their students learn from experience and how the curriculum supports that.

EWP: Excellent. So, you see experiential courses offering unique opportunities that are grounded in specificity to the location. In terms of those experiences, how do you see reflective writing as solidifying those learning experiences?

FC: I am enthusiastic about reflection, in part because a portion of my responsibilities for the last five years has involved assessment. When I reviewed the general state of assessment in our college, I realized that experiential education programs and courses had received much less attention than our campus-based curriculum. Some programs had no outcomes and some courses, internships, had no curriculum. I thought we could do more to assess experiential learning, starting with developing learning outcomes, and then work back from there. That would enable us to align program design and curriculum based on the outcomes. Then we could better determine how and what our students are actually learning.

In the work I’ve done, writing is a key component. Whatever else we’re doing, whatever the subject, we should be teaching writing. Humanities students should be uniquely equipped to write substantively about their experience. Reflective writing is the best way to measure learning from experience. There are other ways to demonstrate learning, but to do it in a way that is measurable, and that speaks to their capacity to process experience, writing is the key.

EWP: What are a few experiences that you have that show the reflective writing process has worked?

FC: If students have established a framework of intention that integrates course of study with course of experience, they are equipped to identify learning in terms that are durable and portable. The Shakespeare program is one of most straightforward in the relationship between the itinerary and the curriculum: we read Shakespeare plays, and we see Shakespeare plays. So, if it’s possible anywhere, it should be possible in this program. I used reflective writing throughout the program to encourage students to make connections among the different forms of experience they were having. Articulating the relations from the written text to the staged text was simple and familiar from most of them. But expanding that engagement to include other sites of learning—historic locations, exhibits, non-theatrical performances—was much more challenging. It involved a higher order reflection requiring them to analyze texts and themselves as audience, consumer, and student.

In the end, bearing the experiential learning outcomes in mind, the students were asked to provide an evidence-based narrative of their learning. With this framework in place, students were much more successful at expressing their learning and, therefore, processing their experience, than students on previous programs

EWP: I think beginning with reflection in mind is really important. If students don’t know what the intention is behind it, then it is harder to make the connection to the purpose of the experience.

FC: Exactly. And also building in along the way lots of other moments of reflection, less formal, to have them engaging with various parts of their experience. Part of the assignment, too, was to look back on everything they had written—to ask themselves how to incorporate, how to select from their experience, in order to narrate the through-line of their learning.

EWP: Having a higher goal for learning through reflection assessment seems to be the pinnacle of experiential learning. What advice do you have for educators who are looking to put context into these opportunities for their students?

FC: Anybody looking to develop a program, should ask, “What are my degree-level outcomes?” The sponsoring discipline, with its general outcomes, should call the experiential program into existence. The more aligned the program is with the degree outcomes, the more justified it is, the more purposeful it is. And then the focus should be on program integrity. Are the various parts of the program (meaning the curriculum and the itinerary) integrated?

EWP: What advice would you have for students who are considering these opportunities?

FC: That’s a good question. I think the students should learn as much as they can about the courses offered, the qualifications of the faculty, and the agenda of the program, including the itinerary, and realize that less can be more. A lot of times they are sold on how many countries or how many places they’re going to, and in some ways the more sites, the less substantive.

EWP: What earlier experiential learning opportunity had the most impact on your life, that you experienced as a student or as an educator, and why?

FC: I would say my London study abroad as a student. I was an English major, Theater minor, so it covered all of my interests in one program. Not only was the program aligned with its context, it was aligned with my interests. It combined excellent faculty mentors with a substantive course of study and an incredibly rich experiential offering. I understood from the beginning—I had a framework of intention that both the directors provided and that I had for myself. So, I was able to articulate the value of that experience in a way that served me well when I applied to graduate programs.

EWP: Is there a specific writing prompt that you love that helps students reflect on their experience?

FC: Here’s a portion of the prompt for the final reflection in the London Theatre program.

You might approach this assignment as a chance to make the case for why someone should study Shakespeare on a London study abroad (with yourself as Exhibit A).

Here are some questions you might pose to yourself inspired by the course outcomes. Remember to review your own work from the term as raw material for this essay. Also remember that you are not simply reiterating something you’ve been taught in class. This is you evaluating yourself as a student, assigning value to your experiences, deciding what you have learned. The essay itself is a learning experience.

  • How did a particular site visit inform my understanding of the plays?
  • How did a specific venue impact the way I interpreted a play?
  • How did the learning context (being in London) or the learning community (living and
    studying with a group of English/Theater majors) shape the way I thought about Shakespeare’s work?
  • How did proximity to places of origin impact my role as a student? How did I decide what mattered and what didn’t? What inspired my curiosity and why?
  • How did my study—reading, attending plays, visiting sites—help me make progress on my individual outcome?