on the eve of departure: thoughts on sifting & distilling.

As I pack for Switzerland I am simultaneously packing everything else. Like many graduate students without summer funding, three months of the year open up a precariat reality. As a qualitative researcher currently working on an ethnographic project, this is an opportunity to travel and work. So, as I carefully plan outfits for Switzerland that fit the “business professional” guidelines, I am simultaneously packing up my  books, plants, rocks and record collection. Everything but the clothes, books, and recording devices I think I’ll need until August is now packed away in a storage unit. What I need until August amazingly fits in a few suitcases. Plus the dogs, of course. I am also moving on from a wonderful semester with 40 bright undergraduate scholars who, by the end of the course, were more concerned with questioning power and imagining solutions than anything. Their hope in one another and excitement for their hometowns (in and outside the Appalachian region) fills me with hope. It was an honor to learn with them this semester as their instructor. I am reading their reflections on our “experiential learning assignment” and being reminded, myself, that it is imperative to remove “learning” from the comfort of the classroom, the university, the country…and engage with the questions we are asking in places far removed from the routine.  (For my full assignment details, see below.) On this eve of departure, I am already overwhelmed by the kindness that has been extended to me by bluegrass musicians and organizers in Switzerland and Amsterdam. I am overwhelmed by the kindness of the GPP16 cohort and the intentional ways community and relationships are being cultivated. Beyond packing, I am making lists of goals and small reminders to myself. (And in full disclosure I have been inspired by my current Airbnb host’s refrigerator door which prominently posts the Dalai Lama’s “Rules for Living” or “Instructions for Life.”) For example, I want to taste coffee while watching the sunrise in a place I’ve never been. I want to see what the stars look like from another continent. I want to sing a common, familiar song with people from a different part of the world. I would like to cultivate the relationships within the cohort—learn how I can care for this group and how we can work towards the graduate experience and post-VT worlds we imagine. I am interested in how others on the trip envision possibilities for education and I hope to learn from them as well as our global colleagues. I do not want to forget what a privileged experience this is. I am reminded of STAY project coordinator, Kendall Bilbrey’s provocative question (in a different context); “Why are you here?” I hope to offer a new (perhaps even marginalized) view of education and it’s possibilities. Perhaps more than anything, I hope to be intentional in my conversations, observations and offerings. I hope to be accountable to offering what I “bring to the table” and recognizing what I do not offer, but what I can learn from others. While I anticipate being overwhelmed by the beauty of it all, I hope to intentionally listen. A good friend Nate May shared with me that he saw much of our research processes as “sifting and distilling.” I have sifted. Said yes to things, no to others. Learned to sift through data, networks, theories, and approaches. I feel as if sifting has become an inherent part of my process as a scholar and an individual. This trip, even before beginning, is urging me to distill both literally and metaphorically. What do I need? What do I really want? And can I carry it? What can I do without? This distillation process is serving as a mighty metaphor for not only the gpp trip but my research and professional goals as well. As I pack, I am holding close the questions and enthusiasm of the students in the Intro to Appalachian Studies Class this semester as well as a legacy of international exchanges between the Appalachian region and Europe. This is truly an honor.

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Experiential Learning Assignment [currently used in undergraduate 1000 and 2000 level courses] Experiential Learning Guidelines: You are required to attend two (2) events outside of the classroom which place you directly in an intentional Appalachian community, social gathering, or educational opportunity. A one (1) page, single spaced reflection is required for each event (please submit them as a single document). Many folks find they need more space and that is fine. Accompanying photos are highly encouraged. In your reflection consider (synthesize) the following: What happened at the events you attended? Did you challenge yourself? What did you observe or participate in that can only happen through experience? Did any of the readings or class discussions occur to you while at the event? Did your perception of Appalachia today change after attending? If you felt awkward, uncomfortable, or like an “outsider” address that as well and consider why. If you felt more “at home” than any other time in your life, elaborate on why. Who was gathered there? What were the sounds, smells, images? What power relations seemed to exist? What did you learn? What did you have to “unlearn?” What would you do differently next time? List the date, time, and location of the event at the top of the reflection for each event. Last but not least, congratulations on stepping into the “field” as folklorists describe it. Participant observations or experiential learning is not easy, but is well worth the effort.  Many people travel through their college years without exploring new places (or, familiar places in a new way). Some folks live their entire lives believing what they see on the highway exit sign is what is really there. By stepping out into the community, you have discovered the complexity of these places and spaces and your agency in choosing events and claiming your own educational process is to be commended. Well done!

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