Class offers student exploration

Class offers student exploration

Geography professor Harry Jol was traveling out west on one of his many excursions with students the year before last, when he made a stop at Yosemite National Park in California.

Jol was in the park’s headquarters when he ran into a ranger who happened to be a UW-Eau Claire alumni. The ranger turned out to be the brother of assistant professor of English, Blake Westerlund, Jol’s colleague and “long time pal.”

“Harry and I have known each other for a long time and we have always wanted to work together,” Blake Westerlund said. “When he came back from Yosemite we thought we should try something with ‘Land and Literature.’”

And an idea for a new interdisciplinary course was sparked.

The two collaborated on the course: Land and Literature, which included a domestic immersion project from Sept. 21-29 to Yosemite National Park.

A dozen students from a variety of disciplines: English, geography, education and computer science are enrolled in the course this fall and have already embarked on the immersion trip.

Jol said one of the goals of the trip was “to include a variety of different experiences” for the students and educators alike. Westerlund and Jol not only taught the students about disciplines, but they also learned from each other.

When Deanna Kainz, a senior environmental geography major, heard about the trip and the course she knew she wanted in.

“I thought it would be the affordable way to go to Yosemite and actually learn about the geography,” Kainz said.

The week spent in the park is what Kainz said was her favorite part.

“Just waking up and realizing we were in the middle of the forest and having class outside in between mountains was the best part,” Kainz said.

Westerlund said he doesn’t think the group ever got over how beautiful it was to wake up in the park every morning, but he thinks they were productive given the time they had there.

“We were in a very positive way a presence in Yosemite,” Westerlund said. “People knew our group. Our timing was really judicious because we were post fire and pre shutdown so we hit the sweet spot when it came to timing.”

Senior environmental geography major Sandy Thao is originally from California so she said spending time in her home state was the best part of the trip. Thao said even though the class is a cultural immersion course, that’s not why she went.

“You don’t have to go to California to experience culture you just have to look outside and find it for yourself,” Thao said. “Culture is everywhere, so I didn’t go there so much for the cultural experience, I went there for the field experience and to meet new people.”

Thao, who had taken courses with Jol before, said he always encourages students to be a part of interdisciplinary courses such as this one and Thao said she is seeing the benefits.

“As a geography major, I feel more well-rounded for taking these different types of classes,” Thao said.

Since the trip, the class has been working on presenting their field research, launching a website that displays their experiences and creating a show for The Foster Art Gallery, which is set to be on display sometime in December.