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“What We Take For Granted”: Experiential Academics

Word of a “homeless project” happening this week at Trent University has been getting around as of late. This, unfortunately, seems like just the kind of over-simplification that the woman in charge of the project is not a fan of.

Sheldene Simola is an associate professor in the Business Administration Department at Trent. She has formerly worked in grassroots community development with impoverished people, as well as at a camp which aimed to recreate the feel of a vacation for children and single parents who would otherwise be unable to have one. She now teaches the fourth-year class “Business Ethics & Corporations,” which will take part in the project (officially called an experiential learning activity).

“This activity is not about homelessness per se; we can’t ever fully understand the experiences of others, so it would be a predicament for us to claim after this experience that we now understand what it’s like, because the reality is that we won’t,” Simola said in an interview. The activity entails going without food for just over 24 hours, and being without shelter for about 12.

Development has been taking place for months, with the involvement of Campus Security, Risk Management and the Peterborough Lakefield Community Police Service. “In deciding on the activity, we considered many models and periods of time; in the end we felt that this structure would be the best for giving students an activity outside of what they would normally do, but not to the point of undue stress. We wanted to get something balanced in that way.”

Simola’s concern with the use of a term like ‘homeless project’ is that it misrepresents the aim of the activity for the sake of facilitated communication. “Some of the reasons we’re engaging in this activity are to have an opportunity think about some things in our lives we may take for granted; it also might help us to be more open to learning and caring about concerns of hunger, isolation and being without shelter. We will also be without electronic devices, and part of the hope of that is to create a chance to reflect on our own lives and decisions without common distractions.”

As a professor in the Business Department, she spoke of the significance of a hands-on learning experience in the field: “One of the problems with business ethics is that the conventional methods of teaching it have not been the most successful; we know this from the number of corporate debacles over the last decade or more. And it’s not just the frequency with which they have occurred; it’s the severity of the impacts they’ve had. A lot of people who teach business ethics are starting to think about things that could be added or done differently which might be helpful.”

She continued to advocate the relevance of learning in a way that incorporates feelings, reflection and experience: “I don’t think the model of ‘professor as expert’ is necessarily good, and I also don’t think that the model of using the classroom to confer purely cognitive knowledge on students is good either, particularly in relation to business ethics, as there is often a gap between what is said about ethics and what happens in workplaces and organizations. If we move away from this and ask students to live a little differently for a day, giving them the opportunity to think of things they may not have thought before, maybe we’ll be able to start bridging that gap.”

Walter Johnstone, executive director of the Peterborough Youth Emergency Shelter, spoke of the plethora of typical problems that plague those who his organization helps: “Most of the youth we serve arrive after some crisis in their lives and feel unable to cope. Many have medical issues. Most feel rejected by their support network whether it is family, friends or partners. Many don’t have ID and are unable to access services. Many are vulnerable and easily taken advantage by others. Couch surfing and survival sex are common.” He recognizes the inability to replicate a number of these criteria within the constraint of an academic setting, however, and finds the idea of the experiential learning activity to be an interesting one which hits a number of key issues.

A name as grossly misleading as that which has caught on for this event is sure to stir up some dissenting opinions, but the reality of the situation is that we ought to take on a Kantian perspective when looking at the activity’s inception. It is what Prof. Simola’s students take away from this experience that make it what it is, and it is her aspiration that they will “engage in this activity in a respectful way, and be cautious about making leaps and treating it carelessly. The same goes for me as well; as a professor, I have to be mindful of these things.”

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