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Place Matters During Isolated Learning

By Jason VanHorn, with Allison Lee

We are isolated, in our homes, and life is displaced. COVID-19 has taken over the United States and changed the way we do work, how we play and rest, and for many of us it has uprooted our lives. Some of us have lost loved ones during this time and even the mourning and lament has had to change because of Coronavirus.

I’m a professor at Calvin University in Grand Rapids Michigan. In mid-March, my university shifted all of our courses to remote learning. For us and most universities and colleges, it has been a dramatic upheaval of challenge. Now I am teaching from my basement and my students are trying to learn from their homes. Even my children are learning from home as K-12 school has been moved to remote learning until the end of the spring semester.

I teach geography at the university and one of the central and foundational concepts we discuss is space and place. Space and place are two interrelated things, yet they are separate. Geographers discuss how spaces are the physical environment which humans interact. Places are spaces that are endowed with meaning.

It isn’t enough to recommend to our students and to ourselves to have better organization over their schedules at home—essentially a more rigorous time-management strategy. We should include the where question as part of our plan for learning during our isolation.

Now that we are displaced from our learning environment, what can we learn about space and place and education? To answer this question, I reached out to one of the geography majors at Calvin University, Allison Lee.

Jason: Allison, thanks for doing this interview. I think it will be helpful to consider the importance of place in your learning. How many classes are you taking this semester, right now?

Allison: I’m taking eight courses this semester trying to wrap up my time at Calvin. I still have one course to take in summer.

Jason: Wow, that’s a lot! And everything is remote?

Allison: Yep.

Jason: As a geography major, you have learned in your courses about the importance of place and scale. Now that you are taking all of these courses remotely from Minnesota, what have you learned about the importance of place in your education?

Allison: I think obviously you get really attached to place. It’s an abstract concept that each person experiences every single day. It’s so much about psychological concepts as much as it is geographical concepts, and I think what I and so many other students are experiencing is the psychological side of the concept of place.

So with these courses I was taking, at the beginning of the year I wasn’t thinking I would have a hard semester because I wake up, I do my GEO 181 FYRES work in the GEO Department for two hours, I move to my next class, and I move my next class after that. There’s a schedule set up and it’s set up around places, but when you take out the places, the most foundational part of that schedule, and your place becomes homogenous (in my situation it’s one room in my house) and I don’t have a place for each class like at Calvin, learning becomes harder to do.

You are trying to do life the same way that you were when life was completely different and place is such a foundational part of life so that when your place is disrupted, so does your life and your schedule.

Jason: So place is vitally important to learning or creates a conducive environment for learning?

Allison: Uh-huh. I’ve been reading some articles on environmental psychology for my [capstone GEO-380] paper and it definitely plays into this idea of place and learning…and well-being.

Jason: How do you think professors can pivot to help students, like yourself, learn better given this Coronavirus situation?

Allison: I have some professors who have done this really well in CORE classes—incorporating the same parts of learning that are present in a place like Calvin and bringing them into an [remote] environment that gives students familiarity with what they previously had been doing. It helps with my familiarity with what I had before.

Jason: Do you feel like you are learning, even with this change?

Allison: Yes! But the learning that is happening is different.

Jason: That’s interesting. What about people? We are really serious about community in GEO. Now that we all are away, how are you finding community withing GEO and elsewhere?

Allison: Definitely through classes. Like my biggest source of GEO community right now is [GEO] 380. I have begun to look forward to that class a lot more than I did because everyone shares so much, and I’m like oh my gosh, this student’s voice or that student’s voice! The GEO Department, as a place, is such a naturally bright and naturally welcoming spot and you don’t have to go out your way to look for interaction with people. Doing GEO without that is really sad because to me that is the most foundational part of the department. And sure, being removed from the physical space, there, is sad, but what’s even more sad is being removed from the other parts of that place that make it so important.  And I think that’s what a lot of other people are missing too. It’s kinda having that part of the place that you love but you don’t realize how much you love it until you’re away from it, you know?

Jason: Oh yeah. So what has been the biggest challenge for you in writing your [4000 word] final paper in the capstone course?

Allison: ***laughs***, um, I think it really kinda comes back to place and having a mindset, that’s been such a brick wall issue for me. It’s like I know exactly what I want to write about, I have my outline, I have everything, but it’s just so frustrating to sit down at a computer for three or four hours and nothing is coming to you. For me, I’ve been attributing it to just being absent [from Calvin], because if I was at Calvin I would be working on it in the GEO Department and I would be bouncing ideas off of other people. I would be asking my colleagues “Hey so-and-so! What are you writing your paper on? Like, what are you thinking about it?”, and it’s different to do that through texting or whatever [remote options are used]. In terms of assignments like this paper, I miss the things I took for granted. I miss being able to talk to people about it, to bounce ideas off each other, and being in that community where you can, like, share things.

Jason: Well I think you’ve hit on something important, and that is, you know, that you can make all the schedules you want to and try to adhere to the them, but the place—place matters.

Allison: It does!

Jason: Place matters within your schedule. If you don’t have a place that is helpful to your learning then no schedule is going to help you. Right?

Allison: Well for example on weekends I had a schedule in Grand Rapids. On Sundays, I would go to church at 10AM and I’d bring my homework with me. Everyday after church, I would drive down the street back to the Early Bird [restaurant] and I would sit at the Early Bird, like at the tables by the windows, and I would work on homework for like five or six hours and just watch people walk by. And that was an awesome schedule which I can’t really have anymore.

Jason: Oh yeah, so true. Well thank you so much Allison! Is there anything else you want to say?

Allison: Well place — like so many people think that place is a geographical concept, and it is, but it’s not. It’s so…it’s everywhere and I don’t think we realize how important the idea of place and space to us is because, 1) it’s abstract to most people and 2) it’s something we can’t even recognize because it’s so ingrained into our daily lives…that when we’re taken out of that situation, and we’re put into a completely different situation where place is much different and you don’t have autonomy of place anymore, it affects you in such an interesting way. I think that what most students are experiencing, regardless if they are a GEO major or not, is that place is important, and that place is vital. I think that is what most people are struggling with is trying to adapt to being at home and trying to do things at home. I’ve talked to some people, and they’re like, “oh I go to the kitchen for biology, and I go to the living room for my literature class. It’s just to get, you know, like…just to mix it up a little bit to get me in the right head-space.” But I think it’s because we’re so used to moving around and we’re so used to different places, and those different places having different meanings, that when were in a place where it’s just one big place [like home], where you can’t move around in it very much and there’s not that same…recognizing where…”oh yeah, this is the English Department, I’m doing my English here” or something like that, it changes everything.

Jason: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of truth to what you’re saying about how place is so ingrained. It’s so a part of our person, our being, that we don’t even understand or recognize it. We don’t come into a classroom at Calvin University in the GEO Department and say, “Okay! I’m ready to learn about GEO stuff!”. No. You come into the classroom and it’s a classroom and because of past experiences and meaningfulness that has happened in that space, or in the whole department itself, or in that building, you prepare your mind, not consciously, but unconsciously for learning. And now you see that as a reality, that we’re all displaced. Right? Now that were all moved away from that. We now have that ability to really appreciate how important and vital space and place is to our learning capacities.

Jason: Well, thanks again for taking the time to chat Allison. I hope this has helped you and I think it will help others.

So as we are displaced and isolated from our normal learning environments, take this opportunity, alongside the new scheduling you must do, to consider the spaces you are using, whether big or small, and how you might make simple shifts in them (move to a new room, shift around some furniture piece for different classes, sit next to windows in different positions, etc..). The power of place can have a tremendous impact on your learning or lack thereof. Place matters. Geography matters.

Be safe and well.

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