Framing a journalling practice

We decided that an important component of this trip to Rome–from both a pedagogical and a Study Abroad perspective–would be encouraging the students to keep a journal during the trip. Journalling is, of course, a well-established tool in college environments, both in domestic and international contexts. When the trip was originally conceived, it was to be run as part of our institution’s summer program, and thus incorporate a week of preparatory study and potentially contribute to life in the college afterwards. We envisioned the journals playing a huge part in this, first as travel guides the students would make for themselves, and later as records or objects that could be displayed, shared, or archived for the larger college population. Although these expectations were reduced when we failed to make the cut for summer programming, we were committed to keeping the journals a part of the trip itself, in the hope of stimulating intellectual and spiritual gains over the course of our stay in Rome.

What follows is a slightly edited version of the somewhat whimsical email I sent the students before our departure. This was intended as both a reminder to bring a journal, and as a first attempt at establishing the form and goals of the journalling practice we would require.

Research has shown that the most important component of a meaningful study abroad experience is reflection, and we hope to use a daily journalling practice to aid you in reflecting on your time in Rome, your encounters with ancient materials, and your interactions with a foreign city and its population. We will assign prompts at the end of each day, and will build on your responses to facilitate an ongoing discussion within the group about what we are learning on the trip, both academically and personally. Journal-writing is meant to be loose and unstructured, and our practice will serve as an adjunct to and preparation for more important processes of immersion, perception, and growth.

A happy analogy for the experience we want you to have in Rome presented itself to me in the form of a book I own entitled Tasting Beer. As in other gastronomic contexts, the operative verb “tasting” is here employed in opposition to “drinking,” the implication being that tasting involves a different set of implications and practices than does simple consumption. It occurred to me that one way of summing up a core tension in study abroad is that its proponents desire deeply for students to “taste” their experience, and find all too often that they simply “eat” or “drink” it.

Think about it: when was the last time you truly “tasted” something, rather than just consumed it? Do you think about food as you chew it? Do you notice what liquids “feel” like when they pass down your throat? Books like Tasting Beer offer methodologies and rubrics to appreciate their subjects more fully. In this case, the book will draw your attention to the color of the beer, the number and size of the bubbles, the aromas it gives off—and all this before you even put it in your mouth! It subdivides the various possible tastes of beer, and offers you analogous taste experiences so you can better train your senses to pick up the presence of those tastes.

I think this analogy is very appropriate for our upcoming trip. Lisl, David, and I can try to show you what to look for in Rome, whether it be the modern city or its ancient monuments. We can draw your attention to various sights and sounds, and we can give you readings and context to help you frame your experience. As a group, we can build progressively from each encounter—as a taster does from beer to beer—to build a more robust framework for experiencing the city, sip by sip. And by sharing notes amongst ourselves, we can help each other to appreciate new dimensions or different angles on our experiences; just like it might take someone else to draw your attention to the notes of grapefruit in a beer, I strongly suspect that each of you will notice things about monuments and their contexts that none of the rest of us do.

But, just like with beer, no-one can dictate to you what you will or should like. Other people can point out what is worth appreciating, but we all have our own palates and will decide what we like or what we don’t like for ourselves. Ideally, you can come to understand your own tastes that much better by sharing them with others.

Since we are invested in this being a meaningful experience for you (and because we’re also obsessed with Italian food and drink), we will do everything in our power to help you “taste” Rome, and the journalling will be an important part of that effort. I look forward to learning as much from your experience with Rome as you do from mine!

One of the reasons I was so taken with the book is that it pays some lip service to cognitive science, and specifically how experience is a combination of perception and memory (I may update this at some later date to include a quote or two from the book). As I understand it, this is precisely the role of journalling: to establish interventions in the formation of memory, and channel perception in meaningful and creative ways.

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