John: Travel courses can provide an opportunity to experience a different part of the world through the lens of a particular discipline. In this episode, we discuss the rich interdisciplinary learning opportunities that may occur when faculty and students from two different courses and disciplines travel together.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
Rebecca: Today our guest is Dr. Kathleen Blake, a bioarchaeologist, a forensic anthropologist, and an assistant professor in anthropology at the State University of New York at Oswego. Welcome Kat.
Kat: Thank you
John: Our teas today are:
Kat: I’ve got a ginger tea and a mug from the Czech Republic.
Rebecca: The perfect match for today. I’m drinking my English afternoon tea.
John: …and I’m drinking ginger peach black tea. We invited you here today to talk about your collaboration with Rebecca on an international travel experience for students. This collaboration started with your course “Dead but not Buried” with travel to Prague and Brno in 2017. Can you talk a little bit about this course?
Kat: Sure. This course came about because students were interested in bone churches, which are churches that are found all throughout Europe, but there’s one particular beautiful one in the Czech Republic. And I thought “How can I make this into a course, basically?” And so I was looking at to make it into an anthropological framework and the idea was to see how cultures interact with their dead, how they treat their dead and the different cultural aspects of living with the dead, in particular, if the dead are present and active in your culture, as they are in this case. And the class also examines the framework of the dead over time and burials over time, so we went as far back as Neanderthals up through modern times. So, it covered quite a wide range of different time periods.
John: How did this collaboration between the two of you get started?
Kat: I took the class the first time in 2017. And I went on my own. Rebecca and I had initially talked about doing it together. However, we weren’t able to.
Rebecca: Someone decided to have a baby. [LAUGHTER]
Kat: And so we decided that the second time around we would see if we can make this work, and in particular, I was looking for somebody outside of my area. I didn’t want someone in the social sciences, I wanted somebody outside of anthropology and outside the social sciences, and the more we got to talking, the more it seemed like a good fit.
Rebecca: So first, you started by showing me pictures of things that looked really cool, some interesting design things. So she clearly marketed at me, right? [LAUGHTER]
John: Including some dead things, right?
Rebecca: …including some dead things… that I found unusually interesting and got me enticed to figure out what this place was really about and started discovering and doing some research and finding out that Brno actually is quite a design hub… that I wasn’t aware of.
Kat: Through our discussions, I learned a lot more about art than I ever knew. And finding out that the Czech Republic in general is a really big design hub, right?
John: Could you tell us a little bit about how the collaboration worked in terms of the two different fields?
Kat: We used the existing structure through International Ed (both the Q3 and Q4 structure), but Rebecca was in the Q3 structure.
Rebecca: So, our Q3 and Q4 classes are a half a semester class that then would have travel either during spring break or in May at our institution. So, I taught a Q3 class but we didn’t travel in spring break. We traveled in May all together as a big group.
Kat: And I taught the Q4, which was from spring break until the end of the semester. And then we traveled together. And we tried to encourage the students to sign up for both classes. So, there was some overlap of students, although not all the students signed up for both classes.
Rebecca: And we did that so that students could have up to six credits for their experience, and it would provide interdisciplinary perspective on a place. And so my class focused on design specifically, and designers in the Czech Republic and art forms in the Czech Republic and the histories of that. And then, obviously, I didn’t deal with the dead at all, actually in my class. [LAUGHTER].
Kat: And then I taught my course as normal. And we kind of found there was a little bit of overlap that we didn’t realize there would be through the course.
Rebecca: We did have some assignments that were in common between the two classes. So, that it would help facilitate students making the connections between the course material because all the students ultimately were exposed to at least some of the course material for both courses, even if they weren’t enrolled in both courses because we all traveled as a group. So we were gone for 12 days, and through that time, we visited a number of different sites, some that were more anthropology focused, some that were more design and art focused. But all students went to all of those places. And then there was a couple of things that they could choose to do on their own or explore on their own. And so that worked out, I think, pretty well. And we had some really surprising experiences. For example, we were in one bone church and Kat had set up the history and understanding of the place but then I had a whole bunch of students come up to me and asked me about analyzing the design aspects of the spaces that we were in, which was really interesting. And I found it bizarre because I was learning about the space… It was the first time I had been in it and certainly didn’t feel like an expert… but students were asking me questions about it. But, then I also heard them talking to each other. So, the design students were asking the anthropology students about what they were seeing, like what the bones were, what parts of the body they were from, I was asking the students the same kinds of questions and then they were asking the science students and anthropology students were asking the design students about visual aspects that we were experiencing
John: For those in our audience who are not familiar with bone churches, could you provide a description of what these are?
Kat: The one main bone church that’s probably the most famous is in Kutná Hora in the Czech Republic. And this church was a church that had been consecrated and so it attracted a lot of burials, especially during the black plague. Later on, the graveyard became full and so they dug up all the bones and normally they would put them maybe underneath the church, but in this case in the 1800s, they decided to elaborately decorate the church with the bones creating chandeliers, swag, pyramids of bones, a coat of arms, all kinds of sculptures, so it was a way to elaborately decorate their actual church and they held church services in that location until about eight years ago.
John: Are there are some photos or photo albums that you guys have created that perhaps we could share with our listeners in the show notes.
Kat: Oh, definitely and the students came up with some really good ones, too.
Rebecca: We have a blog the students were contributing to. So, there was some research that happened in my class before we went. The students put together a research guide of contemporary sculptural work that we were going to go to and some building some architecture. But then they also did some reflections about some of the spaces that they had visited once we were there that were more related to Kat’s class.
Kat: And the design students were making comments about how beautiful the bones were… the natural structures, how symmetrical they were… just thinking of the body as more piece of art than it is a piece of anatomy in some way. So it was interesting to hear their comments.
John: You mentioned that students could get up to six hours of credit. Were the two quarter classes three credits or two credits? How did that work?
Kat: Each class was three credits. So a normal quarter class in our institution is three credits,
John: but then did they get additional credits for the travel component?
Kat: that part of the course so we would meet once a week for an hour and then the travel at the end is included in the course.
John: Okay, so that was required it wasn’t an optional component.
Rebecca: Correct. And then the benefit there for students is that it was two different courses, but the travel piece was identical. So, the actual physical going somewhere and the time required for that was only one time. But, there was different coursework for each course. Although we had one reflection journal that was the same across both courses.
John: How did students react to the experience,
Kat: I thought it was positive overall. We got some of the students who had never even heard of anthropology, all of a sudden interested in anthropology. And then we had some of the anthropology students who were interested in things like photography and art. And so were immensely interested in asking Rebecca a lot of questions about both.
Rebecca: I think we have a new photography minor as a result.
Kat: I think so. I think we also have a new art minor.
Rebecca: I think we might, yeah. [LAUGHTER] I think we found it really interesting. And you might think that the art students would band together or the anthropology students would band together, but that didn’t necessarily happen. Partly we were strategic about how we put room assignments and things together. But we had three first-year students that traveled with us that were from different majors. And they bonded really nicely together and were doing all kinds of things together.
Kat: And I think they’re still good friends to this day.
John: Now, we had an earlier podcast in which we talked to two people who had done several trips, and they talked about some of the logistical issues that came up. How did the logistics work with your trip?
Kat:I would say overall, the logistics worked really well. I think the most harried part was the air transport getting there. But once we hit the ground, we had things pretty well organized. We’re very well organized people. I think that’s part of it. We had everything organized down to a tee. And we built in a lot of free time, and that made a big difference.
John: And to be fair, the other people were pretty organized, but there were some airport delays and there were some students who disappeared for a while unexpectedly.
Kat: Thank goodness we didn’t have that.
Rebecca: Yeah. [LAUGHTER] In the past, I have had courses with travel that have had things that went awry. I had a flight that was detoured and had to let fuel out. And there were students sitting next to the window and could see the fuel spewing out. And that was kind of concerning for students who had never flown before. So, certainly I had some harried experiences as well. But, I think overall, not so much. The biggest struggle that we’ve had is one that I also had when I took students to India was actually heat. And then students, although we were trying to prepare them and reminding them about hydrating and things just had a really hard time dealing with warmer weather and walking around a lot.
Kat: And in much of Europe, in the Czech Republic, in particular, things are not air conditioned. So, I think that was an adjustment for many students. Part of the reason that I wanted another faculty along was because I think it’s good to have a second person there for support. In case something goes wrong, you’ve got that second person. I think it really makes a difference. When you’re planning a trip like that.
Rebecca: We had a couple students who weren’t feeling well. We had some sinus congestion stuff that seemed to be spreading amongst the group. There were students that weren’t feeling well but you know, we’re checking in… may have picked one of us to check in with It may not even be the faculty member that they knew the best initially.
Kat: I think that was the case, yes.
Rebecca: So, we were able to tag team that a little bit and help support those students when they weren’t feeling well.
Kat: And that’s the thing. The first time I traveled, I did have a student who was ill and I was busy at the hotel tending to her and I couldn’t be with the other students. So, I think having that backup is important
John: Kat, you had traveled before with this class. But, this time you did it with another faculty member. How was it different this time than in your past experience?
Rebecca: He really wants to know how big of a pain in the butt I am to collaborate with.
John: Oh no, that I know. [LAUGHTER] I know all of that. But, in general, how was the joint experience different from individual experiences?
Kat: Well, Rebecca’s probably the best travel buddy I could have picked, so that worked out really, really well. Not only just having a backup in case students need help but having someone that you can have a break with… the students can go off and do their thing and you can have, shall I say grown-up time on your own with another faculty member, I think, makes a huge difference. Before I was having dinner with the students… I was with them 24-7, and it just sometimes gets to be a little bit too much.
Rebecca: We also found that we were able to do some exploring and find some new potential options for students for future trips. So, we were quite busy. I think the students found it surprising how much walking we did after we walked with them all over the place. We did double the walking on a pretty regular basis.
Kat: Yeah, after dinner, we would just go explore. And we also use that to create challenges for the students. So we were using WhatsApp and we would send pictures of where we were, there was a certain art sculpture or something they were supposed to be finding. And we’d say, Hey, we found it. Have you guys found it yet and give them some challenges each day. So it was a good way for us to get out and about together but also to help students explore.
Rebecca: Yeah, to find different places, but also just to see the environments that they actually were in quite a bit because they were in some of those areas frequently, but not really paying attention to their surroundings as much as maybe we wanted them to. It became a little competitive. And I think there was one time that the students made it out to one of the sculptures that we had trouble finding.
Rebecca: they found it before us…
Rebecca: and then it…
Kat: …the Trabi at the German Embassy.
John: So, you had them do a little scavenger hunts after the regularly scheduled program?
Kat: Yes. And they weren’t hard or rigorous in any way. But we would give them challenges almost every day.
Rebecca: Although we started off with a gamified experience the first day. There are the signs above a lot of the buildings that were before there were numbers or a street sign with numbers, there were little pictures.
Kat: Most people weren’t literate. So…
Rebecca: Yeah. So, it’d be like the house of the Golden Bear or whatever. And so a lot of those exist still in the city of Prague. But there’s one street where there’s a lot of them. So we took them to that street the first day and told them how many that were on the street and gave them the challenge to find them and photograph and document them. But then that became a challenge to find more throughout the city during the week. So, Kat and I would find some like, “Oh, did you find this one yet?”
Kat: Yeah, we were often posting all different ones that they’d never seen, and then they wanted to know and we say, “Ah, but you have to go find it yourself.”
John: How did students do in a different language because I assume most of them were probably not fluent before the trip.
Kat: We tried, we had gotten Duolingo and required them to download it and to try to at least say a few phrases. But Czech is a very difficult language. Surprisingly, some of them picked up a few keywords. And I think they were all commenting that if they made even an attempt that the people were very kind to them, and then would switch to English pretty readily.
Rebecca: Yeah. And we had a particular level that we required students to meet in Duolingo for each of our classes. If you took only one class, it was at a certain level. And if you had taken both classes, it was at a slightly higher level. I’m not sure if we would have picked that same exact app next time, because some of the things that it prioritized in the early levels seemed really not that useful. So, I think we would need to explore a different option. I mean, it certainly had like “Hello,” “thank you,” “bathroom,” all those basic things. Yeah, there’s another Czech app through… I think it’s through the Czech embassy, that we also encouraged them to look up and that seemed to have more user friendly type phrases that would be helpful.
John: We have lots of classes that travel overseas, but not many of them involve this type of collaboration between two disciplines. What are the strengths of this model compared to a single disciplinary approach?
Kat: I would think one of the things is you’re drawing students that you would not normally draw… ones that had never even heard of anthropology were drawn to an anthropology class. I think it’s an opportunity to get students in a different discipline or even a different school that would not have been interested before. \
Rebecca: The classes that we offered were also at a higher level, they were like 300 level. So, at that level, I think students tend to navigate towards classes that there may be more familiar with the faculty. So, as the faculty teaching in the art class, I was then able to get those art students to register for Kat’s class and vice versa. We were able to encourage them to try something different. And we sat in on each class so I attended all of Kat’s classes and she attended all of mine and that also helped the students get familiar with both of us so that they would all be comfortable traveling with both of us. I think it enticed students because of the additional credits that they could get out of the experience. But, I think the real valuable part was traveling to all of those different locations with the mix of students and the mix of faculty that we had… because we had science, anthropology, and art…well, really design… design students.
Kat: …and the science students were geology, zoology, and biology. So, they were not all anthropology students. But, I think those anthropology students, and the bio and zoology all said that they learned so much more about art and design that they just weren’t even aware of before. So, I don’t think that would have happened otherwise. We’ve traveled to the same places, but Rebecca talked about the street with the signs. Well, I’ve taken students down that street before but we never noticed the signs. We never noticed the whole kind of street full of signs. So it brought a whole different level that was not there the first time.
Rebecca: And we ended up going to places that weren’t on your original itinerary either. Students expressed an interest in going to the anthropology museum when we were in Brno. And it was such a great connection between art and anthropology, we had no idea. But, in the first floor was an entire art exhibit. That was the whole focus. And then they had full to scale models of cave paintings up in an upper level that was really fascinating for art students who had seen pictures of these things like teeny tiny in their textbooks and things but kind of got to experience something, although it wasn’t like at the site, you could see him at scale and how it went on the contours of the wall, etc.
Kat: Yeah, they’ve made a 3D model of it. And even anthropology students who’ve seen this in pictures as well, to get a sense of the 3D nature of the cave drawings. And you could see how maybe a bison was created on a bump coming out of the wall. I think for all the students that brought a different dimension to it, whether they’re art or anthropology.
Rebecca: …and I think the students pushed us to do some different things too… like we decided, “Okay, we’re gonna figure out this public transportation in Brno” when we had originally thought about only walking and then gave everyone a challenge to take the train somewhere after we all took the train together somewhere.
Kat: We just gave them a day pass, and they used it. One whole group got lost, but they found their way back. And it was quite the adventure from what we heard. But, I think they all had a great time.
John: In upper-level classes, students are often in very narrow silos. And this got them out of those silos.
Kat: Yeah, definitely. And then we did something that I never in a million years would have done, and that was to go to a puppet show.
Rebecca: Which I thought was a terrible idea when we first sat down.
Kat: It was a terrible idea for the first five minutes of the puppet show. And then it turned into the most hilarious thing that we thought the students would hate and they absolutely loved.
Rebecca: Puppetry is an important art form in the Czech Republic. So, I thought it was important to expose students to this. So, I found a puppet show to go to but then we got there and it was this teeny tiny little theater, really hard chairs. And we sat down we’re like, “We’re only going to make them stay until like intermission right?”
Kat: Like, “Okay, they can leave as soon as we get to that intermission“ and I was surprised they all wanted to stay. They enjoyed it. They thought it was different, but interesting.
Rebecca: Well, because It was in Czech puppetry style, which has some interesting humor in it. But it was Don Giovanni… so in Italian.
Kat: So we couldn’t understand anything.
Rebecca: But, you could, actually, you totally could follow the storyline.
Kat: Sure. I don’t think we had any Italian speaking students to help us out, though.
Kat: And this form of puppetry, you see the puppeteers, which made it even more interesting.
Rebecca: Yeah, it was like a behind-the-scenes tour while you were seeing the show. So I think the students found that really interesting.
John: Are you thinking about doing similar trips in the future?
Kat: We are thinking next time maybe of going to places like Spain or Italy or Portugal, which all have different types of bone churches, so ossuaries or different places like that. Maybe we can take this and modify it for a different location.
Rebecca: And I know that you brought some of the reflections that students had at the end to demonstrate the impact that it had on students. Do you want to share what some of those were?
Kat: Well, one of the students had a really interesting reflection that covered both of our topics. This was an anthropology student. But, one of the things he said was that it was how objects were displayed that was important. And I thought you could talk about bones that way. But you could also talk about the artworks. And that that is how you interpreted them and interacted with them. And I guess the first time I went, I didn’t think about interacting as something we were doing in the bone churches or ossuaries, but we were interacting with that space.
Rebecca: We ended up having a lot of conversations about one of them had music playing, and how that impacted the experience of the space versus if it had been quiet. So we ended up talking about all of those as designed experiences, and not just the visuals or the display of the bone.
Kat: Right, interpreting it on multiple levels. And so that got across to the students because they all seem to comment on that. Other students said that they had no idea what Art Nouveau or Cubism was, or even Soviet architecture and now that they did, and that was from a Zoology and Anthropology major, but they learned quite a bit about that. The Soviet architecture was interestingly blended in with everything else. And I think that’s one of the things I love about Prague and the Czech Republic is that mix of old and new and the students commented on that quite a bit. Another student talked about death and grief in clarifying life. She had just recently lost her grandmother and said that no one in her family would talk about the grieving process. And so she found this class very helpful to help her clarify her thoughts about that whole event in her life.
Rebecca: That was a student that took book classes, right?
Rebecca: One of the challenges that we gave students was to go into a grocery store and purchase something and then to write about that experience. And we found that they were hesitant to do that on their own. We ended up having to physically take them to the grocery store and go in with them.
Kat: Yes, but where they did open up was the farmers’ market. And every day in Brno, there’s a farmers market in the square and they loved that and were able to navigate that easily. So I don’t know what the difference is. If it’s just less threatening. Those people were less likely to speak English… that makes it interesting, but they seemed to enjoy that more.
Rebecca: We had a number of students that were not from a city and so grocery stores in cities are much smaller. And I think that the students were weirded out by that.
Kat: One of the things that was important through this whole class was that we weren’t just in major cities, so Brno’s the second largest city, Prague’s the largest city in the Czech Republic, but we also went to very small cities. So, students got to see all types of communities within the Czech Republic and I think that was important as well.
Rebecca: And Brno is a second largest city, but not a tourist destination by any means.
Kat: Not a tourist destination, no. And Brno, one of the comments that the students were making was the fact that they could see the homeless people… they were out and about near the train station, things like that. In Prague, they didn’t see that. They were probably there, but they just didn’t see it.
Rebecca: One of the things that we also did in Brno and that we didn’t do in Prague, in part because it’s a smaller place, is that we took students to a university there. It happened to be a design school or art school, but we took students inside and met with a faculty member and got a tour of the spaces and saw some student work. And all the students across all the disciplines found that to be really interesting and useful. So, we noted that next time we take students abroad, we need to make sure that we have some sort of opportunity for them to at least see a university space. We had trouble scheduling interactions between students, our students and their students, because of exam schedules and things. They were in exam time and most of the students weren’t around.
Kat: Yeah, we were not able to schedule with the forensic anthropologist or any of the anthropology faculty for that reason. So that’s the only downside of going this time of year is that that’s typically exam time for European schools.
John: Could you tell us a little bit about your preparation for the trip? I think you went there in advance to investigate places.
Kat: Well, Rebecca had never been there. I have been to Prague several times, I had traveled personally. And before I put the class together, I did take advantage of some funding that was available through our international education program to go and scout out locations. And I had looked at other places I’d looked at to Austria, Austria also has some bone churches. But it just seemed like the Czech Republic was a good fit and to stay in a stronger, more confined area, then to broaden it out, and maybe weaken the impact of it. And I had been to Prague, but I had never been to Brno until I scouted it out, I had not been to all of the small towns that I ended up using the first time around. And so for three of the small towns, it was the first time I’d ever been there when I arrived with students. It worked out okay. I don’t know if I would recommend it, but it did work out okay.
Rebecca: I think in general, I wouldn’t normally do an international class unless I had been there before. But because Kat had gone in this case, it worked out fine. I ended up having to do a lot of extra research on art and design. And I connected with a faculty member in Brno actually about art and design just to make sure we were kind of taking students to the right kinds of places and things because I couldn’t quite get a full sense, especially because that particular city is not tourist oriented. And so some stuff wasn’t even available in English. So, I had a little trouble navigating some of that, but it was a lot easier in Prague.
Kat: And what do you think having gone there the first time, what were your impressions that you wouldn’t have had if you hadn’t gone as a group?
Rebecca: I think it’s always different when you actually visit a place when you have that kind of three dimensional experience of what that feels like, smells like, tastes like. I was very excited that we found some Czech food that was gluten free that I can eat. I really wanted to be able to eat traditional Czech food, but I’m a celiac, so I can’t eat traditional Czech food. So, we were able to find a couple places that took a little extra hike on our part to get to those places.
Kat: But interestingly enough, the Czech Republic, and Brno in particular, are vegan hubs. Who knew? So, we had a couple of vegans with us, we had no problems at all because there were a lot of choices.
Rebecca: We also did all of our logistics, Kat took care of hotel and some transport in country and I think it’s helpful sometimes when it’s the faculty member that does that if you have an orientation as to where things are and how close they are so you can schedule things appropriately.
John: What have you learned? Or what would you like to try that you weren’t able to do this time?
Kat: I know we want to have a hotel with air conditioning next time in Prague. That’s going to be high on the list.
Rebecca: Yeah, I think the students have just such a difficult time dealing with the heat that they need a place where they get a little reprieve, so that they can be more energetic throughout the day. If you can’t get good sleep because you’re too hot at night, then the day becomes challenging. I think we’ll incorporate more challenges from the start. We know what to do challenges on. We tried some out, we know which ones fall flat. [LAUGHTER]
Kat: But, most of them were well received. And so I think we definitely will include those from the first day.
Rebecca: We talked about a different language app… that also seems very important, man. We didn’t have the anthropology museum on the schedule initially, but we will definitely go back there. That was a really good experience.
Kat: We were pretty good about scheduling free time. But I think there were a couple of days that we made notes that we would want to expand the free time that the students had or switch things around the order of when we went to different places. And we did find out that most of the places we wanted to go to in Brno were closed on Monday. That became an issue because we were there on a Monday. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: We certainly talked about the possible benefits of combining the class and making it just one class that’s the full semester with the travel. But I think the flexibility of having him be two separate classes is really worthwhile and that we’re still able to give all of the students at least some interdisciplinary experience even if they only end up in one of the courses.
Kat: And we’re going to make it more explicit on International Ed’s website next time that the two classes are connected. That seemed to be absent.
Rebecca: So we also talked about we had to use so many stairs…
Kat: Yeah, and many were outside or very narrow. And so claustrophobia and fear of heights need to be mentioned in our warnings. I had disclosed about stairs, but I didn’t consider the claustrophobia or fear of heights. But, it was something it that was not on my radar. The other thing we were talking about doing differently was instead of using a tour guide at the castle to give them a scavenger hunt at the castle, and then just plan to meet back.
John: We always end our podcast with the question, what are you going to do next?
Kat: I think the next is to plan our next trip to the Czech Republic, but also consider other locations, potentially Spain or Portugal or Italy…
Rebecca: …and get those right on the schedule, right?
Kat: That’s right.
Rebecca: I’m on sabbatical studying accessibility, which was also something that we looked at a little bit while we were in the Czech Republic, because there were a lot of places that were very not accessible. [LAUGHTER]
John: Well, thank you. This was interesting. And it sounds like you’ve got some future interesting trips, just to plan.
Kat: Thank you very much for having me.
John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.
Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.