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Academics, adventure and the Appalachian Trail

A JMU Honors Seminar challenges students physically, emotionally and academically

Mat Cloak ('10) checks out the scenic view along the Appalachian Trail.

Mat Cloak ('10) checks out the scenic view along the Appalachian Trail.

An academic adventure

"It is extremely rare to be able to teach a class that offers tremendous academic freedom in an adventurous setting — and to be able to combine that freedom and adventure with serious research expectations and academic rigor is exciting," says Kate Kessler, a professor in the JMU School of Writing, Rhetoric and Technical Communication. Kessler did just that with Honors Seminar 302: A Taste of the Appalachian Trail. "My course syllabus interwove multiple disciplines — economics, geography, history, sociology and psychology. The course fostered tremendous growth in my students — and in me," she says.

Kessler's students — all part of the JMU Honors Program — were able to experience a combination of seminar and geography when they studied and lived on part of the Appalachian Trail. Kessler explains, "The word 'seminar' refers to academic instruction involving a small group of students engaged in special study and original research under the direction of an experienced teacher. Seminars often employ Socratic dialogue, an instructional method where the teacher functions as facilitator of independent learning rather than as dispenser of homogeneous knowledge. The seemingly unrelated word "geography" refers to the study of our Earth — its lands, features and inhabitants."

Steven Irons ('10) says the course put theory into practice

Steven Irons ('10) says, "This hiking seminar was certainly unique in course content. Our texts consisted of original Appalachian Trail documents from the time the Trail was constructed to current books about flora and fauna common along the Trail. It was rewarding to experience first-hand the things we read about. As we hiked areas described in our texts, we were able to actually observe those very plants and animals. We definitely put theory into practice."

In JMU's backyard

The JMU honors seminar, A Taste of the Appalachian Trail, engaged students in experiential and multidisciplinary approaches to learn about the national park right in Harrisonburg's backyard. The students hiked and camped on nearly 70 miles of the Trail around the Shenandoah National Park.

Students conduct independent research

"I challenged each of my honors students to identify an area of interest relating to the Appalachian Trail and to pursue it as independent research," Kessler explains. Steven Irons ('10) video-taped much of the Trail's flora and created an eco-film, which premiered at JMU's Eco-Adventure Film Festival last fall. Sarah Lott studied radiation-sensitive Spiderworts that the Park Service plants as radiation heralds. Alex Haney ('10) studied the history of Big Meadows and Loft Mountain. Meagan Clark ('10) interviewed hikers in an ethnographic study about hiking motivation. Lisa Corey ('10) researched folk music indigenous to the Blue Ridge Appalachians. "The students regrouped last fall and presented their research to the Sierra Club," Kessler says.

A defining and enduring experience

"As a testimony to how much JMU students enjoyed their trail seminar experience, several of them went hiking during this year's Spring Break," says Kessler. "Many have also shared their seminar and other hiking experiences with me."

isa Corey ('10) and Sarah Lott ('10) take a rest along the Trail.

Lisa Corey ('10) and Sarah Lott ('10) take a rest along the Trail. Lott says, "This kind of experiential learning had a huge impact on me. Dr. Kessler's guidance and encouragement allowed a group of college students, most of whom had never even hiked, let alone backpacked, to hike nearly two-thirds of the Shenandoah National Park. Through a combination of experiential and reflective learning, we all found something about the Appalachian Trail that fascinated us. We wanted to savor every step."

Clark says, "Our honors seminar created a great balance among freedom of creative exploration, supervised learning and bonding with other students. Dr. Kessler made sure all of us were engaging with the Trail in some way, and usually in a very fun way. We cooked together, put up tents together, huddled in rainstorms together … we truly bonded and learned, together."

Sarah Lott ('10) says, "The biggest impact of this honors seminar was that each of us found a new appreciation and respect for nature and for fellow hikers. Dr. Kessler encouraged us to discover what the Trail meant to us individually. It made such a positive impression on me that I plan to thru-hike the entire Appalachian Trail after graduation."

Learn more about Kessler's course at www.jmu.edu/international/abroad/jmu_honors_app_trail/index.shtml.

About the professor
Kate Kessler won the 2010 Provost Award for Excellence in Honors Teaching. She also teaches civic literacy in her first-year composition course to encourage students to take positive action within their communities. The course includes three writing assignments, the largest of which is a final public proposal. It allows students to use skills they learn throughout the semester to draft a proposal in hopes of evoking change. Student proposals have resulted in positive changes in the Harrisonburg area, including the opening of community centers and the implementation of flashing lights on pedestrian pathways.