Teachers as Students: The Power of Experiential Learning in India’s Growing Cities
by Robin Kietlinski
“Only when we take a comprehensive and ecosystem approach to our thinking, can we bring about meaningful and sustainable development for all.”
—Dr. R. Balasubramaniam, Voices from the Grassroots
On a gorgeous, warm day in January, along with fifteen other professors from community colleges throughout the United States, I attended a poignant presentation by Dr. R. Balasubramaniam at the Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement’s headquarters in Mysore, India.
Dr. Balu, as he likes to be called, enlightened us by describing his decades of experience in carrying out grassroots sustainable development initiatives in southern India, and encouraged us to consider new narratives and approaches for thinking and teaching about sustainability. Sustainable human development, he explained, is not only about having resources available for the next generation (as Western resource-driven narratives often emphasize), but also should seek to expand and broaden human and social capital.
Using a whiteboard to draw a simple analogy of a monkey born under a little fruitless tree (signifying those born in poverty), Dr. Balu explained that growing “human capital” involves teaching people in all segments of society how to think and act differently. He called on us to focus not just on developing infrastructure, but – perhaps more importantly – to figure out new ways of developing people who are able to see the world as being interdependent, and who are mindful that they are part of a larger system with nature. A Sanskrit phrase, vasudaiva kutumbakam, or “the whole world is one family,” embodies this central concept.
While in India, we were privileged to meet and interact with many speakers who, like Dr. Balu, gave us new theoretical frameworks through which we could better understand issues of sustainable development in India, with many implications for the rest of the world. It was exciting to learn about these new frameworks, and they led me to consider how paradigms of sustainable urban development in Indian cities might work (or be adapted to work) in the Japanese cities where I carry out most of my research projects.
While I know that I will approach my research and my teaching with a new intellectual clarity after spending two weeks exploring the concept of sustainability from a multitude of new perspectives, there was another layer of learning that happened simultaneously with our lectures, discussions, and travel. Learning about India’s growing cities while actually experiencing them first-hand brought about a much deeper awareness than I could possibly have obtained by studying these issues from afar.
I’m a strong believer in the value of experiential learning, and had thought I already understood how important this concept is to educators. After all, I conduct research abroad, and frequently take my community college students on field trips to important cultural institutions in New York City, where our campus is located. Yet being a student again for two weeks in India, a place I had known and taught about solely through books, proved to be a powerful reminder of the power of first-hand experience when trying to understand and engage with a new culture.
Unexpectedly, some of my most salient and impactful moments in India had to do with the air quality. I am a runner, and set out on an early-morning run in Mysore, along with a fellow seminar participant. But after only five minutes, we could not run any farther, having inhaled a good deal of thick, smoggy air, and we needed to return to our hotel. Reading about air quality problems, studying index numbers, and looking at photos are useful, but simply don’t convey the same kind of impact as actually breathing that air oneself. One a more uplifting note, I had already been aware that India was an exceptionally diverse, varied, and multicultural nation. But being present in India, tasting the food, meeting the people, hearing the music and the languages, and climbing magnificent ancient structures in Jaipur, Delhi, and Agra in the north as well as Mysore and Bangalore in the south was enlightening and truly brought India to life. I fully appreciate the “continent” part of the “Indian sub-continent” in a way I could not have before.
I returned home with notebooks (yes, plural) full of ideas and information, books from which I will excerpt exciting new material for my world history course packs, and thousands of photographs to share with my students and colleagues as I tell them about the insights I gained during my faculty development seminar in India. Yet the most important thing I returned with from India was a much clearer understanding of how deep and meaningful experiential learning can be. The seminar enabled us to better understand the nuances of the complex global society in which we all live, and to become more deeply aware of the importance of becoming agents of change in our own country, and in our ecologically threatened world.
Robin Kietlinski is an associate professor of history at La Guardia Community College in Queens, New York. She was among the 16 participants in the seminar, “Exploring Urban Sustainability through India’s Cities,” an intensive capacity-building and curriculum development seminar held in India from January 2-18, 2019. A partnership between the Council of American Overseas Research Centers and the American Institute of Indian Studies, the seminar was intended for faculty at community colleges and minority-serving institutions, in order to promote the development of “internationalized” learning environments that both broaden their students’ cultural horizons and foster critical thinking, communication, and leadership skills for an increasingly interconnected world. It included visits to the cities of Jaipur, Mysore and Bangalore to study the various economic, cultural, social and environmental pressures confronting some of India’s most important emerging cities as more and more Indians migrate to urban areas in search of work and opportunity.
In addition to exploring the overlapping and cross-cutting challenges and opportunities created by India’s rapid urban development, participants gained first-hand experience—through specialist-led site visits and cultural excursions—of India’s fascinating history, culture, languages, religions, and contemporary society that can be harnessed to address urban sustainability. Throughout the program, participants learned from and had the opportunity to partner with local university faculty engaged in international collaboration and exchanges.