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New course had students brave the wilderness

TAMPA, Fla. -- University of South Florida visiting instructor Sara Dykins Callahan risked the backlash of separating students from their phones for a full 10 days.

Her course, “American Wilderness” -- offered in two sections this summer -- wouldn’t have its full impact if technology was involved. So, phones were out during their trip to Yosemite National Park.

“Instead of phones they kept small journals of their reflections and engagements,” she said.

Callahan, who teaches in the Department of Humanities and Cultural Studies, points out that for many students, most of the 50 states are as unfamiliar as the world’s other continents and that getting to know more about their own country can be as broadening as crossing the borders to the north and south and crossing the oceans.

“I believe that along with study abroad, students in American studies should be able to learn through immersive experiences in the United States,” Callahan said. “The focus of this pilot course was to introduce students to the experience of tourism through a critical-experiential lens.”

This American Expedition course is the first of a new pilot program, Study-on-Location, which is unique to USF.

“There are very few American studies or cultural studies programs that have study-on-location in the U.S. options, so we are on the cutting-edge,” she said. “I think this is an excellent pilot program that clearly positions our American Studies program as contributing to the new university initiatives of globalization, sustainability, experiential learning, and student success.”

And so it was off to Yosemite National Park.

According to, the Wilderness Act of 1964 established 54 not-to-be-cultivated areas, 9.1 million acres, in 13 states. That has grown to 757 wilderness areas and more than 109 million acres, with Alaska contributing more than half of that total. Even so, protected wilderness only accounts for about 5 percent of the entire United States. That’s an area about the size of California. And wild lands are becoming increasingly scarce.

An American treasure, Yosemite National Park’s 1,200 square miles contain deep valleys, enormous meadows, ancient sequoias and is best known for its waterfalls. It is one of the first wilderness parks established in the United States, in 1890, and was officially designated wilderness in 1984. It’s considered among the first and best of them all.

Without their phones and laptops, Callahan said she expected it wouldn’t be easy for her students. Instead they had to focus on “how meaning is created in the interactions between individuals, social and cultural institutions and the physical environment.”

“We were really cut off from electronic civilization,” she said. “I did worry a bit about the students having withdrawal symptoms and going all Lord of the Flies on me.”

But she didn’t have to worry, if Martin Davis’ response speaks for most of the group. As it was for the others, this was his first visit to Yosemite and he said, “the beauty of the place blew me away. The panoramic views were way more beautiful than I expected.”

“I mean, as soon as you round the corner coming down into the Yosemite Valley, it's like BAM, high waterfalls, huge craggy granite peaks, wildlife everywhere, and of course, the goliath Half Dome that looms over the place,” Davis said. “The place was just about the most beautiful place I've ever seen, and I've traveled a lot and seen a lot in my lifetime.”

The high altitude presented a challenge for some of the students.

“The air was very thin and it made it hard to breathe,” said Daley Cardwell, a junior majoring in psychology. “I personally had difficulty with heights on our first big hike. In the beginning I was terrified and had to move very slowly on some trails. After our hike to Vernal Fall I got used to the steepness of the mountain trails and was able to move with much more confidence.”

There was an academic side as well.

“We learned about the tourist industry in America and how people interact with these natural habitats,” Cardwell said. “It is very important to our country to make the natural beauty of national parks available to everybody but it is also crucial to these environments that we keep them as untouched as possible. We also learned a lot about the plants and animals and survival skills.”

Though Davis had a little difficulty with the time difference, the experience made up for it.

?“I learned a lot, especially about the history of Yosemite and Kings Canyon,” Davis said. “We visited Mariposa Grove, where Galen Clark once lived to watch over the Sequoia trees. He was deemed the protector of Yosemite at one time. We also visited Muir Rock, which was a treat because I am a John Muir fan and have read quite a bit about him and his travels. I experienced what Muir, Thoreau, Whitman, and all of the other naturalists had experienced in the wild. Every time we went hiking in the back country, I felt at home. There was absolutely no stress, just pure freedom and beauty. Nature has a way of fixing things.” ?

Davis had no problems doing without technology.

“I've spent a lot of time in the mountains and woods, so the lack of technology on our trip was a good thing for me,” Davis said. “No technology means a better experience in the wild. Writing a journal was pretty fun. In fact, I through-hiked the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine in 2008, and I wrote in a journal every day while on that journey. This trip reminded me of that. Being in the wild helps to clear the mind and makes it much easier to write about things. The journals also help to remember about past memories and experiences. I still find myself referring to my journal every now and then.”

Cardwell agreed.

“The limited access to internet and cell phone service was a relief because I didn't have to worry about checking my email and my phone every day,” he said. “It was nice to live in the moment without distractions. The journal was a great way to keep records of what we learned and organize the information. It was also great to get everything down while it was still fresh in our minds.”

From their professor’s perspective, everything about the experience had the desired effect.

"These journals chronicled everything from the minutia of their daily routines, to personal interactions with other students, the homesickness many students were feeling, and their critical perspectives on the geography of the parks, the administration of the parks, and other tourists,” Callahan said. “Many of the students focused on a question posed by Ranger Kris Hutchinson: ‘How do we continue to protect the delicate ecosystem of Yosemite from the park's increasing popularity with domestic and international tourists?’ It's a tricky question with which the students continue to grapple, because Yosemite, like all national parks, is a people's park."

Callahan, who also taught a pilot course on “The Ethics of Food Production,” said next summer’s adventure will be in Alaska.


Filed under:Arts and Sciences Humanities and Cultural Studies    
Author: Barbara Melendez