by Kendra Besanger

This summer, for the third year in a row, ACT participated in the annual Graz International Summer School Seggau (GUSEGG)Each year in July, GUSEGG provides a unique opportunity for professors and students from around the world to explore new ideas and dive into challenging topics. It is intensive, personal, intimate, and distinct from a typical university setting. Students and professors learn together from early morning until late evening in a setting where critical thought and challenging conversations extend beyond the walls of the classroom.

The theme for 2018’s summer school, “Meditating and Mediating Change: State – Society – Religion”, explored “an engagement with state, society, and religion, in order to understand the dynamics and structures that govern us as individuals…” and ACT’s module on aging, communication and technology examined memory and aging.

In past years, we’ve documented ACT’s participation at GUSEGG through the perspective of ACT-sponsored students who have attended GUSEGG and ACT postdoctoral researchers who taught modules at the summer school. This year, we chatted with Dr. Kim Sawchuk about what it was like to teach ACT’s two-week module. In the following paragraphs Sawchuk shares some of her reflections on this year’s course. 

As educators and students, we can use opportunities at GUSEGG to guide students through engaging, meaningful, and transformative discussions.

Can you describe what it’s like to teach an intensive, two-week course to a truly global group of students?

Kim Sawchuk (KS): It is a challenge to offer a course that engages such a diverse group of students. The ACT module is a two-week learning experience for a group of young people who come from different cultural backgrounds, who speak different languages, and who come from a range of socio-economic backgrounds. We have students ranging in age from 20 to 40. They come from Iran, Catalonia, the Caribbean, Latin America, Czech Republic, Slovenia, among other places.

Some students are familiar with age studies, but most don’t know the field. And so the course must be accessible yet intellectually challenging to students at different levels and who come from a diversity of national contexts: this is what makes the GUSEGG experience so rich. There are students in the first year of their university career alongside PhD students who may be weeks away from finishing their dissertations. The ACT module is a unique opportunity for PhD students to learn with undergraduates. The PhDs quickly realize that they cannot easily resort to disciplinary jargon. Undergrads, conversely, have the opportunity to engage with ideas and issues with rigour. We all must learn how to communicate our ideas and our arguments to people who may have different cultural assumptions.

I am glad to have taught the course, in this context, more than once. I know how intense it’s going to be and I know, practically speaking, how much reading to give students. Less can be more!

Given the diversity in the classroom, how do you do to foster a mood of collaboration and trust from the beginning of the module through to the end.

KS: I try to create a mood of participation and collaboration in the classroom. There are many ways to do this, and I can speak to a few.

It is important to be aware that students come to GUSEGG with different experiences of how to interact in a classroom. Because university norms and expectations vary from country to country and culture to culture, there are different expectations around student participation. I run this class as a seminar where students are expected to do the readings, and participate and talk. Not every student is accustomed to this style. Some students come from very hierarchical, traditional classroom experiences, so it can take some time to foster exchange.

One simple way I loosen things up is by encouraging students to look at one another instead of looking at me when formulating their responses to my questions. It is incredibly difficult for them at first because they have developed habits. But this simple request exposes how dynamics of power are ingrained in  our comportment. It takes practice to undo these reflexes. Becoming aware of this and practicing it recalibrates the dynamic. I hope that students look at each other and talk to each other, rather than looking to me for tacit approval. 

When you’re in an intensive setting like GUSEGG, conflicts inevitably arise. You have to deal with this reality early on and guide students by equipping them with the tools that they need to deal with differences with passion and sensitivity. You may have to create limits and set up boundaries when the discussion strays into territory where students are not well-prepared. Some subjects are too complex to deal with authentically in the moment, without research or time for reflection.

Sometimes it’s better to put a subject to the side and give it time so we can return with a more informed position, and not just opinions. This is not about avoiding difficult topics. It is an acknowledgement that difficult topics, such as sexual assault, cannot simply be brought up casually or in an anecdotal fashion. Given the limits of time, I was very clear about establishing boundaries or bringing conversations to a close when it was important to do so.

One of the challenges of the summer school, and one of its signature features, is working with students from very different ideological backgrounds and perspectives. Having a group with such vastly different backgrounds, from countries who were recently at war with each other, is not always conducive to immediate dialogue. As educators and students, we can use opportunities at GUSEGG to guide students through engaging, meaningful, and transformative discussions. This is the ideal, but it isn’t always easy to do.

In addition to inviting critical and respectful conversations, how do you foster a mood of collaboration and trust that sustains through the full two weeks?

KS: Throughout the module, I emphasize the importance of attentive listening and the ethics of speech. This is a skill I want my students to hone throughout the two weeks and it’s a skill that helps us refine ideas together. On the first day of the course, I sent the students out two-by-two for a stroll and asked them to interview each other. They returned to the class and told one another’s story. This exercise sets the tone and requires them to listen, understand, and think about how we represent an another

We also created a zine together. It was the first time I’ve included such an exercise in the ACT module and it was fantastic. It captured elements of our critical and creative thinking, including our foray into Ros Jenning and Line Grenier’s memory tracks exercise, which uses song to explore memory and age. The memory tracks exercise and the zine gave us an opportunity to get to know one another.

We called our project “AZINE_AGING”. The point was not to create something perfect, but to materialize some of our classroom discussions into a tangible media format. 

Each student was invited to submit a contribution to the zine based on the course. Students could submit in the language of their choice, although most wrote in English. Setting up a writing process early in the course with a mere 750 word requirement gave quiet students a means to express their ideas in writing and/or  illustration. As a bonus, it was wonderful to have an actual material artefact – a souvenir – to take home at the end of the course. The students didn’t want to create a digital project – they wanted to create something material. 

Now that we’ve talked about the classroom space, can you describe how you and your students explored ideas related to age and aging? There are so many ways to explore this topic and I can imagine that it would be challenging to choose content for a module that lasts only two weeks

KS: This year, I used a lot of media and articles from the ACT community (see media list at bottom of this article). When twinned with the right readings, I found the media allowed students to access and understand what a cultural approach to aging, communications, and media studies contributes to age studies.

A cultural perspective emphasizes aging as an experience, a process tied to social and culture forces. It sees age not as a variable, but as a potential lens to interrogate the world. When we want to examine, critically, dominant discourses, such as active aging, or open up new territory such as aging and austerity, or queer agings, for example, it’s helpful to have media on hand that can prompt questions and present concepts in a way that texts cannot always do on their own.

In addition to the pieces of audio or visual media, I typically assigned one reading per class. We engaged in in-class discussion and then, at the end of the day, watched or listened to a piece of media that stimulated points that relevant to that day’s reading and to the next day’s content. In a course this intense, it is important to build bridges on a day-to-day basis. I was very happy with the arc of the course, which Line and I have developed for the past three years. I think the students benefitted  from the variety of learning materials in the module. Using media inspires the students to take up the challenge of  producing new and better representations on key issues – especially if they don’t like what they see or hear in the mainstream. It exemplifies, as well, the power of participatory media practices with older adults.

It’s clear that GUSEGG impacts students and professors in a deeply meaningful way. Which elements of your experience at GUSEGG would you like to transport with you when return to teaching at Concordia?

KS: The common project, the zine,  was special. Through all the projects ACT has done with our community and network members, we’ve learned that having a common project with a common set of goals can bring people together. We felt something similar when we created the zine. 

The format is incredibly germane to the theme of the summer school, mediation. In the class, we talked about memory, media and materiality, and used a number of papers from Stephen Katz’ new collection on this subject. The zine is a manifestation of some the central ideas in the course and Stephen’s book is about practices that connect past with the future in the present.

Memory is not only in our heads, it is embedded in the objects that we carry with us as we age. Memory-making is a collective process. Memories are often mediated and affected by the technologies for communication we have at our disposal. In fact, the images in the zine are really different if you look at the print copy and the online version! Finally, it is not only humans that age, but the world around us, including our treasured objects. My paper copy of AZINE is already worn and when I hold the paper copy in my hands, I remember each and every student..

Going back to the question about particular elements of the course that I would like to carry with me when I return to teaching – well, I enjoy the intensity of GUSEGG and I would like to teach a similar summer course at Concordia. The multi-tasking that students do in a regular semester means that their attention is everywhere and nowhere – students are often doing too much. At GUSEGG they concentrate on one primary subject.

We teach within such a short timeframe that we need to do things quite quickly. I learnt that what we make, collaboratively and in intense conditions,  doesn’t have to be perfect to be powerful. It is the will to experiment and the courage to take risks that can fuel the desire to keep learning. I will certainly take this forward with me into my future teaching.

Ageing, Communication, and Technologies GUSEGG Module 2018: Media List

*We’ve only listed ACT created or supported media here.

Dr. Kim Sawchuk is a Professor in the Department of Communication Studies and the Director of Ageing, Communication, Technologies. This year (2018) was the third year Sawchuk taught at GUSEGG. ACT has hosted an aging studies module at GUSEGG for four years and sends students, through scholarships, to the summer school