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Shaping a Career

[Day, M. (2007).  Shaping a career in adult education.  In K. B. Armstrong, L. W Nabb,  & A. P. Czech (Eds.), North American adult educators: Phyllis M. Cunningham archive of quintessential autobiographies of the twenty-first century (pp. 87-91).  Chicago, IL: Discovery Association Publishing House.]

Shaping a Career in Adult Education

Michael Day, Professor of Adult Education, University of Wyoming

When I consider the central ideas, people, and places that helped shape my career in adult education many things come to mind. Highlights would include my work with the University of Maryland’s overseas undergraduate program during the early 1970s, my selection as a Kellogg Scholar in 1984 to participate in their first exchange program between North American and United Kingdom professors of adult education, my 1988 sabbatical leave to investigate distance education as conducted by the Open University at Milton Keynes, UK, and my early 1990s work with the Wyoming Adult Education Social Theatre Company. But, given space limitations, what follows generally focuses on my stay at the University of Wyoming and the two events that probably shaped my approach to adult education more than all the rest: graduate work at the University of Michigan and experiencing the University of Wyoming Mountain Folk School.

In 1982 I was hired by the College of Education at the University of Wyoming to guide their adult education graduate program. Graduate study in adult education began at UW in the early 1950s (initially called the Department of Adult Education Instruction) but in 1981 the department was eliminated and the program moved to the Department of Educational Administration. Faculty in my new host department could not have been more gracious. For the next three years I was the only adult education faculty member; but supportive individuals, in and outside the department, surrounded me. Twenty-three years have past and Wyoming has become home. The adult education graduate program at UW thrives (three adult education faculty and over fifty graduate students) and there are still lots of interesting projects to complete.

UW hired me, I believe, because of my training as a generalist. For that I have faculty at the University of Michigan to thank. During the late 1970s U of MI was one of the premier adult education graduate programs in the United States. I did not realize how prestigious a place it was until I arrived in the fall of 1977. Up to that point it was more the university itself that was promoted and colleagues knew little about graduate study in the field of adult education or even if such a field actually existed. Let me back up.

From 1971 to 1977, I lived in Wiesbaden, West Germany. While there I completed my bachelors degree through the European Division of the University of Maryland — in a few fields of study, the university provided undergraduate courses and bachelor degrees to members of the U.S. military, support personnel, and their families. After graduation, I was hired by U of MD to coordinate a fairly large adult education enterprise in Wiesbaden. It was during this time the world of adult education emerged as a viable field for graduate study and I began considering returning to the U.S. to pursue graduate study. Many U of MD instructors were familiar with the University of Michigan and encouraged me to apply there. I did and was accepted.

When we arrived in Ann Arbor in the fall of 1977, neither my wife nor I knew much about the university, its adult education graduate program, or living in the Midwest. With few resources, little debt, simple living arrangements, and an adventurous spirit, this soon became the best of times. Able to pursue studies full time I submersed myself in what the program, university and community had to offer. At that time the minimum coursework requirement for the PhD in Education at U of MI was sixty credit hours of course work beyond the bachelor’s degree: twenty credit hours in the field of study, an additional twenty credit hours in education foundation and support courses, and twenty credit hours in coursework outside education. Because of transfer credit, I only needed to complete twenty additional credit hours from the School of Education and twenty credit hours outside the school. I chose courses from the History of Art Department to fulfill the out-of-school requirement. My preparation as an adult education generalist received a major boost from this decision.

In my first semester at U of MI, the national Adult Education Association held its annual fall meeting in Detroit, just a forty-minute drive from Ann Arbor. I volunteered to assist with the conference. In doing so, I experienced first-hand some of the personalities who studied, promoted, and challenged adult education beliefs and practice. I also witnessed the respect shown U of MI faculty, especially toward professor emeritus Howard Yale McClusky. (Each semester Howard still taught a course at U of MI and I enrolled in whatever he offered.) As a post conference event, U of MI faculty organized a small select gathering of leaders in the adult education field on the Ann Arbor campus. Again, I was fortunate to attend and help record these sessions. By the end of my first semester in Michigan I had personally met some of the major U.S. leaders in field, including Cy Houle, Malcolm Knowles, and Alan Knox, as well as numerous international leaders such as John Lowe. I learned an actual field of adult education study existed, it was wrestling with numerous issues, and U of MI faculty had much to offer. Over the next few years I had the opportunity to meet and attend sessions with Paulo Freire, John Ohliger, Phyllis Cunningham, Bonaro Overstreet, Jonathan Kozol, Sharan Merriam, Michael Collins, and many others. Like a sponge, I recorded both visually and on audiocassette many of these encounters. To highlight the dynamism of the field, these materials were also shared with my Laramie students, as was the suggestion that perhaps one of the most recent dramatic movements in education was the adult education movement. In Ann Arbor, I also learned adult education had an interesting past.

This awareness led to one of the more memorable experiences I had at U of MI, an experience that greatly influenced my classroom approach to adult education in Laramie. In the summer of 1979, a group of graduate students approached Department Head Larry Berlin with a request. Having sampled a bit of history in a general adult education survey course, and somewhat fascinated by the evolution of adult education practice, we asked for an opportunity to more thoroughly study the roots of our new discipline. No course existed, therefore no academic credit could be offered, but Larry suggested we form a discussion group. Provided group members took the sessions seriously, read the assigned readings, and actively participated in discussions, Larry would lead the group. We agreed; books were chosen and ordered. Initially, we met for two hours twice a month, usually in Larry’s home. These discussions continued well after I finished my degree two years later.

By the time the book discussions begun, my adult education horizons had expanded dramatically. I experienced first-hand a seemingly dynamic field of study made up of colorful, approachable and interesting personalities. Supplementing these experiences was exposure to a new literature and research, to contemporary issues in need of attention, and to a seemingly endless assortment of adult education agencies and opportunities. My previous experience with adult education at the University of Maryland seemed a small piece in an ever-expanding tapestry. In addition, my studies in the History of Art Department were leading me toward a dissertation topic and perhaps a career within museum adult education. Then the book discussions started.

Under Larry’s tutelage, and along side a seemingly insatiable group of graduate students, new ideas unfolded. A variety of U.S. classics were examined through the lens of adult education. I recall reading works clearly related to adult education theory and practice, such as “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin,” “The Chautauqua Movement” by John Vincent,  “Hull House” by Jane Addams, and Eduard Lindeman’s The Meaning of Adult Education.” We also read works seemingly less focused on adult education such as, “The Federalist Papers,” and De Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America. We also read John Dewey. These were lively conversations punctuated by examination of our nation’s brief history and discourse about the purpose and significance of adult education. I left these discussions with great respect for both the progressive and liberal values that helped guide the adult education movement in the U.S. during the 1920s.

The general effect of the discussion group experience on shaping my adult education career was significant. First, I changed my dissertation topic from museum adult education to a content analysis of the “Journal of Adult Education.” The Journal, published by the American Association for Adult Education (AAAE), can be viewed as the mouthpiece of the early U.S. adult education movement. I also changed career aspirations. I now desired to share with graduate students in a university environment my enthusiasm for the underpinnings of current adult education practice. The University of Wyoming provided me the opportunity to do just that.

Since leaving Ann Arbor and our discussion group, I have been caught in a bit of a time warp. Both colleagues and students kid me about my reverence and admiration for John Dewey. I introduced two new courses at UW directly shaped by participation in the U of MI book discussion group: a teaching adults course that applies themes and values shaped during the first few decades of the twentieth century (with a modern twist), and a foundation course titled “The American Adult Education Movement.” In both course students read, discuss, and apply Deweyan concepts, but in the Movement course students also read and discuss works selected by Larry Berlin nearly twenty-five years ago. Integrated into these courses are connections to other disciplines such as history, philosophy, psychology, sociology and art.  Throughout these courses, as well as others, discussion often returns to values: to the ultimate purpose and significance of adult education practice

What are some of these values? As noted above, today these values might be viewed as progressive or liberal; they seemed to seep through the pores of early members of the AAAE such as Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Eduard Lindeman, Alvin Johnson, and Everett Dean Martin. Though these individuals might differ as to the social or individual focus of adult education, they seemed to agree that it was serious work, undertaken to add meaning to life and or to challenge and change social restraints and relationships. Often both intrinsically and extrinsically worthwhile, such education takes vision, effort, commitment and discipline.

Though I learned much from current and popular adult education theorists, such as Malcolm Knowles, K. Patricia Cross, Paulo Freire and Jack Mezirow, it was from Dewey I learned the most valuable lesson regarding teaching adult learners. Dewey cautions that three outcomes can occur when students (adults as well as children) undertake a learning objective and two of them are not good: 1) the past experience of students is successfully linked to new concepts, ideas, or ways of performing and growth occurs, expanding possibilities for future learning; 2) the past experience of students remain unconnected to the new learning objective resulting in no consequence; 3) the intersection of old experiences and new learning results in feelings of inadequacy that restrict and limit future learning. This lesson continues to guide my teaching, reminding me of the seriousness of my role as an adult educator. To minimize restricting possibilities for future learning, I am constantly challenged to build constructively upon the previous experience of students, their understandings as well as their behaviors.

Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s the pedagogic values I learned in Ann Arbor served me well as an adult educator. I found in the values of early members of the AAAE, in the adult education literature discussed with Larry, and in Dewey’s work the foundation for contemporary themes such as critical theory, perspective transformation, and issues of diversity, access and voice. But something was missing.

In the mid 1980s, providing both friendship and much needed support, Burt Sisco joined the UW faculty. During his stay at UW, Burt implemented a program I still strive to maintain: the UW Folk School in the Mountains. Burt shared my interest in the roots of adult education practice. He was especially interested in the 19th century Danish Folk School Movement as well twentieth century programs in the U.S., such as The Highlander Center, that shared similar characteristics. Burt came to me with a request in 1992 to organize a folk school type experience in the mountains above Centennial, WY, a thirty-minute drive from Laramie. He suggested we encourage our graduate students to organize a weeklong program during the summer. They did. Since then, for the most part, the program has been offered each year. Joining thirty participants the first year, I found something I had not expected.

The University of Wyoming possesses a rather rustic residence complex situated in the Medicine Bow National Forest; it is made up of a number of cabins, a bathhouse, and a main lodge. For nearly ten years, this is where the folk school was located. Generally the programs have a strong relationship building agenda to the topic as well as amongst graduate students and faculty. Sprinkled with numerous references to social change, the program’s focus the first year was the environment. Gradually, throughout the week, a kinship with nature evolved, resulting in a deepening regard for the natural world. I was awestruck by the beauty, diversity, complexity, drama and grandeur of the setting surrounding the residential program. I began taking nature seriously and behaved more humbly toward it.

I also realized something was missing from my preparation as an adult educator. The field of adult education seemed rather silent about connections between human beings and other species. Both the progressive and liberal values I adopted in Ann Arbor were products of a mindset focused primarily on the relationship between individuals and society. Missing was the acknowledgment of coexistence with other species. The place of human beings within nature was something I did not take away from previous studies. Increasingly, it is the interdependent connection human beings have to the natural world that occupies my attention. Humility, death, birth, struggle and courage are lessons the natural world shares with those willing to observe. We have the ability and resources to be good stewards of nature but sometimes lack opportunities to fully experience and appreciate nature.

By the end of the 1990s, I was spending more and more time in and near wilderness areas. I hiked and backpacked extensively. I began reading new authors: Aldo Leopold, Roderick Nash, E. O. Wilson, John Muir and Henry David Thoreau. My writings and presentations began incorporating rationales and tools for strengthening bonds with nature. The Mountain Folk School was moved to Yellowstone National Park and the program was redesigned to provide closer connections to wildlife and the natural landscape. I also became a more serious photographer of nature. All in all, I have become a nature enthusiast who can think of no better medium for conducting serious adult education than with nature as guide and constant companion.

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