Into the Desert with BCLA’s Engaged Learning

What does it mean to “think with the desert?” This is the central and recurring question at the heart of the Interdisciplinary English and Theological Studies course, “Into the Desert,” that was offered during the Spring 2018 semester. A strange question admittedly. But one that, over time, begins to make more sense and bear unexpected fruit for the students who undertake this journey. Not least when the students eventually depart Los Angeles for the remote Eastern Mojave desert for a three day “desert practicum.” The thinking that has been undertaken all semester in response to texts and films and shared class conversation takes a sudden embodied turn and becomes vividly (and sometimes frighteningly) three dimensional: huge granite boulder fields, creosote, cholla, hawks circling overhead on the thermals, the song of desert wrens rising and falling on the wind. And (far beyond cell phone range) the vast silence. Engaged learning where the desert becomes the teacher.

Professor and Chair of Theological Studies Douglas Christie and Professor of English Rubén Martínez first developed this course for spring semester, 2011 in an effort to bring their shared love of the desert (and their own engagement with the rich body of literary, social, political and theological commentary upon it) to students. But first they had to think their way together into the subject and what their respective disciplinary responses might be. Martínez had long been thinking and writing about the social, political, economic realities of the borderlands of the Southwest, paying particular attention to the treacherous desert journey of migrants crossing from Mexico to the United States. Christie had spent many years thinking about the ancient Christian monastic communities rooted in the Egyptian, Judean and Syrian deserts. A dialogue and deepening friendship between them opened up unexpected spaces of commonality as well as a recognition that reflection on the differences could also be productive.

From the beginning, there has been an effort to expose students to the most compelling and demanding thinking and writing about the desert. Literary-philosophical reflections — Aldous Huxley (“The Desert”), Mary Austin (Land of Little Rain), J.M.G. Le Clezio (Desert), Anna Castillo (The Guardians), Leslie Marmon Silko (Ceremony), Christopher Isherwood (A Single Man), Han Kang (The Vegetarian), Mark Salzman (Lying Awake), have always figured importantly into the work of the course. So have texts arising from the Christian mystical tradition: The Sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, John of the Cross’s The Dark Night of the Soul, Meister Eckhart’s Sermons, Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle, Thomas Merton’s Zen and the Birds of Appetite. Also films: Into Great Silence; Nostalgia de la Luz; The Three Burials of Melquiades Estradada. And a range of critical, theoretical reflections on silence, emptiness, the borderlands, and the ecology of the desert.

Students work to make sense of all this material through weekly written reflections, larger research projects and by engaging one another honestly and seriously in conversation. Meditation practice has become an increasingly important part of the common work of the class. Brief (and always optional) meditation exercises often serve as the point of departure for each session, creating space for silence and stillness within the larger project of thinking and reflection. Also crucial are the personal essays. Over the course of the semester, students write (and read aloud to the class) a short essay on what it has meant for them to “enter the desert.” Often these essays are harrowing—students are remarkably open and courageous in reflecting on the ways suffering and loss can lead to a fundamental rethinking of their identity. It also reveals to the students how widely shared such experience can be. A sense of community begins to emerge.

And this deepens when we venture together into the desert. Students gather themselves into committees (housing, cooking, latrine) to organize and plan for all the elements that will comprise our common life together for three days. And then we depart Los Angeles in a little caravan of four or five vehicles for the Granite Mountains in the Eastern Mojave National Preserve. Often there is high level of anxiety among some of our students. Some have never been camping before. Will there be snakes? How will I go to the bathroom ‘out in the open?’ etc. There is little we can do to allay these anxieties. But they mostly subside as we embark upon our journey.

Our itinerary takes us North on I-15 to Baker and then south into the Eastern Mojave National Preserve to a remote and beautiful place in the Granite Mountains where we camp for the next two nights. It is not easy to describe what happens during our three-day journey. Often, not much of anything ‘happens.’ That is part why we go: to allow ourselves to shed our agendas (and compulsions to be productive) and enter into the silence and stillness of the desert. To feel its stark beauty. To breathe more deeply. To regard one another care and attention. How do we spend our time? Climbing boulders, sitting and thinking, cooking and eating with each other, wandering out into and up onto the massive Kelso Dunes. Considering together the ecology of this desert landscape, the crisis of immigration on the border, how to read the night sky. Talking honestly with one another about things that seemingly can only emerge with sufficient time and space. And trust. Kindling intimacy.

It is a profound kind of learning, although we are never quite sure how the learning that happens ‘maps’ onto our stated learning outcomes. It often seems to exceed them.

Toward the end of the semester, we asked the students, again, what it had meant for them to “think with the desert.” The responses were remarkably varied. But a common element in many of the responses was the sense that the desert itself (and the work of thinking with the desert) had helped them to push back certain limitations in the way they framed their understanding of themselves and the world. The engaged character of the learning had much to do with this.

Three student comments provide a glimpse into the impact of this particular experiment in engaged learning.

One student reflected: “For me, thinking with the desert has meant a complete transformation in the way that I approach everything that I do. Since the beginning of this course, and especially since our trip to the desert, I feel more present, more aware of my place in the world. Thinking with the desert means being free in the way that I think and act. I feel more free to be myself, without the constraints of the masks that I have accumulated in my short time on this earth. This change that I feel in myself has impacted how I view and approach other people. I feel myself trying to be more attentive, more compassionate and more understanding in the interactions that I have with others. Ultimately, thinking with the desert has challenged me to be a better version of myself — the version of myself that is most authentic and free of the societal pressures that are placed on us.”

Another student reflected, “The desert taught me that there are certain things that I won’t ever truly be able to make sense of; perhaps some things are better left ineffable. I have been learning to let go, to be okay with not fully understanding, and to embrace the unexpected.”

And finally there is this comment: “In my four years of attending LMU, I have only taken two other classes that completely shook the ground underneath my feet like this one did. . . To no surprise, all three were ones that focused on social change through literature intended to educate the mind. Thinking with the desert is one of these classes that has forced me to become, for lack of a better word, educated.” `

Engaged Learning (EL) courses at LMU, such as “Into the Desert,” use the world as a classroom. Some courses include off-site service, field research, and international travel. Students are required to take one EL course in order to graduate, and luckily LMU offers interesting options each semester. Engaged Learning at LMU provides an opportunity for students to gain a firsthand understanding of social, political, and spiritual matters beyond the bluff.