An Interdisciplinary Experience in New Orleans

By By Julia Stone ’16

OWU classes in three departments (English, History, and Music) traveled to New Orleans together for a unique interdisciplinary learning experience.

Three Ohio Wesleyan Travel-Learning Courses Venture to Louisiana

Music, literature, and history.

It was a travel-learning triple play when Ohio Wesleyan University students in three OWU Connection courses traveled to Southern Louisiana for an interdisciplinary learning experience that included visiting Breaux Bridge on the Bayou Teche and staying in New Orleans’ famous French Quarter.  

During the spring-break experience, each class participated in separate, discipline-related activities but also completed activities together, including dancing events, a Second Line parade, drumming and dancing in Congo Square, a riverboat tour to the Chalmette Battlefield National Park, and touring plantations and an Acadian Historical Village.

The students also conducted group research. They were divided into interdisciplinary groups in order to create a profile of a particular block or blocks in the French Quarter, the Marigny, or the Treme. Each three-person team, consisting of one student from each Travel-Learning Course (history, English, and music), will present information at the upcoming “A Stroll Through New Orleans” event from 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. April 21 on the third floor of Merrick Hall.

OWU students and faculty members Lynette Carpenter and Jeff Nilan look for alligators during a recent travel-learning trip to Southern Louisiana. (Photo courtesy of Lynette Carpenter) 

“My group is researching the French Market and the Wharf,” says Rachael Nicholas ’16. “I am studying the historical diversity of New Orleans and how the French Market was a microcosm for those unique demographics.”

Nicholas, a double major in history and classics with a minor in ancient studies, took “New Orleans and its Environs in U.S. History,” taught by Barbara Terzian, Ph.D., associate professor of history.

The class toured Treme, the Central Business District, Louis Armstrong Park, and Chalmette Battlefield. This group also visited several museums, including the Backstreet Cultural Museum, the House of Dance and Feathers, and the New Orleans Archives.

As a student of antebellum America, slave systems, and abolitionism, Nicholas especially enjoyed touring two plantations: Evergreen Plantation and the Whitney Plantation. The latter is a museum about slavery that exhibited testimonies from the enslaved.

“The Whitney Plantation did not shy away from its subject matter in the least,” Nicholas says. “The tour was impactful for that reason. Before I went on the tour, I read responses from prior attendees. Many echoed themes from #BlackLivesMatter, which, in my opinion, demonstrated how effective and important the museum was. The past lives in the present.”

English professor Lynette Carpenter, Ph.D., taught “Reading and Writing about Place: Southern Louisiana.” Her class took a tour of the country used by James Lee Burke in his Dave Robicheaux novels, specifically Creole Belle.

It was important to Carpenter that her students learn to compare literary accounts to reality in order to appreciate how writing can transform the ordinary into the extraordinary.

“I believe that the more you know about, the better writer you'll be,” Carpenter says. “Seeing the apartment where Faulkner launched his literary career or where Williams wrote ‘Streetcar’ is cool, perhaps even inspirational, but what I really wanted for them was the opportunity to do what Faulkner and Williams did – hang out, keep their eyes and ears open, and absorb the culture.”

Izzy Sommerdorf ’18, a zoology major with a possible minor in English, says her studies in Carpenter’s course beforehand enhanced her travel-learning experience. “It made me appreciate the cultures that have been born out of New Orleans,” she says.

Sommerdorf also enjoyed the interdisciplinary nature of having all three classes on the trip. “It was a great opportunity to learn more about New Orleans in ways that our class hadn’t touched base on,” she says.

Professor of music Nancy Gamso, D.M.A., taught the course, “Music on the Mississippi: Exploring River Road Folk Music Traditions.”

“Just before we left, each student researched a current band playing in Louisiana that we would likely get to hear and meet on our trip,” Gamso says. “This class is also a band, so at least 45 minutes a class session was spent doing what bands do – listening, playing, arranging, improvising to standard tunes of that style.”

The class band, the Gator Heads, includes Addy Dyrek ’16, percussion; Brooke Waite ’16, vocals and percussion; ZoAnn Schutte ’16, clarinet; Jake Simpson ’17, guitar; James Ormerod ’17, vocals and bass; and Zack Worley ’18, soprano sax.

Simpson, a music major and intended philosophy minor, says the Gator Heads were practicing in the hotel room all week. They also had a master class with a local musician. During their travels, the music students attended concerts, spoke to musicians, visited music museums, and performed at Buffa’s in New Orleans.

“The experience of playing in a New Orleans jazz club was unreal, and kind of felt like the culmination of our trip,” Simpson says.

“My favorite part of the trip was talking to musicians after seeing them play,” he continues. “My class got some fantastic advice from people who have been playing and touring for as long as we've been alive, and in some cases twice as long.”

Before traveling, the music class studied a wide-angle view of American folk music and the culture, history, musicians, and musical styles of Louisiana.

OWU students dance at Congo Square on their March travel-learning trip to Southern Louisiana. (Photo courtesy of Lynette Carpenter) 

“It was really helpful to learn how to play and listen to the styles of music we'd be hearing before we were actually there,” Simpson says. “It put the music in a context that I wouldn’t have otherwise had.”

Simpson also liked interacting with students from the other courses. “It was interesting to hear other perspectives, and to see people approaching the same experiences from different academic angles,” he says.

Other than the challenge of an exhaustingly busy schedule, Gamso says she enjoyed the travel experience.

“I had not expected to get so much gratification out of seeing our OWU music students buzz with enthusiasm over the live music culture in Southern Louisiana,” Gamso says. “It was pretty funny to see them act like little kids at Christmas. I’ve also been studying this music for some time alone in my own research bubble. What a thrill to have a whole crowd from Ohio enjoy it with me.”