If Lee Carleton's students want to ask him a question about something they discussed in class, they don't check their syllabus for his office hours. They're more likely to sit down with him over coffee or chat with him at a barbeque.
"I've always been a big proponent of faculty/student interaction," said Carleton, an instructor in the English department. "I know I can engage my students a lot better in the classroom after we have gotten to know each other in a more relaxed setting."
Earth Lodge, formerly known as the Outdoor House, came about in 2005 after a student project proposing living and learning communities caught the attention of the University's administration.
Richmond joined universities across the country that were moving toward offering more integrated opportunities for students to live and learn together in shared communities, and Earth Lodge was established in a house on the edge of campus. About 20 students signed up for the program and moved in, with Carleton at the program's helm.
To join the community, in addition to living in the house, all students enrolled in Carleton's literature course "Natural Reflections in Fiction and Nonfiction." The class focused on humankind's place on the Earth and discussed the environment in relation to technology, art, and media.
Students explored a range of attitudes toward the environment through the study of literature and through a variety of gatherings outside of class. Readings included novels and creative nonfiction like Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild. The reading list was specifically designed to help students understand how people's ideas about the Earth affect literature. Just as important as the readings, however, were the trips.
"It's more natural, in my opinion, to learn by doing and to give intellectual conversation more dimensions by taking it outside the classroom," Carleton said.
Students in Earth Lodge are often invited to Carleton's house, located close to campus, for meals, cookouts, and bonfires. Other gatherings include trips to the James River, a few camping trips, and one long overnight. These outdoor experiences make Earth Lodge more than just a residence hall or a class, but a real community.
This kind of class, not only interdisciplinary in nature, but also combining all aspects of student life (residential, social, and academic) is the perfect forum for introducing students to topics that they might otherwise not encounter in any depth as undergraduates. The subject matter of the class lends itself to many disciplines, making it a good fit for students regardless of major.
"Interdisciplinary classes play such a key role in the School of Arts & Sciences. In Earth Lodge, students can deepen their exploration through continuing discussions with me and their classmates long after class is out," said Carleton. "It's been great, for example, to give science students a chance to become passionate about literature in a way that's connected to their studies."
Because the course expands the boundaries of a normal classroom, it also allows for new kinds of class work. For a final, Carleton has his students complete digital projects in small teams. Written essays merely pave the way for video essays that showcase everything they've learned about man's relationship with the environment.
"It's harder, more strenuous, than a paper because you not only have to think about language but also about how to incorporate images and sound," Carleton said. "You also have to think about how the audience will receive it."
Carleton intends for these projects to help students think about the process of writing, not just the final product. Carleton, who is also assistant director of the Writing Center, believes this process has intellectual value in itself.
The relationships formed at Earth Lodge are not only between Carleton and his students, but also among the students themselves. Students live together, eat together, go on trips together, and study together.
"The best thing about my experience in Earth Lodge was that we really bonded as a group," said Brian Holcomb, '09. "The house was a great way for people to connect through their shared interest in the outdoors."
Since Earth Lodge is co-ed and open to students of all years and majors, students enjoy the opportunity to meet and bond with other students they might otherwise never have gotten to know in their major classes.
"I think the greatest testament to Earth Lodge is that the people I shared my time with there are still my closest friends," said resident Alex Cooke, '10.
Inspired by Carleton's encouragement to use new technology in the classroom, Earth Lodge member Geoff Cox, '08, made a video about his experience in the program.
"Some of my favorite memories at Richmond are from Earth Lodge," the senior environmental studies major said. "The experience was unique, exciting, challenging, and enlightening. The communal living and interdisciplinary, hands-on approach to learning was exactly what I hoped to find in college. It's full of surprises, new experiences and perspectives that helped me start to see the world in a new and exciting way. I will never forget the people I got to know and the experiences I had that have shaped who I am becoming."
Earth Lodge is now in its third year and will relocate this fall to Lakeview Hall as part of the University's expanded living and learning program.
Geoff Cox's Earth Lodge Video