The coronavirus pandemic has slowed, but not stopped, my investigation of immersive learning practices in higher education. In particular, my plans to conduct in-person interviews of university teaching faculty about their experiences with immersive learning have been delayed. However, due to their generosity and flexibility, I have been able to conduct a handful of interviews over the last two weeks using online video conferencing platforms. I’ve learned a lot from the teaching and learning experiences they’ve been willing to share, but one new idea about immersion stands out because it was a bit unexpected and wasn’t necessarily what I thought I’d find when I started this investigation.

Going into this project, although I was open-minded to any possibility, I had pretty clear ideas about what I thought immersive learning looked like and the places where I would probably locate it. However, a recent interview with a colleague who teaches Spanish in the World Languages and Cultures department at Elon, Nina Namaste, caught me a little bit by surprise. What Professor Namaste described demonstrated for me that immersion isn’t always a clearly delineated structure that somehow stands apart from “normal” conceptions of higher education classes, at least not in the ways that a service-learning course or study abroad experience might be seen as unique or different than a typical “in the classroom” course. And, while I began this research believing that there were many unique, hybrid, and innovative ways in which immersion could be a part of a teaching and learning experience, the simplicity of what she shared with me was significant.

Dr. Namaste described how she tries to create an environment in her classes where students can immerse themselves in the subject matter and the ways of being and doing that are directly related to that material. In addition to teaching Spanish, Professor Namaste also teaches in Elon’s Women’s, Gender, and Sexualilties Studies program. In those classes, she tries to create scenarios where the idea of a patriarchy doesn’t exist. By having her students imagine or enact such a scenario, at least for the duration of class sessions, and perhaps beyond, Dr. Namaste tries to create an immersive environment for learning. From what she described, it seemed to me that one of her course goals was to have her students suspend their notions of the “real world,” or at least suspend their disbelief in a possible other world, long enough to be able to imagine think, discuss, and learn what different life circumstances might be like and, in so doing, to effectively critique their current lived experiences.

After our interview, I emailed Dr. Namaste that I wanted to include some of her ideas here and she shared with me a recent blog post from a professor at her alma mater, St. Olaf College. The post is written by the Boldt Family Distinguished Teaching Chair in the Humanities and history professor, Judy Kutulas, and is titled Adventures in the New Humanities: Transitioning the Liberal Arts. In her blog post, Professor Kutulas writes about the challenges and adventures that most teachers now face: how to transition a currently in-progress course from what it was before into a new, online platform and hold on to the ethos and spirit of what had already transpired. Her piece became especially interesting for me when she wrote about how the best classes are immersive experiences in the same way that entering highly fictionalized films or television shows are: for a short duration they allow us to live vicariously in that world. She writes, “Immersion engages us. It’s escapism, but, over time and with study, we come to see patterns and understand conventions, the social rules and norms. We become experts at those worlds and we like to talk to other experts about them. So much of the humanities plunges us into these fully-realized worlds, whether they be fictional, historical, philosophical, or rooted in another culture.” Wow, I really like that. And reading it was like getting smacked in the back of the head. What Dr. Kutulas so wonderfully describes in her writing is what a really good class should be (and hopefully often is) like: an immersive journey into the subject matter of the course.

When I was an undergraduate student at Davidson College, we were required to take two courses in religious studies. I took a course on Buddhism from Dr. Bill Manony, the Charles A. Dana Professor of Religion. I took his class without really knowing why; I think mainly because I wanted something different from my childhood experiences with religion, having grown up attending one of the Methodist churches in my community. It only took a class or two to realize that Buddhism is distinctly different in many ways from Protestant doctrine, but more importantly to the idea of immersion, that a teacher could actually transform an hour in class into a wholly unique experience. I’m still not sure how Dr. Mahony did it, but he actually made each class restorative like, I imagine, the best meditative practices can be. As corny as it may sound, I left each class feeling some sort of oneness. With what—Dr. Mahony, my fellow classmates, the text, or maybe just Buddhism in general—I don’t really know. What I do know is that the experience of being in his class was unique and significant. It’s one that I remember, not so much for my academic knowledge of Buddhism—I wish I could state that what I learned is still in the forefront of my mind, but it’s not—but because he managed to create a learning environment where I identified with what it meant to be a Buddhist.

Dr. Kutulas goes on in her blog post to describe how she uses digitized copies of St. Olaf yearbooks from the 60’s for source material in her class on early 1960’s activism as a way to get her students to interrogate the past and think about the present. Her goal was to leverage the activity as a way to transport her students to a different time, a different world. In doing so, she realized that she’s really been doing this all along by having her students engage with source material in some form. She says, “As it turns out, immersion into worlds of the past has been an implicit part of my classes all along. Following our transition, one class will be immersed in Tim O’Brien’s famous novel about American soldiers in Vietnam, The Things They Carried, and the other will be reading Cheap Amusements by Kathy Peiss, which is subtitled Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York. Until this moment, I never thought of either one as an immersive experience into history rather than a text. Now, though, I’m finding this realization a very reassuring connection between the classes I’m letting go of and the ones I’m getting ready to teach.”

Thinking about my experience in Dr. Mahony’s Buddhism class, the observations about immersive learning that Dr. Kutulas articulated so well, and about what Dr. Namaste described to me about how she intentionally tries to create an immersive environment within the confines of her classroom space, have all been helpful in showing me that immersion isn’t always a thing, like some curricular or programmatic structure, but can just as often be a mindset, a way of doing. This is liberating and also complicating. Liberating because it makes me hopeful that there is a lot more immersive learning going on than I suspected. Complicating because that may mean that my task of defining and locating immersive learning just got a lot harder!

Phillip Motley, associate professor of communication design, is the 2019-2021 Center for Engaged Learning Scholar. His CEL Scholar project focuses on immersive learning.

How to cite this post:

Motley, Phillip. 2020, April 7. Immersion is a structure, and a construct. [Blog Post]. Retrieved from