Understanding literature through landscape observation

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The Literature and Landscape study abroad program facilitates one of the a unique learning experience offered by BYU.

For almost eight weeks, 25 students and two professors hike around the United Kingdom while studying British literature and writing about their experiences. This allows the students to both gain deeper insight into what they’re reading and expand their creative writing abilities.

“Our focus is to walk around the places in England that have literary significance,” said Pat Madden, the 2013 director of the program. “These places are tied to authors or works, offering a deeper insight than you can get in a classroom setting.”

The program was started in 2003 by English professor John Bennion. He had been teaching a class called Wilderness Writing, where he and his students went out into the Utah mountains to enhance the writing experience.

While studying the Lake District poets in Northern England, students might draw inspiration from nature scenes like this. (Photo by Ellen Westenhaver.)
While studying the Lake District poets in Northern England, students might draw inspiration from nature scenes like this. (Photo by Ellen Westenhaver)

His success with Wilderness Writing, along with a desire to return to England, where he had visited before, led to Literature and Landscape.

“It took a lot of work to get the program started in terms of finding transportation, hostels and routes,” Bennion said. “To the students, it was a fun experience, but to me it was a little scary at times.”

The group begins in Scotland, studying Robert Lewis Stevenson, and moves down through the Lake District, the southern coast and on to London. There are many other stops along the way, each providing insight into the works of an author or essayist.

“The program gives practical and concrete exposure to the landscapes that the Victorian and Romantic writers used,” Bennion said. “So it has these multiple angles which makes it experiential rather than intellectual.”

Both Bennion and Madden emphasized the personal growth students experience through writing personal essays. For Bennion, that is the most rewarding part of the program, and the students agree.

“The pace of hiking and walking, which was a consistent activity, enabled conversations and encouraged meditation, both of which are important in the development of essays,” said Bess Hayes, a three-time Literature and Landscape student.

Jackie Foutz, an athletic training major from Henderson, Nev., the program inspired deep insights into her growth as a person. Being in the places she read about created a surreal experience and increased her understanding of what the author wanted to communicate.

“It prolongs an interaction with a piece of literature, creating a unique contextualization that’s almost impossible when talking about a text in a classroom,” said Hayes.

The program often inspires further creative writing for the students and many take such classes once they return from England.

While the majority of students who go are English majors, Madden says they have had engineering, business and many others also come. There are no restrictions for applying; however, the credits received best satisfy English requirements.

The program is offered during spring term of odd years. The next group will go Spring 2015. Start saving now for expenses and be ready to make the travel plans.

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