Barry McNamara  |  Published May 16, 2024

Experiential Learning

Craig Vivian is officially retired as a professor, but his teaching (and learning) days are far from over.

THE DIRT ON THE YURT: Craig Vivian is shown speaking at the dedication of the new classroom space at the Monmouth College E... THE DIRT ON THE YURT: Craig Vivian is shown speaking at the dedication of the new classroom space at the Monmouth College Educational Farm on April 13. MONMOUTH, Ill.Craig Vivian has retired from being an educational studies professor at Monmouth College, but it would be incorrect to say he’s retired from teaching. The lifelong learner has also instructed, in one capacity or another, throughout his adult life, and that shows no signs of stopping.

For starters, Vivian will continue to be involved with Monmouth’s Educational Garden and Farm, and not just as its beekeeper, a hobby he’s enjoyed for the better part of two decades. Along with his department colleagues and former U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, Vivian was an integral part of the College securing a $750,000 federal Community Project Funding grant. A visible outcome of that grant is the farm’s yurt classroom, which was formally dedicated in April.

“I’m glad I was able to help get the grant and add that educational piece to the farm,” said Vivian. “We have two more years of funding, I’ve signed all the official paperwork to keep working out there as a volunteer.”

Vivian has helped lead the farm in a new direction, not only engaging Monmouth students with all the lessons that can be learned from working the land, but providing a valuable resource for school-aged children, as well.

“Within 10 minutes they’re out there getting their hands dirty, cheering on other students when they found one. They’re seeing some things they wouldn’t normally see, and they get interested.” – Craig Vivian

The latter element is part of the place-based learning that Monmouth’s educational studies department has been emphasizing the past several years.

“We had a group out there the other day, and we had them digging for worms,” said Vivian. “At first, they’re like, ‘Ewww!’ but within 10 minutes they’re out there getting their hands dirty, cheering on other students when they found one. They’re seeing some things they wouldn’t normally see, and they get interested.”

Just Dew-ey

John Dewey would be proud. The 20th century educational reformer, “was all about education and experience,” said Vivian. “Dewey believed that individuals grow and learn as they interact with the world.”

It was certainly the case for Vivian, who grew up in Austin, Texas. “When I was a kid, you could find me outside, collecting ants and putting them in a jar,” he said.

It was that self-teaching, perhaps, that inspired Vivian to keep on finding new experiences on his road to lifelong learning. That started in earnest when he and his wife, Jessica Vivian – a member of Monmouth’s political science department – joined the Peace Corps out of college and were stationed in the Pacific island of Kiribati.

Vivian didn’t know it at the time, but he wouldn’t return to living in the U.S. until he was 35, also spending time in Sudan, Zimbabwe, France and Switzerland thanks, in part, to Jessica’s work with the United Nations.

Along the way, Vivian had informal teaching roles, helping, for example, the locals learn English. When he and Jessica returned to the U.S., he pursued teaching formally, joining Monmouth’s faculty in 2000 after completing his doctoral work at Cornell University.

‘A-ha’ moments

One of Vivian’s “a-ha” moments from his years as a formal educator was his time spent in the classrooms of a pair of local teachers – Kathy Ricketts and Jennifer Dickens.

“I did that for two sabbaticals, and it really led me to rethink what we offer young kids,” he said. “I believed we should be offering something different.”

Vivian said he noticed young students were very eager to learn important new skills such as counting or learning to read.

“You could see that they thought, ‘This is fun,’” he said. “But after teaching them how to read and write, schools don’t do a lot more to strengthen the cognitive skills of the kids.”

Another such moment was realizing the benefits of creating what he called “a triangle,” with its three sides being the community, local K-12 students, and Monmouth College.

“Making and strengthening that triangle is something we’ve been working on,” said Vivian.

Vivian likes to think outside the box, and he’s encouraged his Monmouth students to do the same for the past quarter-century, thinking about what teaching is and what education is. A famous example, he said, is an exercise referenced recently by Tiffany Diehl Springer ’03, who became a colleague of Vivian’s in the educational studies department.

“It was something that made her rethink what she was doing and why. Was she doing the work to get a good grade, or was she doing it to learn?” – Craig Vivian

“I don’t believe in grades,” he said, “and I like to do different things with students to get them thinking differently. I had them write a paper, and then I asked them to grade themselves on ‘How much did you learn from writing it?’ Most of them gave themselves a pretty good grade. Then I threw all the papers in the garbage can. People freaked out a little bit. But as Tiffany has since told me, it was something that made her rethink what she was doing and why. Was she doing the work to get a good grade, or was she doing it to learn?”

The correct answer should be B.

Have a hob-bee

B, or, rather, bee, is also one of the correct answers to “Name one of Craig Vivian’s main hobbies?” Other acceptable answers are chess, wine and music – specifically, the guitar.

“Almost all hobbies have different levels,” he said, “and you keep increasing the knowledge you have about that hobby. … I’d like to see schools do more with hobbies, offering students the opportunity to learn about things like coin collecting, or star-gazing, or bird watching. Something like electives for hobbies.”

Each of Vivian’s hobbies ties into his desire for lifelong learning.

His chess game, for example, found a new level in Kiribati, where he regularly played “an old French Catholic priest” who was delighted to have a talented foe on the tiny island. Vivian’s rating has approached the 2000, or expert, level and is solidly in Class A.

BEE CURIOUS: Vivian shows a Golden Scots tour group the inner workings of a hive. BEE CURIOUS: Vivian shows a Golden Scots tour group the inner workings of a hive.Vivian’s knowledge of wine has continued to grow, and he’s taught his popular course “Wine and Our Senses” about a dozen times at Monmouth, featuring guest appearances by faculty such as David Wright (the poetry of wine), Audra Goach (the chemistry of wine) and Mike Nelson (the politics of wine).

The guitar is a hobby Vivian put on the shelf for a number of years, but he revived it when his son became interested in playing. Its second iteration in his life has led to the formation of the popular Craig and Co. group, which performs regularly at Market Alley Wines in downtown Monmouth and has a gig scheduled later this year in St. Louis. Asked to name a favorite song on the group’s playlist, Vivian singled out “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” a Beatles tune in which he also provides the lead vocals.

Finally, there’s his work with bees. It may seem dangerous, but Vivian shared a trick of the trade.

“Bees are not aggressive – they’re defensive, but not aggressive,” he said. “Wasps are aggressive – they’re on the hunt. But bees are not. They have no reason, because they’re not predators.”

That’s a lesson Vivian will continue to share with students who visit Monmouth College’s Educational Farm – one of many that he’ll provide, free of charge, in his retirement role as a volunteer.

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