Last Thursday afternoon, I took my first-year writing students outside to draw in their nature journals. It was sunny and mild, and I gave them a choice of two tasks: either draw clouds or draw the lilac tree that sprawls in front of Parker Hall. It’s an exercise in seeing as much as drawing: once you stop and look, what do you see? I think looking is addictive, or at least I hope it is. What I want instill in my students, if they get anything from this class, is an inquisitive spirit that looks, notices, and wonders.
This cultivated habit of noticing is a theme running through this entire course, “Thinking & Writing: The Art of Natural History.” It’s what Robert Sullivan does in his rat alley, it’s what both Henry David Thoreau and Clare Walker Leslie do in their journals, and it’s what I urge my students to do in their semester-long projects. Pick a topic that truly interests you and spend a semester investigating it from every conceivable angle. Really look at it, deeply and and repeatedly, noticing its nuance and details over time. Read about your topic, think about your topic, and talk to others about your topic: get to know it first-hand and up-close, in a way none of the rest of us do. Become our resident expert in the minute details of your topic and its intersection with your life.
It’s a foreign concept to many of my students, this invitation to explore their own life deeply. When my students learn the first day of class they they have a 15- to 20-page paper to write, they immediately think of distant, well-publicized topics that they reason will will be easy to research because so much has already been said about them. Surely for a long research project, they think, they should pick a big and grandiose topic: serial killers or the death penalty or Global Warming with a capital G and W. These are Big Topics, ones that garner attention, headlines, and entire shelves in bookstores and libraries: the Brad and Angelina of research topics. With so much attention being paid to these types of topics, my students think, writing a long research paper will be easy, like a big scavenger hunt: just go out, find the “facts,” and bring them back.
My students don’t yet know–they don’t yet believe me, really, when I say it–that this is not the kind of research topic I’m looking for. I hesitate, in fact, to call this project a “research paper,” because that mere term causes my students to click into a familiar mode of producing out of sheer habit Whatever Worked In High School.
The long project is an exercise in investigating a topic close to home, like the rats that ran down an alley in Robert Sullivan’s own city. It needn’t be spectacular; in fact, the best topics are usually the most obscure ones, the ones that Only This Student deeply loves and is genuinely interested in. In asking my students to be intellectually curious, I’m actually asking them to take a deep and genuine interest in their own lives. I’m asking them to show up on a partly cloudy day in the shade of a sprawling tree and capture what they see.
Once again, I’m asking my first-year writing students to keep weekly nature journals as described in Clare Walker Leslie’s Keeping a Nature Journal: an assignment designed to complement the kind of observation and intellectual inquiry their semester-long writing project demands.
The three journal entries illustrating today’s post come from my own nature journal: three separate entries from three separate Septembers. You can read more about the philosophy behind my “Art of Natural History” class–and you can see another September nature journal entry–in this post from 2006. Enjoy!