Central Square tower

I’ve been wanting to write about this past weekend’s riots in Keene, NH: I taught, after all, at Keene State College for a decade and lived near campus for most of that time. But everything I’ve imagined myself saying quickly devolved into a cranky rant, and the world doesn’t need more of those. Raising a fist at rioters doesn’t do anything productive; it only adds to the clamor and discord.

Gutted pumpkins

Drunken idiocy happens at all the colleges where I’ve taught: it’s not unique to Keene State. It’s true that Keene State has acquired (and, among some students, apparently relishes) a reputation for being a party school, and over the years the Pumpkin Festival has become an increasingly popular occasion for drunken partying and the reckless mayhem that ensues. But apart from timing, this year’s riot had nothing to do with the Keene Pumpkin Festival. Despite news headlines to the contrary, this weekend’s parties gone bad didn’t happen at the Pumpkin Festival; they simply happened during it.

Zucchini nose

There’s nothing that made this weekend’s events unique to Keene apart from an escalation in recent years in the number of revelers attracted to Keene State on a particular Saturday in October. The Pumpkin Festival wasn’t the reason for the riot, but it did serve as an excuse. There is, unfortunately, particular kind of college student—typically white suburban males, children of modest privilege with no real reason to take to the street in justified protest—who will take any excuse to over-imbibe in the name of “partying” and who quickly turn violent out of sheer boredom.

Pumpkin cannibalism

I say this not to defend Keene, its college, or the students at said college; I say this because what happened in Keene this weekend is indicative of a larger problem. It’s easy to peruse media reports of the Keene riots while politely shaking one’s head, quietly condemning those ill-behaved college kids who are nothing like me or my children. Make no mistake: what happened at Keene State could have happened at any college in any town. It’s not someone else’s problem; it’s our own.

You should see the other guy!

Let’s be frank, America: our college campuses have a drinking problem. Not all college students are violent, drunken vandals…but yes, all professors (and yes, all residents living near college campuses) can tell you horror stories of drunken, immature kids who frankly have no business being in college but were attracted to campus primarily because it’s a perfect venue for a four-year party.

Rows of pumpkins

We as a culture have come to see college as a right, not a privilege, and our campuses reflect that fact. For every student who goes to college out of a genuine desire to learn and grow, there are too many students who would be the first to tell you they don’t want to be there. These kids find themselves in college because they’ve been terrified into submission by teachers, parents, and guidance counselors who tell them they’ll never get a job without the piece of paper called a college degree: a piece of paper as essential today as a high school diploma was to my generation.

You look fabulous

Is it any surprise that students who have no real interest in becoming scholars—students who have no qualms telling their professors point-blank that they don’t care about their classes—would entertain themselves with drunken mayhem? Why not? If college is merely an extension of high school—a place where you have no real choice but to show up for four years in order to get the necessary, job-granting certificate known as a college degree—why wouldn’t you kick back and party your time away?


I’m not sure that scaring students into college by telling them it’s the only way they’ll ever get a job is a wise tactic. A college degree isn’t a guarantee of employment; if a student doesn’t get anything out of the classes they don’t want to take, that piece of paper isn’t going to hold much power. But our culture sees college not just as a right but as a rite of passage. We somehow believe that spending four years on a college campus will turn an unfocused, under-motivated eighteen-year-old into a capable and qualified adult without fully considering how that happens. If drudging your way through a high school curriculum isn’t enough to make you employable, how will drudging your way through four years of college help matters much?

Pumpkin skulls

I don’t know how to solve the drinking problem on American college campuses: I suspect it reflects larger problems in a culture that worships alcohol as both an escape from worry and an excuse for nearly any sort of bad behavior. But I do have a modest proposal for the problem of boredom-inspired bad behavior on college campuses: parents, don’t send your eighteen-year-olds to college. Save for your children’s education, and then insist they take a year or two off—a gap year—to figure out what they want from that education.


As a college instructor I see a huge difference between the first-year students who come to college straight out of high school and the ones who have spent a year or two working, serving in the military, or otherwise engaging with the “real world” outside of college. Too many fresh-from-high-school students come to college with no real sense of what they want to attain from their studies. Instead, they’re in college because that’s what’s expected, that’s what their friends are doing, or that’s what mom and dad want.

Central Square gazebo

This weekend’s riots in Keene suggest that college (like youth) is often wasted on the young. Older, more mature students are almost always more driven to learn. They’ve spent time working or traveling, they’ve lived on their own, and they’ve gotten some of their youthful hijinks out of their system. Older, more mature students have a better sense of what they want to do with their education and with their lives, and they realize that engaging in drunken mayhem doesn’t get them anywhere closer to their goals.

This post turned into exactly the kind of cranky rant I was trying to avoid. At least the photos, which come from the 2010 Pumpkin Festival, are a bit less crabby.


Last Thursday, on my way back to Massachusetts from New Hampshire, I stopped at Walden Pond, which was thronged with swimmers and sunbathers, to say pay my respects to the statue of Henry David Thoreau that stands outside the replica of his famous one-room shack.

Thoreau with replica house

Thoreau moved to Walden Pond–where he would live in that one-room shack, write, and grow beans–on July 4, 1845: his own declaration of independence. Thoreau believed freedom is acquired through relinquishment: the more things you let go, the freer you’ll be. And so it seemed perfectly apt to stop and say hello to Henry on my way back home from Keene State, where last Thursday I cleaned out my office after having let go, at last, my teaching job there.

Desk with guestbook

Thoreau lived at Walden Pond for two years, vacating his shack in September, 1847 because he suspected he had “several more lives to live” and “could not spare any more time for that one.” I vacated my office at Keene State after having taught there for nearly eleven years–from September, 2001 until this June–because I also suspected it was time to move onto other things.


When I started teaching at Keene State, I was married and living in Hillsboro, NH; over my years teaching at Keene State, my then-husband and I moved to Keene, I completed my PhD, my then-husband and I separated then divorced, I met then married J, and I ultimately moved to Massachusetts. It made sense to keep my job in Keene while I was teaching there full-time, but when my course-load was cut, commuting between two states for a part-time job made increasingly little sense. Why complicate your life by clinging to something that has lingered past its season?

Thoreau's right hand

Last Thursday night, I drove from Walden to Cambridge to give a talk at the Zen Center, my trunk still packed with piles and files: the accumulation of a nearly 20-year teaching career. At the Zen Center, I talked about letting go. The second of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths says we suffer because we cling to impermanent things, and my practice has taught me that sometimes there’s great solace in simply letting go: instead of clinging with a tight fist, relief comes from opening your hands into a gentle, receptive shape that simply gives way to gravity.

Thoreau's left hand

At Walden, a bronze sculpture of Thoreau shows him with both hands open, receptive: Henry carries a bag over one shoulder, but nothing else, his fingers cupped into a gesture of acceptance. At the Zen Center, I compared the experience of letting go my job at Keene State to the experience of putting Reggie to sleep: sometimes, after spending precious years of your life tending to something you loved without limit, the time comes when you need to let go, loosening your grip so that both you and the thing you loved can move on.


After Thoreau left Walden Pond, he moved in with the Emersons, looking after Lidian Emerson and the Emerson children while Ralph Waldo Emerson traveled abroad. During this time, Thoreau worked as a handyman and surveyor, and he spent the next seven years polishing and perfecting the book–Walden, or Life in the Woods–that would become his masterpiece.

View from Thoreau Cove

Now that I’ve left Keene State, I’ll spend the next few months teaching online, then in September I’ll start teaching first-year writing at Framingham State University, a college much closer to home. I hope to spend more time walking and less time driving; I hope to spend more time writing and less time fretting about a job I always worried I wouldn’t be able to keep. Once you’ve let go of a thing, you don’t have to worry about losing it: you’re free to simply live without limit, your hands no longer clenched but cupped, receptive to whatever windfall the Universe decides to cast in your direction, the float of time being enough to support you, for now.

Cedar waxwing

One of the things I love about cedar waxwings is how unpredictable they are. Waxwings are nomadic creatures, traveling in flocks from one berry-bearing tree to another. A flock of waxwings will descend upon a fruiting crab-apple tree, feast until their bellies are bursting, and then move on to better, more berry-laden trees.

Cedar waxwing

Today, there were two flocks of cedar waxwings working the crab-apple trees at Keene State College: one in the trees by the Student Center, and other working the trees by the library. I wasn’t expecting to see waxwings as I walked from my car to my summer school class and back: that’s what I love about waxwings. Right when you’re not expecting to see much of anything is when waxwings typically appear, descending upon the trees of your otherwise ordinary afternoon, keening and calling until you look up to notice them, surprised again. The next time I’m on campus, who knows where these nomads will be, appearing like an unbidden apparition to some other oblivious soul.

Oak tree shadow

It’s raining in Keene today, as it has most Thursdays this semester, but on Monday it was sunny, casting tree-shaped shadows on brick walls. I’m heading home with my last stack of student essay portfolios for the term, ready to settle in for a weekend’s worth of grading, rain or shine. I’ll see you on the other side of “done.”

Spreading ivy

Toy soldiers

It’s the time of year when Keene State College art students use whatever’s close at hand to make temporary sculptures they display on campus. Because the typical college student doesn’t have a lot of money, these art projects rely heavily on inexpensive supplies such as chicken wire and papier-mâché along with everyday objects like castoff water bottles, plastic coat hangers, or little green army men. You don’t need a lot of money to build an interesting sculpture, just a little creativity.

This is my contribution to today’s Photo Friday theme, Little. For more photos of this year’s art projects, click here. Enjoy!

"Pastiche" stencil on campus bus stop shelter

Last Thursday afternoon was sunny, so after my Thinking and Writing students had spent about an hour working on the next draft of their semester-long research projects, we took our nature journals and headed toward athletic fields where the home team plays.

"Pastiche" stencil with shadow self-portrait

We’d read in Henry David Thoreau’s 1851 journal that he had heard great-horned owls calling this time of year, and the Keene State athletic fields aren’t far from the rail-trail where I’ve seen barred owls. We didn’t hear any owls in the slanting light of a late November afternoon, but we did see several crows, a pair of flitting juncos, and evidence of beavers.

My teaching colleagues and I have been talking a lot lately about outcome-based pedagogy, which is the practice of designing assignments and assessments focused on the intellectual end result you want to encourage. There was no official pedagogical outcome I tried to achieve in taking my students on a walk on Thursday: we walked because the weather was nice and the practice of keeping a nature journal gave us an excuse. Without an official outcome, we walked with no expectation of assessment: no, this sunny November day won’t be on the test, and there’s no quantifiable way of determining whether Taking a Walk has a measurable impact on a first-year student’s Thinking and Writing skills. In the absence of officially empirical evidence, however, I still believe that walking is good for writing and that being bipedal is good for the soul.


One surefire sign of fall at Keene State College is the annual appearance of student art projects. As in past years, these temporary outdoor sculptures feature cheap, widely accessible materials such as empty water bottles and plastic coat hangers. When you’re a starving student artist, you learn to use whatever you find close at hand.

Green bike

This practice of creative frugality is one I can appreciate. On a gray, mildly Melvillean day like today, it’s easy to feel like one’s cupboard of creative inspiration is bare. Finding nothing scenic or sensational to share, you reach for whatever is close at hand, even if “whatever is close at hand” is a handful of photos you shot last month. On some days, preparation for blogging starts the night before; on other days, it takes even longer than that.

One of the things I enjoy about my November commitment to post something every day is the way it forces my creative hand. If I were a student in a college art class, I’d have to figure out a way to impress my professor with yesterday’s trash by today’s deadline: I wouldn’t have the time or the luxury to wait for inspiration. Making a commitment to blog everyday accomplishes something similar. On any given day, you’ve promised to post something whether you feel inspired or not, and this discipline to “do it anyway” unlocks its own kind of creativity. They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and it turns out that “invention” has a twin sibling named “inspiration.” Instead of waiting for inspiration to strike, a blogger who’s promised to post every day has to take her inspiration wherever she can find it.

Leaf-strewn car

Yesterday morning, New Hampshire motorists had to scrape frost from their windshields in the morning, then they had to brush leaves from their cars in the afternoon. During the brisk, transitional days of November, you never know what season will greet you: as I type these words, it is raining heartily even as the temperature hovers just above freezing.

Appian Way in autumn

Yesterday, the honey locusts along Appian Way, the main pedestrian thoroughfare at Keene State College, were burning bright in the morning chill: the same (or similar) sunbursts as Leslee saw in Boston this weekend. As I walked beneath these glowing trees on my way to a morning meeting, they dropped an intermittent shower of tiny yellow leaflets like confetti gently floating to the sidewalk below. It was a chilly morning, and the grassy campus quad was frosted with rime, so it was easy to imagine those falling leaves were falling snowflakes. It’s only a matter of time.

I apparently like the sight of fallen leaves strewn on cars, as I’ve taken several similar shots over the years.


I can’t speak to the age-old conundrum about a tree falling in the forest with no one around, but this much I can say: when a tree falls in the middle of a college campus, it definitely makes a sound.


Old Silver, the sprawling Silver Maple that formerly stood at one corner of Keene State College’s Fisk Quad and which I’ve fondly photographed and blogged over the years, came toppling down this afternoon while I was in my basement office in Parker Hall grading papers. I didn’t see Old Silver fall, but I definitely heard it: there was a loud grinding sound that made me look up from my grading, as if someone or something had slid off the roof of nearby Morrison Hall. What I heard as a sliding or scraping sound was actually the splintering of two of Old Silver’s sprawling trunks, and when I looked out my ground-level window, all I could see were the shocked faces of passing students looking in the direction where Old Silver used to stand.

This was the maple I’d sometimes refer to as the Failure Tree because of the comfort it always brought me at the end of a long semester when I sometimes feel like I’ve failed to reach my students. At the end of a long semester, I often feel like I want to collapse into a shattered heap, and the fact that Old Silver was still standing has often given me a kind of quiet encouragement. As long as I’ve taught at Keene State, Old Silver has stood tall, but only with help, its four sprawling trunks held together with metal cables. Sometimes, you need a little help keeping things together, and it’s nice to think there are folks out there who will lend either a cable or a hand.


Today two of Old Silver’s tall trunks gave way to gravity; luckily, no one was sitting or lounging nearby at the time, and even more fortunately, Old Silver didn’t fall during graduation, when it overhangs rows of folding chairs. When one of my colleagues came down to my office to let me know of Old Silver’s demise, he noted with amazement that another of our colleagues occasionally meets beneath Old Silver with students in his Thoreau class for open-air discussions; can you imagine the life-long lesson you’d take from a class where a towering giant toppled right alongside your copy of Walden or The Maine Woods?

I’ve occasionally gathered with my Art of Natural History students beneath Old Silver; I and probably several of my students have sketched him with varying degrees of skill. “Some of my students were in the library,” another teaching colleague noted with amazement, “and they actually saw it fall.” It somehow seems appropriate that Old Silver took his dive during Finals Week, when so many of us feel like succumbing to gravity ourselves. Had Old Silver fallen in a few weeks, after most students have gone home, there would have been few witnesses to his demise. Instead, a throng of students watched as campus grounds crews first circled the area with yellow Caution tape and then began clearing the wreckage with chainsaws and a Bobcat forklift. By tomorrow, I’m sure, most of the arborial wreckage will be cleared, and students who weren’t there to witness Old Silver’s fall won’t believe how quickly it all came down.


It feels appropriate that I was grading papers when my so-called Failure Tree fell, as these were papers where I didn’t feel as if I’d failed my students. Over the weekend, I graded papers from my “Rivers and Literary Imagination Class,” and today, I graded papers from “The Literature of Birds and Birding.” In both of these sections of Environmental Literature, I tried to emphasize the way humans derive meaning from natural objects: looking at a river, we imagine the flow of time, or watching the migration of birds, we consider the passing of our own lives.

Old Silver was a natural object that I derived meaning from; Old Silver was both an actual tree and a symbolic one, a being that shared my campus habitat as I’ve tried to teach countless students over the years. This semester, I put a lot of time into helping my Environmental Literature students succeed with the very papers I was grading when Old Silver fell: my students and I spent an entire class period brainstorming potential essay topics, we spent part of another class meeting doing peer reviews, and we spent a good portion of a third class session doing revisions based on my draft comments, followed by a second peer review. I’m gradually learning that although trees sometimes fail for no apparent reason, success is never an accident. If I want to enjoy the papers I’m reading–and today when Old Silver fell, I was largely satisfied with the essays in my paper-pile–I have to take care in designing assignments and actively helping my students produce the kind of work I want to read. Good papers don’t just happen by chance.

Lift and separate

Students, like old maple trees, are prone to becoming prone: both gravity and inertia are forces of nature, and at a wearisome point of the semester, it’s easier to give up than stand up. Old Silver has stood for years with a little help from the Keene State College grounds crew, and I’m learning that students also need an occasional prop or prod. It’s easy to get discouraged when it seems like students just aren’t getting the lessons you’re trying to teach; it’s easy to think it’s somehow your students’ fault, or the fault of their previous teachers. Why don’t students come to us, we lament, already knowing the Big and Basic Lessons we see as being so vital? Why does teaching always feel like starting from scratch as we emphasize and re-emphasize the lessons we think our students should have already learned?

I no longer expect students to understand difficult ideas the first time I explain them, and I no longer expect students to master complex skills without repeated opportunities for practice. I no longer expect students’ previous teachers to have taught them the skills I want them to have…or, more accurately, I no longer expect students to recall the lessons their previous teachers taught. The business of teaching is grueling work: it’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it. Sometimes it takes a whole lot of failing before you can succeed; sometimes your approaches to teaching–just like your students’ papers–need to be revised.

Loading zone

I’ll be eager to see whether the Keene State grounds crew fells Old Silver’s two remaining trunks: these might be stronger and more stable without the weight of their now-fallen companions, or they might have been structurally damaged by their peers’ collapse. Whether or not a remnant of this old tree can be salvaged, I feel Old Silver has ultimately done his job. Countless students and at least one instructor have been encouraged under his shade, and that’s all we really can expect from a tired old giant.

Click here for more images showing the collapse and clean-up of the Silver Maple I call Old Silver; enjoy!