"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.

Street sweeper with leaves

Around 5:00 this morning, I gave up hope of finishing the thick pile of essay drafts I’d promised to return to my first-year writing students at noon. Going back on my promise wasn’t a huge deal, as we did something other than what I’d originally planned to do in today’s class. Keeping these drafts another weekend will give me time to prepare a grammar handout based on sample sentences from these essays, so it’s ultimately a good idea for me to take time finishing them rather than hurrying through the pile.

Street sweeper with leaves

This marks that point in the semester when I realize there simply isn’t enough “me” to go around. For every one task I cross off my daily to-do list, a handful more remain undone. I have unanswered emails, unpaid bills, and a dusty apartment that demand my attention; the kitchen sink is filled once again with dirty dishes only one meal after I finally dried and put away the last overdue batch.

I sometimes think that teaching a course overload–full-time here, part-time there–is practice for growing old, because there eventually comes a point in any semester when you finally let it all fall away, like a gradually declining body finally surrendering to mortality after a good, long fight. Eventually, you just give up the ghost, throw in the towel, and let it all go. One by one, you loosen your grip on things you never had a hold on in the first place, giving way to gravity, inertia, and momentum–the inexorable trinity of Powers-That-Be–as you let things slip and sag into their naturally slouchy state.

Street sweeper with leaves

It’s merely an arbitrary preference, you learn, that insists upon perpetual cleanliness, order, and timeliness. Lines don’t naturally want to be straight, ideas don’t naturally want to be ordered, and bodies don’t naturally want to be slender, upright, and toned. Something there is, they say, that doesn’t like a wall, and something there is that prefers life, work, and love all to be untidy. Why spend precious time and life-blood fighting that inescapable Something?

We did something other than what I’d planned in my noon writing class, and I’ll finish reading drafts over the weekend so I can hand them back in class on Tuesday. In the meantime, I’ve re-learned an important life lesson: deadlines can slip, promises can break, and your own tight hold on your schedule can weaken, but life presses on regardless. Is the true test of any juggler the number of objects she can keep aloft at any given instant or the skill, dexterity, and grace she exhibits in retrieving a single dropped ball?

Nature journal-in-the-making

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.

Nature journal - Sept 10 2009

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.

Nature journal - Sept 11 2008

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.

Nature journal - Sept 5 2007

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.

Veterans' Memorial

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!