Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Teaching Outdoors

Photo by David L. O'Hara, 2013

As September approaches, people keep asking me, "Are you ready to get back in the classroom?" 

As early as middle school I knew I wanted to become a college professor, and I love my job.  It is a delight to spend time with young people who are curious, after all.

Years ago, my friend Matt Dickerson pointed out to me that it's also my job to help those who are not curious to see why they should be.  As it turns out, that work is usually delightful, too, a rewarding challenge.

So on the whole, I love my work.

But I admit I don't love classrooms, for several reasons:

First, no matter what decade, every classroom I've been in has exhibited an unhealthy tendency towards becoming cluttered with the latest technology, and most of that tech seems to take up a lot of space and to become the center of attention.  I'm not opposed to technology in the classroom, not at all.  But I'm opposed to letting it get in the way, as it does when the "Smart Cart" leaves me no room for my lecture notes, or when I can't seem to turn the ceiling-mounted projector on or off.  I'm a fan of chalk, because chalk allows spontaneity, and it allows for much more than alphanumeric writing in neat rows.  Sadly, concerns about chalk dust getting into computers is threatening to make chalkboards disappear from my classrooms.  Alas.  Chalk is an excellent technology, and if it vanishes, I will mourn its loss.

Second, classroom architecture is not some value-free, neutral design.  Classroom architecture makes a big difference in how people teach, and how they learn:
  • This too is related to technology, of course.  If the class is focused on video screens, then all the chairs will face the screens, and the classroom might even be structured like a theater.  Etymologically, "theater" means something like "a place of gazing," and theaters tend to encourage people to gaze.  Sometimes this can work against other activities, like colloquy, small-group interaction, and really anything that involves students moving from one place to another.  
  • If that last sentence made you ask,"But why do you want your students to move from one place to another?" then you see that we have some pretty strong presuppositions about how education should happen: students should sit and listen, teachers should stand and lecture.  This communicates something about authority, and at times that's helpful.  But it can also invite students to lean back into passivity, and to assume they have no role in their own education.
  • The furniture in classrooms tells us how people are to behave, because it has been made and purchased by people who had in mind some idea of how students should behave.  Most wrap-around desks are made for right-handed people, for instance.  And most classroom desks I've seen expect students to sit upright, at attention, with a book open in front of them.  I really don't like those desks, and I feel trapped when I sit in them.  I wonder sometimes how they make my students feel. I wish we had fewer chairs and more sofas.  Maybe a fireplace, or some tables with glasses of water, and ashtrays on them.  I suppose I wish I could teach in pubs or ratskellers, which are, after all, places consciously designed for people to meet and discuss what most matters to them, informally, passionately, amicably.
  • Classrooms that privilege video screens tend to undervalue natural light and windows.  I am reminded of Emerson's reflection on a boring sermon he once heard.  Emerson wrote, in his Divinity School Address, that while the minister droned on, Emerson looked out the window at the falling snow, which, he proclaimed, preached a better sermon than the minister.  I have no doubt that nature can often give a better lecture than I can.  
Photo by David L. O'Hara, 2013
Step off the trails! Explore! An ironic sign at Walden Pond.
Which is why, as often as I can, I get my students out of the classroom.  When we are reading Thoreau's Walking, we go for a walk.  When I teach environmental philosophy, we often meet under the great tree in our campus quad, where I encourage students to daydream and to play with the grass, to look for worm-castings and owl pellets, feathers and seed-pods, invertebrates and fallen bits of bark.  What good is it to gain the world of theoretical knowledge at the expense of knowledge gained through vital, haptic, bodily experience?

And this is why I am a preacher of the importance of study abroad.  Not just travel, but serious, engaged, rigorous study in the classroom of life in another place.  This is why I teach Classics in Greece every year, and why year after year I take students to Central America to study environmental philosophy and ecology.

More and more I've been trying to shift the learning focus in my classes from the classroom to the laboratory - where by "laboratory" I mean anywhere that allows students to learn with their whole person.  I make my ancient philosophy students devote hours each semester to star-gazing, in part because this is what the ancients did, and in part because I don't want them to miss the stars.  I want them to gaze in wonder at the firmament so that when they read Aristotle and Galileo they know that they've looked at what those great minds saw as well.  We even occasionally take field trips to really dark places like the South Dakota Badlands so we can see the skies even better.

My environmental philosophy students must observe a square meter of earth for a semester, spending an hour at a time without a camera, drawing and writing about what they see, because it does not make sense to me to talk about the earth when you have not taken the time to sit upon it, to listen to it, to smell and taste it, and to see what other lives creep, and walk, and fly across it.

My friend Aage Jensen advocates the Norwegian philosophy of Friluftsliv, life and education outdoors.  And when he organizes a conference on it, he eschews conference centers and holds the conference while walking through the mountains, or paddling a river.  Because he believes that one should practice what one preaches, and that nature is always ready to teach.

To paraphrase the Stoic Musonius, teachers would do well to talk less and to take their students with them into the fields, because there they will learn far better and far more than in the lecture hall.

Photo by David L. O'Hara, 2013
Nature is full of things worth seeing.


  1. If you ever want to know what students feel like sitting in Augustana's classroom furniture, consider my story. At the conclusion of my Intermediate German class with Herr Lhotzky, I attempted to stand up rather hurriedly. As you know, I am a rather tall being at 6'4", and getting out of those desks is rather tricky--you get the feeling you are trapped, as you stated. On this occasion, my knee connected with the writing arm of the desk, the desk refused to separate from me, all of my weight shifted forward, and as if in slow motion, I landed face-first on the floor, still stuck inside the desk.

    I will never forget Herr Lhotzky's horrified expression as he rushed to get me untangled. The only thing that was injured was my pride! Yes, I believe my alma mater could spruce up the classrooms in the Humanities Building, beginning with the furniture!

  2. Ben, thanks for your story. I'm glad you made it out with only your pride damaged, though I wish that also had managed to emerge from the wreckage unscathed!

    Years ago as a grad student at Penn State I sat down in one of those chairs at the beginning of the fall term to listen to a lecture by one of our prominent faculty. I'd taken a class from him before and had quite enjoyed it, but that term I reached my limit. As I sat there in that awful desk I found I simply could not sit there any longer. I got up and went to the graduate director and explained that I was no longer going to take classes, but I would gladly teach myself anything he felt I needed to learn before taking my doctoral exams.

    I think he must have seen the look in my eye that said I was completely serious; I simply couldn't sit in one of those confining, stupefying little desks anymore. He considered my face in silence for only a brief moment, and then nodded his head and said "Alright." It was a great moment in my education.

    Since then I've often wondered how many of my students are having similar experiences, and how many of them are driven to distraction by the constraints of architecture and furniture and technology. How many of them sit there silently telling themselves, "I don't need this. I can learn what I need to learn on my own; but I must sit still so that I can get my diploma"? And surely some of them are right. So I do what I can to make my classes worthwhile for them, and to help them to learn despite the surroundings.

    I don't think our college is unique in this at all; we're actually pretty good. But we could be better.