By Rick Livingston, Associate Director of the Humanities Institute and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Comparative Studies
“What holds the class together, making it more than a random walk, is the idea of distinct sites, and the practices that create a sense of place: out of doors is not just an open horizon, but specific places that hold meaning.”
I never liked teaching on the quarter system. It was, I used to tell people, like an endless series of wind sprints: hit one finish line, and see the next starting pistol being raised. Between putting names to faces and fielding questions about final grades, I could count on maybe four weeks of undivided attention–suboptimal for teaching in the humanities, where much depends on growing awareness and deepening familiarity. On semesters, I looked forward to being able to build a syllabus around research assignments.
Then there’s the May term. If quarters are like wind sprints, teaching a four week, eight session (whoops, forgot about Memorial Day!) class is like swimming butterfly: more moving parts, and breathing under water. Ideal, perhaps, for a small, upper level seminar, with eight or ten students concentrating on a single extended text: say, Middlemarch, or The Brothers Karamazov. Time for a handful of lectures, deep discussion of key episodes, some background reading. I could imagine the May term working well as a capstone experience for majors, a chance to test their mettle by venturing into deeper waters.
For many OSU students, though, May is traditionally the season for Oval Beach. With “Here Comes The Sun” running through my head, I wanted to design a course that would take us outside, integrating the natural world into the learning experience. What I came up with is CS 5691, “A Place Among the Rivers: Environmental Citizenship in the Central Ohio Watershed.” The class is built around a series of site visits, starting with Mirror Lake, working downstream to the Whittier Peninsula, and then out to Battelle Darby Creek Metropark. We’re reading essays by the likes of Aldo Leopold and Gary Snyder, some environmental history (including “Historical Milestones for Wastewater Treatment in Columbus”) and one whole book, The Ecological Life, by Jeremy BendikKeymer. The students have two short writing assignments each week (one site description, one reading response) and have to participate in online discussion forums.
What I now realize is that it’s one thing to head outdoors for a discussion session or two, as a break from sitting in a classroom, but quite another to make being outside part of the subject matter. More specifically: there’s nothing like being out of doors to remind you that, as Rabindranath Tagore said, the time of teaching and the time of learning are not the same. I’ve given up thinking that the class depends on commanding students’ attention, holding a single thought up for scrutiny. Unlike a tightly structured quarter class, the rhythm of our 4.5 hour-long meetings flows and ebbs, at the mercy of deer and geese, clouds and sun. It’s not my agenda, but the students’ observations and interests, that provide continuity and focus. When assembling the syllabus, I started thinking of my job as orchestration and choreography–getting the themes to emerge at the right moment, moving bodies through spaces without getting sidetracked. Now that we’re midway through, I like to think that I’m conducting the ensemble, but that’s probably flattering myself.
What holds the class together, making it more than a random walk, is the idea of distinct sites, and the practices that create a sense of place: out of doors is not just an open horizon, but specific places that hold meaning. The most challenging aspect of this orientation is figuring out the role of evaluation. Early on, I decided that I couldn’t expect a finished piece of writing: while a focused seminar might have room for feedback and revision, the motto for this class had to come from E.M. Forster: “Only connect….” Given how unfamiliar most students are with the idea of citizenship (let alone environmental citizenship), my primary goal is to get them thinking about Columbus as a work in progress, a place actively being shaped around them by agendas and ideas. Writing and discussions are aimed at taking hold of those ideas, processing them into forms meaningful to (mainly) rising sophomores and juniors. The topic of citizenship gives an extra twist to the notion of valuing process more than product, in ways that strain conventional notions of assessment. Grading citizenship? In four weeks? Seriously?
But the students need and expect grades, for graduation credits, transcripts and general reassurance. The topic came up almost from the very first moment. I’ve come to think of grades as the intellectual equivalent of the American land survey system, an abstract grid laid over the bio-regional patterns and ecotones of the mind. An unavoidable historical artifact, they’re useful for some measurements but unresponsive to the gradients of understanding. The compromise I’ve come up with embeds discrete grades in a flow of feedback: with a steady stream of writing coming in (mostly on Carmen), I’m trying to carry on an extended conversation, both with individuals and more publicly on the discussion boards. Assignments are graded, but come accompanied by dynamic markings: so, “roughly B+” or “ a strong B,” along with some questions or directions for improvement. With students having to do some writing twice a week, the pace of the class seems to support this more fluid approach to evaluation, though it has required adjusting expectations on all sides. For my part, I’m more attentive to good ideas and less to finished forms; on the students’ part, they’re having to give up a fixation on “getting the A” and learning to respond more directly to feedback. While I only have 20 students in the class, the workload is pretty constant, and I’m not sure I could keep it up over the length of a semester. But then, there’s something appropriate about doing the butterfly in May.