Writing as a Naturalist

This post is rather academic, and also covers stuff I’ve already thrown up here. So I apologize in advance for being pedantic and repetitive. But I need to get this stuff consolidated and thrown up here as part of my process for getting some pedagogical concerns distilled into a longer article. I have some poetry and some field reports coming to leaven the atmosphere when I can get more time to write.


Every fall I teach an advanced composition class called “Writing as a Naturalist” that asks students to write from their direct, personal observation of natural phenomena. Broadly defined, a naturalist acquires experience and expertise in some facet of the natural world in order to educate and enlighten others about it, and while the title can apply to a specific position, say in the education department of a non-profit or governmental science or environmental organization, we use it quite loosely in the class to describe anyone with an interest or attachment in the natural world willing to make a case to a general readership for the importance and meaningfulness of that world. The basic requirement of the class is that the students each week spend a couple hours outside writing about what they observe. Certainly most of the students whom the class attracts enjoy being out-of-doors, and most are pursuing degrees in the natural or environmental sciences, but many of those who would not consider themselves outdoorsy, I think, find the basic requirement of the class at the least refreshingly different. The formal writing assignments are few and relatively simple in scope. The primary piece of work as a culmination of the personal observation of nature is a long essay, twelve to fifteen pages, on some specific aspect of the natural world that the student has observed over the course of the semester. In addition, the students produce two shorter essays, the first discussing some exemplary readings in nature writing and the second connecting the issues raised in those readings to the students’ own initial experiences in direct observation. The students do the writing component of the observations as a journal, and that field journal accounts for a relatively large percentage of the course grade, reflecting its practical centrality to the other writing assignments. The journal entries as a record of each student’s individual encounters with the natural phenomena in which they immerse themselves forms the raw material for the final long essay and much of the second shorter essay, and if the student has not spent a long time looking at and reflecting on something, that student will find little to write about.

University composition courses are generally based on a discursive model of composition, the notion that student writing – that writing itself – is primarily a dialogue with other texts. This discursive model forms the pedagogical methods and goals for composition courses: the students are exposed to texts to which they will in turn respond with their own. This makes my class a bit unique in the world of composition, since I am asking students to develop responses to observations of a tangible, concrete world. Of course, even when we’re talking about nature writing, we are still well within a discursive view of the writing process. My class, like other classes working from this pedagogical framework, situates student writers within an interpretive community whose members read and write about ideas that matter to them, and in this fashion we lead students who have previously in their education viewed themselves as passive consumers of pre-existing knowledge to see themselves as engaged in and actively producing the knowledge the defines and drives those communities, in our case those who think and write about nature and the environment. To accomplish this, students read and write about texts that present ideas and arguments already in process, and they see how individual writes address certain topics and develop an argument that adds value and interest to certain ideas and concerns. In my specific example, in the earlier part of the semester we are reading seminal texts by Emerson and Thoreau as well as important contributions by figures such as Susan Fenimore Cooper and Sitting Bull, leading up to more recent contributions to the genre from writers like Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez, or Wendell Berry. Students respond in turn to the arguments they encounter with arguments of their own. But where does one place raw observational data? How does one draw connections from personal experience of things about which one knows little to an on-going discourse of ideas?

To ask those questions in a different way, how does one make tangible the process by which new and previously unmediated details and events enter into ongoing discourses and literary traditions? That formulation is bound to raise objections, but I am not being philosophically naïve. It may be ridiculous to speak of wholly unmediated experience, but it is also important to agitate against a sclerotic notion that everything is always already contained by language. We have become so accustomed to the idea that there is not outside to the text that we forget it was meant originally as a provocation and should not be taken as a principle. When I ask students to make a regular habit of going outside to wait and watch for something interesting to observe, I am placing them deliberately beyond the margin of any page with which they are familiar. I expect them to do the work of placing that sensory data within an interpretive context, and I am asking them to formulate an argument about it. I am asking them to say something new, and not entirely about what they have read or what they have thought, but to a large extent about their personal, direct observation. So to repeat the question: how do we make tangible the way new experience enters into expression? The framework for my answer is largely adopted from the semiotic of Charles Sander Peirce. It would be easy enough for me to describe how I teach moving from direct observation to a full argument without relying on an explication of his ideas, and anyone interested in the practical dimensions of my pedagogy can easily benefit from what I am about to write without wrestling too deeply with his ideas. I will use him, though, because he makes an excellent framework for arranging the key elements of my assignments and methods, and not surprisingly, as it was the framework from which much of the course structure was developed. Peirce’s semiotic was developed in no small part to answer the very question about which the pedagogy for the class revolves: how do we write and talk about new experiences?

More on this coming soon. First up will be a discussion of the field journal!


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