Category Archives: teaching

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.

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Non-Human Community

My department recently hosted a three-day Teaching with Technology seminar. I feel I’m already fairly plugged in enough that I have most of the skills involved in teaching using the Internet and social media, though sometimes I do need to be exposed to ideas why this might an area in which I’d want to increase my abilities. I have students in my Science Writing class write blogs over the course of the semester, with some mixed results, but by and large I’m a pen-and-paper kind of composition instructor. Part of it is practical: in a large state university, we’re not providing the students with laptops or tablets, and I can’t necessarily count on students having regular and unimpeded access to devices during class-time. I’m also hyper-vigilant about electronic technologies distracting students from the task at hand during the class, and flipping open a laptop screen reveals at times too many temptations to students, and too many distractions to other students seated behind them.

At the same time, I acknowledge and am a living example of how much actual writing going on in the world is occurring on-line, or at the very least, is occurring while a small stream of on-line information is being held at the ready. Even when writing about nature, I find I’ll have several browser tabs open with scientific or natural history information. I think it’s important to get students aware of and working with these tools in a way that strengthens their own arguments and develops a sense of writing as in part a community process.

So I came away with at the very least a renewed commitment to pushing my students more dramatically toward doing their work online, making the Internet part of the classroom rather than simply a distraction, and particularly my more advanced writing students. I’m still on the fence about whether to drop my usual writing journal requirement for my Writing as a Naturalist class in favor of a blog, as there are still so many advantages in getting students in the habit of taking in-the-field notes. Certainly I will make every effort to either get them to bring laptops or if that fails make machines available to them during class to do collaborative peer-editing on Google Docs, so that not only can I see what revision suggestions are for student drafts but I can also share the drafts with the class for discussion and further revision.

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Should a university accommodate a man’s religious objection to interacting with women in class?

No. And this York University case I think was relatively poorly handled by the administration, and although I don’t fully know the reasons why the professor refused to honor the administration’s decision to accommodate the student, I think that the professor’s actions were appropriate, and I’m glad that the resolution of the case in the end seems satisfactory to both the professor and the students.

Briefly, the student requested accommodation in a hybrid class where much of the work was online, but classroom meetings required working in groups with other students, some of whom were likely going to be women. The university granted the request, and the professor refused to honor it on the grounds that it negatively impacted women in the class, and that granting this request would only open the door to increasingly disruptive demands from others. The professor’s department issued a statement supporting the professor, who continues to refuse to grant the accommodation. The student, though, is apparently satisfied with the seriousness the university debated the request, and is agreeing to comply with the requirements of the course despite his religious sensitivity to the presence of women.

Ordinarily I’m willing to give considerable sympathy to requests for accommodation, in educational situations and otherwise, that might even run against someone’s gut sense of what’s fair and appropriate. Most of these requests are coming from the conflicts between either non-Western, and chiefly Islamic, worldviews or defiantly anti-modern pockets of Christian culture and our contemporary Western, secular spaces. We tend, I think, to overreact initially and bristle at these accommodations because they seem to aggressive challenges to secular values. This is why, for instance, I’m so fascinated with the “headscarf debate” – bans and attacks on women for wearing the headscarf are clear overreactions that demonstrate an emotional engagement that exceeds any rational explanation for one’s position.

No small part of those same secular values, though, insist that we make every effort to accommodate religious requests in public spaces so that all people have equal access to those spaces and in particular no group is denied access because of deeply held convictions. And so the university’s decision to honor the request, and any such request, where there is no “substantial impact” on other students is understandable, and even commendable, since a generous gesture at accommodation should be the default attitude to counter the gut-level emotional responses to challenges.

But secular, public space isn’t entirely a vacuum: it is not merely defined by gate-keeping requirements about behaviors permitted within it. The university is a secular space with very specific cultural orientations, practices, and attitudes, ostensibly directed toward the development and dissemination of knowledge, professionalization, etc. I’m not going to get into deeper debates about the validity of the university and projects of modernity and secularization, so we’ll leave it at that.

You wouldn’t let a student object in a biology class about the teaching of evolution – and I certainly don’t accept student objections to the theory of evolution in my writing classes. If you can’t accept the theory of evolution on religious grounds, then I think you need to accept that a secular space devoted to the transmission of human-centered knowledge absent any divine revelation cannot accommodate you. Other social spaces may be made available, certainly, but the university – and educational institutions, generally – are a very specific secular space. We may wish to view society as a totality in which some accommodation must be made for everyone encompassed, but there’s no way that universities could be made so.

The same has to be the case for gender relations. The same is true for race, class, etc. Secular spaces have real, positive, particular, and, yes, contingent cultures and values. You could argue that not interacting with women is not going to affect those women, and the lack of any real harm done means that accommodation is possible, and this is clearly York’s position. But to do so would violate principle moral values of the secular space – that one does not chose to interact differently with peers in the education setting based on accidental qualities like class, race, gender, etc.

So what’s the difference between allowing headscarves, for instance, and allowing genders to segregate? Somebody could argue that allowing a woman to wear a headscarf in a public space violates the same principles of equality and fairness. Well, in part, this is where I think you need to insist on that initial impulse toward generosity, and I think that in light of that gesture, headscarves seem permissible while gender segregation does not. But I think, too, other inherent values of secularism that respect an individual and individual demands of conscience and hold those values as paramount over freedoms to interact or to chose not interact with others.

I don’t have a clear answer on it, though. And I have to admit that much of this seems rationalization of my own gut-level sense that one should permit religious observation and the dictates of conscience whenever possible but realize that acting within a specific secular space requires abiding by certain values and restrictions placed on interacting with others. And that this is as true in the marketplace as it is at the university.

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Diane Ravitch on the cruel hoax of education reform


This is from her book Reign of Error, which I plan on reading. You should also follow her blog:

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What he said.

Matt Yglesias on student writing and the Internet:

The thing that you have to do if you’re in college is start doing the work. Follow writers you like on Twitter and use it to interact with them. Write your own blog, and even though it probably won’t have many readers take it seriously and write it like it’s intended to be read by total strangers. If you do internships, try to do them at places that hire young people for writing jobs (i.e., not the New Yorker). Think about what would be a good place for a first job, not a place where you’d dream of ending your career. If you do a post critiquing something someone you respect wrote (me, for example) then send an email and explain yourself—you might get noticed. If you get ignored, don’t get discouraged—you might suck, but the guy you wrote to just might have been busy that afternoon.

I’m going to add that writing faculty should be encouraging these activities, and that writing faculty should be taking part in them as well. Obviously.

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The crying student

I get one – at least one – every semester. It’s usually a woman, but men cry, too. (Tracy Budd, who sent into my office the most lachrymose individual I’ve ever had the pleasure, knows exactly what I’m talking about.) Usually it’s someone who’s well indoctrinated into the educational system, enough anyway to regard my pronouncements as not only authoritative but somehow bearing on her or his respective worth or character, has been receiving therefore high marks throughout high school, and has been performing well below level of the typical Rutgers student. And yes, the typical Rutgers student is, while often obnoxious and possessing of a stunning sense of self-entitlement, actually capable of a very high degree of critical intelligence and expression.

They show up in my office mid-semester or a little before because I’ve been giving them poor grades, and they’re trying and trying, but they’re still not getting the grades that would validate them as worthy individuals. And it’s not like I don’t know who they are: usually have been trying to get them into my office so we can figure out what they can do to improve, but this type of student is eager to please and therefore somewhat intimidated by the idea of speaking one-on-one with the person who dispenses knowledge and judgment. But finally they muster up the courage, they come to my office during office hours, and the combination of the humiliation of the poor grades, the habitus of respect for educators and higher education, and the shock of finding themselves in a chair in my office engaged in a conversation with their tormentor reduces them to tears.

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