An Ode To My Students

My class “Literature and the Environment” is not for the student looking to sit back and chill.   It’s a class for champions.  And this semester, I got them.  This little ode is for them.

We started in late January.  It rained.  We read essays by Barry Lopez, bell hooks, Luther Standing Bear, Edward Abbey and Jonathan Safran Foer.  We read Wendell Berry on the Unsettling of America and pondered the ravenous drive for conquest that runs like a river of blood through our history.  What is nature, we asked?  Where is it?  In what ways am I in it, of it?  In the dance between nature and culture, must it be a zero sum game?  And most importantly, what is our paradigm?  What is the paradigm of western culture that has brought us so blithely to our current perilous brink?  Can we change it?

Can reading literature change it?  I want them to believe it can, because it has the power to change the way we think and see.  These students have been willing to entertain that possibility.  They’ve been willing to look into their own ideas and conceptions.  They’ve even been willing to change.

In February (still raining), Thoreau led us through the woods to rapture of his morning bath and the Homeric trumpet of a mosquito, while Michael Pollan brought us back out into the garden and reason.  Rather than roping “nature” off into wilderness preserves while we despoil every other corner of the planet, why not treat the whole thing like a garden?  Let us get what we need while nature gets what it needs to survive.  That way, when we have a woodchuck problem, we don’t have to firebomb the woodchuck burrow, we just need to build a fence.

So through it all, this class has kept with it, reading, thinking, debating, writing.  They are not English majors, except for one.  They will be doctors and lawyers and teachers and hospitality managers and financial consultants and bankers and musicians and landscape architects and chemists and engineers.  A handful aim to do environmental work.  When it comes to writing and reading literature, they were either rusty or brand, shiny new.   But they’ve been willing.  They talk, they have ideas, they’re funny, and willing to try.

When we launched into Mary Austin and Aldo Leopold, things really started to take off.  They were writing well, discussion was fun.  And then I said, “let’s read poetry!”  And despite their fears or uncertainties, their skepticism that a single haiku could mean so much, they still said, “bring it on!”  Or at least they came along.  They did it.  They devised their own odes (to bare feet, to my running shoes, to my snake, to the ocean), they wrote alliterated lines.  They learned how to mark the rhyme scheme of a poem, they worked through its allusive, associative music.  Even Denise Levertov couldn’t stop them.

So now the rain has finally stopped (my plum tree bloomed) and we’re reading fiction.  We just left poor Melanie dead on the floor of her house, killed by the buck she was trying to save from a hunter, their two bodies stuck together by their mingled, frozen blood.  Joyce Carol Oates!  You’re awesome!  And that fabulous sinkhole of Treviño’s?  Well, we’re still pondering the significance of that Chevy that rises from the miraculous (or scientifically explicable) river.

The pages keep coming, and we’re about to start Ann Pancake’s novel, As Strange as this Weather Has Been, about a family living in Appalachian coal country.   I’m feeling just a little fear.  It’s a lot of pages between now and graduation.  Other classes might not get through it.  But this one can.   This bunch is like a schooner with a fair wind in its sails.  No matter what’s going on below decks—tiredness, skepticism, the complications of life and other, more pressing concerns—they just keep sailing on.

So in high ode mode, let me slip into apostrophe and say, Oh, Mahina, Anna, Jonathan, Chet, Bilkis, Lauren, Courtney, Alycia, Sanjeshni, Jenny, Abayomi, Taylor, Monique, Alice, Michael, Kaleen, Joanna, Alyssa, Megan, Liz, Nina, Jennifer, Aaron, Nancy, E.B., Jacquie, Paul, Kelsey, Kate and Lea!  Thank you for your sportingness in trying something new.  May you always keep your ear tuned to the music of language, and to the rhythms of the natural world.

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16 Responses to “An Ode To My Students”

  1. Flood Says:

    I wish I could be in your class, lady.

  2. Tracy Seeley Says:

    Flood! You’re in a class of your own, luv. What are you reading? (I still need to send you ‘Drood.’ And also some chutney from last summer’s garden. And plum jam.) Love, Mum

  3. david silver Says:

    what’s better than a classroom of engaged learners? sounds like a great course tracy.

  4. Taylor Fuijfroto Says:

    excellente.

    And what a great ode,
    covering a semester,
    and the joys within.

  5. An Honored Student Says:

    What a lovely ode, and what lucky students we are to have a professor that cares. This course has pushed me to engage further, deeper with literature and the topics involved. Thank YOU!

  6. Tracy Says:

    Taylor, thanks. And An Honored Student, thanks to you, too. Hope you’re enjoying the novel so far.

  7. Karina Says:

    I would take this course even if it weren’t for that C1 core!! Any chance you’ll be teaching it in Spring 2011? (please)

  8. Lois Says:

    love this posting. this is learning at its best. lucky students! lucky you! great literature, great values, great learning. what life/learning should be! and fortunately sometimes is!!!

  9. Maria Says:

    Oh, how I miss being in your classes! This sounds like a marvelous class, and I am delighted to know that your current group of students has been rising to the challenge so well.

  10. Nisi Says:

    What a splendid lineup! It must be refreshing to teach a class of non-majors, I bet their writing and opinions are far more earnest than us name-dropping majors.

    As for what you mentioned about the zero sum gain tendency of nature and culture- I’m intrigued!

    I just returned from a 70 person camping trip where I spent the weekend trying to make sense of that general idea. The campsite had this strange combination of comfort and wilderness- solar panels next to a mossy pond, campers applying herbal big bite salves while sitting on top of an air mattress. The crowd was very bay area- engineers and social workers by day, poi spinners and gaia worshipers by night.

    Some of the them whined about the lack of wifi and others thought the place was a sham because it wasn’t primitive enough. Such a divided mindset about how we approach nature in a modern way. I tried to argue that there can be a middle ground between going Thoreau and staying at an all inclusive resort. So what if everyone isn’t fully roughing it? At least they came out! But in society as well as in lit study, we seem to have such absolutist tendencies. If we find one contradiction or do not adhere blindly to every tenet of a notion, why bother apparently…

    • Tracy Seeley Says:

      Nisi, What a pleasure! Binary thinking is all the rage, it seems. Could be the 9/11 hangover, could be all those zeros and ones. Who knows? Your camping trip is a great, illustrative anecdote of binary thinking about nature in western culture. Not every culture even has a concept of “wilderness,” because they live (or did) in a way that’s integrally related to the natural world. In the industrialized world, that’s an uncommon way of thinking. You might pass along the word that Thoreau went into town several evenings a week for supper, and he also didn’t go into the “wilderness” unarmed by culture. He had his education, his gardening tools, his learned manual skills. We take culture with us wherever we go, including our conceptions of “nature.”

    • Tracy Seeley Says:

      And yes, it’s delicious teaching non-majors. They’re open, curious and ready to challenge me, which keeps me on my toes; though they don’t have nearly as many tattoos and piercings as English majors.

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