This is a revised excerpt from a longer post published on November 21, 2016. Read the original post here.
Assigning a Nature Walk in American Lit
I teach a survey course in American Literature (origins to the Civil War) in which I try to do two things: (1) show students that the nation’s origins depend on its founding mothers and people of color as well as its founding fathers; and (2) bring urban students into closer contact with nature so they can see how environment shapes identity. When we arrive at the American Transcendentalists, #2 becomes more important because many of my students are native New Yorkers who haven’t had the same experience of drinking “the wild air” like Emerson and Thoreau. Yet they always find nature in New York–so much of it, in fact, that they have taught me to love this city.
The semester I first did this in November 2016, I required students write a total of five blog posts for our course, one of which is a reflection on a one-hour “nature walk” sans technology (or with their phones turned to airplane mode). I did this again just recently after the mid-term elections in 2018, but this time I assigned six reading reflections (or the option to write a midterm paper), plus this nature walk (required for everyone).
When I do this, I recommend students bring Emerson or Thoreau with them if the weather allows. Most importantly, I ask them to use all of their senses. In 2016, many students took this time to reflect on the election and expressed doubt and despair. However, most blog posts ended peacefully and contentedly; they often reach a sense of calm after spending an hour away from technology focusing on their environment. It could not have come at a better time in 2016, yet I certainly had not predicted the outcome of the election! I had positioned this blog post near the end of the semester to help students combat end-of-term anxiety and fatigue.
Now having done this three times, I find that it helps students determine their own definitions of "nature," which helps them approach the literature we're reading as well as climate change in new and deeply personal ways. Those who have read Timothy Morton or some of the recent work on the Anthropocene know that "nature" is a contentious word because it has been so often used to define "us" (humans) as separate from "them" (nonhumans). What this exercise does is make clear for students how permeable the body is to its surroundings (I take a New Materialist approach to Ecocrit).
While I could ask students to visit any number of the wonderful museums in New York City, this activity is my favorite (and it's also their favorite reflection of the semester!) because it requires some creative thinking about what constitutes "nature" in an urban context. It's also an activity that anyone can assign because it's free. I'm very cognizant by November that students are struggling to keep up with their homework while working jobs (sometimes multiple), supporting their families, and, in some cases, managing food and housing scarcity. Sometimes a nature walk is the only kind of therapeutic activity that students can afford to combat anxiety and depression. It is both an active learning experience and a healthful activity that, as we know from multiple studies, improves student performance.