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Syllabus: Walden International: Analyzing Thoreau Across Cultures

Syllabus: Walden International: Analyzing Thoreau Across Cultures


Hi Patrick, Thank you for letting your course be one we discuss and build on together on Monday, December 7. Because it is so thoughtfully and professionally prepared, it provides a perfect "worked example" that we can experiment with together to see different ways we can insert student-centered learning exercises into any course.

I'm going to write out some ideas here and I'd love to discuss them together with the group.  We'll build those out further so others can learn from them.  Some might be useful to you, some not.  I hope they will give everyone ideas about how to take a great course and think about how to make it student centered and engaged. 

That always begins with the "why" questions so deeply embedded in Walden and in Thoreau's search for meaning.

You have created a beautiful course.  Why make it more student centered? Because you are the prof, because you know this work so well, and because your beautiful videos will be "representing" Walden Pond (and making your work even more central), and because you are doing this in Kunshun--where all experience is allive with the new and rich and meaningful--it is seems so important that this course not be about your expertise or about Thoreau's but about all the ways that the students themselves can become experts in this material, all the ways they can grow and learn. 

It seems so important, in Thoreau's fashion, to find ways to give the student's ownership and allow them a personal relationship to this material that isn't already mediated by the bureaucratic structures of a university that, of course, you are required to enact.  Give them something, every day, that isn't about a grade, an assignment.

This is such a fabulous course--and to teach it in Kunshan is a precious experience, precious for a lifetime.  I love it that you are teaching only one book and a great one that, in its core, demands a one book course because the real course of Walden is the reader, life itself, power of observation, attention, a way of seeing and interacting with and being in the world.  Your students will be having experiences--and you will be--that they could not have in any other way. 

You want Walden to be their best possible guide book to Kunshan and to cross-cultural learning.  That means part of your job is to get out of the way.

Anything and everything you can do to make the course more student-centered will enrich it in ways that will enrich them and you for a lifetime.   You're already so close. 

A few class rituals or practices that are not on the syllabus and are not graded will take this to the next level of engagement without disrupting your wonderful syllabus in any way.  

I have an idea for you for a 3-minute opening practice for every class.  And then I have one big assignment idea. 

Because all of that is so much the core of Walden, it works exceptionally well with student-centered learning. 

You will have accomplished in your course what Thoreau accomplishes by writing and having you read Walden if your students begin to see the world and their place in it differently because of this book.  That means, you need them to engage the book, grapple with it, and not just write assignments about it.  Clearly this book has been deeply meaningful for you.  You want them to have a meaningful experience with this text too.  

Don't put this daily class practice anywhere on your syllabus.  It's about their own meaning making, choice, conversation.



IDEA #1 Substituting a meaningful--and quick--Think-Pair-Share ritual for class attendance, pop quizzes, getting-to-know you exercises, late warnings, and other settling down time wasters at the beginning of a typical class:

Think-Pair-Share as a Class Practice (substitutes for attendance, pop quizzes, "settling in" time).  At most 3 minutes each class. Hand out index cards and have students write a favorite quote from their assigned reading.  I think it is best if they do this quickly in class. 

(One practical thing it does is, by being so quick, it means they prepare more because they expect they'll be doing it.  It's a pop quiz but deep.  I have a friend who does this with 600 students in a lecture class instead of attendance and pop quizzes and he says it change everything about the actual feel in the room: the students come prepared, as active learners, almost impossible to achieve in a lecture hall.) 

Think (90 seconds):  Write down your favorite quote from this week's reading.  Put down pencils. 

Pair (90 seconds): Take turns.  This is important.  One person reads, the other actively listens to their quote--even if they wrote the same quote.  That person takes 45 seconds to explain why it is meaningful. Then the second person reads, and the first person listens to the quote, and the person explains why it is meaningful. 

And ask them to find a way to make a connection between the two quotes, their two comments, something they synthesized together that they can share with the group.   One idea:  have them together write their own Thoreau-like quote to read to the class.  You could vary this or do the same thing each class.  It's profound.

(3) Share:  Have some way the pair share what they discussed with the group.  One person can write down their synthesized quote on a class wiki and one could read it to the class, taking turns, sharing it with everyone.  


Here are some of miy personal favorite quotes from Walden:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

“Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.”

"I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.”

“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

“As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.”

“Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new.”

And this one could be the "motto" of Think-Pair-Share:

"I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.”

I found all of my favorites on Good Reads, put there and voted on by readers.  Isn't it lovely to see hundreds of people "voting" on Thoreau's quotes.  No grade, no requirements, just loving the writing enough to put up quotes and others to like the quote.  From Good Reads: "Walden by Henry David Thoreau 98,521 ratings, 3.79 average rating, 2,827 reviews." 

At a sad time in human history, it makes me deeply happy that Walden has had nearly 100,000 ratings from people who have no reason to do this other than that they want to share something they found meaningful with other people they do not know.

Even now, having read Walden many times I yearn for a chance to sit quietly even for 90 seconds with someone else, to read aloud the quote I've written on my card while they listen, and then to explain why I selected it, why it is meaningful to me, why I think it is important, why I value it.   So Walden. 

Remember: Thoreau writes a lot about solitude and yet he is writing a book.  He is translating his onw experience for the world.  The index cards give your students a daily practice of doing that with another human being who is precisely not the teacher, not the expert, not the grader.  Friendship in that second chair.  A listener.  An audience.

And then to sit quietly while another human being reads their selected quote to me and explains why he or she chose it.  (The sitting silently and learning to listen actively is essential for this assignment and a great way to talk about listening and seeing in Walden not just reading and writing and watching.) 

And then, after each has actively listened, then to have them discuss the relationship between the two quotes and their two ideas together.  Change the pairs each class.  What an amazing way for people to get to know one another. 


If you can make a Wiki for your class, make your own class Good Reads: have each student put their favorite quote up on the Wiki and invite everyone to vote on their favorite quotes.  If you can make the Wiki be public, they are learning to do what Thoreau did, to write in the world, in a very safe and easy way.  They can even write short comments about individual quotes in a HASTAC group and start learning this practice in a save environment.

Efficiencies:  Have them sign their cards and hand them in to you after the exercise:  you have taken attendance which would have taken longer than that; it also serves the function of a reading quiz (but far more interactive and not busy work).  It is an un-bureaucratic way of making sure every student is "present" and not just as a body.  

Student-centering is centering.

SUMMARY:  Some tips: 

  • Don't put it on a syllabus.
  • Use a timer to give it a set place.  Very specific, brief. It changes things when they know there is a timer and it will sound.  It's a ritual. This exercise will change everything in your class.  Like breathing exercises before you do the poses in yoga. They aren't a warm up.  They are a necessity if you are going to go deep.
  • Change the pairs each class.  Students leave most classes not even knowing one another's names.
  • And you do it too, pairing with a different student each class, and modeling the exact, precise assignment, including active listening.
  • Collect the signed cards.  They are informational for you, a great record, but don't turn them into anything bureaucratic even though they are so useful for keeping track of who is coming, who is doing the reading, the level of English and participation, all that.  You could even do something beautiful, non-bureaucratic, with the cards such as photographing them and putting them on a class wiki.
  • Include a "share" element that is public to the class
  • Include a "share" element that is as public to the world as you want to make it.  Maybe have them Tweet the favorite quote of the week. #WaldenKunshan


IDEA 32:  Assignment Idea:  Kunshan Is Your Walden Pond  

Because your videos of Walden Pond are a key element of the course and because creating a 2-3 minute video requires a lot of deep planning, script writing, thinking, and engagement, here's an idea that is in keeping with the spirit of the class, will give it more of a student-centered edge, and adds an assignment the students will love and you will too.

Why not for one of their writing assignments have them do what you did: make a 2-3-minute video of some area within walking distance, Thoreau-like, of the Kunshan campus that is inspired by one of your videos of Walden Pond and talks back to your vide and to Walden

Make sure this is not about equipment.  They can do it with a simple smart phone or very simple video camera. 

Make sure it is not about beauty.  Let them know how Walden Pond is in the midst of highways and famously, in the past (I think it was removed) a McDonald's.  See if they can find a place of beauty, no matter how small, somewhere in walking distance of the campus.

Have them write a script for their video in advance, plot out the video, and either record a voice over during the filming, added in a subsequent editing (if that isn't too hard), or just, in the simplest version, read aloud while showing the video to the class.  

You can still grade that writing, you will learn so much about Kunshan, and it will inspire them to explore the area through Thoreau's eyes and see it deeply. 

You can set parameters, such as their video needs to incorporate at least one or two quotes from Walden.

By making their own video, they are--to use our metaphor in The Engaged Scholar--building their own "podium" that lets them rise a little higher from student to the place of the professor, to an area where they and they alone are the expert.  On whatever patch of the world they make into their video, they are Thoreau. 

This assignment allows them to be creative, to be tour guides to another place, to see and listen and experience their world with a director's and writer's eye.  They are the ones doing the transforming, in the manner of Thoreau.  It is a great way of allowing them to be empowered by Thoreau, to be powerful, and to really absorb Walden and transform it with their own vision and words in a creative but also exceptionally disciplined and careful way. 

The goal of all student-centered learning is learning beyond the classroom, to allow students to become expert enough that they can apply what they have learned to other situations, lifelong. 

A decade from now, I guarantee this is the assignment they will most remember  (there is so much research on this). 

And I know it will make you, with the depth of your soul and your deep love of nature, if you can know that, for the rest of their lives, they will never look at nature without remembering it and remembering Thoreau and thinking of their own #WaldenKunshan

You too, I bet!  

It would be thrilling if they were willing to share their videos in this HASTAC Engaged Scholar group. 


WHY?  I can hear Thoreau asking Why and Wherefore?

Right now, researchers are doing a project on the inequality in the seminar room, including in the writing class that we used to think was the most egalitarian of spaces, far more than the lecture class.  Without some engaged activity, the preliminary research suggests that the small seminar class can be even more unequal than the lecture class, replicating race, gender, and class patterns so demographically (and diabolically) precise that they are close to being like standardized testing in correlating with cultural and economic norms rather than actual skill and ability. 

Isn't that tragic?  Because they are small, seminars and typical writing classes allow dominant personalities to really dominate. 

Being human, we tend to recognize those who most reflect our values. (There is a reason different disciplines have different "personalities" and some of it is predilection and some of it is selection by profs who, in the implied apprenticeship model, recognize and reward like-minded people who express themselves in similar ways.)  

It is easy to hide in a 200-person class.  If you are hiding in a 12-person class, you are actually damaging yourself, your sense of agency in the world.  

I always say:  You cannot counter structural inequality with good will.  You have to structure equality. 

If we go into a classroom knowing that it is not neutral, that the classroom itself embodies a hierarchy of inequal values, we can either choose to ignore those structural inequalities or we can think of ways to structure equality into what we do.

If we do not structure equality, it is statistically likely that we will perpetuate outcomes similar to those everyone else in our profession at large has has perpetuated because the classroom itself is predisposed to certain outcomes. 

One of these is a professorate that, in the U.S. is 87% white.  Given how much attention is paid to race in the academy, how could that happen?  It happens because the field we play in is not level and so, if we wish to contribute a correction, we have to find ways to level the field.

Here's another: a recent study offers data that students who major in English have the highest family economic background of any other field; the humanities on general have a higher income demographic than business or science.  Some of this is a product of tuition and tuition debt:  how can you afford to go into a field that does not seem to offer jobs if you have $200,000 in tuition debt and no family economic cushion, no parents' basement to move back into after graduation?  Part may be other reasons.  It's worth thinking about.

Anything you can do to get yourself out of the way as the prof, and let the students find a voice, helps them have a sense of agency.   Many Duke students have a sense of agency because of the world in which they were raised.  Some do not.  Some (especially women:  more studies on this) lose that sense of agency the longer they are in co-ed institutions, especially those with a strong athletic and fraternity/sorority presence.  

Anything you can do to ensure that each student has agency will help them translate everything they learn from you and with you into the world they live in when you are not there. How to do that for all your students is something you need to structure into the course: especially when you may be teaching subsequently at a university less elite and therefore less selective of certain social and economic factors than Duke.  But it will also be true of students in your Duke classes where cultural, racial, albe-ist, and gender hierarchies come into play. 

If students learn they have a voice, they can translate that voice into meaning in the world.


I am so happy for you that you will be doing this.  I hope it is a rich, unforgettable journey.


Great syllabus, Patrick! Thank you for sharing it with us tonight for the workshop. Are you on Twitter? I want to tweet this one out and want to be sure to give you full and proper credit.

Amanda Starling Gould


Thanks, Amanda!  Yes, I'm on Twitter: @ PTMorgan87.  Thanks for the support!


Great to have you on Twitter! I already tweeted about your great syllabus but I'll do so again now using your handle! I hope you'll post an update about this class after - or while - you teach it!