Walking and talking: Learning outside the classroom door

College Eight lecturer Candace Calsoyas

When College Eight lecturer Candace Calsoyas was teaching freshman seminars on “Environment and Society,” she shepherded students outdoors where, she found, the Aristotelian model of walking and talking stimulated active learning.

A UC Berkeley grad, Calsoyas moved to Santa Cruz and became an organic farmer. Meanwhile, she continued to study biology and literature at UCSC, where her Ph.D. focused on women and land. She taught Literature of the Sea aboard the California Maritime ship, The Golden Bear, and taught on the world voyage of Semester at Sea.

Making use of her organic farming expertise, she taught the College Eight garden internship. Her farm also serves as a model of sustainability that College Eight  students visit for their field project in the Core Course.

She's taught environmental literature at the University of Tirana in Albania as a Fulbright scholar. Next year, she will teach the Senior Exit Class in Environmental Studies, focusing on experiential learning.

In her essay below, Calsoyas presents her views on the peripatetic learning experience.

By Candace Calsoyas

Toting 50 copies of Bill McKibben's American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau and a box of Orion magazines, I had come to Albania on a Fulbright fellowship to teach environmental literature. I knew little except that the country recently came out of a dreary, 50-year communist dictatorship and I suspected that environmentalism was unknown.

When students read Thoreau, Alice Walker, Rachel Carson, they discovered a different image of America; they were astounded by the courage of environmentalists. “A normal wife and mother like Lois Gibbs took on Hooker Chemical Company,” they remarked. They awakened to the problems of their country, to the strewn plastic and garbage and the heavily polluted air.

Like the city, the University of Tirana was old and in disrepair, not to mention the lack of Internet and even chalk. So it seemed natural, to get out of the classroom, walk to the “Artificial Lake” where we did exercises to connect, to what students called, “the nature.”  Exposure to nature writing, and writing essays about villages where they were from created an  awareness  and a physical sense of their country: they  became eco-literate.  Students researched problems such as dumpsites, thermoelectric plants, and one student, passionate about Rachel Carson, wanted to translate Silent Spring into Albanian.

The out-of-curiosity essay

Back at UC Santa Cruz teaching freshmen seminars on “Environment and Society,” I considered how to combine peripatetic learning and critical thinking. In an article, “Our Universities: Why are they Failing?” Anthony Grafton points to a study showing that after two years of college, 45 percent of students have not improved in critical thinking, complex thinking, and writing. Additionally, Grafton says that professors gabble through PowerPoints while graduate students do the real teaching of undergraduates. He also cites statistics showing that students study less, now an average of 12 hours a week down from 25 hours in 1961. (The New York Review of Books,  Nov. 24, 2011)

 In line with this critique, students, expecting to be spoon-fed, ask “what do you want us to do … how do you want this essay?” I seldom felt I had a convincing answer to these questions and sounding feeble I would make a stab: “I want you to write it in a way that works for you.”

So I forced accountability–throwing away the spoon and forcing them to instigate their learning process, in other words, to think. The strategy seemed easy enough:  “Write a one-page 'out-of-curiosity essay' in which you pose a question that cropped up from the reading. Then create a balanced discussion addressing the question.” 

In class, students partner, exchange essays and then walk while discussing the questions. The day is balmy as we amble through meadows overlooking crystalline Monterey Bay. They walk in pairs, waving their one-pages and freely talking. Walking dispels nervousness of being put on the spot in the classroom, gives students the safety of interacting one-to-one, and is just plain fun! It is a peripatetic exercise, named after Aristotle's school. He believed that strolling in the shade of grape arbors was conducive to an in-depth student/teacher exchange.

As I walk closer, I hear a student critiquing his partner's essay; he suggests that God seems irrelevant in Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, since many of his characters have lost faith.   

Shifting the learning dynamic

Arriving at a vista where we can sit, students have spent about 15 minutes talking. Walking shifts the teaching dynamic: students are not just empty vessels waiting to be filled but are active in their learning. And they have practiced, so they are ready to comment to the larger group. I start by asking, “Was your partner's question a good one?” Then the class critiques what makes a good question and an effective discussion. Is God relevant in Grapes of Wrath? “Certainly,” responds a student, “as there are many biblical references including the name of the novel and Casy's loss of faith which brings up the whole issue of religion.” These questions then serve as a springboard for my own agenda and as  a departure point for key concepts and  analysis of the text.

When the class read Eric Schlosser's chapter “What's in the Meat,” from Fast Food Nation, Sarah posed the question: “Is it overproduction that creates problems in the food industry?” The question  reflected her curiosity about the roots and sources of problems in food and why, to quote Schlosser's memorable line, is there “shit in the meat?” With too many quotes, Sarah's essay left little room for her discussion. When I suggested she paraphrase, she caught on quickly. 
 At times, questions that seemed overly broad actually produced lively debate, but, as students began to realize, could not be dealt with adequately in just one page. Again in response to Eric Schlosser, Kim asked, “If fast-food is so bad, why isn't it banned?” Discussing rights of the consumer, the parallels of cigarette and alcohol consumption, showed that the issue was not only complex, but huge. Students, seeing how much could be said about a question, shifted from the usual dread of writing papers to enthusiasm, and were eager to write the longer essays. Using her question, Jamie derived the topic for the longer essay: “Is it unethical to not label genetically modified food?” The question provoked, not only a discussion about labeling, but a debate about what is ethical. From the discussion, she gathered more information to include in her essay.

Provocative questions

 Learning how to pose and discuss provocative questions effectively was initially a bumpy ride, but students rapidly improved and by the third curiosity essay, they had greatly improved.  Additionally, the mini-essays were overall less daunting and receiving concise criticisms on a one-page essay was less disheartening than receiving heavily marked long essays with multiple problems.  As the essays improved, grading become less onerous and though there were more assignments, I shortened the length of longer essays. By the time students wrote longer essays, they had completed four “out-of-curiosity” essays with the result that their papers were much more coherent and better organized.

Even though the UCSC campus is ideal for the  “Walk and Talk” exercise, urban Albania, where students had seldom ventured forth from the classroom, was equally if not more successful. However, the “out-of-curiosity essays” were only moderately successful, mostly because students were not as adept in reading and writing English.

At UCSC, students liked the curiosity essays and noted that they now could easily come up with questions which generally helped class participation and writing papers. They also admitted to initially being frightened by the “walk and talk,” having to speak to another student, but that too became easier. Though UCSC is exceptionally beautiful with its mountain perch, majestic redwoods, and textured seascape below, still every landscape and cityscape suits the “walk and talk.” Unlike being in the classroom, students are liberated by being outside, their dialogue shaped by environs.