Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Attending to being outside--and inside: what difference does it make?

Anne Dalke's picture

...and how are you dealing w/ the difference? What are the "rules of engagement" for our meetings in these alternative spaces? Please post a comment on the day when you selected our site, describing both what you noticed and how you coped w/ the distractions of being outside (or not)... Do you have any ideas about how to incorporate them into our curriculum?

As a prompt, here's something one of my seniors wrote: Having class outside is not working for me.  At first, I was excited to have class outside.  I love being outside!  I’m realizing now that I should not mix school and outside.  Even though we’re physically outside of the classroom, the standards for our performance in discussions haven’t changed.  I spent a lot of time on Wednesday in class wondering what the blue jay was squawking about, and what the red tailed hawk was hunting for, and why it got so quiet in the last 15 minutes of class.  There were times when I had to look at my hands to keep them from picking at the grass and building log cabins with the twigs on the ground.  All the while, I felt guilty for not paying attention the way I am supposed in class.  If we’re expecting the same kind of attention to discussion as we do in other classes, then I think we should move inside.  If we’re expecting something different from discussion in this class, then I think we need to go over the rules.

So: what are our (implicit) "rules"? How might we make them explicit? How might they evolve over the semester? Let's see....
Th, 9/20 Alex --on the lawn near Rhoads pond
T, 9/25 Sarah C--adirondack chairs outside of English House
(inside, inside...)
Th, 10/4  Hannah --on the Moon Bench
T, 10/9 Zoe --on the fountain, in the Cloisters
Th, 10/11--field trip to Harriton House
Fall Break
T, 10/23 Claire--arbor in Sunken Garden, behind Wyndham
Th, 10/25 geological exploration of campus w/ Prof. Crawford
T, 10/30 Hurricane Sandy
Th, 11/1 Sara L--Taylor E
T, 11/6 Minh--on the lawn behind Carpenter (overlooking Goodhart)
Th, 11/8 Elizabeth--Quita Woodward Room, Thomas
T, 11/13 Rochelle--Quita Woodward Room, Thomas
Th, 11/15 Barbara--Common Room, Erdman
T, 11/20 Shengjia--lawn near Pembroke Arch
T, 11/27 Wanhong--Taylor E
Th, 11/29 Susan--Taylor E
T, 12/4 Maddie--Carpenter Beach
Th, 12/6 Rochelle--Quita Woodward Room, Thomas
T, 12/11 Elizabeth--London Room
Th, 12/13 Final Teach-In--Taylor E



mbackus's picture

Back to the Beach!!

Wow! What amazing weather we had! And even in December! Both good and bad, no? It made me think about global warming quite a bit, and for that beautiful hour and a half outside, I didn't mind it one bit. Hindsight tells me I should, and I guess I do... Anway, I found the experience to be amazing (mostly because of the weather), but I was very easily distracted, mosty by grass... I think the learning experience went well, and now that we have been outside for the majority of our classes I am used to it. I didn't notice anything new during this occasion, but I had a wonderful time.

mtran's picture

Back to the beach!

I thought I did a post reflecting on class the day I selected the site, but it seems like I did not… So thanks Maddie for choosing the place again, in such a nice weather. The last time we were there I remember it was such a cold day and somehow I felt like we all sat closer to each together, as if to keep ourselves warm. There were a short while, much shorter in comparison to our sunny class today, when the sun came out and we all stopped to enjoy the few precious moments. Today it felt good to come back and enjoy the whole class in the spring-like weather. However, when we had our silent conversation, my thoughts on the lives, the fights and the dilemmas among human and nonhuman animals seemed out of place with the weather. In the context of beautiful nature, humans talk about our own (mis)treatment of animals, what a paradox… I wonder if it would make any difference if we were discussing this topic on the cold gloomy day several weeks ago, in the same place?!

Susan Anderson's picture

I really liked having class

I really liked having class inside today.  Although it makes more sense to keep class indoors as the weather grows colder, I also think that it makes more sense for how this class is proceeding.  In the beginning of the course, I feel like we needed to ground our ecology in something tangible.  As many ecocritics write, we simply need to get outside to feel more connected to nature.  However, the trade off in our experience of the outdoors is that we spent much of the time during our class finding where we were to meet and talking about how it was to be outdoors rather than focusing more of our time on discussion of the texts we had read.  I think it was important to discuss being outdoors, I think now we have a sense of how important being outside is to understanding ecology.  It is good to spend some time their and develop an understanding, a respect, or a connection, not an attachment, to the place where we thrive.  Now that we, as a group, have an understanding about being outside, it is important to spend all of the little time we have left discussing what is left and cutting ourselves off from the distractions of the world.  

I have missed some of the conveniences of the classroom when our class goes elsewhere.  Sure, the chairs in Thomas E are squeaky, but we have chalkboards.  What a marvel!  I love the moments when Anne writes something on the board.  It gives me another way of interpreting the information that we discuss.  In the beginning of the course, I did not view the room like this.  I saw it as just another classroom.  But now, when I walk into Thomas E, my mind immediately says, "Okay, now it is time to get to business!"

wanhong's picture

Back to Taylor E

The weather has been cold these days but the snow this morning still shocked me. I began to think about the good things about buildings--the "unnatural" buildings, in other words, "shelter".

It was warm inside Taylor Hall, and our classroom was as clean and bright as it had been before. It reminds me of the first time I entered this room, when I had no idea what we are going to learn and do in class. It reminds me of the words "origin", "start", and "home".We haven't had class at Taylor E for sometime, and I miss it, somehow.

How many people have been discussing in this room? How many classes have been held in this room? It has been, is and will be there, to welcome students. It is the place where our journey of Ecological Imaginings began.

Shengjia-Ashley's picture

Lawn Near Pem Arch

Having the class at the lawn near Pem Arch was not my plan.

I planned to reserve a room in the lower level of carpenter library. Though the rooms are a little creepy without the windows, I thought bringing the class to “underground” would be a very different experience.

But I failed to book a room using BMC room reservation system. So I had to give up the “underground” experience and announced on Monday night the class should meet in Taylor E.

On Tuesday morning, I was walking around the whole campus for conferences and errands. I felt the sun was warmer than the previous days. Realizing Tuesday could be the last the class could endure the weather outside, I decided, at the very last minute, to change the meeting place to outdoors to the lawn near Pem Arch that I walk by everyday. The leaves on the tree had changed into very beautiful colors, which would be a pleasure for everyone to look at during class.

However, the sun was not very cooperative. It started to hide behind the clouds and only intermittently peep out for a little while. I had imagined the weather to be warmer at noon, but it was colder without the consistent sunshine.

There were more people walking by at Pem Arch. Most people avoided making too much voice when they realized we are having a class. However, it was still distracting to see someone carrying a luggage when the Thanksgiving Holiday hadn’t started for anyone in the class. 

Barbara's picture

Erdman Common Room: Something in between

I chose Erdman common room because it is spacious and the building is very different from the mainstream architectural style on campus. I thought the contrast between gothic and modern styles would bring something new.  The concrete wall and high ceiling make the common room look like an industrial product. Usually I do not like this type of factory-like setting; however, I have had a comfortable experience during the class. I tried to come up with a list of what made the difference. I figured it was the furniture, the windows and the activities that were going on that influenced my experience. The furniture was simple yet comfortable. They added color to the grey background of the common room. The circle we made created sense of tight community. The cozy ambience erased the oppression that bland concrete walls created. I really appreciated the huge windows in the room. They projected enough natural light for us as well as connected us to the world outside of the room, which was a very ecological and smart design. The activities – the ecological conversations also contributed a lot. In a usual industrial setting, what happen are machine, instruction and stress. However, in the room we were exploring wilderness and true self. The conversation expanded my imagination. What I saw was not confined in the room; I perceived a lot of images, following the passage we read aloud. One interesting aspect about being at Erdman common room was I realized we had some trouble with controlling the volume of our voice. When we were outside, everyone tried to project their voice and in a usual class room we knew how loud we need to speak. But Erdman was something in between. When we trying to hear what each other’s words, I realized that we were actually confined in a small space.

Rochelle W.'s picture

I didn't know what the

I didn't know what the weather would be like when I chose to have class in the Quita Woodward room, but it wasn't very nice out yesterday so I'm glad that we did have class inside. When we had class there last week it felt like the a good place to have it class. It felt like a place where learning happens. This was true for yesterday also. I was engaged by the conversation the whole time, which does not always happen when we are outside. Especially on cooler, damper days.  I think one of the reasons we have class outside is because outside, on this campus at least, is a nice place to be. The surroundings are pleasant and being outside makes us feel good (...well most of us I think). I think the reading room did the same thing, provided a pleasant surrounding that brought good feelings, but with less of a distraction (of the cold, the grass, leaf blowers etc.). Admittedly we did lose the ability to attend to the outdoors, but I think that was okay.  

Elizabeth's picture

Staying in the Quita Woodward Room

I chose to have class today in the Quita Woodward Room because of its windows. Goodhart's glass atrium would have given us a more panoramic, uninterrupted view, but it was closed for student use because of the production. So, the Quita Reading Room it was! I'm really glad that we ended up having class there (although sorry for the short notice!)--it was warm and the wood paneling and bookshelves made it all the more cozy.

From where I was sitting, there was a large tree right in view, and Rock seemed to almost create a courtyard around it. The wind was twirling its branches all around, and it seemed to have lost quite a lot of its yellow leaves because of it. I was certainly very glad to be out of that storm! A major downfall of not being outside was the lack of noise, though. If we had been out in that windstorm, I could have heard the wind whipping through that tree. Instead, I heard myself typing notes about the view. More isolated from the outdoors than usual, I wrote instead of observing. There are quite a lot of distractions outside, but I usually give them all equal weight, instead of being more involved in note-taking than the actual class.

That being said, I was still a lot more comfortable out of the cold. Especially now that winter is coming, I'll just have to get used to observing inside, and find a balance between reflecting on my surroundings and paying attention to them.

Sara Lazarovska's picture

Inside, Finally!

Having class inside for a change was wonderful for me. Being a person that prefers being inside to being surrounded by nature, this helped me concentrate better - I was more able to follow class discussion and actively engage in it. I got a feeling that most people felt the same or similarly, since almost everyone contributed to the discussion and analysis of ecofeminism. However, I do realize that some people would rather have been outside, so I definitely cannot overgeneralize my statements here and claim that everybody was overjoyed that we were finally inside. On a side note, the last few times that we had class outside, I noticed that a lot of people were cold and shivering for most of their class (I know it's everyone's personal responsibility to take care of themselves, but I cannot help but feel bad for people that are cold) and that they looked like they were quite uncomfortable sitting outside for 80-90 minutes. I generally like the cold and don't mind wearing layers of clothes to keep myself warm, but I noticed that my feet, because I was stationary during our class, started to feel numb with cold, which was something I was not used to since my feet are usually too warm. Hence, a thought popped up: what if instead of sitting all throughout our class, we take a walk for a part of it? It could be a nice way to keep ourselves from being too cold, but I realize it might be difficult to hold a class while walking. Maybe while we have our group discussions? I don't know about this, I haven't given it much thought - it's just an idea I thought I'd put out there. I mentioned all this about our classes outside even though my choice of place to meet was inside (Taylor E); I just realized that there was all this contrast between our usual classes (outside) and this one, at least for me. But then again, I cannot talk for everybody.

Sarah Cunningham's picture

correlation is not causality!

Well I noticed that people were speaking up more-- and speaking louder!-- at Thursday's class, but I thought it was due to our hurricane discussion having gotten started on line, and due to the hurricane itself having brought ecological concerns close to home, enlivening our thinking and energising our discussion. It didn't occur to me that it was due to being inside. So there you go, different perspectives.

I also think that one of the good things about having class outside is being reminded that we have bodies!

CMJ's picture


Class today was satisfying. It was so nice to see all of your faces again after fall break! Being outside, however, I have mixed feelings about. I was very excited to pick the spot, but I do not think nature was in my corner today. Or maybe it was..? I felt a little betrayed after it began to rain (why my day? huh?), then once we moved under the arbor I couldn't help but stare into the distance at the falling rain, half paying attention. I did notice that I had things to say, pertinent to the discussion, while looking at the world around us, but for some reason I was unmotivated to express them. Perhaps my ideas seemed more trivial to me then, while experiencing how the world was so much bigger than our circle. Retrospectively, I notice that I tend to think this often when being outside. The thought that it is not necessary for the well being of the world that I say something at that moment. I'm not exactly sure if it is different inside.. Is this also true for others as well? That you find nature to be distracting in this way? Not that you are distracted by every little noise or insect, but by the Big Picture. 

And segue into scientist mode: I got bit by a misquito today, on my wrist. I killed it and smeared blood on my notebook. Which made me think, why are there really such delicate insects alive in late October, anyway? What kind of bugs hatch in the fall? Or are they very old? Is it jsut the slightly warmer temperatures that are allowing them to live? When do misquitos normally stop procreating? Do some of them hibernate over winter? How do they survive from season to season? What is their life span? Many of the answers to these questions can be found at this address: . I found it quite interesting! 

I hope you all have discovered or learned something interesting recently. And to think, I would have never asked these questions had we not been outside! I concede it is off topic, but perhaps it has added to my personal enrichment. Go discover

Sarah Cunningham's picture

big picture

Interesting, Claire-- I always like to hear what you have to say, don't get me wrong, but maybe the sense you describe of your own thoughts being less important in the perspective of nature, isn't completely a bad thing? A valuable insight, even... though I'd hope we'd then, when this has time to sink in, get a renewed sense of what is or might important in our thoughts, in perspective. What if we had time during our classes outside to pay attention, for a few minutes, in silence, to our surroundings? Might help our listening and talking with each other... Just a thought...

ZoeHlmn's picture

Too Peaceful for Nature

When we were sitting in the cloisters this morning/afternoon I noted how peaceful it was. We were surrounded by the castle walls. Enclosed in from the very environment we are trying to explore. Yet at the same time we were subject to the elements provided that we were able to go under shelter if necessary. As the cold was starting to numb my toes and the rain was drizzling I found it easy to still pay attention. In fact I did not notice my toes were so cold until I got up to leave the class and walk to lunch. It was also interesting because of the lack of nature, there was really only grass and weather that were affecting us. And I wonder if the cloisters would be so peaceful if there were several trees in the grassy area. Even the towering walls of Thomas made me feel more safe and less in tune with nature. And I feel that because this area was so accomadating to our needs that maybe it is in fact not a good place to sit outside for class. But at the same time I feel it provides outside elements as well as a classroom setting because it allowed me to focus without being to distracted. These were all speculations that caught my attention during class and I will continue to ponder at our next meetings!

Serendip Visitor's picture

Reflections on being outside (in the rain!)

Today, being outside was a little uncomfortable at first because of the initial confusion of if we were meeting on the moon bench and the unexpected light drizzle. I was afraid that other people would want to be inside but not say so and I hoped that I wasn’t making anyone feel miserable sitting outside in the rain. For me, after spending a lot of my summer in Ireland (where it rains pretty much all the time) the misty air next to the green grass made me nostalgic of my grandmother’s house there. Every once in a while during our class discussions I would look down senior row and think that it was worth getting a little wet for the view. The rain, even though it can be annoying, is needed for the plants to grow and I know that without it the sun would dry everything up and no green grass or trees or flowers or any of the things we like to look at when we are outside during sunny days would be there. Without rain, the beautiful sunny days would not be beautiful. We could not appreciate the warm and light of the sun without experiencing the dark and the rain.

Sarah Cunningham's picture

Of wasps and women

My report on our interactions with the great outdoors during class today: my impressions was that in general we were pretty relaxed and concentrated. Obviously the major distraction was Mr or Mrs Wasp. I think actually there may have been two different individuals, of different species, one normal yellow jacket, and one slightly larger and fatter variety that I didn't recognize. It was so interesting that they were drawn primarily to two chairs, the one Hannah started in and ended up in, and the one I started in that WanHong ended up in. I was impressed that both Hannah and WanHong seemed to prefer to stay and deal with it, than to move.

In retrospect I am not so impressed with my own way of speaking to the wasp. I tried to be reasonably respectful but my emphasis was so much on our point of view and how we were feeling bothered. I don't believe animals, bugs, or plants understand the English language, but I do believe when we speak out loud to them they can pick up on exactly what we mean, from the quality of the energy we direct to them. I do think our human concerns are genuine and there's nothing wrong with expressing feelings; but just asking someone to leave as a first approach is not necessarily the most effective way. I could write more about marginalization and how with those groups, or individuals, or parts of ourselves, that make us uncomfortable, the more we try to screen them out or exclude them, the more troublesome they are likely to become. (Arnold Mindell argues very convincingly that the ultimate result of marginalization is the terrorist.) Still, our wasp(s) did not turn out to be too disruptive. And there were only a few loud noises (machinery, sirens) that were distracting for a moment or two.

Otherwise it was a magical morning to be outside. So clear.

I want to share one other thing I did in my role as environmental watchperson. I tried picturing, or sensing, nature as a circle around our circle, that might be sensing us and maybe even supporting us. The trees are the most obvious beings in this outer circle, but it includes all the plant and animal life, the rocks and earth and air too, plus the interconnected web of energy and relationship that joins them (and us). Every now and then when I thought of it I tried to check back in with this outer circle, and to sense it as holding us. I think this actually helped me to concentrate and to feel like part of our circle, not so much like a separate me in my own chair. To me today was the first day we started to feel more like a group. Getting to know each other.

wanhong's picture

a new style of learning

Personally speaking I love the idea to have our class outside. Perhaps I am not a very careful observer, but I feel everyone was paying attention in class even when some of us were having fun with picking grass...I think everyone was involved in the discussions and kept coming up with new ideas. The only things that bother me is the damp grass and some frightening looking insects.

It's so exciting to realize, as we had class outside and could see the world in whole, that the universe is spinning around us.

Sarah Cunningham's picture

a new way of concentrating?

I like being outside. I like to cultivate a kind of open, inclusive, multiple focus. There is a conflict of course-- our ESEM is supposed to about learning to write academic papers in a certain way, as well being about Ecology. Can the grass and the squirrels be teaching us? Can we be practicing attending to them even as we attend to Anne and to each other? Personally, even if I am chewing on a piece of grass that doesn't mean I am not paying attention. I wrote in my paper about one of my keywords, which was "Practical". But I got almost more interested in its root word: "practice". Learning anything new is bound to take practice. Maybe we can practice a new way of concentrating which has room for our outdoor, living surroundings-- our plant and animal and meteorological "neighbors" . Hmmm... "neighbors"... there's another interesting word to look up...

alexb2016's picture

As this is the first post

As this is the first post regarding "attending" to the ecological aspects of having class outside, I don't really have a specific format to follow, so I thought I'd create a list of things I noticed during our ESEM course today:

1) I often became distracted, particularly when there was animal movement behind me.

2) I noticed that when people lost concentration, they would pull up grass/put it in their mouths (Hannah H.), or play with it.

3) Some of my peers didn't seem to care for, or acknoweldge the ecological aspects of our class environment at all.

4) Some sudents seemed uncomfortable, and didn't respond well to the dampness/weather.

Personally, I don't believe that having class outside created a significant distraction for students, but in some cases, it didn't add much to our "ecological conversations", because many students were focused on engaging in intellectual discussion. What do some of you think about having class outside today? Did you notice anything different that I missed?