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Attending to being outside--and inside! What difference does it make?

Anne Dalke's picture

...and how are you dealing w/ the difference?  We agreed to take turns being responsible for where we will meet (and if we move midway, etc.) --AND that each of us will post a short reflection here, on the day that we chose, about our decision: what it was like, watching the class and the world in which it is operating, inside or out…what seems foreground/background/essential/not? How distracted were you/what did you do about it?

Do you have any ideas about how to incorporate the "distractions" of being outside (or inside) into our curriculum? What are you coming to understand of the relation between "reading the word" and "reading the world" that the word represents, about foregrounding much of what is usually backgrounded in literary studies, asking what we might lose by seeing the world only as mediated by the word....?

As a prompt, here's something froggies315 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.

What are the (implicit) "rules" of engagement in such a class? How might we make them explicit? How might they evolve over the semester? Let's see....
Wed, 10/3 eetong
Mon, 10/8 ekthorp
Wed, 10/10 Field Trip to Harriton
Mon, 10/22 froggies315
Wed, 10/24 hirakismail
Mon, 10/29 Hurricane Sandy
Wed, 10/31 meeting inside, after the hurricane
Mon, 11/5 mturer
Wed, 11/7 r.graham.barrett
Mon, 11/12 biological exploration
Wed, 11/14 blind field shuttle cancelled; meeting inside
Mon, 11/19 rachelr
Wed, 11/21 sara.gladwin
Mon, 11/26 Sarah Shaw
Wed, 11/28 Smacholdt
Mon, 12/3 class-wide ramble to Ashbridge Park
Wed, 12/5 blind field shuttle with Carmen Papalia
Mon, 12/10 Srucara
Wed, 12/12: final teach-in



kycmillionaire's picture

The differences between reading the world and the world

It is very far different meaning.
Reading the world means we pronounce by using consonants and vowels to make sound, however, reading the world it mean we try to look into the world situation, try to understand about everyday life in various areas. It is not like ready the world. Reading the words is easier that reading the world.

Srucara's picture

Rain or Shine

Yesterday the morning fog was beautiful and as I walked through the campus, I could feel the drops of water in the mist on my body, my clothes. It drizzled on and off and overall it was a weather - event that Bryn Mawr does not usually experience. When reading the forecast - it predicted ocassional showers throughout the day and possible thunderstorms in the afternoon. Although it did not thunderstorm very much yesterday (until about 1 AM this morning) - I still took this possibility into consideration. Finally, I came to the conclusion that I would rather we were comfortable and warm inside the English house than having class in the mist. I believe I made a good choice, I'm glad everyone was able to focus on the text and the discussion at hand rather than focusing on holding up an umbrella or the ocassional water drops that fell on them. When I was a child, I was a huge advocate of dancing and singing in the rain - but that was before I was capable of falling sick from just a few raindrops. For some reason, rain can cause sickness (either through displacing the body's homeostasis or in other ways). I also took this into account. Overall, I am content with my decision. I know that perhaps a few students would have rather preferred to sit outside - but I think having the opportunity to choose - I was incredibly glad and wanted to take full advantage of it while keeping in mind everyone's considerations (ecological decision making). 

sara.gladwin's picture

chosing to be outside

Apologies that this post is late, for some reason I wrote it a while ago but hadn’t put it up yet!

For me, I actually was disappointed the weather conditions were so good. I ended up not needing to follow through with my original plan. I knew I was choosing for a class date much later in the semester and was hoping for much colder weather. I was worried that if I didn’t get the chance to choose for us to sit outside while the weather was particularly cold, that no one else would. However, I felt guilty about making that decision for everyone, so I tried to think of ways I could make everyone more comfortable. My family has been skiing for a while now and we have several large plastic bins filled with thick socks, neck-warmers, gloves, glove liners, long johns, underarmer, headbands, hats, mittens (they are different from gloves!) and various feet and hand warmers. I was planning to bring in an assortment of these things in one of the plastic bins, and if I had time, bring one of those boxed coffee things from starbucks or dunkin donuts. I knew I really desired for the class and myself to have an experience of sitting outside during freezing weather (does that sound crazy?) but I didn’t see any reason for us to actually have to suffer while doing it. In my mind, by bringing all these forms of protection against the cold for everyone to share, I would have been choosing to be accountable to the decisions I make, especially when they significantly affect others.

I made an interesting realization about the cold weather today, because of the snow. Recently, I’ve been choosing comfort and warmth over dressing well, mostly because of our ecolit class spending time outside. I have been wearing at least two layers of pants and socks, about three-five layers on the upper part of my body, a scarf, gloves, and a hat. Today, as I was walking across campus, I realized I had been in the best mood all day because of the snow. Usually, the colder it gets, the more miserable and lazy I get. However, I could appreciate the slush, and the pretty snowfall. Snow made me happy for the holidays, the approaching break and reminded me of all the positive associates I have with winter, like skiing. I was able to appreciate the snow because I was literally walking around in my own self-made sauna. I wondering if being “protected” while sitting outside would make a difference in the way we experience the cold.

sarahj's picture


There was really no science behind my choice to be outside for class on 11/26.  The weather looked like it was going to be pretty mild that day, even if I was initially worried that a "partly cloudy" forecast would mean a lower temperature experience.  I like to be outside.  I love to feel the wind across my face and the sun warming my back.  During the fall and winter, I find the temperature drop quite refreshing.  What I don't like are the insects that often come with being outside during the warmer times of the year. I also do not want to be outside when its wet out.  This is in large part a cultural thing rooted in the state of my hair. When my hair is straight, it does not get wet.  It can take up to two hours to wash, blow dry and straighten it and because my hair does not become oily as quickly as finer hair does, I only have to go through this exorbitantly long process once a week at the least.  I do not want to engage in that process any more than necessary. 

Anyways, I was pleasantly surprised at the way the afternoon turned out.  It was clear and sunny out and QUIET for once.  Well, the cars were still going by, but the number of planes and leaf-blowers significantly decreased making conversation a lot easier.

mturer's picture


I realized recently that I never made my post about choosing to be outside. However, considering my decision resulted in a particularly annoying situation, I still remember it pretty well. I chose to be outside in cold weather so we could experience the idea of not letting the environment's "less favorable" conditions stop us from being in it. After bundling up and doing whatever we could to adjust to the temperature, it was a leafblower that made our class difficult and we couldn't hear each each other speak even when we raised our voices in reaction to it. Looking back, I would make the decision again to choose to be outside because there is no way to know what distractions will get in the way until they happen, and we can always move inside again. 

Smacholdt's picture


I was pleased with my last night’s decision to have class inside today. It’s not that I don’t usually like having class outside- I do. But today I felt that I really needed to self advocate- it’s cold, I’m sick and I frankly I just didn’t want to expend the energy necessary to keep warm.

Another reason that I chose to have class inside today was I knew that we going to be continuing our discussion on The Lives of Animals, and I thought that it would be an interesting comparison to discuss talking about the same text inside and outside. I really enjoyed the book, and I enjoyed meeting outside last class, but I felt that I was able to concentrate better on our class discussion inside today. Last week I spent about 10 minutes staring at a family of deer that had come out of the woods and were standing by Russia House. Today I had no “natural” distractions that the outside offers and was able to fully immerse myself in the text. I think that I got more out of the reading inside than I did last class outside.

That being said, it is also possible that it was simply the change of location that allowed me to concentrate better. I suppose what I am trying to get at is that I believe that an Ecological Imaginings class should be held outside. Just maybe not when the temperature drops below 40 degrees. 

rachelr's picture



I chose to be outside on Monday. During the class I tried to pay extra attention to the noises around us and how people were responding to the weather. There was some noise from the seemingly ever present leaf blower, but it wasn't overwhelming the way it was the one day where we ended up moving inside. A few people looked cold, but as everyone was engaged and didn't look overly uncomfortable I also saw no need to take the initiative to move us. I didn't have trouble focusing, although it seemed like there was a general struggle among us in decoding or "naming" the unspoken hunger that Terry Tempest Williams dances around and with.  

I also think that we needed to be outside for this discussion; while we grappled with defining this natural, unspoken hunger we needed to be surrounded by it. Ideally of course we might have done better on a mountain top, in a canyon, in the wilderness. But for now I think it was enough that we were where we were. 

hirakismail's picture

Thank you Professor for

Thank you Professor for reminding me about doing this post. I had definitely forgotten

The day I decided we should be outside as a class, we studied Spretnak and mapped out the differences and similarities we saw in the terms "feminism," "environmentalism," and "ecofeminism." I much prefer being outside than inside for class. First of all, no matter how tired I am, I feel so much more awake when we have class outside than I would in other classes in the same state. I feel like the outside weather is not controlled, so I feel more alert as a result to the changes. When it started getting colder in class, and I had foolishly worn flip-flops, I had to figure out a way to stay warm, and I did so by sitting barefoot and cross-legged in my chair. I felt pretty focused; the only time I remember feeling differently was when Professor Dalke tossed the charts on the ground, and the surrounding leaves flew up around them. Then I recall paying attention to the different colors of the leaves for a long while before tuning in again to the task at hand, which was to write phrases that came to mind in reference to these terms. I also remember a part of the class in which we were talking and I could hear the rustling in the trees. I looked up and it was unspeakably beautiful; the trees are so so tall after all, and so many leaves came rushing down at once it was breathtaking, lump-in-throat inducing. I kept staring up and I remember that eventually we as a class stopped a minute to acknowledge the beauty around us, enjoy it, then discuss the topic at hand.

I think it is so neat to see part of what we are discussing while we are discussing, be present in part of the place we are concerned about. When discussing the decay of the environment around the world and faced with the immense beauty of the trees, especially then and now with the falling leaves, it strikes me that we should be working to prevent the harm from happening. Where will our seasons go if the world faces drastic climate change? Are we not counting our blessings? Who knows how much of what we are used to as seasons will actually stay if we continue living wastefully as we are? Caring about and valuing the earth is easier when you are exposed to it, given a reminder to be invested in it. I've always found I do better in classes when I have a personal vested interest in the subject matter and share a connection with the people and subjects being discussed, want to have an impact in the area of concern. Sitting outside, especially the site-sits, has reminded
me that whether we recognize it or not, we all as inhabitants of this earth are absolutely and ultimately affected by the earth, other living beings, the weather, all of these things. Even if our screens and our gadgets help us feel like we've escaped it temporarily, such escape is just that--temporary. Being outside reminds me of that, keeps me paying attention, reminds me to do basic things to survive (like staying warm).And if I could have that in every class, be able to see practically in front of me the subject matter I am considering and studying, this would kick up the amount I could get out of my classes. I can't exactly talk to ancient egyptians, or speak to the authors of old epics, but I can, in this class, listen, watch, feel the earth. I'd like to start doing more of that in the class, being aware of my surroundings while also involved in the discussion.

I also want to see if our classes can affect us similarly to our site-sits. This coming week of moving and learning  through Morris Woods and across campus should hopefully achieve that affect. I am very much looking forward to seeing what this movement brings to the class, whether we can meld the best of both the school world and the earthy/being outside experience. Excited to see.

froggies315's picture


I decided to have class outside today.  It was a good choice, I think.  I talked about making this choice with a few of the people who I live with on Saturday at dinner.  I told them that even though I knew the weather was going to be gorgeous today that I wanted to have class inside to make a point.  I said the point I wanted to make was that I’m not happy with the way we’re “attending to being outside.”  At this, my friend said to me (only half joking): “why do you want to kill everyone’s happiness?”  I love getting direct feedback like this, it usually makes me change my mind. So I decided to have class outside.  

We were outside the way we have been for the whole semester--that is very focused on what was happening on the perimeter of our circle and in our own brains and not focused on what happening with the plants and animals outside/inside of our circle.  This way of being outside is not fun for me, but now I’m trusting that there is something for me to learn from it.   

ekthorp's picture

Making the Choice

Making the choice to have class outside on Monday was a challenging one, but one I don't regret making. I started feeling guilty in the morning, realizing how cold it truly was, as if winter had suddenly come. But  I was considering not just the importance to me of staying outside, but how others would react to this action as well. If we were going to meet outside, I wanted us all to be prepared, so we at least stood a fighting chance. And I think there was some kind of reward in it. At least to me, I know it was really nice to go inside afterward. But I also felt as ifour conversation became very heated and intense when we were considering everything so close around us. We were discussing not just a critique of our college system, which is home to many of us, but the natural world, pressing its cold self against us 

Anne Dalke's picture

An alum

(a chem major and poet) just sent me this:
"Bugs don't have to be disgusting or intimidating. They can be cute as stuffed animals... "

froggies315's picture

on rules

Rules I follow in school:

1. show up on time, ready to participate
2. think/talk/listen/question
3. leave when class is over
4. make things with what you find

Rules I follow in the woods:

1. show up when you’re ready
2. think/talk/listen/question
3. stay for as long as you like
4. make things with what you find

I keep harping on about rules because this class has crashed together two things that I think and care about a lot: being in school and being outside.  With the exception of the house where I grew up, my schools and my forests are the places that have shaped me the most.  On the most fundamental level, school has taught me how to make a list, do everything on it, and enjoy the process.  The woods have taught me how to not have an agenda and how to enjoy that process too.  It’s a good thing that I know how prioritize and get things done, and it’s also good thing that I know how to wander.  As I see it, the next level is figuring out when to use each strategy, though I suppose the next level could also be melding these two strategies together into one.  

When I look at the list of rules that I follow and expect others to follow in school vs. in the woods, I see that they are incompatible.  Incompatible because of time and place.  As students in school, one of our goals should be to finish so that we can start working to make things better.  Time sensitive goals like this certainly encourage short term productivity, and I believe that they also have the potential to drive long term progress if we take the right classes while we’re here.

When I am outside, I do not think about time sensitive goals like making the world a better place.  I think about who I am in relation to the other nouns around me.  Living in the moment is the ultimate goal.  This should not be the goal in school because then we would never learn how limited our understandings of the world are.  I trust myself to not be a bigot when I’m living in the moment precisely because I’ve spent so much time being critical of the moment in school.   

So, for me, this class is the ultimate conundrum.  We are outside and we are also in school.  What I’ve learned so far this semester is that it is impossible for me to be in two places at the same time.  I do not know how to be in the moment and also critical of it.  Do you?

Anne Dalke's picture

some guides?

I think that "how to be in the moment and also critical of it" is the ultimate conundrum of my (teaching and learning and whole) life, learning to switch back and forth continually between these two ways of being, knowing that both are essential--and actually compatible. Thank you for naming this.

I've found a number of guides in this complicated process. One I just realized this weekend, when I read a  wonderful review by Heather Love of Alison Bechdel's most recent graphic novel. Love has several insights (not to mention a great name!), including a lovely evocation of D.W. Winnicott's question about “where we most of the time are when we are experiencing life.” He thinks we're in a space of “deep dreaming" that is created between individuals, and between individuals and their environment. What I am thinking now is that your "site sits" might be such spaces (if you can allow them to be). And what I am wondering is whether we can possibly make  our shared classroom time into such a space. We'll get to these questions on Monday, when we discuss Thomas Barry's essay, "Dream of the Earth," but I wanted to flag them here first.

Some earlier guides I've found in this terrain have included Elizabeth Ellsworth (rediscovered this summer, thanks to my friend Jody Cohen). In her book on Teaching Positions, Ellsworth describes the world of dreaming that all of us bring w/ us into classrooms, which prevents us from ever fully understanding either ourselves or others. Bottom line for Ellsworth is to keep w/ the talking, the questioning, the critiquing--while knowing all the while that there are caverns unexplored and unexplorable, which exceed our knowing. Don't ever lose your sense of that larger world w/in which our exploring takes place (I've just added a pdf of her intro and first chapter of her book to our protected reading file, should you want to look @ it….).

A much older guide of mine in this territory is Peter Elbow, who writes more programmatically about the need for both "Believing and Doubting." Though I can't find a copy of his essay on-line, I did find two very nice summaries-and-commentaries: see Craig Stroupe and Linda's Blog.

froggies315's picture

thank you!

thank you!

et502's picture

(personal) choice

So on Wednesday, I had to choose whether class would be held inside or outside. I had really mixed feelings about it - was it a responsibility? a privilege? Would other members of the class judge me based on my decision? Would they be unhappy if I chose wrong? Then I took this to another level and fretted over how much I was fretting about this, when it's not supposed to be a big deal (or is it?). 

Then I realized: This was an opportunity to focus on myself, my own needs, my preferences - and my responsibility was to myself. I know that for our future classes, I will respect the decision of my classmates - I will adjust my expectations to help meet their needs. So for this class, I had to take on that role, be vulnerable, express my needs, and expect my peers to be supportive. (And you all were great! Thanks!)

Anne Dalke's picture

and then

(once the decision was made!) what was it like, being inside? were you better able to concentrate? did it change your experience of our discussion?

et502's picture

I think

the discussion was different - we didn't deviate as much, and my notes don't look as jumbled at the end. I think we we were able to discuss LeGuin's short story more as people who are afraid/unconnected to plantlife - since we were inside, distanced from plants, I didn't confuse the pastoral nature of the campus with the "tree" of "Vaster than Empires."