Slow Looking and Close Reading: Experiments in Learning from a Tree

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I’m roaring into my 2020 teaching with the old-school pedagogy of journal-writing, buoyed by the positive feedback from students, and, frankly, the pleasure I’m taking in practicing alongside them.

I have posted about a journaling experiment in a writing-centered first-year seminar. I am trying journals again this semester in an upper-level general education course with a gender and sustainability theme. This is a biggish group for a writing-centered class with 35 students, many of whom are coasting toward graduation in May. About half of them have science backgrounds, and some are out of practice doing close work with literary texts. I wasn’t sure they’d be up to spending the slow time with sentences that our challenging course texts required. However, I did know that many of them are used to close and careful observation and analysis in their science classes, and I wanted to make space for that expertise in our classroom.

So, I designed a semester-long assignment that I’m calling “Learn from a Tree,” requiring weekly journaling about a tree of each student’s choice on campus. I handed them appealingly designed recycled paper journals that are slim enough to tuck in their course folders but tall and stiff enough to stand up to the rigors of writing by hand outdoors with the journal balanced on a knee or backpack. I worked with some plant ecologists on campus on the assignment, Dr. Deb Marr and Dr. Andy Schnabel, and have decided to disclose their advice about observation slowly, as an experiment in paying attention to the process of acquiring literacy in a new subject. So far, it has been surprising, challenging, and—dare I say it?—fun.

I offered only vague guidelines for journaling at first, by design: Spend at least 5 minutes a week journaling about your tree, taking notes on what you see and what you experience. I wanted students to swim around a little bit in the challenge of learning to slow down and really look. I wanted them to notice, perhaps, that they may not yet know how to pay attention to details, much less how to think about what they see. The early journal entries are fascinating, some with sketches, some with impressionistic details, and many with reflections on just how long even five minutes unplugged can feel, standing still outdoors in front of a tree, a pen poised over a blank page. Students with science backgrounds have some advantages over those of us who are new to close-looking at plants.

As the semester goes on, I am revealing more and more suggestions about how to pay attention and take notes. I locate myself firmly as a learner alongside my students, drawing on colleagues’ suggestions for creating tracking grids in our journals for bud-growth, building on the Budburst resources for citizen scientists. I am learning about and sharing identification keys, since leafless winter trees in Northern Indiana present an interpretive challenge. We’re even going to be doing some mathematics, soon, so we can all learn to measure trees with a stick or our own paces.

Learning to slow down enough to close-read texts works the same way, of course. As we move through the course material—for example, Rachel Carson’s poetic invitation to see science as citizen literacy in Silent Spring—our task in class is to deliberate on what we think about what we see. We discuss giving the same attention to words, phrases, and arrangement that we are learning to give to the varied details of “our” trees. We are developing, together, more ways to explain textual significance and sharing our somatic experiences of slow looking and close reading. Both require discipline, and neither is easy. Already, though, the pleasures of discovery are a theme I am hearing from students, and I’m experiencing them, myself, as a novice naturalist and re-reader of texts I know well but continue to re-discover with students.

If analog journaling isn’t your style or presents challenges to your students or course format, Miriam Moore offers an appealing structure for an online journal that accomplishes the same sort of guided close attention to texts.

What are you trying inside or outside the classroom that allows you to share the vulnerability and discovery of slow looking, slow reading, and slow thinking? Until it’s time for the sap to run, you and your students might find this practice of slow-as-molasses-in-February deliberation to be just right for right now.

Photo Credit: Journal with a Tree by April Lidinsky

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About the Author
April Lidinsky (PhD, Literatures in English, Rutgers) is Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Indiana University South Bend. She has published and delivered numerous conference papers on writing pedagogy, women's autobiography, and creative nonfiction, and has contributed to several textbooks on writing. She has served as acting director of the University Writing Program at Notre Dame and has won several awards for her teaching and research including the 2015 Indiana University South Bend Distinguished Teaching Award, the 2017 Indiana University South Bend Eldon F. Lundquist Award for excellence in teaching and scholarly achievement, and the All-Indiana University 2017 Frederic Bachman Lieber Memorial Award for Teaching Excellence.