Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Eternal Question

Can we have class outside?

Does every student have to ask this at some point in their academic career? I am not sure if I ever asked it, but I know that I thought it at various times. There are just some days when being inside is not appealing to students or professors.

When I taught at a small liberal arts college, in some cases I answered this Eternal Question with a "yes", but I always regretted it. I have happy memories of having class outside when I was a student at a SLAC, but in that case there was an ideal space in a garden-like area, with benches curved around a central area where the professor could stand or sit. At the college where I taught, it was more of a free-form, let's-all-sit-on-the-ground in that photo-in-the-college-prospectus kind of way, and I found that I might as well have been talking to the squirrels. It was actually a relief when outdoor classes were strongly discouraged/banned owing to fears of tick-borne diseases.

Even at the Big Research U where I am now, students still ask if we can have class outside. Sometimes it is clear that they are joking -- for example, when the class has more than 100 students. Sometimes they are serious. I don't mind doing a class 'unplugged' -- I don't always project a presentation on a big screen, and am quite happy to spend a class doing an activity or having a discussion -- but there is no place where a class can easily gather outside and focus on the class and not on the nearby students playing Frisbee or whatever. Also, we have amazing squirrels on our campus, and I probably wouldn't be able to focus on the class material either if we went outside into the squirrel zone.

Maybe I am deluded to think that students in the classroom are paying attention more than they would if we were sitting outside with the squirrels, but I think I need to live with some level of delusion about that. And who knows, maybe someday I will say "OK, let's go outside." Maybe both professors and students want or need to hope that some day the stars will align and we will all go outside and sit in a circle and talk about Science, the squirrels will slowly creep closer to listen, no one will get a tick-borne disease or be hit in the head by a Frisbee, and it will be wonderful.

18 comments:

Klik said...

I think the break in routine provided by holding a class outdoors can be great for re-energizing students by shaking things up a little. I was once in a medicinal chemistry class (very heavy on organic, lots of electron-pushing) where we asked to hold class outside one day. The request was denied, as we knew it would be, because blackboards were absolutely necessary, and we all had a good laugh imagining our professor trying to describe a 20-atom molecule without visual aids. However, a class on Romanticism was held outside very effectively. We were reading Goethe's "Sorrows of Young Werther," which frequently delves into discussion of man's relationship to Nature, and felt that it was only right to find some nature of our own.

Muriel said...

When I was in "classes préparatoires" (2 math/physics/chemistry intensive years to prepare for competitive exams into Engineering schools), we took it one step further with our math profressor. I will explain firstthat our relationship with our professor was different from what you might find in an American college, as we had something like 15 hours of weekly classes with him, year round... And we had 85 % of our classes with the same 2 professors.
Anyway, on a sunny warm June day, we got to our room early and moved all the desks and chairs out in the lawn beside the building. Our prof was undeterred and had class without a blackboard. Only we're the ones who regretted it because he chose to speak of a topic that included complex, intertwined integrals, fractions and series ... Which are made even more complicated if they are dictated to you rather than written down.
We had no time to look around for squirrels and definitely never tried that stunt again!!!

Rettaw said...

You could compromize and have the class in the corridor!

PhysioProf said...

Also, we have amazing squirrels on our campus, and I probably wouldn't be able to focus on the class material either if we went outside into the squirrel zone.

Are they amazingly large, amazingly smart, amazingly brazen, amazingly acrobatic, amazingly beautiful, amazingly articulate, what?

Anonymous said...

At my alma mattar, a few professors discovered that the windows of a certain building made perfectly suitable outdoor whiteboards, when the white blinds inside were drawn....

Anonymous said...

Here at one of the United States's three service academies, we get an annual "no classes on the grasses" email from the administration. My students still ask, though.

sandyshoes said...

Poetry readings and discussions are one thing, but I always hated it when a prof gave in to the idea of having a lecture outside. It's distracting, there's no surface for note-taking, etc., etc.

I also think students should stop asking to have class outside by the time their age hits double digits.

Female Science Professor said...

PhysioProf: Our squirrels are all that and more.

T.O. said...

Well now I'm just dying to know whether your Big Research U is my school! I suspect I won't find out though.

PhysioProf said...

PhysioProf: Our squirrels are all that and more.

Wow! Those must be some serious fucking squirrels!

Female Science Professor said...

Yes, they do that as well. I wouldn't say it's the most amazing thing about them, but others may disagree.

Squeaky Wipers said...

We had a lot of bunnies around my undergrad campus. One of our second year literature class was held outside in a "garden
, and as SandyShoes notes, the setting was fitting for the particular essay we were studying.

EcoGeoFemme said...

Like some others, on a few occasions we got to have lecture outside and it just wasn't all it was cracked up to be. Field trips, on the other hand, were awesome!

Anonymous said...

I get this about once a semester and I always say yes. I've only gotten it in small graduate seminars and smallish discussion-based classes. I think it works pretty well, students don't seem to participate any less than when we're inside (they participate a lot -- at least many of them do), but now I'm wondering if there are some resentful students. I've wondered if I should offer them veto power, in case someone has terrible allergies or whatever, but then I wonder if they'd speak up.

Unbalanced Reaction said...

I always dreaded when the humanities freaks (no offense, all, I say it in jest....) convinced my lit/history/philosophy prof to hold class outside. (yes, I went to a very hardcore liberal arts school). The pollen, the frisbees....ugh.

EliRabett said...

And here I thought the eternal question was what do I need on the final to pass this class.

Anonymous said...

When I was in high school my calc teacher decided it was a lovely day, so we went out onto the public sidewalk to practice our integrals with sidewalk chalk. It seemed to seriously confuse the people walking by. In college all our end-of-year math studying involved chalk and pavement.

Elizabeth said...

Made phone calls. Scheduled one subject, the rest went to voicemail. Updated availability on google calendar.