Last fall, I met on Friday afternoons at 2 p.m. with a student who was a junior English major to discuss her independent study project. One September day, when she came by for her appointment, I was sitting in my office decompressing after a busy day at the end of a busy week. As my student dropped into the chair across from my desk, I looked out the window. It was sunny and 75 degrees outside. “It looks super nice out there,” I said.
“It is,” she said. “It’s glorious.”
A thought occurred to me. “Hey, what do you say we take our business outside? Feel like a walk-and-talk?”
My student agreed that it was a good idea, so we stepped outside. Immediately, I felt jaunty and relaxed. I think she did, too. Oddly enough, we were supposed to talk about Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the great trampers in the history of European letters.
My student and I took the sidewalk, skirted the fountain, and when we came to the library we debated whether to go left or right. For no particular reason, we went right, which took us around the lake and up around the wooded area behind the arts center. The whole time we were walking we were talking.
I had a rough idea of the topics I wanted to cover, and so I found myself working leisurely through the notes in my head. She would respond with various kinds of affirmations or spontaneous remarks about things she had noticed or wondered about when reading. Something about the improvisational nature of the walk, the steady pace, the winding sidewalks, and yeah, perhaps the fact that it was Friday and we were literally marching off-script, led us to have a very relaxed, rich conversation.
We continued our way around the edge of the campus, passing athletes on their way to the practice fields and a few students who were scaring up a game of Ultimate on the front lawn. When we arrived back at my building, we reluctantly went inside so that she could retrieve her backpack. “Hey, from my perspective, that was a nice ‘class,’” I said.
“Totally,” she said. “We should do it again next week if the weather’s good.”
The next week, the weather was beautiful, so we took another hike.
We really enjoyed these walkabouts around the campus, and why not? Every Friday afternoon seemed to be gorgeous, and I was out walkin’ around talking literature with a student. It got me away from screens and clickers and the confines of my office. I was winding down, we were getting exercise and keeping the blood circulating. I started walking with other students. Need to debrief your internship? Let’s go. Work out an advising problem? Lace ‘em up. Talk through a problem in your research paper? Bring along a draft.
I had literally stumbled onto a good idea. Walking with students was a break from the usual, it kept things fresh, it built rapport. In terms of teaching dynamics, I liked it, because when I walked side by side with someone, it diminished or removed many of those obstacles that stand in the way of learning. There were no podiums, screens, clunky technologies, classroom management protocols. We talked back and forth, and we listened to each other as walkers do. Sometimes we would bring a book or an article, and sometimes we would stop and search for a passage that came up in the course of our conversation. We were literally on equal footing out there.
The links between walking, teaching and learning go way back. There were the Greeks, of course: Socrates and his followers, Plato and Aristotle, and also the Stoics and the Cynics.
Across the Mediterranean, Jesus did much of his teaching on foot, and indeed, to this day, the expression “to walk with Jesus” remains a popular one. The story of the journey on the road to Emmaus is perhaps one of the best illustrations of the way that a pedestrian pedagogy can transform its participants. In the beginning of the story, the two travelers are said to be “sad” as they walk down the road. When Jesus joins them, he inquires as to the cause, and he listens as the men expound upon recent events in Jerusalem. Then Jesus offers a critique of their account and reframes their understanding of things. When they arrive at their destination, some three furlongs later, their eyes are opened to a new understanding, and they become aware that their “hearts burned within them” as they walked.
The list of thinkers and teachers who have walked is long and impressive: in addition to the aforementioned, it includes Rimbaud, Thoreau, Kant, Wordsworth, Gandhi and Baudelaire, among others. What can explain this connection between feet, heads and hearts? Nietzsche, another great walker, advises that we should “sit as little as possible; [do] not believe any idea that was not born in the open air and of free movement -- in which the muscles do not also revel.... Sitting still is the real sin against the Holy Ghost.”
When we unplug and walk across our respective campuses, we are making ourselves present to a distinct local environment. We also have the opportunity to be fully present to others and to ourselves. I am not sure that we can say that about the experience of gazing at screens and pecking at keyboards. I am not even sure that we can even say that about the experience of being in a classroom. Classrooms are often bland, impersonal, generic. Our campuses, however, tend to be designed and landscaped for the purpose of walking and lingering. If we are not out there on the quad, on the sidewalks or beneath the trees, we are essentially wasting a valuable resource.
Of course, not all of our campuses are elysian. Some butt up against public spaces that are commercial, residential or industrial, and, in fact, some inspire fear and loathing. Think for a moment of the eyesores within a few hundred yards of our campuses: the places that we avoid, that we pretend do not exist. We also do the opposite: recognize that there are places where we don’t belong or shouldn’t do our work. In either case, it’s important to challenge those boundaries, self-imposed or otherwise, and the best way to do that is simply to walk into those spaces that are literally “out of our comfort zones.”
When I teach Tolstoy in the classroom, literature is confined and packaged as an academic experience. His writings are understood only as things to be analyzed, as riddles to be solved. No wonder most people perceive the humanities as having little to do with the quote-unquote real world. I say let’s take Tolstoy for a walk. Let’s take W.E.B. Dubois and Judith Butler along with us. When we do so, we are doing something fairly radical: we are re-appropriating public space for humanistic thinking, and we are restoring those thinkers and writers to the human scale from which their work initially sprang.
All well and good, but, you ask, will it scale?
After walking with individual students last fall, I wondered if I could conduct a full class à pied, so I gave it a shot with my seminar on Cervantes. Admittedly, there seemed to be a natural affinity between a novel that chronicles the adventures of a make-believe knight and his squire as they ride across Spain and a class that does its work on the hoof.
But how would we establish and maintain a level of order necessary to conduct a seminar discussion? How would we examine the required reading that day if we didn’t have it set before us on a table?
Here’s what we did: I told the 13 students ahead of time that we would be conducting our class on foot and would meet at our usual time in our usual classroom and depart from there. The next class session, they showed up with their books, notebooks and appropriate footwear. “Before we get going,” I told them, “take a few minutes to review the texts under discussion today, and after you have gone over them and checked your notes, rank them in your mind from most to least helpful in understanding the Quixote.” We took 15 minutes to silently look over the reading. Then we stood up, grabbed our books and happily set off.
It was clear and sunny morning -- a little on the cool side but nothing more than sweater weather. We walked out the front door of our building and took a long, curving sidewalk that led to the oldest and most iconic building on our campus. We formed a pretty tight pack, with me more or less in the middle, and moved along at a very casual pace.
I pitched the question: which of the five pieces of literary criticism that we read for the day was the most helpful in illuminating the novel?” Someone offered an answer and a brief rationale. Someone else agreed, and a third student said that she could understand why someone would like that article, but she was a little unclear on the direction of the critic’s overall project. The first student tried to clarify, and someone else chimed in to support the dissenter.
In short, we had a normal class discussion going. As we approached the library, two or three students were flipping through their books to read a passage aloud in support of their claim. Walking and reading at the same time is second nature to students who were raised with phones in their hands. The discussion was going at a crisp pace. We rounded the edge of the lake and passed the president’s house. By then we had covered three of the five articles, and almost everyone was chiming in.
In the end, we came around to some benches by the fountain and decided, as a group, to camp out there and wrap things up. No one made an actual decision; it just happened. By then any sense of weirdness or experimentalism had worn off, and we were just a bunch of people talking about literature beneath the trees. That’s sort of what I had imagined I was signing up for when I decided to become a college professor many years ago.
Can walking with students improve engagement? Can it even increase persistence, retention and completion? To find out, I would need to set up a study, do a lot more walking and analyze the data. That’s a ways off.
In the meantime, I know that students like it. They are pleased by the attention they receive, and they find the change of pace -- pun intended -- a refreshing break from the usual. That can’t be bad. I wouldn’t mind seeing more people adapt this old-school approach and take to the campus sidewalks with their students.