The Classroom as Oasis

The last few weeks at my university have seen the usual busyness that comes with the end of the semester amplified by a lot of change.

April 21, 2013

The last few weeks at my university have seen the usual busyness that comes with the end of the semester amplified by a lot of change. We’ll be having a change in leadership in my college in the near future. The close of the spring semester brings elections for new committee members and chairs, but with those groups working on some fairly high-stakes projects, the expected elections are raising questions and anxieties more than is typical.

And this roiling doesn’t even begin to take into account the conversations we’re having that engage the bigger changes and trends in higher education which are themselves raising questions and anxieties:  how do we create a sustainable model for affordable college education that provides students with individualized opportunities for learning and growth?  how do we weigh the benefits and dangers of online education?  how do we manage the imbalance and inequality in faculty labor?

In other words, we’re living in interesting times.  It can be hard not to take all of this into the classroom, but at the same time I sometimes think of that space as a refuge.  

It might seem a bit odd to think of the classroom as an oasis of any kind.  There are deadlines, demanding assignments, fear of failure, the occasional struggle to convince people (not just students, anyone) that your idea of a good read isn’t as crackpotted as it might seem (come on, you know you liked Tristram Shandy more than you thought you would, right?).  There are those of us who fall behind on scheduled discussions and readings and revise our syllabi several times over the course of the semester (so, wait, what’s due on Monday?).  There are assignments that seemed like a good idea at the time of conception only to reveal themselves to be utterly unworkable in execution.  For better or worse, classroom life and practice can be a nonstop series of quick time events.

If you were to look at my GCal, you’d see lots of red.  Red is the color code I use for “meetings and colleagues.”  Especially now, as we’re wrapping up a number of initiatives related to assessment, curricular change, plus the conversations about future planning that need to happen so we can hit the ground running in the fall -- well, there’s a lot of hard landscape.  Hard landscape is how landscape architects refer to construction materials:  the necessary elements that build and structure the space.  If we compare meetings and planning events and scheduled time to hard landscape (as is done in that Inc.com article I link out to above), we can see we need these elements to manage our work and move it forward.

Soft landscape, on the other hand, consists of the actual stuff that grows in a landscape:  plants, flowers, trees, lawn.  The stuff that makes it beautiful, that makes that garden someplace you want to sit and think and daydream.  The stuff that makes it an oasis.  People who talk about leadership say you need soft landscape in your calendar, too:  those loose, informal, visioning-type moments where you can be creative and forward-thinking.  But if I’m looking at my day, and seeing the places where I can breathe and think freely and engage in unexpected and imaginative ways, a lot of the time those places are the rooms and hours where I’m teaching.

The soft landscape of teaching is an oasis, a place where things grow and are beautiful and vibrant.  It’s a place where the design isn’t always immediately apparent, but it’s there.  There might be meandering, but there is definitely a path, and that path might lead you to a vista or a quiet space for reflection.  Before I sound too touchy-feely and in love with my own metaphor, I’ll remind myself that this also takes work:  digging until the muscles hurt, emerging from the work filthy, doing battle with bugs and weeds, responding to temperature and weather.  I’m sure you can think of moments in your own teaching over the last few weeks where it felt less like wandering through lush flowerbeds and more like digging in the muck, rushing to save something delicate just hit by frost, swatting at midges.  

I think that harder work is worth it, though, to keep that oasis and keep it growing.  I had one of these moments this past week, teaching Virginia Woolf’s “A Mark on the Wall,” something the students and I always struggle with.  This time it worked, and we made a generative, exciting conversation out of the text.  So I’m going to give Woolf the last word:  her imagining in the short piece “Kew Gardens” of a landscape imbued with vision:  “Thus one couple after another with much the same irregular and aimless movement passed the flower-bed and were enveloped in layer after layer of green blue vapour, in which at first their bodies had substance and a dash of colour, but later both substance and colour dissolved in the green-blue atmosphere...Voices. Yes, voices. Wordless voices, breaking the silence suddenly with such depth of contentment, such passion of desire, or, in the voices of children, such freshness of surprise.”

Chester, Pennsylvania in the US.

Janine Utell is Chair and Associate Professor of English at Widener University and a regular contributor at University of Venus. She can be reached by email at janine.utell@gmail.com; follow her on Twitter @janineutell.




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