Saturday, November 20, 2010

Snow in the classroom

Snow fell in the high country the previous night. It was a perfect first snow; fine and light, straight out of a child's picture book or a Norman Rockwell painting. It made just the right sound underfoot. It penetrated to the forest floor, even under the conifers, and in it every detail of a mouse's track was perfectly preserved. The small eastern gray squirrels chattered indignantly as I walked past, one glaring at me from a branch at eye level as it inspected a nut. I made my way out to the small, elevated point and stood for a long time looking across the lake at the peaks to the southeast. A group of six wild turkeys emerged from a stand to take a long, close look at me. Once they were gone I picked up my laptop and bookbag and walked back across campus to the library.

The campus I am describing is Paul Smith's College of the Adirondacks. While I have seen many a fine campus with ivy walls and tree-lined walks, ocean views and arboretums (arboreta?), Paul Smith's is special. Situated on 12,000 acres in the northern Adirondacks, the main campus arcs along the shore of Lower St Regis Lake, on the site of a former tourist lodge. Every detail of the campus says "stop here and understand nature". Trees are everywhere; the college has its own working sugarbush. A large campfire pit surrounded by benches and a boat launch with racks of kayaks and canoes form the central focal point of the main commons. Swishy restaurants at Whistler or Mt Tremblant have nothing on the student cafeteria where I ate my pasta with grilled vegetables from real china and silverware, looking out through the picture windows at the lake.

The library is mostly wood and windows. The periodical shelves are loaded with titles like Sustainable Forestry and the Small Farmers Journal. Two students sit on a leather couch and prepare for a test by showing one another homemade flashcards of insects. Outside, teams of students with yellow tripods complete their surveying class project before leaving for the Thanksgiving holiday. Their cars in the tucked-away lot are already loaded, several with boats on the roofrack.

I am envious of the professors who work here. How could one not teach or learn well in such a place? Where the lecture halls have natural light and the students come in with lungs fully loaded with forest air?

Like many Canadian universities, my own, Ottawa U, grew up in an era of cheap concrete and architects who admired shoebox-shapes. The Rideau Canal, a UNESCO world heritage site, is a stone's throw from my office, but you would never guess it. Campus is cut off from it by a wall of noise from not one but two parallel roadways. Too many of our lecture halls would make Franz Kafka proud: crowded grey, windowless and airless spaces where time seems to stand still (as it must surely do for many bored undergrads).

I do all my classroom teaching in the January semester, when campus is at its greyest and most crowded and salt-stained. I have to teach 200 first-year students the basic fundamentals of environmental studies, from photosynthesis to what makes a good agricultural soil to why poor nations tend to have high population growth. Powerpoint slides, music, video clips, an occasional poetry reading and lame jokes are the only tools I have to somehow transform the flourescent-lit lecture hall netherworld into a learning environment. Pictures of trees projected against a snow-white lecture screen are a poor substitute for the real thing.


Anonymous said...

I was in your global environmental challenges class last winter, and I have to say as dreary as the campus may have been, I was always excited about coming to your lectures. Your class was the only one that I was interested in and as a result I am considering other options. I recently had a final exam in the colonel by aud. where I attended your lectures, and I almost felt at home in that dingy auditorium, there was something comforting about it. Hope future students enjoy your class as much as I did, but I know they will, I've never heard a complaint.

Robert McLeman said...

I really appreciate your comment, I love to hear from former students. Hope all is well. R.