A hand shoots up. “Can we have class outside today?” And then another voice: “Yeah, can we go outside?” And another: “Class outside would be really cool.”
I face sixteen eager teenagers, some wearing flip-flops, tank tops, cut-off jeans, and midriff-baring blouses. “Really cool,” I echo. “It’s forty-eight degrees out there.”
“We could sit in the sun.”
“Yeah, it’s sunny behind University Hall.”
“The answer,” I say, “is no.”
Hope drains from their faces. Then another question, cautiously broached: “Why not?”
I know they’ve been brainwashed by admissions PR materials featuring candids of the al fresco un-classroom. What prospective student, eyeing scenes of a nouveau Socrates ringed by disciples in the great outdoors, would not believe that life is a beach at Any College, USA?
To some extent this is reality based. There are teachers at Brown who hold classes outside when the weather turns warm. Sitting cross-legged on the turf, these pedagogues expound to their acolytes while embraced by the ambient din of Frisbee-tossers, dogs, toddlers, power mowers, leaf blowers, African drummers, and car radios.
I marvel at these islands of educational serenity, but I could never manage such a feat. How do I know? Sometime in the early 1990s, I, too, caved in, and out we’d gone to the lawn behind UH. It was damp, itchy, and smelly. Unless the wind blew my way, I could hear none of my students.
When I later questioned my colleagues, I realized I was not a lone curmudgeon. “What I usually tell my students,” said one, “is I’m the one who’s distracted.” Another professor scoffed, “It’s a pastoral fiction. You’re trying to discuss Shakespeare and a dog comes by and lifts his leg.”
An engineering professor was more ambivalent: “One year I agreed to teach without a blackboard. We all went outside and sat in a circle. I wrote equations and drawings on a piece of paper, and passed them around. I’d say we were operating at about 40 percent optimal capacity, but if we had been inside that day, most of the class would have been looking out the window wishing they were outside—so, overall, it seems it was a pretty good thing to do.” Still, she never did it again.
A music professor sent me a poem on the subject, “In a Spring Still Not Written Of,” by the poet and professor Robert Wallace, who taught mostly at women’s colleges.
with a class of girls outdoors, I saw
how frail poems are
in a world burning up with flowers….
The girls listened equally
to my drone, reading, and to the bees’
among them for the blossom on the bone….
Exactly. Which is why I told my students we could not have class outdoors. It’s not you, dear students. It’s I. Truly, I need a blackboard.
Selma Moss-Ward is a lecturer in the English department.