Knee-Deep in Learning on Lawson’s Fork

I’m a Wofford College English professor, and most of my classes are traditional, me in the front of the room, or at the head of a seminar table, writing on a blackboard, with students in rows of desks taking notes. The discussion is about books, and the issues rise from reading sentences, paragraphs, pages.
Every fall though I get to take freshman humanities students down to Glendale to “meet the creek” as part of a humanities/science learning community I teach with Ellen Goldey, a biology colleague.

A learning community is a technique we use at Wofford to get students engaged with their education. LCs can pair two courses around a common topic (in our case it’s water) and encourage students to explore a subject across disciplines as diverse as humanities and biology. The collaboration is labor intensive but rewarding in ways that can’t be anticipated from the front of a traditional classroom.

Ellen and I call Lawson’s Fork our “learning landscape.” The college is in the creek’s watershed and having the stream nearby gives us an extra classroom building development didn’t have to raise the money to build.

Since our theme is water and the science class requires a lab, we have freedom on Thursdays to use big blocks of time to head out to the creek. It’s not unusual to take students off campus for labs, but it’s more uncommon to have their English professor along every week asking them to reflect on “humanities” issues as they engage in field work, sampling, and experiment. I tell them visiting the creek with students is like opening a watery textbook, entering a flowing art museum, walking along the banks of an issues and values laboratory.

Last week was our first trip out to the creek this year. There were two topics we introduced before we headed out. One was what I call “reading the layered landscape,” and the other was Ellen’s primary goal, introducing the techniques of measuring and estimating water quality through sampling and collection of aquatic life from the creek.

You see, reading is not confined to paper. It’s possible to read almost anything around us. The world is a text if you can learn the language it’s written in.

With this in mind we stand on the bridge at Glendale and I ask the students to point north and then point which way the creek was flowing. Getting oriented in space is something you never have to think about in a traditional classroom, but it’s of primary importance in the type of learning we do. Direction is part of the grammar of landscape.

Once we’re oriented it’s possible to begin to build a vocabulary about landscape, and the students are pretty good at learning this language. They notice how much rock is in the creek at Glendale Shoals, and from there it’s easy to get them to compile all the details of how the place has been used by humans through time.

This year Spartanburg Area Conservancy’s Mary Walter joined us to talk a little about preserving important parcels of land, and she added another aspect of the story.

This discussion on the bridge is a starting point, but it goes a long way toward layering the spot with natural processes and human activity through thousands of years, all the way to the present. Once students put Glendale together in this way we ask them to make the same observations at White’s Mill, at Conestee Mill over in Greenville, on the Chattooga, and at the Baruch Institute down on the coast.

Once we spend time on the bridge we move down onto the shoals to literally get our feet wet. Our friend Jack Turner comes out from USC-Upstate, and Ellen and Jack take the students through a battery of water sampling tests-ph, temperature, dissolved oxygen, turbidity (the amount of sediment suspended in the water), and even tests for e-coli. I think of these sorts of basic tests as adding to our vocabulary for understanding the creek, and we practice them at every location we visit through the semester.

After the water sampling is finished we literally wade into the creek with nets and buckets and sample the aquatic insect life of Lawson’s Fork. This is always one of the best parts of the semester. The students collect anything living that the can find on the rocks and creek bottom, and then we sit around and identify them all with a key. It’s possible to speculate about the health of the stream according to the sample of creatures that turn up in such a survey.

I like to encourage the students to make up haiku in their journals about these watery citizens and over the years some of them have. I’m not about to abandon my traditional teaching. I like sitting around and talking about books too much, but I appreciate adding this “field” dimension to teaching of humanities too.

Once we head back to Wofford, we’re always wet and tired, a feeling you just don’t get in a traditional English class unless the sprinkler system comes on unexpectedly and you have to run out of the building.

Our learning community has been offered five times now so that means 80 Wofford freshmen have made contact with this important flowing landscape in a way they will never forget. They notice where the creek crosses roads. They know its history. They’ve read stories about it and written poetry. They care about it in a profound way. Isn’t that what good education is all about?

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