Learning to Look, Embracing Complexity

Today’s LTC Lunch (weekly lunch-time presentations sponsored by our Learning and Teaching Center) featured a panel of professors from five different departments talking about how they use our vast arboretum in their teaching. These lunches are often interesting, sometimes inspiring, and always worth the time (and provide free lunch!), and today’s was definitely inspiring. I now want to take all five of those professors’ classes! The English prof talked about having his Nature Writing class do creative reports on local species in the arb. The stats prof talked about sampling ecological spaces rather than just people. The art prof talked about the work his Observational Drawing class does. The biology prof talked about how the arb functions as his class’ laboratory. And the geology prof talked about how it straddles some geologically interesting land that her students can study in a variety of ways, and how one year her class saved the college a million dollars by studying flood sediment and deciding that the college did not have to stabilize the banks of the river that runs through it.

Not only were these narratives fascinating in themselves, but they each reinforced what one professor said, which was that a huge part of a liberal arts education is “learning to look.” Each of these classes dealt with some aspect of taking in the vastness of the arb and then observing some piece of it closely, learning that piece, and applying it to the broader questions that their classes were tackling.

One professor also pointed out that when you take students into the arb, it’s impossible to escape complexity. They’re no longer dealing with lab samples. They’re no longer isolating geological study, for example, from biology or art. So in addition to the skills they build in their fields, they’re also learning to balance the particular and the general, the details and the gestalt. They’re learning to mentally zoom into and out of their environment, learning to look while immersed in complexity.

I love these ideas. I think this is exactly what I’m trying to teach my students about research. The landscape of possible evidence is vast and complex, and students have to learn to look at pieces of that landscape in ways that they’ve never had to look at them before. How is it that this one article fits into the landscape, or this one reference, or this one paragraph, or this one term? How does that mound of raw, uninterpreted primary source material complement the carefully plotted path of the literature review? What terms are sprinkled here and there in the prairie-like non-homogeneous homogeneity of your potential body of evidence? If you really look, even at something as factual as a report about an experiment, you can learn more than the facts that report aimed to convey; you can gain clues that will lead you to unexplored territories of scholarship.

Too often, I think, I shield my students from the complexity of this new landscape. I focus too much on helping them learn to look at the specific, the clean, the sterilized, the lab example. Too often the lessons I draw out from their active learning experiments are too safe. They are fundamental lessons, to be sure, but sterilized nonetheless.

My next instructional challenge, then, will be to build in healthy chances to encounter complexity, and to use those encounters to help my students learn to look carefully at what they find. A rock can be more interesting because of its placement in a landscape, and there’s more to learn about that rock than its shape and size and even its composition. So also, a single article never stands alone in the body of potential evidence, and if you really look, you can learn more than the facts and figures that article contains.