American Lit: Collaborative Writing & Group Work

screen-shot-2016-10-03-at-10-11-02-amThis semester as I prepared my syllabus for the American Literature: Origins to the Civil War course, I wanted to get my students more engaged in collaborative multi-modal projects. One of these was to write a blog post comparing the American Puritans to one religious group from the HBO series The Game of Thrones. While students cringed reading Jonathan Edwards’ sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, it paled in comparison to things many of them had seen on the show or read in George R. R. Martin’s books that the series is based on. Talking about GoT provided a necessary bridge in class discussions as the parallels between Puritan New England to today became clear. While not every student had seen the series, those who had found YouTube clips to fill them in and they shared their relevant knowledge. Meanwhile, those who hadn’t seen the series became primarily responsible for locating good passages in the texts we read to quote from as examples in their posts. I divided up GoT viewers between the groups, showed students where they could find wiki pages and blogs about GoT, and explained that this would give them enough information to write a blog post comparing religions even if they hadn’t seen the series. It was fun for viewers and non-viewers alike, and all were able to do their part in collaborative group work. Below are some resources for educators, if you are interested in trying this in your classroom.


Timing Group Work with Short Goalsscreen-shot-2016-10-03-at-10-08-50-am

The students at our college respond particularly well to group work in literature courses and it inevitably leads to more familiarity and comfort in the classroom. At first, a student-directed project with loose guidelines can be daunting, but it often leads to more interesting and original projects. To help students get started, I divided up their time for them with 10-minute goals. I wrote these up on the board and reminded them each time their ten minutes were up that they should move on to their next goal. Here is how I divided their first 50-minute group work session (our class periods are 75 minutes long):

  • 10min: choose religious group from GoT, begin researching group
  • 10min: do background research on Calvinism and Puritanism
  • 10min: start drawing parallels (write them all down)
  • 10min: each person look at one text we read for class and find quotable moments
  • 10min: divvy up the rest of the work and create a shared Google doc to write in

I walked around the room and answered questions. Group size ranged from 3-5 people (depending on attendance), and this seemed to work well for the project. I referred students to my own blog posts about the assignment on the class blog and on my pedagogy blog. This helped them get their creative minds going.

screen-shot-2016-10-03-at-11-27-52-amCitations for Digital Media

My blog post provided an example of how to use images, videos, and other media to create a multi-modal project. It also allowed me to demonstrate how to translate MLA style citations into citing digital media on the blogosphere. Students often take images and social media for granted and don’t think about how to use digital media ethically. This project gave me an opportunity to talk about doing due diligence to their digital sources.

While private class blogs and Blackboard can create productive, safe digital communities outside the classroom, I find students hold themselves more accountable when they know that the blog is public. Of course, I always give them the option to opt-out and email me their posts, or to create “discard” profiles on WordPress that aren’t linked in any way to their identities. This protects them and gives them the ability to participate in the digital community we’re building together outside the classroom. In the “real world” (after college) students will need to hold themselves accountable for citing sources, writing coherently, and representing themselves professionally. I believe college is the perfect time to begin experimenting with digital media tools, and to apply the writing skills they have acquired over the course of their education.

Pros & Cons of Collaborative Writing screen-shot-2016-10-03-at-10-09-30-am

Collaborative writing seems to be underestimated by composition instructors; it is certainly difficult to assign grades and address individual issues when students have written a paper together. While I don’t advocate for collaboratively writing every paper, I do think at least one collaborative project a semester is productive for many reasons. To take a note from John Bean’s book Engaging Ideas, collaborative work engages students in cooperative learning. As students struggle with how to merge their ideas and make them flow together, they have an ongoing dialog about what their writing is doing at any point in the essay and how it all connects back to an overarching narrative they are in the process of constructing together. That kind of collaboration can be scary and difficult, but it can also generate creativity and give each a wealth of feedback mid-process. That’s more than I can give each student individually once the essays are already written and submitted.

The downside can be that some students fall through the cracks or down give an equal amount of work to the project. That’s why I asked students in their second group meeting session (about 30 minutes) to give me a Task List that detailed what tasks each group member was responsible for. Also, these are static groups so at the end of the semester they will be filling out group member assessments and self-assessments. This holds each member accountable, and they see the assessments at the beginning of the semester so they know what my expectations are for each of them.

The Problem of Triggering Content

The HBO series The Game of Thrones is widely known for its high volume of sex scenes and murder–I’m not sure it has left much unexplored when it comes to either. Yet, nowhere in this assignment do I require students to watch it, and I very clearly state that some content in GoT they choose to write about may be triggering to their audience that they are writing to in their posts. Students are already exposed to so much violence in the news, and I don’t think educators do students any favors when they try to shelter them from the darker content of life. The world is a dangerous and unfair place, and students need literacy, self-reliance, and confidence to say “no” to violence.

What’s funny from this Americanist’s standpoint is that some events in the HBO series either compare or pale in comparison to what the Puritans did to the Native Americans and to each other (see the Witch trailer below). Not to mention, many early American settlers and Puritans were completely nonchalant about death in their writing. American Puritan families suffered under malnutrition, exposure, anxiety, and depression. Families slept together in the same beds, and largely policed each other in what historian Carol Berkin calls “institution-poor societies” by peeking into each others windows. The eerie part of the project for many students is seeing how today’s society is still like Puritan society, especially when it comes to “slut shaming” and religious justifications for violence.

So I will end with what I told my students about audience: “Finally, consider what kind of tone you want your blog post to have and who your audience is–is this for just the class or for a modern, GoT-viewing audience?  [For example,] Ladygeekgirl writes for a modern audience, an audience that would interpret Cersei Lannister’s Walk of Shame as very clear, public, and brutal “slut-shaming.” As ladygeekgirl warns, parts of GoT can be triggering for rape culture and misogyny, so be aware of this as you yourself do research for your group and as you write for a modern audience. Sometimes not acknowledging how a modern audience will read or view the material can lead one into trouble. So if you get the sense that there’s an elephant in the room (many parts of the Puritan texts and GoT are extremely violent–think of how many times we read “knocked on the head” just in the first paragraph of Mary Rowlandson’s Narrative), ask yourself how you would read this in a present-day context and try to address it in your post.”

Showcase: Student Work

At the end of the project, I had the enormous pleasure of reading the multi-modal projects students collaboratively created in their respective groups. Some of those posts are featured above (you can click on any of the photos–each is linked to a post from our class blog). You can read all of the posts students wrote for the project by reading our class blog under the category “American Puritans & Game of Thrones” and I assure you they will not disappoint! I myself learned a great deal from my students by the end of the project; they have shown me new ways to think about the television series and about the American Puritans. One of the greatest surprises was to see the attention some posts received from a GoT-viewing audience. I encourage you to comment on their posts and engage with them on the topic and the choices they made. Happy blogging!

Are There Puritans in The Game of Thrones?

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Map of The Narrow Sea via obsid

This next week in my “American Literature: Origins to the Civil War” class will feature a blog project in which students (now formed into groups of 4) will compile research and write a blog post comparing one religion from The Game of Thrones HBO series to American Puritanism.

So far this semester, we’ve read Mary Rowlandson, Cotton Mather, John Winthrop, Anne Bradstreet, and Michael Wigglesworth. This week students are reading Edward Taylor and Jonathan Edwards as they begin their work on these collaborative blog posts for our class blog.

There are several religions in the series to compare to Puritan Calvinism. 6,000 years prior to present GoT time, the Andals, who believed in the Faith of the Seven, slaughtered the Children of the Forest because their magic was an abomination to their faith. The latter even in name beg the comparison to Native Americans. In present GoT time, the Faith is revived and militant in King’s Landing, largely led by the High Sparrow who proselytizes through means of fear and torture, demands public confession, and acts as judge. Likewise, the Puritans were highly suspicious of doubt and they demanded public conversion, not to mention the judgments passed during the Salem witch trials. One might alternatively compare the Puritans to the followers of the Lord of Light, who wait for signs from him and believe that he has chosen whom to save.

These are just some of the connections I’m asking my students to make in a collaborative group project. I, for one, look forward to our class debate over which religious group from GoT the Puritans are most like. Read more about the assignment and feel free to borrow my lesson plans embedded within…

Environment & American Lit

cersei-walk-of-shame Cersei Lannister’s Walk of Shame on HBO’s The Game of Thrones via ladygeekgirl

George R. R. Martin’s book series A Song of Ice and Fire (1996-) has been adapted by HBO to the television series widely known as The Game of Thrones (2011-). Martin’s world-building in the series includes several competing religious groups that worship either “The Seven” in the Faith of the Seven, The Lord of Light, the Drowned God, the Many-Faced God, or the Gods of the Forest. When writing the series, Martin drew from The War of the Roses, but is there also a historical basis for these competing religions? Which resembles the Protestant faith that the Puritans descended from? Who displays a religious zeal or shares a similar fate in the series comparable to that of the Puritans? Your group will have to do some research and let us know in a collectively written and formatted blog…

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Using Reacting to the Past to Teach English Composition 101


When I asked if I could use Reacting to the Past (RTTP) in my new English Composition 101 class, and the answer was “yes,” I could barely contain my excitement. It can be difficult to convince someone who hasn’t seen game-based learning that role play enhances student performance, yes, even in formal writing. I’ve been trained by RTTP veteran Bethany Holmstrom, and attended the annual Reacting to the Past Faculty Institute conference at Barnard College. Now I have two sections of English Comp, a writing-intensive lesson plan and syllabus that cover the basics of college writing to the theme of the American Revolution, and I have a tricorne hat and black feather boa (pictured above) that can be used in the Game to symbolize “tar and feathers” should a “mob” decide to put political pressure on a voting member of the Provincial Congress. If you’ve never heard of RTTP, stay with me…

Why Reacting to the Past?

Students learn by playing roles from a period in history, writing papers and arguments from the perspective of their characters in order to win the argument and the game. Many excellent educators have done this before me. In addition to grappling with complex concepts (in our case: social contract theory, consent, and freedom) and practicing close reading (of Locke and Paine, no less), students are rewarded for the research and reading they do. If they do more research, their arguments are stronger, supported by evidence, and they make appeals to moderates (the people they’re trying to convince) that would have made sense in that period, meaning, they understand the historical sociopolitical context really well in order to be successful. Moreover, they learn that history in the making works very differently from that on the books; while history books make events sound like one logically caused another, RTTP plays out with multiple potential outcomes (not necessarily following history). Finally, students do an enormous amount of writing, drafting, editing, peer reviewing, and proofreading. They listen closely to oral arguments made by their opponents in classroom debates, and they read their opponents’ papers posted in a shared DropBox folder (at least in my class) and refer to their peers’ papers in their own follow-up counterarguments. All that said, it’s fun and gets students more invested in the class and in the outcome. They have to learn how to write stronger arguments if they want to win the game…so I say, why not?


Above you’ll see a Norton edition of the Game Book: Patriots, Loyalists, and Revolution in New York City, 1775-1776 by Bill Offutt. Offutt recommends supplementary reading from The Battle for New York and The Radicalism of the American Revolution. For composition and college writing, I use They Say/I Say (chapters 1-8), the appendices on “Punctuation” and “Using Sources” in Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, and several lessons from The Pocket Instructor: Literature, 101 Exercises for the College Classroom (ed. Fuss and Gleason) to help engage students in discussions about Locke’s Second Treatise and Paine’s Common Sense. You can view which ones I chose for this semester on my syllabus, but I highly recommend it for anyone teaching literature on any syllabus–Bethany Holmstrom recommended it to me and I kept it by my side throughout my syllabus writing. In addition, I like to nerd out so I bought the tricorne hat and black feather boa for fun, but all you really need to invest in is a pair of dice (mob outcomes are a bit chancy, you see).

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Using the Materials

I’m a big fan of reiterating what was read for class, for reviewing the key points in a discussion, for viewing relevant materials in an interactive Prezi Presentation (pictured above), and also watching it happen in some kind of dramatized form, be it a film or theater production. This targets different learners and improves reading comprehension. So I recommend creating a Prezi presentation of your own that summarizes the history of events leading up to the game, or you’re welcome to use mine–it draws mostly from Offutt’s Game Book, and in it I cite sources for images, etc. so I also use it as a citation teaching tool for students.

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What I love about Offutt’s Game Book is it contains almost everything you need: the historical, social, and political context for the game, a suggested timeline and number of class periods, and appendices with accessible reading selections (Locke, Paine, etc.). In addition to the Game Book, you will need to register on Barnard’s Reacting to the Past website to have access to the Instructor Resources (where you will learn more about how to organize the game in your classroom as the Gamemaster, and where you can access role sheets for your students).

Finally, you will need to find time before, during, and after the game to weave composition and rhetoric instruction into your lesson plans. I spend a great deal of time on this at the beginning of the semester, and I also spend a lot of time on Locke to make sure my students have a firm grasp on the major concepts they need to know before we start. During the game, I’ve left my students lots of time for in-class writing and peer review. They can meet with other members of their factions to plot who will make what arguments and who will respond to whom with the best counterarguments. After the game, I’m asking students to revise their very first response papers from their own perspective (as students, not in character), writing in their own voice. This, I hope, will help them translate the skills they learned in the game into their future papers written from their own perspectives.

Applying the Game to the Real World

At the beginning of the semester, I’m showing students a clip from the John Adams (2008) T.V. series when a tax collector is tarred and feathered in the Boston port. It’s not pretty, but mobs were a common form of protest in the period and choosing to declare independence and go to war meant choosing violence. After showing students the clip from Episode 1, I’m asking them to respond to the question: “Is violence sometimes justified? If so, when? If not, explain.” At the end of the semester, after the game has ended, I’m going to ask them to re-read their old responses and show them the clip again. Students will need to revise their essays (excellent drafting practice!) and bolster their arguments with information they collected during the game, using historical sources and examples. Students also have room in these second and final drafts to draw bridges between the past and today, to make connections to current acts of protest and resistance. This, I hope, will help them apply skills they learned in the game and in character to a real college paper. It will also prepare them for English Composition 2.

Hiking Like a Woman

Doc watching the sunset on top of Rich Mountain Lookout Tower

Twenty-five percent of thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail are women, and, let me tell you, these are hardcore women who take after the Mary Rowlandsons and Hannah Dustans of America. Before I reached the 100-mile mark, however, I had already heard several hikers use the phrase, “I’m going to take this mountain like a man,” which for this feminist was eye-rolling to say the least, especially after having climbed the mountain myself, through cobwebs and with a beaded brow, and maybe as the only woman on the trail wearing pearl earrings. Why can’t I be feminine and a tough mountain climber? Oh wait, I can.

Amy on the summit of Mt. Washington, about to finish a 12-mile day despite severe weather conditions, 2015

Climbing mountains like a woman, I’ve trekked over 500 miles in 35 days…without a knife or what some would consider “protection” except for my own arms, legs, and brain. Sure, I cried a mile down into Hot Springs, NC over a pinky-toe blister, but I’ve also built a fire with wet wood, powered through 21 miles in thunderstorms, scared off bears, and stomped on a snake. I’ve also educated several armed men on proper precautions to take to avoid bears, precautions that would make firearms unnecessary. Yet manliness on the trail is something seemingly always at stake for male hikers, and masculine identity often drops into conversation in relation to strength, toughness, and endurance, especially in the presence of other hikers. There is no reason why strength, toughness, and endurance outdoors should be associated with manliness and not womanliness. Consider the cases of Rowlandson and Dustan, for instance.

Straight from the colonies, Mary Rowlandson and Hannah Dustan both trekked through the American wilderness for miles, soon after childbirth and witnessing the death of their infants they had labored so hard to bring into the world (one infant was shot and the other dashed against a tree). Their homes were burned and they were taken into captivity by Native American captors who supposedly threatened to run them through the gauntlet (essentially an unarmed, unclothed run through a crowd prepared to beat them). Rowlandson and Dustan survived to tell their tales, defying not only gender roles but also the Calvinist belief in passivity: the former negotiated her own ransom and sewed and traded with her captors to save herself, and the latter murdered her captors and brought home their scalps to make a profit (each was worth a pretty penny at the time). This is all to say that women mountaineers are not new to America. Long before these white female colonists there have been Native American women carrying large loads across long-mile journeys and laboring for months to cultivate gardens from wild land. Let’s fast forward to today’s wilderness trekkers, and some of the women hikers I met on the trail.

Doc (right) and me (left) on our last day in the Smokies

Doc (short for “Doc-40”) not only carried a 40 lb. pack but also literally ran up mountains with it. Not to mention that after medical school she’ll be saving lives. On the trail she brought the sunshine with her every moment, radiating joy and enthusiasm for every bit of trail life. She has been the motivating voice behind my every step through pain to get mind over mountain, chasing sunsets and sunrises because they were beautiful.

Flick completed the trail at Katahdin in Maine last year, photo courtesy of her, 2015

Flick (also a skilled ultimate player) met me in Hot Springs to share her stories and wise advice from her 2015 thru-hike. Her emphasis was on listening to one’s inner voice first and foremost on the trail, the best advice I’ve been given. Ever an inspiration to me with her optimism, originality, and hardcoreness, she opted out of the usual tent or hammock, instead going ultra-lightweight and using the tarp method. This lady didn’t let the fear of spiders or mice in the night get in the way of her journey outdoors, and now she’s a role model to young women in Asheville, NC.

Climbing Breakneck on the Hudson River, photo courtesy of hiking buddy Steven, 2015

ArtiSun (that’s where Flick and I met her in Hot Springs) hiked the whole trail at age 48, without a single blister. Every time she felt a hot spot she walked barefoot. She also carried a bottle of nail polish and a bottle of mascara with her the whole way. After breaking her arm in Pennsylvania and getting put in a cast at the Allentown hospital, she walked with her cast all the way to Katahdin, the end point in Maine.

Left to right: Croft, me, and Curlz on top of Roan Mountain (Photo courtesy of Shannon)

Croft is a travelling nurse when she’s not travelling by foot on the trail and Curlz found creative ways to bring her home-grown vegetables to the trail with her, making incredibly delicious and nutritious meals. You can read Curlz’s story here as she goes back to the trail for round two. Both brought their inspiring self-reliance and love of nature with them to every conversation, not to mention their silly and wonderful sense of humor. Through good days and bad, these ladies made the most out of their summer A.T. experience and always shared the love.

View from Walnut Mountain

Queen Bee (bottom left in the photo above) came out to the trail for three days to celebrate her 60th birthday, supported by her loving wife “Honey Bee” who picked her up in Hot Springs in a white van covered in flower power stickers. Queen Bee wasn’t shy about taking on the trail solo, but we’re glad she shared her birthday with us at Walnut Mt. Shelter, roasting marshmallows and watching the sunset at the end of a 20-mile day.

Alicia enjoying the view of a waterfall on a day hike in the Green Mountains, 2015

There are many more hardcore women mountaineering out there and breaking gendered stereotypes, but what I really love to see on the trail is women doing it their own way, maintaining their identities rather than performing a show of “manning up” as if being a woman weren’t hardcore enough. On another blog I read a story that ended with the punchline: “women are made of pain.” It stuck with me whether the story that led to it was true or not because the phrase itself feels right. I think about Rowlandson and Dustan, or even Anne Bradstreet, risking their lives in childbirth in the early American settlements without full medical care or provisions. Then Rowlandson and Dustan trekked through the wilderness with almost nothing compared to what we have between gear and dehydrated trail foods today.

These early American heroines inspired future fictional ones like Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie (in Hope Leslie) and James Fenimore Cooper’s Cora Munro (in The Last of the Mohicans). They continue to inspire women and men in my classroom in the American Literature: Origins to the Civil War course that I teach in the fall. So when we think about mountaineering, perhaps we could include images of these women in our minds and rid ourselves of the perception that it takes a “real” man with a big beard to survive in the wilderness. In addition, let’s bring into our thinking the joy, delight, and peacefulness that come with spending time in the wilderness. What I love most about all the women I’ve mentioned above is their focus not on survival alone but their conscientiousness, overall well-being and sense of purpose, their firm centeredness and comfort with nonconformity. They all have successfully hiked their own hikes and did it their own ways without being shaken by the opinions of others and without imposing their methods on anyone else.

Photo courtesy of Bethany (left) who led the way to Sharp Top in Virginia

So go out there and hike those mountains like a you, however you do you. Just hike–gender has nothing to do with it.

“Leave No Trace”: When American Transcendentalism Leads to Wilderness Preservation

Photo taken north of Damascus, VA

Having hiked over 500 miles of the Appalachian Trail this summer, dutifully carrying a copy of Thoreau’s writings with me, there are certain habits I’ve cultivated with a now-ingrained daily routine that I’ll take with me off the trail. The “Leave No Trace” policy of American hiker culture is what keeps the Appalachian Trail special for everyone because the wilderness can’t sustain a massive hiker population each summer — waste just doesn’t decompose that quickly — especially on a trail so frequented it stretches like a hiker’s highway from Georgia to Maine, supporting thousands each year. It might seem strange to nature-lovers now but there was a time before national parks, shelters with outhouses, and the “Leave No Trace” rules when hikers would defaecate on the trail, leave garbage everywhere, and feed wild animals (unfortunately some still do). The trail, once popularized, did expose more Americans to wild nature and small agrarian towns, but it also began to stink and show signs of excessive use, nearly ruining the intended experience entirely. The Wilderness Preservation Movement first protected the wilderness from deforestation, dams, and urbanization, and then later established common practices to protect the wilderness from the burden of supporting large numbers of nature-loving hikers themselves. Before I get into the connection I see between literature and trail, let me quickly summarize what “Leave No Trace” means (if you’re familiar with it, skip ahead to the next section).

Photo taken at Mountaineer Shelter, TN

Leave No Trace Behind

#1. Pack it in, pack it out! Whatever food or gear you bring to the trail, you must bring out. Many hikers keep a plastic Ziploc bag for wrappers and other trash, unloading them whenever a parking lot has a trash can or when they get into town. My friend Flick used the same bag for trash all the way from Georgia to Maine. While not everyone follows this policy, it is meant to include everything: pits, nut and seed shells, bottles and cans, tissues, matches, used Band-Aids, and Q-tips…everything.

#2. That said, people try to burn their trash so they don’t have to carry it but you shouldn’t burn things that aren’t burnable. The plastic remains warped in the fire pit, so there are clear traces left behind, not to mention the chemicals being released into the fresh mountain air.

Sunset and campfire at Beauty Spot, TN

#3. Bury human waste. Some campsites and shelters have “toilet areas” that quickly become mine fields if human waste isn’t properly buried. It stinks, and even a privy without duff (the partly decomposed soil and leaves on the ground mixed in with a compostable privy) can be smelled from 100 yards away at a shelter. 

#4. A fed bear is a dead bear. Bears know that people have food, and this June was particularly difficult because the acorns were bad this year and due to the warm weather bears came out of hibernation early. Waiting for the berries to ripen, bears in Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia have been walking into campsites, shaking trees where food is hung, tearing into tents (one hiker wearing coconut-scented lotion was bitten by a bear in his tent in the Smokies), and even stealing packs left unattended (one bear den was found with over 20 backpacks). Hikers should cook away from camp, and either hang their food, waste and scented things in a bear bag (mice will eat through a sleeping bag to get to a wrapper) or use bear canisters. Never bury the food you don’t eat (see #1 above), especially when the invasive species of wild boar in NC and TN will come dig it up. 

Woods south of Wapiti Shelter in Virginia

The Lasting Influence of Henry David Thoreau & Ralph Waldo Emerson 

Through John Muir and his leadership in wilderness preservation, the influence of Thoreau and Emerson has continued on in the hearts of hikers across the country whether they have read the American Transcendentalists (as John Muir had) or not. As I’ve told my students, you don’t have to be a hiker or “outdoors-y” to spend an hour in nature and feel somewhat different. It’s a transcendental experience; after all, Emerson equated nature with ecstasy. This was a feeling Muir wanted more people to experience for themselves so they would understand that the wilderness is something worth preserving. That’s why John Muir took President Teddy Roosevelt into the wilderness to turn that feeling into legal action (and apparently the President would disappear for days on end to go hunt those wild boar in North Carolina, according to the locals I met near Fontana Dam). 

Laurel Falls near Hampton, TN

More people on the trail, it seems, are familiar with John Muir than Thoreau or Emerson because of the PCT, also called the “John Muir Trail,” on the West Coast. The trail was featured in the recent film Wild (2014), starring Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed. John Muir was influenced by Thoreau and Emerson, as Roderick Nash has shown in Wilderness and the American Mind, inspired by a similar love of nature. Thoreau, years before Muir, trekked into the New England wilderness for weeks at a time to get away from society and commune with nature. However, he and Emerson were never really that far from civilization…and neither are we today, something Muir anticipated. 

Campsite on the Osgood Trail in New Hampshire, 2015

On the one hand, the wilderness was already disappearing in Thoreau’s time. Even on a hike off path he would eventually cross into someone’s property. On the other hand, both Thoreau and Emerson advocated for democracy, personal accountability, and self-reliant participation in society once one had discovered one’s inner voice (most likely to be found through experience, often in nature). While Thoreau and Emerson advocated for a balance between wild and civilian life, Muir was more likely to go off the grid for months at a time, deeper into the wilderness, fully embracing the religion of rocks and mountains, cherishing the wild landscape over civilization. But when I think about “Leave No Trace” and the Appalachian Trail, it all starts with Thoreau and Emerson for me because I see hikers sharing transcendental experiences everywhere, talking about the views of a lifetime, the “trail magic” they found, and “trail angels” they’ve met along the way. That, I think, was the original reason — the good feeling — Muir wanted more people to share. 

Overmountain Shelter, a converted barn near Roan Mt. in Tennessee

Society in Nature

On my last night on the trail (at least for now), I woke up to find a friendly resident bat in the Laurel Creek Shelter eating all of the bugs for me. As Thoreau writes in Walden, there is much society to be found in nature, from the embrace of a rain storm to the songs of birds. But Thoreau also heard the clang of farm equipment, the rolling wheels of a cart in the distance, and the trains enormous wall of sound that disturbed him even in his remove from human society at Walden Pond. As I wrote in my last post, it’s hard to feel that far removed when the sounds of cars and planes encroach on the natural soundscape. However, there was a point (after 35 days in the wilderness and about 5 days, or 83 miles, of hiking solo) at which my attitude about human society changed. I began writing in my journal questions about whether what I was doing was selfish, and concerns about the world and the people in it when news would reach me three days late about a recent tragedy.

Bird on top of Mt. Pierce in New Hampshire, 2015

While I loved waking up to the sounds of birds, spotting a fox, a skunk, a doe, or two cub bears climbing a tree, there are such beautiful sights and experiences in that 83 miles of backcountry that would have been even lovelier and even more magical if I had been able to share them with another human. I had been hiking in small groups but the hiker season in Virginia ends in June (and for good reason–it has rained at least twice on me every day and been unforgivably hot and humid), so I’ve had some time to reflect, in solitude, why I came out here in the first place. I felt ready to come home and spend time with my friends and family, ready to go back to work and excited to implement new ideas for my fall syllabus, and even eager to return to New York City and the vibrant and diverse urban life again (never thought I’d say that–never!). So the pull to do something now that I feel re-centered has brought me closer in thinking to the emphasis on activity in Emerson’s writing, especially his frequent metaphorical use of polarity (like the pull and push between nature and society that I’m still trying to navigate) and I feel drawn again to William James’s pragmatic method. 

Teaching American Transcendentalism, Pragmatism & Environment

Thoreau’s lasting impression on wilderness preservation balanced with his emphasis on civil disobedience has brought this hiker back to civilization in a Muir-like fashion, ready to teach inner city students about the crucial role environment has played in American identity formation and to show them (through a nature walk experience) why it is worth preserving.

Open ridge south of Chestnut Knob Shelter in Virginia

The natural landscape of this country shaped American identity, which at its very center has always had a religious strain. The common denominator, regardless of denomination or variety of atheism, is that nature brings us some inner peace as well as a sense of connection with the world around us. It is the two together that link American Transcendentalism to Pragmatism: transcending the noise and discovering one’s inner voice and ambitions leads to activism if one follows through and listens to that inner voice. Spending time in nature has the potential to cultivate not selfishness but a renewed energy and enthusiasm for action and participation that grows out of a centered individual’s foundation or inner truth. It is a romantic, optimistic notion but I think we could use some hope and renewed energy. So take a saunter, and listen to what you think.

Losing a Wild Soundscape 

Hiking the Appalachian Trail this summer has been a musical experience beyond anything I could have predicted. I’ve now hiked over 300 miles along the state line of North Carolina and Tennessee, arriving in Virginia yesterday just in time for the shocking gun-like echo of fireworks. Before I get to that, let me share with you what I got used to hearing on the trail before stopping in Damascus for the 4th of July (quite accidentally).

The Music of the Woods

Every morning as the sun rises, there is a loud, boisterous crescendo of bird song from a few hooting owls to all of the birds in all of the trees chiming in to welcome the new day. It lasts about 30 minutes, and it is the most predictable and beautiful alarm clock I’ve woken up to on a daily basis–one I have not yet successfully slept through. The elation of a flourishing crescendo is one we easily identify with when we listen to music: it can make us feel a sense of accomplishment, of heroism, or of overwhelming bittersweet happiness that brings us to tears in movies. These are feelings I often encounter in nature and it’s not just due to a view of a lifetime; rather, the wild soundscape that I find myself suddenly harmonizing with is what makes me feel so alive and interconnected with the circle of life. As Ralph Waldo Emerson writes in Nature, there are many moments in the vast wilderness when I feel “the currents of Universal Being” flow through me. Nature has always been a variety of religious experience for me and harmonizing with nature is an experience I recognize when I read Emerson. 

However, not all sounds in the wilderness are ones I harmonize with; for example, the low growl of a coyote we disturbed one morning (I was first out on the trail with my father in the Smokies) sounded immediately alarming, as it was meant to be. I’ve been huffed at by bears and snorted at by deer (the latter was actually the worst of the two because it sounds like the wheezing of an empty water bottle being squeezed), and hissed at by snakes. I’ve also made warning sounds to scare off bears and coyotes, from banging my trekking poles together to singing “We all Live in a Yellow Submarine” by The Beatles over and over again. 

And then there are sounds that leave me in humble wonderment. Coyotes near Roan Mountain began howling just after sunset, and I could hear them all partake in the collective call across miles and miles around me. Some were extremely close and some reached an unearthly high pitch. That was a tremendous moment of music I’ll never forget. Another night, a very windy night, I could hear the roots moving in the ground as the trees creaked and swayed back and forth in the strong breeze on a ridge. The very ground beneath the ear to my pillow was moving, moaning even, like the heaving breast of Walden Pond beneath the ice that Henry David Thoreau listened to from his bed during winter nights. The music of the coyotes and the trees at night changed me as a listener. Music is not an art limited to human creation; rather, it is all around us if we are willing to enter a state of active passivity, or active listening. As Emerson writes, “all I know is reception.” Perhaps if we unplugged our audio systems and took out our earbuds more often we would feel more connected with the world around us, and better know our impact on our surroundings. All too often we tune out noise pollution with louder tunes rather than seeking quiet, meditative spaces. 

Noise in the Woods

At the beginning of this adventure it seemed realistic that I would still hear cars passing by as I walked away from my drop-off point…but now I know that I can hear cars at least 5-6 miles away, and the loud sound can be deceiving when I still have 2 hours to go before I get to the road I already hear. The Appalachian Trail stretches over 2,000 miles of backcountry, but the AT also crosses multiple roads, highways, bridges, back yards, and driveways. It’s a bizarre and unsettling experience to suddenly arrive at a fast-moving concrete world that has been living on without you and will keep living on while you slowly trek through miles of beautiful trees, flowers, grass, and rocks. As my trail buddy Moose said, the AT is kind of like Narnia. I feel protected by the walls of forest trees, entering a magical place where I return to child-like innocence with simplified needs, my greatest joys being sunsets, picnic tables, toasted marshmallows, and dry clothes. 

The wild soundscape of this country before colonization and before the Industrial Revolution is nearly gone. Even a sneeze from me is loud enough to quiet the birds briefly, so amplify that noise to heavy metal machinery and it’s a wonder we still hear birds singing at all. Birds have also picked up our sounds, singing out car alarms and walk signals. It’s a joy to whistle back and forth with a robin, taking turns with the same two notes in a game of musical tennis, but then I wonder if I’m doing more harm to the bird than good. I’ve also lamented having stolen the feathers from the birds, as Thoreau has written, by using a down sleeping bag. The railroad interrupted his thoughts and brought him a feeling of loneliness at Walden Pond not unlike the strange sense of homesickness and repulsion I feel when I hear a large truck cruise by at high speed. The trains still go by Walden Pond today (though perhaps more frequently) and quiet the birds for several minutes after they have passed. It is hard to feel any solitude in the woods when I hear planes overhead and cars below, then I wonder if the bears mind the sounds of planes and cars.

Thoreau understood the consequences of the railroads and recorded both seeing and hearing the wilderness disappearing. In my next post, I’ll talk about Thoreau’s influence on John Muir and the “Leave No Trace” policy of AT hikers. Until then, Happy Trails! 

Addressing Despair in the Classroom: An Ecocritical Approach to Non-Canonical American Writers

Pedagogy and American Literary Studies (PALS) invited me last month to write a guest post on teaching the American Literature Survey Course. While collaborating and making edits, the wonderful team at PALS gave me an opportunity to write a second post about something else that happened in the course. Take a look:

Pedagogy & American Literary Studies

PALS Note: This is the second post from Christina Katopodis about her novel approaches to the American literature survey. Read below for her ideas on combatting despair in face of the many injustices and tragedies in American literary history. And find her first post here

In my last post, I talked about building community in the classroom, something I value as a teacher because it means simultaneously establishing a safe and flexible learning environment. The community-building began with the nature walk and class blog, in shared experiential learning. The ecocritical framework to the course, from the walk to the readings, bolstered a sense of solidarity in the classroom that we discovered we needed later in the semester. One additional goal I had for “American Literature: Origins to the Civil War” was to center America’s origins around her founding mothers and people of color in addition to the “city on…

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Ask Students to Write the Final Exam


Asking the right question is no easy task. We spend years fine-tuning questions and lesson plans. But when students get these questions, it’s for the first time. According to my students, the hardest paper assignment I gave them last semester was for our poetry unit–but not because it was on poetry. I asked my students to explicate a poem, performing their own original reading of the poem’s meaning. The hard part was the lack of structure–I didn’t give them a writing prompt because I wanted them to come up with their own thesis statements–and they were afraid of being wrong. I have faith in my students’ ability to come up with their own thesis at the end of the semester because we’ve spent months on arguable claims and composition. My response to them was that they should try to be wrong more often and to not be silent when afraid of being wrong. To lessen their fear, they became question-makers.

Students, now having more practice forming their own thesis, could get more practice forming thesis questions by writing their own final exam questions. Studies have shown that there is little pedagogical benefit to final essay exams yet many departments outside of English ask students to take them. Although I would rather not give an exam because my main goal is to help students start preparing a paper weeks in advance of a deadline, it is fitting that students get practice preparing for essay exams in their required composition course if that’s what they’re expected to do outside of it…at least in college, if not after.

How We Did It
2 classes before their final exam, I put them into groups of 4-5 and asked them to write the exam. Each group needed to write 3 questions, one for each genre we read (or they could combine two genres into one question and write a creative writing question as one of the three). I posted some helpful vocabulary on the board with useful definitions for terms like analyze, examine, compare, describe, and demonstrate. The definitions helped them really understand what task each word asks a student to do, and I explained that longer essays might ask for 2-3 things and short essays ask for only one thing. Then, during the next class I posted a Google survey and shared the link with them so they could vote and decide on their favorite six questions as a class (I let them take out their phones for this). I tweaked the grammar or added a parenthetical suggestion for one or two but the questions were otherwise posted exactly as the students had written them. The students then knew what would be on the exam in advance and I emailed them the final questions so they could practice at home.


The Results
Students wrote and chose questions that had clear expectations, reflected the theme of the course, and that they knew they could answer and demonstrate what they had learned. They were all fair, all required having read the texts, and few asked too much of students. Walking around the room, I facilitated discussions about what makes a good question and helped students think about what answers they were looking for.

Many groups chose three different terms or tasks, and the creative writing questions were not only fun but also required in-depth knowledge about the texts. For instance, one question asked students to write a parody of a poem and I reminded them that their parodies needed to reflect the rhyme and meter of the original, and to use select diction clear enough to hint at what poem they were parodying in order for the parody or satire to be successful. Broetry does a particularly good job of this, so I showed them an example. I did what I always do: before the exam, we talked through a few potential ideas they might write about to get a sense of what the questions are asking for.

As you can imagine, the exams I read were much stronger and more inspired because students were invested both in the exam process and the outcome. They were also less nervous, wrote more like themselves, and I believe they had an easier time recalling information because they were able to practice beforehand. While this exercise might sound less rigorous than a traditional exam format, the learning outcomes were increased understanding of how exams are created and practice determining what questions are asking for. Both lead to better exam-takers and better answers to questions.

I’m definitely not the first who has done this, but from what I’ve read and learned along the way it seems this is the best way to make a timed essay exam pedagogically valuable. If you try it, I’d love to hear about it!

A Week on the Appalachian Trail Reading Thoreau


Henry David Thoreau writes in “Walking,” that every walk is a crusade, and declares sauntering an art. I set out this summer to hike about 1,000 miles of the Appalachian Trail, bringing a copy of Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers with me for the first 100 miles. I’ve spent more of my time reading Walden than any other work by Thoreau, but A Week has shown me another side of him, the side that says “keep a stiff fin” like the fish, and just keep on swimming. After nursing some nasty blisters in Hot Springs, NC (I hiked the last mile downhill in flip flops), I know now that hiking long distance is a lot like achieving most long-term goals in life: HARD. I used to think running the last 4 miles of my first marathon was the hardest physical accomplishment of my life, but as the tears mixed with the sweat beads on my face, it was hard to think of a single moment tougher than this one.


Max Patch

Keep a Stiff Fin. A buddy in the group of hikers I’ve met on the trail named Dash (read his story here) said yesterday that you never quit on a hard day, and I think that’s sage advice for most things. We reach many periods in life where we could easily quit at the end of a sentence instead of pushing on, testing new boundaries and seeing how far we could live out a story by challenging its end. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning…” (“Circles”). Once we reach a new horizon, we look back to see how small our initial ambitions were and look forward to see how great they have become–but only if we keep on going. 50% of hikers who start Northbound from Springer Mt, Georgia don’t make it to Max Patch (250 miles), mostly because they push themselves too hard, probably trying to meet short-term mileage goals and forgetting to saunter in nature and really experience the trail. The true difference between success and failure (and I do think we should aim to fail and get things wrong more often) is when we reach a moment when we could stop, and then we find the will to continue. The semicolon symbolizes just that kind of stiff-fin moment, turning a period into a comma.

Smokies Sunset

Sunset from the Shuckstack Fire Tower in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Hike Your Own Hike. That was the best advice I got from a friend who hiked the A.T. several years ago. Most hikers start in Georgia, aiming to go Northbound to Maine over the course of about five and a half months. Well, my father wanted to kick off this Thoreauvian journey with me for the first 40 miles of the Smokies, so we started at Newfound Gap and headed Southbound to Fontana Dam together, spending five nights in the Smokies. I was so excited he wanted to do it with me, and he was equally happy I wanted him to come along. It wasn’t easy (they don’t call them mountains for nothing), but we talked philosophy, watched the sunset from the fire tower, made a camp fire, scared off a coyote and a bear, and we watched the fireflies make a bed of grass glow in the night while drinking port wine and having the father-daughter experience of a lifetime.


Dad and me at Clingman's Dome

Much of what makes the trail a magical place is the people you meet along the way, the company of good folks who take time to learn your name, exchange tips and share their stories. As Dash writes in his blog, I’ve shared the same spoon with four other people to polish off some Velveeta mac and cheese, I’ve shared laundry duty, coffee brewing duty, and pretty much everything with the good folks I’ve met on the trail. We share and we struggle and put mind over mountain together. However, I also started 166.3 miles after these wonderful folks and haven’t gotten my trail legs yet, so it’s been hard trying to keep up AND hike my own hike.

Dad Walking

Self-Reliance. To really hike your own hike, which for me is to saunter and take it all in, can be difficult when your impulse is to stay with your friends. But I’m not hiking as fast. This is my day 11, and I know my limits. I also know why I originally came to hike the AT: to commune with nature. Emerson writes, “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost…” (“Self-Reliance”). I just spent the morning with my friend Flick who hiked the trail last summer and she told me to follow my inner voice. While saying goodbye to one group of amazing people is tough, meeting the next group along the way is also amazing. So I’ll keep up with this awesome crew (Dash, Moose, Doc, and Optimist) while I can, leave early and arrive late between camp sites, and enjoy the music of the birds, the whispers of the trees, and the laughter of the streams while I’m sauntering on.

The good news is, as my dad said, that now that I’ve drained my blisters my total shoe weight should be 10 grams lighter. These are the things we think about when gaining thousands of feet of elevation. Sending the nalgene and cold weather gear home today, I weighed my pack and the base weight without food and water is 18 pounds. I’m sure it’d be lighter without my hardcover copy of Thoreau but there are some things worth carrying.


Sunset from Walnut Mountain

Happy Trails!

Student-Driven Pedagogy in the Early American Survey Course

Teaching PALS was kind enough to let me write a guest post on Student-Driven Pedagogy in the Early American Survey Course for their blog. Check it out!

Pedagogy & American Literary Studies

PALS Notes: PALS welcomes guest contributor Christina Katopodis, who is an Adjunct Lecturer at Hunter College and an English PhD student at the Graduate Center CUNY. Katopodis writes about her experience engaging students in the early American literature survey. Allowing students choice in syllabus and class design, asking students to find nature in the New York City spaces, and introducing soundscapes into the classroom have all become integral parts of her student engagement. Katopodis elaborates on her ecocritical approach to the survey here

Crafting a syllabus for my “American Literature: Origins to the Civil War” survey course last fall, I felt the challenge of pairing down a long list of readings and covering centuries of literature in one semester.

IMG_20160515_181809875 copyThere were three unique hurdles to this course for me: making the survey student-driven, getting all 31 students to participate in discussions, and bringing the American wilderness into an urban classroom. This post will offer my…

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