October 23, 2005

Oprah vs. Pretty Colour Lakes

In October my composition class read Bill McKibben's The Age of Missing Information, a book in which McKibben compares watching 24 hours of all 99 channels of a cable television station to one day spent in the Adirondack Mountains. In our class discussions, we compared the type of knowledge you can learn from direct experience in the outdoors to the knowledge you can learn from television.

Of course, we had to do the experiment ourselves. Half of the class took a bus to Pretty Colour Lakes, a beautiful natural area, and spent two hours hiking, writing in journals, admiring the foliage. The other half of the class spend two hours watching television and taking notes. All of the students, I think, would have preferred the field trip, but the division was dictated by which students had lab that afternoon. It is impossible to schedule a field trip that involves all of my students because they have so many afternoon labs and studios.

Each student wrote two pages detailing what they learned from the experience. In class, we read these aloud. The television students sat on one side of the room. The Pretty Colour Lakes students sat on the other side of the room.

The television papers were funny, filled with all kinds of bizarre and random bits of information. Soon, though, they began to all sound alike. Mostly what the students said they learned was pretty superficial and trivial. One student wrote a paper about all he learned about relationships from watching daytime television, and it was bizarrely absurd.

The papers about Pretty Colour Lakes were filled with all kinds of things: detailed observations, philosophical musings, memories, sensory details, lyrical descriptions, and emotional reflections. Often the papers reflecting the writer's personality, some of them touching on profound thoughts while others made funny observations about the way their classmates interacted with the landscape. Students studying science tended to include descriptions of wildlife while the architect students analyzed the design of the park.

The experiment worked to help get the students thinking about some of the overarching ideas of the book. What the students liked best, though, was the opportunity to get out of the city to spend a few hours outside hiking through bright-coloured leaves on a gorgeous fall day.

14 comments:

Miranda said...

Thanks, Jo(e). With my frantic schedule, I have found my own creativity sagging. A weekend with my creative friends being creative seemed to have provided the jumpstart I needed.

I will have to pass that book on to my writing friends.

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

Do you think it is fair to pit some of the finest wilderness in the country against a random selection of television?

Wouldn't it be better to either compare the adirondak park to one of the finest shows on TV (say, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) or a random TV show with a random spot outdoors in the US?

jo(e) said...

Rob: I am going to have to watch an episode of Buffy some day just to see what you think is so great about it. I doubt very much it can compare to hiking one of the high peaks though. (If I ever make it to Canton to visit you, I am willing to try that experiment though. We can take a hike and then watch an episode and see which experience is more worthwhile. I'm sure you've got Buffy on tape.)

I don't know how fair McKibben was trying to be, but he did watch all 24 hours and all 99 channels so he was being pretty systematic.

And of course, my students were allowed to choose which 2 hours and which channels they watched. I suspect many of them deliberately chose bad television so that their papers would be funny. They know they are reading them aloud so they cater to their audience.

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

Damn, you're asking me to put my money where my mouth is. Ok, you're on, if only to draw you up to Canton sometime.)

Julie said...

What a great assignment!

Ianqui said...

What the students liked best, though, was the opportunity to get out of the city to spend a few hours outside hiking through bright-coloured leaves on a gorgeous fall day.

Damn right. My students would probably love me if I organized a trip like this (esp in lieu of class!), but it would be very, very hard to justify it considering the topic I teach!

susan said...

Nifty assignment--what a hands-on way to look at research, reflection and writing.

How did your students' different experiences depend on their level of hiking/tvwatching experience? I wonder how much they sought something new in either version of the assignment.

jo(e) said...

Susan: Because I teach at a college that specializes in environmental issues, many of my students have lots of hiking experience and knowledge of the outdoors. We went to the lakes as a group so students who were less experienced ended up getting educated by the other students. For the most part, this split along urban/rural lines, with the rural kids sort of showing off for the urban kids, making sure to identify plants and trees and such. Some of the rural kids even stripped down to their underwear and went swimming in the lake even though it was a pretty cold day.

Of course, all my students have experience watching television -- and I do think that some of them, bitter that they could not go on the cool field trip because they had lab, deliberately chose really awful television shows to demonstrate how much they hated having to watch television for two hours. Surprisingly few students tried to defend television in any way. One woman did say that she grew up in a household where only Spanish was spoken and television was how she learned to speak English.

kathy a said...

great assignment!

Yankee T said...

What fun! I would totally die to be on the leaf-peeping expedition.

Running2Ks said...

Fantastic experiment. It would be amazing to adapt this in elementary schools. Turn off the tv, turn on the mind.

Bad Alice said...

Hmm. I wonder what it would have been like if the TV watchers had reported on their experiences watching Masterpiece Theater? Since TV was one of the ways (books being the other, of course) that I learned that the world was larger than the horrible town I grew up in (Bless PBS), I have a certain fondness for its finer offering (I would include Buffy, too). But it definitely profits the whole person to limit exposure.

MommyProf said...

I had forgotten about that book. It's a good one.

Rana said...

I'm going to have to remember this assignment! :)