A lesson from the farm

Wendell Berry writes in Andy Catlett about a young boy of the same name spending time with his grandparents on their farm.  The youth is gently forced outside on a cold winter morning to help his Granddaddy and a family friend, Burley, work in the barns.  Reluctantly at first, he helps them as they “kept finding ways for me to help” and “let me belong there at work with them.”  As the morning and the work progresses, Andy finds that “I went from reluctance and dread to interest in what we were doing, and then to pleasure in it.  I got warm.”  He realized thankfully that “the men were letting me help sometimes even when I could see I was slowing them down.”

What a beautiful picture of the learning and growing process!  In this case, it’s not “school learning” but more practical work or trade learning on the farm.  Nonetheless, the old men, as teachers, gently led Andy from reticence to pleasure in the task before them.  I believe that is part of our role as teachers.  Our students often come to us forced to take our particular class by the university or their department.  They arrive reluctant and reserved, like Andy in the barn on a cold winter’s morning.  We succeed as teachers when we help our students move from cold indifference to interest and pleasure in the work at hand, whether it be farm chores or calculus or history.

Granddady and Burley wisely chose to simply involve Andy in their own work.  They didn’t sit him down on a bale of hay and lecture to him about the intricacies of building sheep pens.  They didn’t make him muster false exuberance about the work before making him help with it.  The men knew that learning often comes through doing, and pleasure in work/learning often comes through accomplishing a task with an appropriate amount of help.  Even though Andy slowed down their work and made them less efficient (They couldn’t cover as much material??), he was not cast aside as too inexperienced to be involved in the work.

Maybe we need to learn some lessons about teaching from this simple story from the farm.


2 thoughts on “A lesson from the farm

  1. Most, if not all, professors are involved in research and consulting in addition to their teaching responsibilities. While I haven’t thought out all the implications of this, maybe it could be as simple as bringing parts of that into the classroom in real time, not just as examples after the fact. Granted, it gets sticky because there is usually compensation involved with these projects, and the professor can’t start paying his class to help him do his work. But I think that is a peripheral roadblock.

    Say I have a slope stability analysis to perform. To do this, I need to select the appropriate engineering parameters (unit weights, strengths, location of the water table, loading scenarios, etc.) from the information provided me. Is there any reason, I couldn’t bring the field and laboratory test data to the classroom and let the students help me select the appropriate parameters. Sure, I could do it faster on my own, but they can learn SO much from this exercise. More importantly, they would need to apply what they’ve learned to make these decisions.

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