I started my First Year Composition course off a little differently this spring. Instead of plunging directly into all things thesis-driven, I decided to spend the first two weeks with the class learning and then practicing so-called “slow looking” techniques.

Much like the “slow food” movement, “slow looking,” based in part on the work of Shari Tishman, “simply means taking the time to carefully observe more than meets the eye at first glance.” It’s not just that we miss a great deal with our rushing and inattention, but we don’t know how to look deeper, even if we wanted to. Thus, Tishman argues that “slow looking” is a “learned capacity.”

While the concept does ask for a deliberate difference in pace, “slow looking” isn’t about noticing everything–an obvious impossibility. Instead, it is about acquiring tools to see more and to be cognizant of how we are seeing. To be more attentive but also to be attuned to what you are seeing and what that says, too (about what you notice and why).

That meant that we started the class on Day One with students taking photos of each other from an “unusual” angle–photos we later analyzed in class alongside their id photos, asking how each picture caused us to see and re-see each other, asking us to consider what assumptions and allusions we brought to our looking. We spent a class period outside in the Bunker Nature Preserve testing our lateral and vertical vision, the effects of stillness and motion, insights from scale and scope. Students walked alone in the cold silence for 15 minutes, standing still for 2 minutes in the middle–noting what they observed in both states. Another class period found us in our Center Art Gallery, each selecting a picture and then generating as many questions as we could after observing it for some minutes. Then selecting another picture and exhaustively inventorying every possible element. Finally, students sat in silence in front of yet another painting–for 15 minutes (a huge challenge, which they passed with nary a look at their phones)–and then wrote about how their perceptions changed from first look to long look. In yet another class period, we spent time disassembling a book to understand by deconstruction–and then did the same with an abstract concept.

To bring it all together, we read an excerpt from Alexandra Horowitz’s On Looking: A Walker’s Guide to the Art of Observation. In the book, Horowitz chronicles walks she took around her New York neighborhood with various experts, discovering what only they could make visible. As the final activity, my students, too, took a walk across campus, following a route I gave them, making use of the techniques we’d been practicing. The twist: I asked them to define their own area of expertise–as, for example, an athlete, an aspiring engineer, a choir member, an international student–and connect it to what they observed.

The resulting initial drafts have been lovely. Richly detailed, deeply thoughtful, wonderfully self-reflective. In only two weeks, it is almost staggering how much progress they have already made.

The best thing, though: the papers’ sometimes articulated, but always underlying, sense of gratitude. For seeing more around them and inside them. For grasping the ways in which their own God-given interests are a gift to the rest of us. For the affirmation that in a shattered world the fragment they bring makes the mosaic a little more complete, a little more beautiful. For the God who gives us so much to see and so many to see it with. As they move into their college careers, joining the guild of see-ers that make up the academy, how could learning be anything less than grateful joy?

And in an English 101 class no less. Marvelous indeed where God’s plentitude reveals itself. We just need to look for it.

P.S. If you’d like to experience slow looking as a path to gratitude, I recommend the short film below. It asks for a different pace, a commitment to attentiveness, and an openness to beauty. See how you do with it.

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids, a city I've come to love. I count myself rich in friends and family. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I used to have a bumper sticker on my car that said: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” I don't have the car anymore, but the sentiment is still true.

10 Comments

  • Rick DeVries says:

    Thank you.

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    You are such a gift to Calvin and to the English Dept., Jennifer. This is brilliant pedagogy!

  • Helen P says:

    Absolutely magical! I love this – and what a creative way to teach.
    I paint as a hobby and years ago, on a warm summer’s eve when studying a grouping of trees across the lake at my parent’s home up north I discovered that the parts of the green-leaved branches in shadow were not simply a darker shade of green, but were in fact, navy blue…who knew?
    In observations over the coming days I found that the more humidity in the air, the paler that blue became.
    Observations of this nature can help us gain new perspectives and in this case, it made me a better painter because I was able to paint what I saw instead of what I thought I saw.

  • Bob Crow says:

    Thanks Jennifer. I am excited for your students. And I’m excited that through what you have shared here, I am one of your students, too. Slowing down is a critical way to practice gratitude. Thank you.

  • Lou Roossien says:

    Thank you. Seeing slowly… Like listening slowly… to sounds, people, scriptures… listening deeply, and internalizing. Thank you.

  • Debra K Rienstra says:

    This is why you’re the best. Brilliant. I will be stealing this next year…

  • jack roeda says:

    Wonderful stuff. Carol and I enjoyed it immensely. The video is also moving, though the time lapse photography seemed to contradict slow looking; but never mind ,it was all gorgeous. Life, and all the wonders around us, is a gift never to be taken for granted. Speaking of life as a gift brings to mind the giver; and if the giver is God, that adds depth and preciousness of all created things. How important to remember that “This is our father’s wWorld”, and we are called to join all creation in praising him.

  • Jim Schaap says:

    You take senior citizens in your class? Wow. What a lesson plan! A college in the neighborhood just dropped their English department. Sometimes I get paranoid about what’s happening in higher education, maybe especially to English departments. But lesson plans like yours help me to hold on to hope for the humanities.

  • Harvey Kiekover says:

    With appreciation for you and a very real envy (the holy kind, I think!) of/for your students I read this essay As one of those who “hear slowly” I would love to be a student in your class. learning to look slowly and learn slowly. How counter cultural and much needed your method of teaching is. Very beautiful. Thank you for this encouraging blog.

    Harvey

  • Dale Cooper says:

    What a gift to me your words are to me, Jennifer. I’ve been reading–and re-reading–them slowly and well. And the accompanying video by David Steindl-Rast: Precious. Viewing it reminded me of the letter one of his contemplative friends from northern Minnesota once wrote to him: “I woke up early this morning, David, and caught God painting the trees white. He does some of his finest work at night to surprise me when I wake up.”

    Dale Cooper

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