By Emma Grace Howlett ‘25
Whether they overlook the Quad, lay nestled beneath an Oak tree, or hug the side of the stately Carnegie Building, outdoor classrooms offer a beautiful, natural environment in which to learn. As a precautionary measure against Covid last year, Pomona has set up various outdoor classrooms around campus. Learning outside the traditional classroom shifted my mindset as to what constitutes a learning environment. A classroom is not necessarily four walls, a row of desks, and a blackboard. A classroom is a community of learners, each student enthusiastic and engaged in the process of critical discussion and analysis, guided by a professor.
Last year, my first-year seminar (also called Critical Inquiry, or ID1) was conducted completely in an outdoor classroom. In the class, “The European Enlightenment,” taught by Professor Gary Kates, we read works by Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, Montesquieu, and Richardson, unpacking their complicated ideas beneath the gracious arms of an expansive oak tree. Acorns would sporadically fall onto the table as a squirrel knocked them down from above, and the chirps of birds added to our conversations. On the last day of our seminar, our class was interrupted when a Great Horned Owl swooped majestically into the oak tree directly above us, its grand wingspan on full display. In astonishment we craned our necks to catch a glimpse of its scaly talons hooked around an oak bough. We wordlessly rose from the table and congregated where there was a perfect view of the owl as it perched above our classroom. In silent rapture we breathlessly observed the dignified bird. It swiveled its horned head to regard us with its amber gaze, eyes blinking unconcernedly in our direction. What a magical moment! Seemingly unbothered by the murmur of our voices, the owl remained roosted above us for the entirety of class. It was as if we were anointed by Athena, the goddess of wisdom herself.
Not only have I attended classes in a Classical Grecian oak grove, I have also sat beside the sloping lawns of a noble estate in Regency England. In my Jane Austen class with Professor Sarah Raff, our outdoor classroom bordered the Stanley Quadrangle, the intimate humanities quad. Surrounded by stately academic buildings and towering, tasteful pine trees, we were immersed in the world of Jane Austen in a way that is difficult to replicate indoors. With pine needles on the table and soil beneath our feet, we felt akin to Elizabeth Bennet after her walk to the Netherfield mansion. Another upside to outdoor classrooms is that Professor Raff brought her dog, an adorable springer spaniel named Scarlett.
Learning in the fresh outdoor air, surrounded by nature has also increased my attention span, ability to focus, and general enthusiasm for my classes. By learning among the trees and owls, we take part in a long tradition of outdoor learning. I come away from these experiences with a greater appreciation for my fellow creatures and the understanding that all of campus is a classroom.