Friday, April 2, 2010


The Physics of Rock Climbing from Christian Fracchia on Vimeo.

Last semester, while teaching a "Writing and Communities" course, I offered extra credit to students who ventured out and tried to join or experience a community far outside their comfort zones. I held up the climbing community at UNL as an example, and four of my students joined me for their first climbing experience at the Rec. One student spent another two weeks exploring climbing as a sport, and wrote her final project on what it was like to join the group.

I've come to use climbing as a metaphor for writing. I use it to teach patience, experimentation, process, and the use of tools. Drawing connections between the climbing hardware and the "rules of writing," including the dreaded grammar and spelling, helped students to see both as utilitarian devices instead of skills one was either "good" or "bad" at using. I also used the metaphor of a climber with a belay as an example of academic writing, when one scales an idea with the safety of others down below. In the case of scholarly work, thinking of citable sources as those keeping one safe or supporting one's climb, is a useful device. One can't just write one's ideas -one must always "join a larger academic conversation." No one gets to "free solo" a research paper.

But the most useful metaphorical use of climbing has been in the area of process and its focus. Teaching students to think one move at a time is important when working with inquiry, and I've found that climbing provides an embodied example that moves students from the abstract to the physical. Next semester, I'm hoping to be able to bring my entire class to the wall at least once in a semester. We'll see.

In the above video, two physics instructors use climbing to teach their introductory course. Apart from wondering if climbing attracts a disproportional amount of math geeks to its folds, I'm wondering who else uses climbing to teach bigger, more important lessons that will matter to students outside of the classroom.

I know Outward Bound uses climbing in some of its courses, and I know places like the Joshua Tree Rock Climbing School offer curricula for one-day clinics to four-day camps. But to use climbing and the outdoors as a basis for in-class curricula, well, that's a little harder to find. And it's too bad, if you ask me.

In the No Child Left Behind era, students are getting much time or money for field trips, particularly the kind of trips that take students out into the real world to experience self-focused challenges. Standardization of education, which is what high-stakes tests like those required by NCLB foster, means students' scores are comparative and leave little room for an emphasis on self-assessment and improvement.

Climbing, as a sport, offers the ability to self-test within a community of others who are putting themselves through tough lessons of patience, skill, and mental agility. In my experience with P'UP, I've learned amazing lessons:

1. Progress is an accumulation of smaller, incremental steps toward a larger goal

2. Success is not defined by the end result - finishing the climb - but often measured in a single move, particularly when struggling to master a new set of skills

3. Projecting a route is a physical manifestation of inquiry itself. When one attempts but doesn't necessarily solve, a problem on the first attempt there is much to be learned. On-sighting, killing a route at first go, doesn't teach a new lesson. It only indicates that previous learning has occurred

4. Limits are temporary obstacles that provide opportunities to learn more about yourself and your purposes

5. As Robert Frost writes, "The only way over is through." This is particularly true of the crux of a climb, or any problem worth solving.

6. One shouldn't get too wrapped up in the numbers. A 5.6 can push you around, no matter how many other "higher" or "tougher" routes you've successfully climbed. All problems are contextual.

These seem like pretty important discoveries to me. I'd love to teach in a world that didn't relegate teaching and learning to something that only happens in the constructed walls of a classroom. And maybe someday, I'll get to be one of those professors who can take students out into the real world, harness them in, and show them what they can do.

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