Maria Nikolajeva is a Professor of Children’s Literature and Head of the Centre for Research in Children’s Literature at Cambridge. She likes to combine her academic pursuits with her hobbies, such as walking and dollhouse-making.
Walking yourself to physical and mental health has become a thing, but like the Knight in Alice in Wonderland, I claim: “It’s my own invention!” At least when it comes to walking supervisions. Some of my former students, as far back as seven-eight years, may remember moments when, after a long and frustrating session in my hot, dark office I suggested going for a walk. The response was always utter confusion: “What do you mean, let’s go for a walk?” I mean, we have been sitting here for a while, our brains are overheated, we need to move, see green grass, trees and flowers, breathe fresh air. It will restore our energy. It will make our discussion more efficient. And it did. A short walk around the beautiful Homerton gardens was refreshing and inspiring. Sometimes we would simply go on with supervision; sometimes we’d talk about unrelated matters. The outcomes were tangible.
Three years ago I walked the Norfolk coast path with two students. It hadn’t been planned as a walking seminar, but inevitably the conversations revolved around our research, me learning a lot from them (as supervisors always do), and they hopefully taking away ideas from each other as well as from me.
I was therefore hugely enthusiastic when the group of students joining me to walk Hadrian’s Wall suggested including an academic element, making it more structured than spontaneous conversations. Being Cambridge students, they even did some homework.
Getting to know your students outside the classroom or your own office is sensitive for a supervisor: there is always an invisible barrier. You don’t want to be unnecessarily intrusive, while being more accessible. Going to conferences together offers good opportunities, but climbing up and down steep hills in unbearable heat just to discover that the much longed-for tea shop is closed creates strong bonds. Blisters and hay fever are underestimated community-building factors. Nature eliminates power hierarchies, makes us equal.
Brain research has provided persuasive evidence that our brains get activated by novelty, unfamiliar spaces, unpredicted situations (such as closed tea shops). This is why away-days and retreats prove so efficient for moving forward in any activity. By taking students out of their usual learning environment – library, PhD room, their own dwellings – I hopefully stimulate their work, offering gentle steering, yet letting them explore their own ideas. Informal learning, informal supervision, seemingly intuitive exchange of thoughts. Some wise person has said that the best teaching occurs when the students don’t notice that they are being taught. (Now I have revealed my secret).
But why walking, you may ask? Why not a conventional retreat? A sedentary life style is a relatively recent phenomenon in human history, in evolutionary terms. Our bodies are not suited for sitting, they are made for moving and incessantly learning as you go: finding edible food, hiding from predators, recognising your own, fighting or escaping from others. Physical activity, sensory acuity, increased blood circulation, deep breathing are all beneficial for learning.
In this particular case – walking Hadrian’s Wall – we explored connections between the environment and our research projects. These included fictional construction of space and time; wars, walls and borders; place-related fairy tales, myths and legends; cognitive-affective engagement with fictional space. The Wall provided a perfect setting for this emplaced learning. We agreed to pay special attention to senses: to look at stunning views (green is soothing); listen to bird song (trivial) and mentally cancel annoying noise from agitated schoolchildren; touch the ancient trees, the prickly thistles, the Wall and the embossed metal information signs; smell sheep and cows; taste local food (and occasionally plants we were sure were not poisonous). Learning things not directly relevant for our projects, but nevertheless prompting “making connections between previously unrelated phenomena” (one of the assessment criteria for a doctoral thesis). Learning new words, both from the natural and the man-made world. Learning about ways and habits of people long gone, as well as about those of our contemporaries. Memory research shows that learning is most efficient when connected to a particular place, as well as to particular body movements. We have absorbed knowledge and understanding through our tired feet.
New pedagogy, then? Transferable skills? Yes, definitely. Transferable to various situations, including regular one-to-one supervision sessions, group supervisions, seminars, meetings, awaydays and summer schools. Hopefully, by walking and moving as we teach and learn we decrease stress and make learning a joy rather than torture, make it a shared experience on equal terms.
But what about writing? you may ask. Aren’t students supposed to be writing? We did writing exercises, I saw them taking notes, and I guess they did some writing in the evenings, but even if they didn’t, the emplaced memory will stay, and in the coming weeks drafts will magically write themselves. I am looking forward to discovering traces of our walk in their work.
What have I got out of it personally and professionally? It is always gratifying to engage with talented, enthusiastic young people, and once again, an unfamiliar environment makes this engagement more intense. I learn a lot from students, and a week of concentrated learning made my old brain work hard. Just keeping pace with their intellectual flow was a challenge, and inferring meaning from their Instagram captions demanded attention, imagination and respect. I am confident that I have become a better supervisor after this week. I wish I had done something similar before.
I have also got ideas for my own research that I may or may not realise; ideas undeniably inspired by the environment and by all the new knowledge I gathered. Perhaps it also makes me a better supervisor, reminding me of what it was like to be struck with a new idea for the first time.
Will I do it again? Yes! Will I recommend it to colleagues? Yes.
Just make sure you have comfortable shoes.
For more insight into the unexpected pleasures and benefits of heading for the hills with one’s colleagues, be sure to check out our earlier posts by PhD candidates Nic Hilton and Vera Veldhuizen, and Catherine Olver and Michelle Anya Anjirbag.