Vol. 2, No. 2 (Fall 2020)
Lauren Mckenzie, Language Specialist
Saint Mary’s University Writing Centre and Academic Communication
Lauren Mckenzie lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia and works at the Writing Centre and Academic Communications at Saint Mary’s University. Lauren is currently completing her MA TESOL and research interests include critical and social justice pedagogy, rebellious thinking, fascination and distraction.
Writing can be a challenging process that takes time, thought, revision, and mental focus. Students are challenged more than ever to find or recreate writing spaces as traditional venues such as the library or student lounges have limited or no availability. However, it is possible to create the mental and environmental conditions that will help you to enjoy the writing process and increase productivity as you adjust to studying from home.
Imagine sitting under a shady tree with your hair blowing gently in the breeze — the sound of leaves rustling and songbirds above. You are ready to make a dent in that essay and have everything a human could possibly need to do it. Phone, laptop, earbuds, water, sunblock, hat, healthy snack, unhealthy snack, etc… You shift your weight from side to side, legs stretched out, then folded, then stretched out again. Your laptop balances precariously on your lap as your iced coffee begins to sweat. The trackpad becomes moist and unresponsive. Just then, a bug the size of your thumb disappears beneath you.
You may not be the outdoor type, and perhaps in this scenario writing doesn’t seem possible. However, writing outdoors is good for you. It can decrease mental fatigue and stimulate new ways of thinking. These were the findings of Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, whose environmental psychology research examined the effects of nature on academic performance and personal wellbeing. Their research in the 1970’s helped shape a movement of inquiry into nature and how it affects thinking. Their findings suggest that our brain pays attention in two different ways, and an imbalance creates problems.
“Directed attention fatigues people through overuse,” Stephen Kaplan explains. “If you can find an environment where the attention is automatic, you allow directed attention to rest. And that means an environment that’s strong on fascination” (As qtd. in Clay, 2001). The Kaplans emphasize that a room with a view works as well – so don’t worry if you can’t find an outdoor space to write. If you can find an outdoor setting for your work, a patio or deck, that’s great – consider a desk in the shade, a wireless speaker, and paper weights. Consider a portable tray that helps you set up anywhere the writing feeling strikes. A proximity to nature provides moments of delight and inspiration — to see something different, and that’s refreshing when you are pumping out the work.
Being creative is a big part of academic life and the big questions are meant to be contemplated while lounging under a tree or out for a walk. However, when it is time to produce a written response, you may want to consider a slightly different approach. This is not meant to limit your comfort or creativity, but to increase the efficiency of your process. Set yourself up properly outdoors – even if it is temporary and be prepared with the necessities to limit unfascinating distractions–like bugs.
University has become more and less accessible at the same time. People who couldn’t access campuses are now offered many more options via distance learning. For those who planned for the traditional on-campus delivery of courses, a new framework is emerging. Use what space is available to you in a way that creates opportunities for more high impact stimulation, so that when you look up from your writing, there is a possibility for joy. Above my desk is a bulletin board that I recently gave a makeover. I took down the bills and random notices and replaced them with pictures and handwritten notes from past students. When I look up from my screen, I reflect on relationships and successes. What do you see when you look up?
Clay, R. (2001). Green is good for you. American Psychological Association. Vol 32 (4) https://www.apa.org/monitor/apr01/greengood.html
Kaufman, C. (2013, September 16). Time to write? Go outside. The New York Times. https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/09/16/time-to-write-go-outside/