Writers in Their Natural Habitat
There are no cell phones at Camp Kabeyun. There is no Wi-Fi. There are no sugary snacks. There are books and trees and people and books and a cold lake and mountains and even more books. This is NELP.
LSA’s New England Literature Program takes place at the camp on Lake Winnipesaukee in the New Hampshire wilderness. Students who apply are signing up for six weeks of hardship, including camping and cooking and strenuous hikes—climbing a minimum of three mountains per session. NELP Director Aric Knuth admits that the program can be a real challenge for students, but that those who choose NELP don’t avoid the challenging parts of the program—they embrace them.
“Every year, it’s a struggle,” Knuth says. “It’s hard to live in the woods of New England in early spring in buildings that don’t have heat or insulation, that don’t have much light or electricity. It’s hard to climb mountains. Most of our students are Midwesterners. Some have never even seen a mountain.”
NELP offers a challenging curriculum to match its rigorous hikes. Students read constantly from works by writers such as Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and others whose perspectives were shaped by the same New England landscape that students camp in and hike across. But all the struggle and effort allow students to focus on their studies in a way that would be impossible if they could log on to Twitter or text a friend anytime they wanted.
“We are rooted to the work of close reading, of giving students a meaningful space to have one-on-one experiences with texts,” explains Knuth. “And a lot of our students haven’t experienced an education like that before.”
Learning the Hard Way
At NELP, students and faculty spend a lot of time together, sharing communal meals in the dining hall and doing group chores like washing the dishes or cleaning the toilets. NELP traditions include night walks through camp and student-led elective classes on topics like yoga and slacklining. Then there’s a daylong “work day,” when students and faculty unpack all the items that will be needed over the course of six weeks, including stoves and pans and NELP’s voluminous on-site library.
The small size of the program puts extra pressure on students to finish their homework—nobody wants to be the only one who didn’t read their Thoreau that day. But it also allows lessons to spill over into daily life as students and faculty reconsider insights uncovered together in class. An argument of Frederick Douglass’s reemerges as students leap across a stream; a line from Emily Dickinson returns with newfound relevance as the group turns on a switchback.
The boundary between where a class ends and a student’s daily life begins becomes porous thanks to the structure of the program, says Nick Harp, a lecturer in LSA’s Department of English Language and Literature and the assistant director of NELP.
“I’ve had classes at NELP that technically end but then many of us go and start work on cooking or cleaning and this conversation about an Emerson essay that we had in class immediately and uncannily continues and even sometimes translates into the work that we’re doing,” says Harp. “It all has something to do with jostling our comfortable default modes.
“It’s funny: This program that begins seeming daunting pretty quickly ends up becoming a sanctuary for students and for those of us who teach there. It’s a space to engage in the kind of conversations that have trouble happening when we are mainlined into our routines, our obligations, our devices.”
“Beyond a Classroom’s Walls”
While certain things remain the same each year at NELP—the quiet and the cold, for example—there are changes, too. Because the roster of faculty and students is different each year, each class ends up developing its own character and personality.
“Every year a group of relative strangers develop a group identity,” Knuth says. “It happens in different ways, but every year, by the second week, it’s starting to happen, and by the end there’s this group of people who have very close intellectual and personal ties. And that group identity makes them better learners.”
And that group identity persists. The program has a thriving community of dedicated alumni, many of whom returned last month for a celebration of the program’s 40th anniversary. NELP alumna Lauren Victor has stayed in contact with fellow NELPers and even wrote her doctoral dissertation on the structure of the program.
Victor remembers the physical challenges of NELP very clearly: how cold New Hampshire was until the beginning of June, how showering in the rustic shower house wasn’t much warmer than taking a dip in the lake. She also remembers the ways in which the program fed her independent spirit and encouraged her instinct to look “beyond a classroom’s walls” for stimulating learning experiences.
“I was drawn to the outdoors as a way to learn about myself and the world,” Victor says, “as well as a place for me to help others learn about themselves and the world around them. NELP provided me with a forum that valued my relationship with the natural world.”
Many of NELP’s alumni talk in strong terms about how NELP helped them learn more about themselves, how it made them more adventurous, how it changed their life. Knuth attributes part of the program’s power to its focus on attentiveness and reflection, actions amplified by the program’s wild isolation and its committed faculty.
“I’ve always thought that the most important work of a teacher is actually to help students learn how to think,” says Knuth. “And part of the success of the program comes from this belief we have that you can take something that you know and use it to learn something that you don’t know. And knowing how to do that situates you to better build your own foundation of knowledge.”
This article is part of a larger environmental series in honor of the 45th anniversary of Earth Day. U-M kicked off the first nationwide Earth Day in 1970 by hosting a teach-in that drew more than 50,000 people. Also in this series: