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Community Building in Outdoor Education: Positive Feedback Loop

Rock Climbers

At a small cutoff in the trail, we waited in huddles for the remaining climbing gear to descend the mountain. The sun was near setting and the looming canyon walls cast large shadows with only a few pockets of sunlight for us to scurry towards to stay warm. Together as classmates we joked and reminisced over the events of the semester. I remember regretting not bringing a thicker jacket as the night air began rolling in. However, this seemed hardly a nuisance as the lively nature of our conversation distracted us from the chilled winds cutting through Rock Canyon. This was the last time we would find ourselves together like this. The class itself would continue into December, but our days of climbing together would not.

That semester, most of my other classes seemed to blur together. Snippets of eating Frosted Flakes during Calc 2 or a 3 a.m. regret induced panic of mangling together a CS lab due the following morning stand out, but I struggle to pinpoint any meaningful and personal memories. Yet in my Wilderness Writing class, I can rember the most trivial of conversations. Whether it be an in-depth conversation on how many rocks could be slipped into someone's backpack before they noticed or that one student stating they were from the Oregon coast, not the region known as Idaho 2.0.

This was the first time I felt like actually I knew everyone in the class. I have always found myself to be the student who sits in class attentive but silent--finding favor in the act of listening instead of speaking. I was in my senior year when I took Wilderness Writing. Up until that point, I had never actually gotten to know any of my classmates--I had never let any of my classmates get to know me.

I couldn’t help but wonder why this class stood out. It wasn’t just the rock climbing--I’ve taken other sports classes and worked at physically demanding jobs that I don’t share the same level of detailed memories and personal connection. I have had other discussion-heavy classes, but those classes never quite reach the same levels of comfortability and familiarity as the Wilderness Writing class. Casual conversations in those other classes felt undermined by a distinct level of awkwardness and superficiality. In those classes, nothing was more terrifying than being vulnerable. When it came time to write for those classes I was quite adept at finding any distraction to not write about myself. With Wilderness Writing I felt as though I was allowed, almost expected, to be vulnerable in my writing. And, although, one can never feel truly comfortable being vulnerable, any help goes a mile.

Between idle chats and chalk caked fingers, what I remember the most about rock climbing was the sense of community I felt. Obstacles are different as you aren’t challenged by another player, instead your obstacle is a large rock wall demanding grip strength, awkward moves, and the pain of shoes two sizes too small. Yet, beneath you, are unending shouts of encouragement from your fellow classmates. No one is rooting for the wall. They are rooting for you.

It seems as though the combination of exercise and writing created a positive feedback loop. When climbing, we could talk and get to know each other better making us more comfortable in our writing, which in turn allowed us to get to talk more when climbing and further know each other better. Looking back, this sense of familiarity was invaluable to my learning and growing as a writer. For me, trust is the foundation behind critique and being able to trust my classmates revolutionized my approach. I wanted to be involved in discussions, I wanted to read others papers, I wanted to comment and provide feedback, and I wanted to be read.

I often think back to my Wilderness Writing class and wonder if I will have another experience like it. I'm nearing graduation and limited in what I can take outside core classes for my major. While I will continue writing for the rest, I believe what I truly loved about writing wasn’t the act of writing itself. Instead, what makes writing so valuable is the intimate nature of reading and engaging with others.