On Teaching Exploration: The Pigeon Paper
June 15, 2016 § 25 Comments
by Jan Priddy
In my college writing class I assign “The Pigeon Paper.” This is a short expository essay written to address a one-word topic—write about “squash” or write about “salt”—a paper completed in ten days. The first year it was about pigeons—hence the name. We began the assignment by brainstorming what we knew individually about pigeons and considering different structures for an expository paper (comparison, chronology, description); overnight each of us researched and the next day we brought in research and each proposed three potential topics and approaches; then we had a few days to complete a draft for peer editing in class, and a final draft of the paper was handed in the following day.
Long before I began teaching, I had faith both in assignments and research. I believe writing creates learning, because it forces us to examine our knowledge in the face of evidence in black and white. What we force ourselves to investigate with an open mind often leads to surprise. I like surprises.
That first year, three students proposed papers titled “Rats with Wings.” This despite the fact that the only wild pigeons my students ever saw were not park pigeons at all, but a completely different species, the native band-tailed pigeon (Patagioenas fasciata). On the edge of the Pacific Ocean, many of my students will tell you without hesitation that they hate seagulls, and they can even explain why, though no one I know would deliberately hurt one. It is a local attitude with somewhat more justification than their attitude about park pigeons. My students all claimed to hate pigeons without thinking and all of them laughed at the rats title, perhaps because “rats with wings” was the only metaphor they knew of that applied to pigeons. We are all held prisoner by our assumptions.
A generation ago in a course titled “Plant Taxonomy of Western Washington,” my lab partner bent over specimens, scalpel poised like a paintbrush. He sliced flowers perfectly in half for me when it was my turn to peer through the microscope. I counted stamens and ova. As I drew diagrams and searched for proper names in the text, I did not notice silence until it was broken. Someone, also hunched over high black counters and flower parts, asked the air, “What sets human beings apart from the lower animals?”
The conversation began: “Tools,” an answer from across the room. I did not look up from my scope. “Aren’t we the only species that makes and uses tools?”
There was gentle debate. My lab partner handed me a new slide. I could see only my own eyelashes at first. Are humans the only tool-users? We decided not, since Goodall documented chimpanzees fishing for termites. Crows and elephants. Then what makes us special?
“Playing,” I heard my partner assert. “Man is the only animal that plays.”
I looked up from the sexual organs of plants and smiled. I thought, He’s wrong, though I was not the first to say it.
“My dog plays with me,” said another Botany major.
“Cats and a feather,” said another.
But my partner argued with pets. “They are domestic animals, tainted by association.”
“Fawns,” someone offered.
“Adolescent lions,” suggested someone else.
I was paging through the text. The slide showed a familiar sample. I must know it.
“Juveniles.” He shook his head.
“Adult otters swim purely for fun,” I said, at last. I put my hand across the page I was looking for, and I looked my partner in the eye.
And then others spoke in a rush: “Porpoises leap in the wakes of ships. . . . Squirrels play tag in trees. . . . Foxes pounce on dandelions.”
His forehead puckered, scalpel painting the air. “Really?”
My own students quickly discovered that there is more to pigeons than what they have gleaned from television shows or the movies. Pigeons have won military honors, have served diverse roles as pets, entertainers, food, and carriers. As children’s book characters. The stuff of legend. It always goes that way. The opening between what they think they know and what they discover once they explore an ordinary word is a space aching to be filled.
Each year the triggering word is different. One year the pigeon paper was about “paper”, and someone discovered the meaning of a “white paper” and another found paper made from elephant poo. (It does not smell.) Research leads from the obvious to the obscure. Such writing about animals, places, and other subjects often results in surprising discoveries.
While searching for the scientific names of flowers, a generation ago, we all learned something about the nature of life in the world. This year, the “pigeon paper” was about trees. Student essays covered topics from a tree-bark bread recipe and the history of wooden golf clubs to forests rescued in Princess Mononoke and interpretations of The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. The most practical goal of this paper is to practice APA form and expository structures. Along the way, we find out about ourselves—pure glory.
Under my microscope: a five part flower, many stamens, fleshy calyx-tube. Family Rosaceae, genus Rosa, species multiflora, precisely like the illustration in my text—a local wildflower I saw each day.
A metaphor perhaps? Maybe it is our use of metaphor.
Jan Priddy lives in the NW corner of her home state of Oregon, where she completed an MFA at Pacific University. Her work has earned an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship, Arts & Letters fellowship, Soapstone residency, and Pushcart nomination. Her most recent publication is “White Noise” in the anthology, What Does It Mean to Be White in America? She is fond of pigeons.