Teaching with Torreys

Last month I wrote about how my vision of Del Mar has always been framed by the Torrey Pine tree. Living back at home this past pandemic year has reintroduced me to that view with a renewed perspective as I adjusted to once again living here full-time while virtually teaching and continuing my studies at the University of Michigan. This intersection of life, work, and environment remains at the center of my thinking as I now must shift gears a bit in order to prepare to finally return to Michigan in the fall. Despite being a graduate student at Michigan, the majority of my academic work has in fact taken place in Del Mar (the Del Mar satellite campus of UM, as my family calls it); I’ve completed the final half of my 1st year and the entire 2nd year of my PhD program from my childhood bedroom. I have, as a result, crossed many significant milestones within the confines of this space, always in view of the Torrey Pines outside. Perhaps the biggest of these was my first teaching experience this past academic year. I began teaching Michigan’s first-year writing course, which put me in charge of instructing 18 freshmen in the ambiguous art of “college writing.” It was quite an uncanny experience, as I had to pretend to be some figure of authority to these students while I repeatedly reconfigured my background and angled my computer camera to make it seem as though I was not, in fact, back in my childhood bedroom.


Despite the difficulty and awkwardness of adjusting to Zoom learning, I think that I was actually able to develop a unique bond with my students precisely because of the distance between us, because I was teaching them from Del Mar and they were learning (and teaching me) from Michigan, Illinois, New York, and various other locations. I was able to integrate my love for our town’s environment into our class discussions and they would jokingly comment on the sunshine they could see from my window as many of them endured single-digit winter temperatures. One class day stands out to me in particular. I decided to forego that day’s lesson plan and instead narrated the cutting down of a tree in my neighbor’s yard as it happened in real-time. I initially mistook the tree for a Torrey Pine (it was not), and so lamented to them the great sadness I felt about it being cut down in front of my eyes, as I was literally unable to turn away from the scene. Rather than learn about the mundanities of proper quote integration, we instead engaged in a collective writing exercise, where I asked them to comment on the views in front of them—outside of the window, into a room, whatever it might have been—and create a brief piece of writing about the scene. To justify my initial mourning, I also gave them a brief history of the Torrey Pine tree, which they all seemed to enjoy.


Now, as I prepare for my first year of in-person teaching, I can’t help but think about how I will actually miss the unexpected, touching moments of connection that developed out of the fundamental sense of disconnection involved with Zoom schooling. I never imagined that the Torrey Pine would enter into my University of Michigan classroom, and I hope that this was not the final instance of such a meeting.

Photo Julie Maxey-Allison