“Drinking the Wine of Astonishment”: Reflections on Teaching Things That Are12/27/2012
As the fall semester draws to a close I have been repeating one particular question to the students in my science writing course at the University of Pittsburgh over and over again: “What would Amy Leach do?” You see, we still haven’t recovered from reading Things That Are.
“I’m just not sure how to write about nudibranchs in a way that shows the reader how beautiful they are,” one student said. I nod, lean forward, and ask her, “What would Amy Leach do?”
“I’m trying to make sure my readers understand quantum entanglement, but how do I write about something so abstract . . .” the student trails off, looks at me expectantly. I nod, lean forward, and ask him, “What would Amy Leach do?”
To be sure, what Amy Leach actually does in Things That Are remains something of a mystery to my students and me. We know it has to do with layering. While we initially thought we were looking at snapshots of the natural world, we quickly realized that Leach’s essays are more like dioramas, carefully curated collections of polyps, genips, and stars. Nature riots in them, but it does so behind glass: we see the natural world and are sometimes startled to see ourselves reflected too.
We know it has to do with words; when we talk about language, we talk about Leach. The classroom suddenly fills with text, my students’ favorite Leachian sentences fluttering banner-like above their heads.
And we know it has to do with passion, for even when we can discern pain beneath these detail-crowded surfaces, Leach’s curiosity never wavers. Nor, as a result, does ours.
Hali Felt is the author of Soundings: The Story of the Remarkable Woman Who Mapped the Ocean Floor and teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh. Learn more about her work at www.halifelt.com.