March 15, 2004

Rochat helps students write down the bones

By Rachel Robertson

Philippe Rochat has a passion for writing—not just for telling stories, but as a means of learning and discovery. And his new undergraduate seminar is intended to convey this passion to his students as well as make an academic study of the process.

The path to this discovery began with a journey to Fiji and Western Samoa. For the past two years, Rochat, professor of psychology, has taken students abroad to learn about child-rearing practices in traditional South Pacific cultures and the implications for child development. Traveling in sometimes harsh conditions and being exposed to very different cultures was a transforming experience for many of the undergraduates, and Rochat wanted them to track these changes through a journal. After reading the journals, Rochat met with them individually to discuss what they had written.

“It was powerful, sometimes very powerful,” Rochat said. “There were tears and a lot of anger at times, but every time we felt that we were breaking through something. That’s when I discovered the force of writing not only to convey information but to discover things we didn’t know about ourselves.”

This growth process also appealed to him as a developmental psychologist. Specifically he found intriguing the notion that through the act of writing one can become a better thinker and “feeler.” And so was born Rochat’s “Psychology of Writing” seminar.

One of the class’ primary texts is Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by writer and poet Natalie Goldberg. In her book Goldberg offers practical advice and introduces some of her own philosophy of writing. As the title suggests, she inspires readers to trust in their own voice. The book offers a stepping stone for Rochat’s students to examining the process of writing.

“Everyone has a story to tell,” said senior Erin Abshire, “and people listen and learn from you when you are honest and write without filters. For me, it is freeing to think of writing like this because all I have to do is tell what I know already.”

The class is a blend of both the academic and artistic aspects of writing. Even the seminar’s structure denotes this: The first half of the three-hour class period is spent discussing the week’s reading, while during the second half students read aloud their own writing for group discussion.

For example, in one class period the reading assignment was from anthropologist Jack Goody’s The Power of the Written Tradition, which examined the impact of writing on human evolution in contrast with oral traditions. Meanwhile the week’s journal writing assignment was to create a fictional account of growing up in a small society with a strong oral tradition.

Having them keep journals also allows Rochat to personally connect with his students, which he has found necessary for a superior learning experience.

“A functional teacher-student relationship, like any relationship, is based on trust; once there is trust, both parties can endanger themselves in exploring new ideas and revising old ones,” he said, adding that he reads his own writing during the first class session. “I want to show that I am equal. I ask them to take risks, so I take risks.”

Indeed, Rochat is as much a student of writing as they are. He currently is taking a workshop on fiction writing at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center. He often incorporates his experience as a student into his own course, assigning creative writing exercises to his students.

“Professor Rochat is different,” said sophomore Amber Duval. “His teaching style is not like most other professors. His class is different because Philippe specifically made it that way—you cannot separate the two. If any other person taught this seminar, it wouldn’t be anything like it is.”