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