As a University undergraduate in 1997, Aric Knuth traveled to Sebago Lake in Maine for the University’s New England Literature Program. Little did he know that 12 years later, he’d still be a part of the program — now as its director.
“I just never stopped going,” Knuth said.
The program, offered over the spring half-term, is now entering its 35th year. Each year, about 40 students and 12 staffers spend six weeks in Maine’s wilderness, studying non-traditional English subjects.
Knuth served his first semester as director last school year. He said that while NELP teaches students about the lives and writings of New England authors like Henry David Thoreau and Emily Dickinson, the program goes beyond typical English classes.
“The English professor part of me has to say (the goal of the program is) a newly heightened awareness of New England literature and culture,” he said. “The entire program of NELP is really built on this idea that there’s a depth of learning that can take place when you remove a set of distractions and a set of barriers and limitations between people.”
Knuth said he’s made some small changes to the curriculum since taking over, but he has tried keep the program similar to how it was before.
“We’re not doing any kind of massive overhaul because the fundamentals of New England literature are going to stay the same,” he said, adding that only three people have led NELP in the last 34 years.
Knuth said NELP participants typically like spontaneity in their coursework, making the program more enjoyable.
“They kind of rose up and said to the lecturers that were teaching, ‘We don’t accept this pre-planned curriculum that you’re giving us.’ I think that’s a big part of the way I think about NELP today and the involvement of students.”
Knuth said NELP founder Walter Clark, who passed away this summer, has heavily influenced the way he runs the program.
Knuth said Clark stressed creating an environment where students and teachers were equals. Because of that outlook, students and staff at NELP take equal responsibility when it comes to chores like cleaning and cooking meals.
“When you and me are scrubbing toilets together, there’s not much distinction in our lives in what we’re doing and who we are,” Knuth said. “In that way, there is more of a level playing field.”
Even when NELP participants aren’t doing chores, they still don’t have access to many of the things other University students have with them all the time. The program forbids use of computers, telephones, iPods and all other electronic devices for the six-week program. Their only form of communication with the outside world is handwritten letters.
Knuth said leaving these electronic devices behind is hard for students, but it’s an integral aspect of the NELP experience because it forces them to concentrate on their personal relationships with other participants.
“I think probably most people today will never really have a significant opportunity to put that stuff aside in their lives for a short period of time and to feel what it’s like to live — to not be plugged in,” he said.
LSA junior Jessica Perszyk, who participated in the program last spring, said NELP’s isolation was different than anything she’d ever encountered.
“It ended up being, honestly, a life-changing experience,” she said. “It just makes you think about your life as an individual and as a member of society and as a student at Michigan in a completely different way.”
Perszyk said most classes at NELP are held outdoors, and students are required to have their journals with them at all times throughout the program.
“You have your journal — it’s basically attached to your hip,” she said. “Wherever you go, your journal goes. So if you get dirty, your journal gets dirty.”
LSA junior Katelyn Sedelmyer said her experience at NELP made it hard for her to return to the University.
“I have a renewed interest in my education,” she said. “It’s taught me a lot about how I really want to make my education myself. It’s kind of strange being back here, having had such a different kind of education.”
Knuth said it’s hard for him to separate his NELP experience from his job at the University.
“Going to NELP and teaching there from the time I was 21 on, certainly was the thing that trained me to be a teacher more than anything else,” he said. “Because of NELP, and because of the teaching at NELP, it’s my style of teaching to almost entirely learn collaboratively and learn through discussion.”