Trees in Representation and Reality: An Induction Activity for English Language Students

Education for sustainable development, English across the sectors, English language, Student experience


Arran Stibbe
Humanities Department, University of Gloucestershire

Added to site

November 2010


tree2As part of induction at the University of Gloucestershire, first-year English Language students conducted an outdoor exercise assessing the relationship between representations of trees and their physical presence. This case study was part of the English Subject Centre’s ‘Bringing the Outside In’ case studies initiative.

Background / Context

In 2007 the Centre for Active Learning at the University of Gloucestershire launched an ambitious educational experiment: the induction project. In their first week of university, before classes even began, 370 new students would go on a field trip, engage in a collaborative research project, give group presentations and receive formative feedback. Some staff were sceptical, particularly those in areas where field trips were unheard of, but in the end it proved remarkably successful, as (Swansborough 2007; Centre for Active Learning 2009). Students made friends, got to know their lecturers, and most importantly got the message that studying at university involves active engagement, enquiry, teamwork and self-direction rather than the memorising of facts.

The Humanities Department (which includes History, English Literature, English Language, RPE and Creative Writing courses) decided on an overall theme of trees, with each course designing its own specific activities related to the theme. For the English Language Course, the activity was an investigation of linguistic and visual representations of trees, and comparison of these representations with direct personal experience of trees. The aim was to engage students in critical analysis of representations while appreciating the more direct sensual reality, and gaining ecological awareness in the process. The induction project has now run four times. The first two times involved full day trips to the Forest of Dean where students spent hours outside in the woods, but financial constraints meant that the second two field trips were held in the tamer environment of Pittville Park in Cheltenham, which nonetheless has some magnificent trees.

Activities / Practice

The activity was described to students in the following terms:

“For many reasons, the future of humanity is intimately linked to the future of trees and forests. How we feel about trees, and ultimately, how we treat them, is influenced by the ways they are represented in the texts and images which surround us. For Heidegger, the ultimate symbol of humanity’s self-destructive disregard of the natural world was the representation of the forest as bestand – a standing reserve of resources, or standing timber. The aim of this project is to investigate the representation of trees, and beyond that, the nature of representation in general. You will accomplish this in an experiential exercise where you will be comparing your direct experience of trees with linguistic and visual representations in books, exhibitions, the internet, and your own representations through photography.

In your investigation you will be taking photographs of trees and through this will undoubtedly discover the paucity of representation. You will find that the frame of a photograph is not able to contain the whole tree, and that it is impossible to capture the way that leaves move in response to the same breeze that you feel on your cheek. You’ll discover the failure of words such as ‘ash’ or ‘oak’ to convey the enormous variation and individuality of trees that happen to share the same label. You’ll discover how, with words such as ‘woods’ and ‘timber’, you can’t see the trees for the wood. And you’ll discover authors who, through poetry and lyrical prose, try to bring trees to life on the page, representing them as living, growing, sexual beings worthy of protection for themselves and the future survival of humanity.

Working as a group you will collect representations of trees from sources in the library and from the internet. You will also go outside to experience the reality as directly as your senses allow, and attempt to capture this reality in photographs. Your research questions are: ‘What different ways are there of representing trees?’; ‘What implications might there be of particular representations?’ and ‘How is representation different from reality?’ Using PowerPoint to display the representations that you discover, you will give a presentation/performance which conveys your findings to the group. This performance can be a straight academic description of what you find, or you can use creativity, humour or imagination to present your findings in any style you feel is suitable.”

There are a number of pedagogical aims behind this activity, some explicit in the instructions above and some less overt.

1) The first aim is to allow students to develop their own grounded understanding of the difference between representation and reality, something which is essential since English Language is, at heart, an analysis of linguistic representation. This kind of understanding cannot be gained through sitting in the library reading books on social construction, since the books contain only representations of things rather than the things themselves. In comparing direct sensory experience of trees with mere words about them it is hoped that students can come to appreciate directly the paucity and partiality of representation.

2) The second aim is to frame the students as researchers, enquirers who are using their skills in English Language to explore representations of the world around them and critique the role of those representations in constructing the society and culture they are part of. This is, of course, in the context of the unsustainability of that society.tree1

3) The third aim is to help students develop their own ecological consciousness, discovering for themselves the interconnections and interdependencies between humans and other species. This is not a well-meaning distraction from the English Language course intended to foster environmentally friendly behaviour, but something more fundamental. As is usual in the discipline of English Language, the course recognises that language is a social phenomenon, occurring within, influenced by, and influencing society. But it goes one step further, and considers the fact that societies are embedded in, influenced by, and influence larger ecological systems. In other words, the course does not treat humans as if they existed in a vacuum, interacting only with other humans, but instead considers people as embedded in a rich social, physical, biological and ecological world. With ecological consciousness, students will be able to examine language in its full social and ecological context.


Students worked in teams analysing linguistic and visual representations of trees on the internet; they walked among trees, stood beneath trees, photographed trees and in some cases even hugged trees. They gave group presentations on what they found and (importantly) enjoyed the entire process. The presentations themselves varied in their creatively, form of expression, and depth of insight, but in general were factual in describing a range of representations while skirting around the deeper issues of the difference between representation and reality. It is unlikely that students gained a profound appreciation of the limitations of representation and began a lifelong search for authenticity because of this project. But their feedback (via questionnaires and informal discussion) reveals that they did gain something from this activity which would have been impossible without going outside.

Students were unanimous that the project as a whole was ‘an excellent way to bond with classmates’, and that being engaged in a practical task outside the classroom was central to this. Comments included:

  • ‘Being outside gave me a chance to bond with my group.’
  • ‘Going outside made our research less formal and made people more relaxed.’
  • ‘Being outside it was much easier to socialise as well as work and it really helped break down social barriers in our group.’

There were also numerous comments which indicated that, in terms of the subject matter itself, being outside gave essential new perspectives that could not be obtained from books. Students could see trees as individuals, understand them better, see them from a different perspective, and explore their own feelings when interacting with trees. In their own words, interacting directly with trees:

  • ‘means we can really see trees as individuals’
  • ‘was useful in seeing trees in real life rather than in pictures’
  • ‘was a bit of an eye-opener’
  • ‘gave me a closer understanding of and feeling for trees’
  • ‘was a very natural real-life experience so it helped me see the trees from another perspective’
  • ‘helped to give a ‘real’ view of how trees vary. Just like people, no two trees are alike’
  • ‘got us to open up about how standing under trees made us feel’
  • ‘[meant] we were able to experience how the trees felt and how they made you feel standing next to them’
  • ‘gave us a deeper insight’
  • ‘made me look at trees in a different way’

All of this suggests that students did gain an understanding of the difference between representation and reality even if they could not, or chose not to, express it explicitly in their presentations.

Taking part in the project seems to have increased a number of students’ ecological awareness, something which is best conveyed in their own words:

  • ‘Viewing trees helped me get more knowledge of them and my love for them has increased.’
  • ‘Since this project I feel a lot closer to nature and have an enhanced respect for trees in particular.’
  • ‘My view has become broader and I can see how trees play an integral role in life.’
  • ‘It made me aware of all the connections.’
  • ‘Before trees were just trees but after looking at them they all seem to have more character and seem somehow more human than before.’
  • ‘My perspective has changed a lot – before I never really appreciated trees but now I have found a new importance for them and a greater understanding of them.’
  • ‘I feel more aware and appreciative of trees and how important they are in life.’
  • ‘It has offered insight into climate change.’
  • ‘I used to take trees for granted, walk past them and not really take notice of them. However, now I see trees in many different ways and gained an appreciation for them.’
  • ‘My view of trees has changed as a result of this exercise as I now see the connection we have with them and how vital they are to our existence instead of just being a resource.’

There were, however, students who were more task orientated and saw being outside as less relevant to the practicalities of preparing their presentation. For these students being outside seemed of margina: significance

  • ‘useful but not essential to the activity’
  • ‘Working as a group and sharing our ideas and interpretations seemed more important/useful than going outside.’
  • ‘I don’t think the outdoor activity was an important part of the project as I felt the content of the project was more important.’
  • ‘Useful but I felt it wasn’t necessary.’

Interestingly, when describing what they gained from the project, these students focus entirely on what they have learned about the representation of trees rather than about the reality of the trees themselves:

  • ‘I have learned about the etymology of trees and that they can be represented in a variety of ways.’
  • ‘I have learned that trees are represented in a variety of ways in different forms, e.g., films, literature.’
  • ‘I have a better understanding of the representation of trees.’
  • ‘I didn’t realise how important trees are when used in the media or literature. A description of a daunting tree in a novel plays an important part in creating a certain atmosphere.’

It is as if, for these students, the trees themselves remained in the background, obscured by their own representations.

The exercise ‘works’ (at least for many students) through the careful framing of experience. Students are given information about human ecological relations with trees and instructions on a particular way to approach and view trees, which they put into practice outside with real trees. (For an interesting alternative way of framing student interaction with trees see Bignell 2009.) This is all that is necessary – the very natural situation of human beings interacting with other beings that they co-evolved with does the rest. With some variations, the exercise is repeatable for a wide range of disciplines – literature students could look at representations of trees in books and compare them with real trees, creative writers could create their own stories about trees, film students could compare film representations with reality, and media students could make their own films of trees. It would also be a useful exercise for biology students to compare the often mechanistic and reductionist representations of trees in biology textbooks with the living reality.

There is one final point to make. The exercise clearly simplifies the difference between representation and reality. Encounters with a real tree are never completely direct because the way of approaching the tree is discursively framed – in this case framed by the instructions on the exercise sheet as well as the various discourses that have influenced students’ perception of trees in the past. There are also cognitive filters on perception which pre-process and re-arrange sensory data. On the other side, representations are backed up by memories and sensory imagination which make them richer than the kind of pure symbols that appear in mathematical equations. There are philosophical questions about the degree to which the trees themselves are active agents, forcing their unique forms into the perceptual field of the viewer, and the degree to which trees are discursive constructs existing predominantly in the minds of the viewer. It is up to students themselves to come to a sophisticated understanding of the relationship between discourse and reality through their reading but also, crucially, through direct experience as they do in this exercise.

Bibliographical References