Thoreau College Student Body Reflections – Fall 2023
By Sequoia Lynch, TC ‘23
Participation in shared community self-governance is a key part of being a student at Thoreau College. This includes active participation in meetings of the Board of Trustees. The following report from the Thoreau College Student Body was presented to the Thoreau College Board of Trustees by fall semester student Sequoia Lynch on October 11, 2023.
The Thoreau College Student Body is granted equal stewardship in every aspect of the program. We see this reflected in the ownership of our community, as well as in collaboration with faculty to assure the fulfillment of student’s expectations, wishes, and desires from the various offerings at Thoreau College. Students hold space for reflection, logistical planning, and new ideas during weekly student body meetings, and organize the communal living aspect of the program through new weekly Thoreau House meetings.
Students have attempted different styles of governance during our weekly Student Body Meetings. We voted to attempt a non-hierarchical meeting structure at the beginning of our semester. We experimented with rotating moderation, meeting without a moderator, and co-moderation before concluding that each student will moderate for the specific conversation topic they bring to meetings, with much success! The secretary is chosen at the beginning of each meeting based on practicality.
During the beginning of our semester, students struggled to find space to hold our weekly Friday afternoon meetings, between jobs and other evening commitments. Through collaboration with the faculty, we have recently restructured the Thoreau schedule on Fridays. By various rescheduling attempts, with both our all school meeting and the time of Student Body Meeting itself, the students have found space to hold a full meeting without the burden of the previous time constraints.
During the new weekly Thoreau House Meetings, students collaboratively analyze and strategize the means of living together as a community, a deliberate way of living that differs significantly from the standard of the traditional college roommate. Thoreau College Fall Semester Students hail from a myriad of backgrounds and every student has different communal experiences to draw ideas from. Together, we have carried out trials based on a mixture of ideas and experiences, as well as the influence of relevant academic readings from the first academic block relating to homemaking and community.
Fall semester labor tasks have emphasized traditional homesteading and homemaking skills. From harvesting produce from communal gardens, to preserving this same produce, butchering, cooking communal meals, and laying the foundation for future Thoreau Gardens and beyond, students have been able to harmoniously form connections to the academic and self-governing aspects of Thoreau College.
As a new initiative, students elect a Labor Commissioner which enables the Student Body to have a voice in this part of the program. Students are rapidly taking charge, and have voiced a need for our community labor to be implemented as part of our labor program. This is reflected in a weekly deep clean of the Thoreau House and other similar projects being implemented in the second phase of our programming.
Through the labor program, students see themselves building lifelong skills and practices. Students have found themselves enjoying the labor program in equal capacity to the Academic, Self-Governance, and Arts/Skills opportunities that Thoreau College offers. We feel empowered with a greater responsibility for our greater community in Viroqua through our community labor with the Community Hunger Solutions.
The Academic Block of the Thoreau College 2023 Fall Semester has proven to be incredibly satisfying for Thoreau College Students. During our first academic block students have studied environmental anthropology with a focus on agriculture and placemaking. The seminar based course has taken students through a variety of topics ranging from critique on industrial agriculture, to ancient myths and metaphysical doctrine, always neatly folding into the daily experiences of Thoreau College Students, and life in the Driftless region.
The class is structured democratically, and students have an equal voice to the teachers during discussions. During class, students can often be found at the chalkboard, diagraming our perspective. The radically democratic structure of the class has left some students feeling a lack of accountability. Yet, simultaneously, it empowered us with a deep sense of personal agency to engage with our education from a genuine place of personal desire.
Students have been able to further engage with the discussion through various opportunities for anthropological fieldwork offered this semester under the leadership of Thoreau College Resident Benjamin Bernard-Herman, who is a PbD candidate in anthropology at the University of Illinois-Chicago. We practiced ethnography at the Amish Growers Produce Auction and the Vernon County Fair and we have since incorporated the skills gained into our observations during discussions. When visiting Seed Savers Exchange In Decorah, Iowa students were able to see heritage growing in practice. Seeing the theoretical content from class acted out in the real world prompted a deeper connection to the new practices and ideas we learned through class readings and discussions.
Arts and Skills:
The Thoreau College arts and skills blocks are often intertwined with labor, through food preservation and carpentry tasks. We’ve deepened connections to the community in Viroqua by crafting puppets for the Harvest Parade at the WDRT Radio Station. Thoreau College students are self-directing this process, and spent a day directing Youth Initiative High School Students in puppet making for service hours. Using axes, knives and other specialty tools, students developed skills in both tool safety and technical carving when we learned spoon carving for the Driftless Spoon Gathering. Working with two guest instructors – Terry Beck and Tom Wheeler – and then attending the Spoon gathering itself, students felt fully immersed in this classic folk tradition.
Looking back to the first week of the semester, we took a bookbinding course with Driftless Folk School instructor Anneka Baird. Each student crafted their own journal for use throughout the semester. Students use these journals nearly everyday, from ethnographic observations to recording recipes to reflections from our wilderness solos. In this way, we will leave the semester program with a handmade artifact memorializing our experience.
During the semester, students have participated in two 5-day group canoe expeditions – one on the lower Wisconsin River and a second in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota. Expeditions are some of the most profoundly valuable experiences we have at Thoreau College. This uniquely special bonding moment allows us to form connections with peers in ways that the traditional classroom structure does not leave space for. We test ourselves against our physical abilities, often finding strength we didn’t know we possessed. Justys Grenier, our expedition leader, provides structure and safety, while simultaneously holding space for student self-governance, in a deeply empowering way.
Fall Semester student CJ Bukowski reflects:
“The expeditions at Thoreau allowed me the ability to become more aware of my existence as a human. Whereas life in industrial society exchanges the natural process for efficiency and comfort, I found on the Wisconsin River an entire side of life that I had hitherto been alienated from. I saw the natural process in its entirety. I lived every part of life that constitutes my survival. And in this expedition, I found within myself a calm that came purely from an authenticity to myself and to the natural world.”
Thoreau College has a pretty full weekday schedule, so students find themselves left with limited freetime after completing academic block readings. We use our free time to further build community, opting to cook homemade meals and share a communal dinner each evening. After dinner, students socialize or retire to their hobbies, music, art, dancing, reading, or writing. Weekends are spent exploring Viroqua and the Driftless Region at large, working on personal projects and hobbies, or working part-time for local businesses.
After feedback during the Spring Semester about students not having space to eat a good lunch, we now have a mid-day block dedicated to lunch preparation, a communal meal, and cleanup. Each day, a different student works with chef Frank Wildingway to prepare a meal and simultaneously learn kitchen maintenance skills. Students and faculty get the opportunity to sing, decompress, reflect, and bond over a delicious warm, home cooked meal. Following the meal students clean the kitchen, which the student body sees as an opportunity
for service and gratitude for our community, as well as further building our home management skills.
Student Care Groups are a new initiative of the 2023 fall semester. Each student is assigned a staff member and given the choice of a peer, and fellow/resident for their circle. The function of Care Groups work as a social glue for the Thoreau College community. By having dedicated time to voice concerns and vocalize ambitions to a group curated around your needs, students have found space for reflections and communication with faculty that may not have been otherwise available. Care Groups provide a physical structure for personal thoughts and emotions that would otherwise go unaddressed, helping students create and grasp a clear central narrative to their goals for and problems within their time at Thoreau College.