As far as I can tell, measurable student learning outcomes are a figment of the utilitarian imagination. [But] it so happens that the abbreviation for student learning outcome, SLO, is the same as that for a neighboring town, San Luis Obispo. I do believe in San Luis Obispo, so that is a start, I suppose.
—from “Into the Wilderness”
When Paul Willis set out to build a couple miles of trail in the wilder parts of his California college campus, he had no idea that it would become a metaphor for a lifetime of teaching and learning. But curiosity, love, and wonder always take circuitous paths toward understanding. That is what he came to believe, and that is what has put him in conflict with present-day promoters of efficiency in education. This collection of essays switchbacks through moments of learning and moments of pain, pausing briefly at trail junctions of gratitude. Put on your boots, pick up a shovel, and join him in making a way.
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Reviews & Responses
To Build a Trail is the best of everything I love about Willis’s writing: the richly layered essays are funny, unpredictable, self-revelatory in the best way, and, as a bonus, culturally astute. (Watch for his provocative words on education.) Lace up your shoes and hit the Trail Paul built. It’s simply remarkable.
Building a trail—clearing away underbrush, heaving rocks, making room for meanders—was a task Paul Willis set himself in a time of personal sorrow when he needed just such strenuous solitude. But its purpose widened over time: it provided a refuge for others who needed a wild place and an hour of renewal. In this book he has accomplished something similar: a record of his own peregrinations on campus and in classrooms and in the mountains he loves that opens also for readers rich opportunities for personal reflection. The humor, humility, edgy intelligence, and deep reflection that inform the writings gathered here give scope and substance to the words he chose as titles for its four sections: curiosity, love, wonder, and gratitude. Here is a book to be savored, like a slow walk among the oaks.
Paul Willis is one of the few writers who make me laugh out loud. And, at the same time, require me to think. With just enough feeling thrown in to move me without making me weepy. I feel myself in the illuminating presence of a kindred spirit. These essays, drawn directly from the details of his life, prove what we learn from all genres of literature, including the memoir: each person’s story has the potential to be our story too.
Reading these essays, I found a remarkable confidant. Paul Willis takes his readers with him as he climbs in the Sierra Nevada, loses a house to California wildfires, leads a college-level poetry class, and hacks a trail through California wilderness to build a neighborhood gathering-place. I came to depend on his intelligence, his resistance to misplaced authority, and his honest, often funny voice. I think you will too.
Sharp-eyed, tender, blunt, generous, droll, impatient with cant, able to live with uncertainty, and constitutionally incapable of huffing and puffing, Paul Willis is a boon companion in these delicious essays.
—John Wilson, editor of Books & Culture (1995–2016)