"I am a Minnesotan by birth and a traveler in wild places by vocation and compulsion." -Paul Gruchow

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Digital Spaces: Preparing for Spring 2012

I'm putting a "mostly done" label on my two classes for spring, which is a great feeling. Some tweaking, I'm sure, will be required, as well as printing and proofing, before I deliver the babies off to the office to be copied. It's about the only thing I'll be printing for my classes, so I don't feel too guilty about it.

But as it's my goal to try something new every semester--at least while I'm at UNL--this coming semester is going to be an exercise not only in new themes and texts, but I'm experimenting with digital spaces as an extension of my classroom. Seeing these in play as I'm writing these syllabi is pretty exciting. It's also challenging me to do research on digital space as a place, to aid in my place-conscious pedagogy. I won't say I'm technologically challenged, but sometimes I find technology quite challenging.

So: today I set up the wiki that Dr. Dawn Duncan of Concordia College-Moorhead, MN and I will be using to teach our respective classes Joseph O'Connor's novel Star of the Sea. She's teaching "From Empire to Independence" (contemporary British literature) and she's using O'Connor--and I'm teaching the book in my Intro to Fiction (252) at UNL. Dawn's a dear friend of mine, dating back to my undergrad days at Concordia. There's no one I'd rather collaborate with than her. So, the goal is to approach this one novel from a scholarly, critical, readerly perspective and the perspective of a creative writer. The wiki is barely functional right now, since I don't know much about wikis, but we have until the 2nd half of the semester to figure it out. We're going to group our students across classes, have them post and discuss, and enrich each others' readings of the novel. Dawn and I also sent an email to Joseph O'Connor himself, wondering if he might be interested in being a part of this collaboration. As it's a large part of my own teaching philosophy and pedagogy to have my students talk and interact directly with the writers they are reading, I hope-hope-hope O'Connor's intrigued enough by what we're doing to want to be involved. Fingers crossed!

In my 150 class, which is a W.H. Thompson Scholars section (a UNL learning community comprised of first-generation/low-income students who have won the Thompson scholarship), we'll be talking about natural disasters in a variety of ways. The new, digital space thing here is that their second writing project, an oral history project that researches a disaster where they come from, is going to be a largely online project. They will create a blog designed to aid in their community's knowledge and understanding of this event. As I was working through the assignment, it made no sense to have my students do interviews and other oral-history-type-research and translate that oral quality into the written form. They will do written work, of course, but I think something too important would have been lost in the translation. Because they're creating a blog, they can post audio files, video files, and more. And the form that the project takes will be much more accessible to their communities. Should be exciting!

I'm pretty excited about both of these classes and I'm ready for them to begin! Well, ready for them to begin on the first day of the semester. Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Taking a Step to the Side

Things are wrapping up nicely here at the end of the semester and the panicked emails from my students haven't been that bad. I got final portfolios from my 252 class last night and I'm really looking forward to seeing the revisions of their short story and their craft papers, because I suspect they're very good. I get final drafts of Writing Project 3 from my 150 tomorrow. Whee!

But we got our first snowstorm of the season this last weekend and since Lincoln isn't great about plowing its streets, I was grateful for my four wheel drive. My winter survival kit, however, is still in my bedroom. Three years ago, when I hurt my back, that's what I was carrying, so it always makes me a little nervous to lug it around--even though I know it needs to go in the Jeep.


Here's the story from Monday: I'm looking for a parking spot in the four hour meters and see this car spinning its tires on the ice in its parking spot, going nowhere. So, I get out, the guy rolls down his window and I offer to help. It's an orange Camaro. New. Leather seats, top of the line sound system. Vanity license plate. The guy driving it probably isn't more than twenty and from his accent and what's on his vanity license plate, I assume he's an international student from a place not used to ice and snow. He gets out to push and I slide into the driver's seat before I realize it's a stick shift (of course it is) and I can't drive a stick shift. We get that little problem taken care of and he tries to push and nothing happens. I say that I've got some kitty litter in my Jeep that might help and he doesn't know what that is (another thing that makes me think he's an international student) and so I take the kitty litter out and pour some behind his tires, to get some traction. It's the Tidy Cats for my actual cats, not the non-clumping stuff in my survival kit that's much better for traction (larger particles)--and it doesn't work. I feel like a failure as a Minnesotan. Maybe this winter, I need to get a chain for my Jeep and have my dad teach me how to use it. I do know the difference between 4-high and 4-low, at least.

But this is the reason you don't see a lot of sports cars in Nebraska (or Minnesota or the large of the Midwest in general). They're not great on ice. And if you're driving a rear wheel drive vehicle, like that gorgeous Camaro, you're going to want to go to the hardware store and stock up on sandbags.

Dear students. This is place. This is what it means to live in this place, today. Place means wearing your winter boots to school and then changing into your regular shoes when you get there. Place means not letting your gas tank get below a quarter tank. Place means remembering the difference between which way you turn into a skid, depending on if you've got front or rear wheel drive. Which I always forget, because I'm directionally dyslexic. And I know you're in college and invincible, but there is no shame in wearing a hat and mittens.

And to close with my favorite weather-related quote: "There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing." Happy winter! Happy last week of classes!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Looking Ahead: Spring Eng. 252

I'm lucky enough to be able to teach another section of Intro to Fiction next semester, a spectacular opportunity on so many levels. I've mentioned before on this blog that because my time at UNL is short, it's my goal never to teach the same syllabus twice. This next semester, with my Natural Disasters 150 I'm halfway to that goal. With this new 252, I have another opportunity to stretch myself and make the most of the experience.

The first thing that's obviously different is that the class is MWF, not just once a week. And while I taught a variety of place-based fiction this semester, next semester we're reading contemporary Irish fiction. We'll be using the Vintage Book of Contemporary Irish Fiction (ed. Dermot Bolger) and Joseph O'Connor's Star of the Sea. I'm coming to understand, practically, how important it is for students to read both short fiction and novels in fiction classes, something I've only known intellectually. I'm really excited to broaden their perspectives about what writing is happening in the world, as well as my own.

So, the other stupendous opportunity is that--as it stands right now--I'm going to be collaborating with my delightful friend Dawn Duncan, who is a brilliant Irish Lit/postcolonial scholar, who is also teaching O'Connor's Star of the Sea in her Contemporary Brit Lit class. So we're putting together some ideas about how we can foster cross-over between her literature class and my creative writing class, reading the same book. Her class is in Moorhead, MN and mine is in Lincoln, Nebraska. That also provides some challenges.

I've never done anything like this before and I would love some feedback from those of you who use more technology than I do in the classroom. Would you suggest a blog? Pen pals? Skype dates with both classes? How would you best foster an environment where one class who is studying this book as literature can easily converse with a class who is studying this book as writers?

What fantastic ideas could you suggest?

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Bonus Double-Post Wednesday: Place-Based Writing Exercises

I called it the Writing Blitzkrieg, which comes on the class period before the rough draft is due in my English 150 class. We've been talking about Mark Tredinnick's The Blue Plateau to complicate our ideas of how humans shape place and how place shapes humans, a conversation that has gotten consistently better as we get deeper into the book. They started out not liking it much, but once we got into talking about it, analyzing it both as readers and writers, they started to become more fond of it. I love it when that happens.

I've done this once before, where I've given them a zillion writing prompts in a very short amount of time and we've spent a maximum of five minutes on them, to give them as much exposure to different prompts as possible. It seemed to work well before, to jar them out of expected modes of thought, so I did it again.

Here are a bunch of the prompts I've used--and a disclaimer here: I got these prompts from somewhere a long time ago and I don't know where, so I'm unintentionally plagiarizing here. If anybody knows who these prompts belong to, please let me know and I'll give credit where it is due.

  1. Write a little something that includes the following: the smell of fresh-baked bread, hot peaches, a man in a beret, the words souvenir, clink, and lurk.
  2. Write about a time you either very very hot or extremely cold--and try to include something visual in every single sentence (a color, a description of an object, a metaphor). The idea behind this exercise is to combine two senses at the same time--the visual and the tactile.
  3. In this exercise, list ten places. (Any place will do.) Then list a smell that comes to mind in each place. After you have those ten places and ten smells, circle the pair that you find most intriguing and start writing.
  4. See #3, except do ten places, ten sounds.
  5. With specific detail that appeals to all the senses, describe windy weather on a city street.
  6. Imagine a body of water. Might be a lake or pond or river, anything. What do you see in your mind? Describe this body of water in detail--detail that addresses all the senses. What colors do you see? Lights and shadows? How does it feel on your skin? What is in it, near it? And in the last minute, write the feelings that this body of water evokes.
Happy Wednesday writing!

'Tis the Season...For Skype!

It's getting down to the end of the semester and the workload is increasing in inverse proportion to my students' willingness to do it. But it's also the season of Skype. For the last couple of semesters, my teaching philosophy and practice has been evolving (as one might expect with changing schools and starting a PhD program) and it's become increasingly important for me to get my students to talk with the writers who are writing what they're reading. Last spring, when the Australian nature writer Mark Tredinnick came to UNL, I corralled him to come to my Eng. 150 class--and my students loved it--which gave me the desire to try to do more.

This semester, I set up a conversation for my 252 with Mike Czyzniejewski, fiction writer and editor of Mid-American Review--and my students picked his brain for what he was reading, what his writing process looked like, what stories catch his attention as an editor, things to do and not to do. The best piece of advice he gave them was something his mentor told him: find the best story you know and go and write a better one.

Last week, my 252 Skyped with Kent Krueger, author of Iron Lake. We asked him about the use of place in his fiction (and he said that the best place-based fiction that he's found is in the genre novels, not literary fiction). We asked him about his process, what books he likes to read. (For me as a writer, my favorite question to ask any writer is what they're reading right now. Or what they've read lately that's set their world on fire.) He told us about his two failed novels that he wrote before Iron Lake, he told us what he went through to get that book published. (And after we hung up, my students were thrilled to learn that even published authors started where they're sitting right now. I love that moment.) Krueger asked us, since we hadn't asked, about why he'd killed off a certain character in Iron Lake. It seemed that he gets that question a lot and it surprised him some that we hadn't asked. In fact, we had considered that very thing a few class periods before--and we'd decided that Cork, the protagonist, did his best work when his world wasn't going right. Practically, Krueger said that he didn't know when started writing what would happen to that particular character and it surprised him when she died. But she had to, for the series to continue.

Last night, my 252 had a lovely conversation with W. Scott Olsen, author of more books than I can count and editor of the literary journal Ascent. What surprised me is how chatty and excited my students were before I turned on the Skype and then they got pretty shy, which was funny to me. But they asked about writing, they asked about publishing, about being interested in editing. We got insights into online literary journals and online submissions, to the future of e-books and such. We talked about what editing means and how many different kinds there are. Scott told a story about an essay I'd rejected at Mid-American Review that Scott not only took, but ended up in the Notables of Best American Essays. When I'd received my copy of Ascent, I'd emailed him, laughing over the weirdness of the whole thing, and then he pointed out that he'd cut the last page of the essay, which completely made it into a different, wonderful piece. In that way, editing is a lot like teaching--finding the potential and making it better.

I'm in the midst of possibly setting up a conversation with Mark Tredinnick for my 150 class for next week, but I'm not sure it will work. Tredinnick, who's in Australia, is 17 hours ahead of our time zone, which makes my 11:00 class at 4:00 in the morning for him. We'll see. But my students really ended up loving The Blue Plateau, as I knew most of them would, so it would do them good to talk to him.

Next semester, I've already got several conversations already on my syllabus, for both my 150 and my 252. I'm so excited about them, which is a lovely bright spot at the end of this semester. I'm doing conferences this week, trying to calm the fears of my students who are over their heads with stress. And so far, I've only been stood up once today.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Class Before Thanksgiving

This morning, I rode the elevator with one of the department's poetry professors, who commented that today should be like a ghost town around here and I agreed. It's the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and for us, break starts tomorrow. Yesterday, my dear friend Mike Czyzniejewski posted this as his Facebook status: "I've never met people as thankful as my students this semester, many of who are taking a nine-day weekend to celebrate their awesome level of thankfulness. It's inspiring, really." I was, frankly, quite surprised that only two of my students in my 150 skipped this morning, mostly because their rough draft of their final Writing Project was due. Tonight, I know of one student who will miss Fiction, not because she went home, but because she got some theater tickets to something or other. We're Skyping with Kent Krueger tonight, so it's her loss, I suppose.

But today in 150, I tried a new workshop strategy that I'd not tried before. I got the idea from the ProfHacker blog on the Chronicle website: "Speed Dating Peer Review Workshops." The directions here are for an exercise on introductions, but since that's not something we need help on at this particular stage, I had my students choose one short section of their essay that they were nervous about, didn't think worked well, or they had a specific question about. We formed two circles, facing each other, and since we had an odd number of students, I hopped in to the mix. The pairs switched papers and each read the section identified and came up with a specific piece of advice. They traded advice, wrote down the advice on a separate sheet of paper (to keep the draft clean for the next person). Very quick--this whole process took 5 minutes. Then one circle stood up and moved one seat to the right. Five minutes. Next seat. We did this six or seven times and then I had the students look at the feedback they'd gotten and I had them write hard for five minutes, immediately starting to revise that section with fresh ideas. Write hard, keep going, if you get stuck write I'm stuck I'm stuck I'm stuck.

The consensus was that it was a good exercise, they got some interesting feedback and the quick writing netted some positive results. I'm looking forward to using this workshop idea in more classes, maybe even in a creative writing class. The quick nature of the feedback and that they got quite a few pieces of advice on the same section meant that if their partner gave them advice that didn't work, they weren't left with no advice.

My goal is to grade some of these rough drafts before I leave for home tomorrow, so I can spend the weekend playing with my family and chasing my niece. I hope they're good drafts!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

On Reading(s)

It's a lovely, chilly, sunny November Sunday and the Weather Channel warns of severe wind that could cause power outages. Fantastic. My pot of water is simmering on the stove, adding much needed humidity to the air so I can breathe. If we're going to lose power--which just should not happen--I figure I should already have some humidity going and a pot of tea refilled, just for such an eventuality. And I should really go put that load of laundry in the wash.


As I posted yesterday, I finally feel like I have my life back on track, at least professionally. I have my 150 for next semester figured out and as of yesterday, and a series of traded emails with the delightful Dawn Duncan of Concordia College, Moorhead (who is also my undergraduate Irish lit professor, as well as being my colleague and friend), led to the most spectacular idea and I hope to God it works. I emailed Duncan yesterday to get her take on whether I should assign John Banville's The Untouchable or Sebastian Barry's Annie Dunne for my Intro to Fiction Writing (252) next semester. Knowing what I know about Duncan and Banville and Barry, I figured it would be like trying to get her to choose between her dogs. Duncan is a post colonialist and I'm a writer, so why we would want to teach certain books is based in where we're coming from. She'd rather assign Barry's A Long, Long Way, which led to me asking her given what she knows about that book and about me, would she recommend that I teach a book that I haven't read yet. From there, we discussed Joseph O'Connor's Star of the Sea, which is on my Field List, but I haven't read that either. And from there, we came up with what could potentially be the most spectacular idea: a collaboration between my creative writing fiction class and her literature class, reading the same book from different perspectives, then talking to each other about those perspectives. I have no idea how it's going to work--all hail the technology!--but I'm going to see Dawn at Thanksgiving and I'm sure we'll work it out. I'm so excited--I hope it works!

Because yesterday's writing was successful, today is devoted to tea and reading. And perhaps the aforementioned laundry, which is a great multi-tasking task. I'm almost through my first pot of Assam, ready for the refill, and on today's reading list is Barry Lopez's Of Wolves and Men. I'm a third of the way through it, basking in the love I already have for Lopez, and I really hope to finish it today. There's something really spectacular about reading that reminds me why I'm a writer. Reading good work--just like reading bad work--teaches you how to think, how to put sentences together, how not to be satisfied with the easy answer. So many books, so little time. Except for today, when I've made the time.

And the tea.

So here's the question of the day: anybody done a collaboration like this before, between a lit class and a creative writing class, reading the same book?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

State of Mind: 150 (again) and MN State Volleyball Championships.

The good news is that in the wee hours of Thursday night, when all seemed darkest (and perhaps influenced by the necessity of Benadryl to my allergies), I woke up in the middle of the night with the solution to my Eng. 150 problem for next semester. Hallelujah. It was enough that instead of just turning over and thinking I'd remember it in the morning, I got up out of bed, leaving behind the lovely electric blanket, and found my notebook in the living room. I jotted down what was in my head, because the subconscious was clearly at work here and I was clearly not awake, and then stumbled back to bed.

The idea was this: to more fully embrace place-conscious inquiry tenets, I reformed my class to function better at the 100-level. We're going to start with reading fiction, Jonis Agee's novel The River Wife, which starts with the 1811 New Madrid Earthquakes. It is no coincidence that I'm using this book as we pass the 200-year anniversary of those earthquakes. It's sometimes easier to see how place affects character and plot if we're looking at fiction, rather than our own lives. The goal here is to explore the natural disasters that have formed This Place, what's under our feet that we might not know about. We'll go to Morrill Hall and see how those bones and such can illuminate our ideas.

Then we'll shift into modern disasters: the 1888 Children's Blizzard (reading David Laskin and Ted Kooser) and then into the Dust Bowl (reading Timothy Egan). This writing project will be an oral history type of project in which the students will investigate how local disasters of recent memory (and it does not have to be those two) formed the identities of those who live in that place, in that community. Where I come from, the 1991 Halloween Blizzard is still indicative of my hometown (which I'll get to in a moment), because the town was empty to go watch the Tigers play in the football playoffs in the Twin Cities. That event says a lot about who Nevis is as a community.

The third project will investigate modern, human-caused disasters, because another tenet of place-conscious education is to move beyond the personal and immediate and into the larger world and the larger community. This week, Obama put the kibosh (basically, we hope) on the Keystone XL pipeline. The environmental catastrophe that would have resulted from this pipeline is incalculable. On this same day, a report surfaced that the chemical used to frack in Pennsylvania was showing up in the aquifer. So, we'll read Erik Reece's The Lost Mountain, about mountaintop removal for coal mining. We'll talk about the wetlands of the Mississippi being destroyed (and, maybe, get some face time with my favorite musician, Tab Benoit?--we'll see...). And we'll approach the topic--whichever one the students choose to write about--from a position of conservation or prevention.

I feel better about this.

I also believe it's no accident that after way-t00-long of trying to set up a Skype date with my friend N. (whose older sister J. was my good friend in high school and I'm J's daughter's godmother; and said daughter turned ten yesterday) the Skype finally happened. And not only did I get to talk to N. and her 2-yr-old E., who was rocking the little blonde pigtails, who should pop into the frame, but N.'s dad, Mr. Smith, my high school history teacher, one of my favorite people in the world. We talked a little about teaching, a little about Nevis volleyball--because, get this, NEVIS IS PLAYING FOR THE STATE CHAMPIONSHIP IN VOLLEYBALL TODAY!! IN LESS THAN AN HOUR!!!--and see previous comment about the 1991 football, because I'm guessing most of Nevis is in Minneapolis today. Being in Nebraska makes watching MN high school volleyball difficult (even if the Huskers weren't playing Penn State today--another interesting example of community and disaster)--but the good news is that it's going to be streamed live on various websites, both radio and video. I'm sure I don't know any of the kids playing, but that doesn't matter.

It all comes full circle. Communities don't just exist in thin air. They are created and they must be fostered. All members of the community must contribute. Places influence who we are--even if we specifically reject that influence, that doesn't mean it doesn't exist. But it's valuable to look back to see how we got to where we are--as well as look forward to see where we're going.

Stay tuned for the results of the volleyball game!

(We lost the game 3-0, but I'm so proud of them!)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

State of Mind: Post-Election and Week 12 Meltdown

A lot of things are on my mind, place-related, this morning, some of them pedagogical, some political, some personal--and some food-related.

My 150 students and I are not connecting well with each other right now and I'm supremely disappointed in them, for several reasons. The last straw was yesterday, when we went to Morrill Hall, the natural history museum on campus, to get some ideas for our third Writing Project, and when I asked them what they found, if they learned anything new, they just stared at me. Even "what was the weirdest thing you saw?" elicited blank stares. There will probably be a come to Jesus meeting with them tomorrow if this continues. Guess how much I'm looking forward to that. As a result, there is much stress in the Babine household today--and I'm going to cook my way out of it. Roast chicken, chicken stock, baked oatmeal, carrot ginger soup, and chocolate chip cookies.

My 252 is continuing to discuss Kent Krueger's Iron Lake and Andrea Barrett's Servants of the Map. They're loving both books, for different reasons, and that just makes me happy. We discussed the middle section of Iron Lake last night and I love how discussing a book with students helps me to see things I never noticed before. The discussions last night of how many ways place and landscape and weather are active participants in the plot were spectacular. Next week, Antonya Nelson and Robert Boswell are visiting campus and their reading is during our class time, so we're going to go hear them read. Should be a good time.

On a completely separate place-related note: at the grocery store this morning, the produce is displayed so it's the first thing you see. It's still apple season, so the apples are front and center. I am an apple nerd. Not an expert, but a nerd. My grandparents managed an apple orchard in New Ulm, MN in the 1950s and I've learned quite a lot about Minnesota apples. Earlier in the fall, Hy-Vee was selling Haralsons--and it's been years since I've had a Haralson, let alone seen them anywhere outside Minnesota. And then today, there were Firesides. It's been even more years since I've had a Fireside. I was so excited that I had to call my mother.

"Don't get the green ones," she said.

"I know," I said, "or it'll taste like a potato."

"Your grandmother will be so proud that you remembered," she said, laughing. Firesides are late apples and they have to ripen fully on the tree or they have no flavor at all.

The depths of my apple nerd-ity were also confirmed as I was watching ABC's new show Once Upon a Time. The evil queen--in her mayoral persona--was telling Emma that she has her own special apple tree, of Honeycrisps, though the link to the poisoned apple is obvious. However, the apples she has in her basket--and the ones that are on the tree in later scenes, are absolutely not Honeycrisps. They're not the right color or the right shape. The evil apples are Red Delicious, which in my own apple snobbery, seems about right.

I am a nerd.

But I'm also conscious of politics this morning and what it means to live in a place at a certain time. Yesterday, Ohio overturned SB5, which severely limited collective bargaining power. And Mississippi failed to pass its Personhood initiative, which would legislate that a fertilized egg is a person, with all the legal rights guaranteed to a person who has been born (except, as I saw one article say, a woman of childbearing age...). Dear students, if you don't think that place influences you, you only have to look at how different places define what it means to live there, or not live there, or the living conditions you are entitled to--or not--while you live there.

I hope Thursday's discussion in my 150 can convince them that the bubble they think they live in doesn't exist--and the world's a lot more interesting out here than it is in that bubble.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Eng. 150: The Blue Plateau

Yesterday was a turn in the weather that made me really happy, even as my eighty-year-old joints protested. It was a good day for my fireplace app on my iPad, some Godiva hot chocolate with ghost-shaped marshmallows left over from Halloween, and as it turned out, some Gay Talese. I'm reading Unto the Sons for an independent study I'm doing this semester (on the subject of Essentials of Mid-Century American Nonfiction). And then there was dinner at Bread and Cup last night, as it was Bread and Cup Wednesday. Local food just tastes better.

This morning, the air was on the cold side of crisp and my neighbor and I had a discussion on the way to campus about how fifty degrees (the high for today) in November is not the same fifty degrees as March. In November, fifty degrees is jacket, hat, and mittens; fifty degrees in March is shorts and a t-shirt.

Today in my English 150 class (Rhetoric as Inquiry), we're starting our third and final unit of the semester, on the topic of how have humans shaped place--and how does place shape humans? We're reading Mark Tredinnick's awesome The Blue Plateau to go along with it. Tredinnick visited UNL last spring and kindly visited my class; this semester we're reading the whole book instead of just excerpts. Next week, my class is going to Morrill Hall, to the natural history museum, and I'm excited to hear what my students find there. Many of them have been there before, on school field trips and such, but this time around, they've got a different purpose, a different way of looking at what's there. Love it. Museums are not boring, people.

So, today's class on Tredinnick will talk about settler culture, difficult landscapes, and more. There are days that I'm more excited to teach than others--but today is one of those days where I'm particularly excited. This book is about wanting to belong--and a book about failing to belong. How and why does he fail--and was that always a foregone conclusion? We'll talk about pastoral landscapes, this particular definition taken from Tredinnick's anthology, A Place on Earth:

The literature of landscape we have made, therefore, has tended to take as its models for literary engagement with landscape the works of other citified cultures--it has written about landscape as Rome's writers did, as London's have... A pastoral engagement with land is sentimental and escapist rather than realist and vernacular. In it, nature is a foreign place to which one escapes, when one can, the stress and grime and world-weariness of the city. Pastoral does not witness; it idealizes or demonizes; and it sounds, even at its best, unrooted in the soil of the places it evokes. The place escapes it. It is an idyll of landscape made in the city. This is the nature of the greater part of our writing about place. Until now" (43).

And on Tredinnick's website, this gem, from his The Little Red Writing Book:

What makes writing worth writing--and reading--is what the story or the poem achieves beyond the tale it tells: its music, its form, the way it makes the ordinary world beautifully strange. A good tale is only good, in other words, if the telling is sound and memorable. It's the voice and mood, the arc and flow, the poetry of the writing that endure when the storyline fades. Literature doesn't aim to tell anybody anything. To tell a story or make a poem that makes sense, of course, you're going to have to convey some information. But that's not really what the work is for. Creative writing makes art out of the stuff of life, it makes it out of the words we speak, and it's for whatever art is for. How a piece of writing becomes a work of art--a plain but unforgettable thing--has everything to do with the integrity and humanity of its voice and the elegant of the work's composition."

It's a good way to start off a chilly Thursday morning in November. At least I think so. And so, to cap off this post, some writing prompts we will be doing:

  • What they won't tell you about ___ is ___.
  • This is the kind of place where___.
  • Describe a place as if it were a person, complete with hair color, height, personality, a favorite book, and more.
  • Name something significant that happened in this place--how you define "significant" is up to you.
  • If this place were a song, what would it be?
  • How do you get to this place? Write your way into this place. What are its boundaries? Theoretical? Natural boundaries (like a river)? Political? Cultural?
  • Where is the physical center of this place? Where is the emotional center of this place? Are they the same? Different? Write about that.
Happy writing! Happy reading!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Teaching Iron Lake, Part 1

It was actually accidental that last week our craft lesson was on the rhetoric of beginnings, and we were starting two new books in my English 252 (Intro to Fiction). The first is William Kent Krueger's suspense novel Iron Lake; the second is Andrea Barrett's Servants of the Map.

We started with Iron Lake and as we're concentrating this semester on reading like writers, we looked at this novel with the same eye that we've given any other written work in front of us. How was this created? What techniques can we discern--and emulate, possibly? We looked at how Krueger moves in and out of the main narrative, moving to flashback, to exposition. We considered how the dialogue was constructed and how it created characters and voice. As we were talking about beginnings at the start of class, we discussed how Krueger begins this novel (we read the first nine chapters).

In the first nine chapters, we are introduced to the main character, Cork O'Connor, the former sheriff of Tamarack County, Minnesota. When we meet him, Cork's life is pretty messy. It's been a year since the recall election that forced him from his job, his wife wants a divorce, and it's Christmas and he misses his kids. Add in the main plot thread of a judge's death and a missing kid, cultural turmoil between the Anishinaabe on the reservation and the whites in the town of Aurora.

Here are some of the questions we asked:
  • What role does place play here? How it as much a character as Cork or Molly or Jo or anybody?
  • What role does weather and landscape play in advancing the story?
  • How does the book begin? What do we learn about Cork and Sam Winter Moon in the first few pages?
  • Consider the voice of each character: how is it constructed?
  • What does each character want--by the end of this section? What does Cork want by the end of these first nine chapters?
  • The prologue and the first chapter are both in the voice of fourteen year old boys (Cork in the prologue, Paul Le Beau in the first chapter). What does that do to the movement of the narrative?
  • What function does the Windigo serve? Obviously it serve a plot function--and we can talk about it from a literary criticism position and discuss metaphor, etc, but we won't. How is the character of the Windigo created and how does it work in narrative?
  • Where do you get the best insight into characters? (We discussed that it was in dialogue that we got the best insight into Cork, because he's a different person in his dialogue with Molly than he is with Jo.) We got our best characterization of Henry Meloux through dialogue as well, just that brief car ride where Cork picks him up on the side of the road.
  • In Chapter 4, the prologue plays an important role, because we see the return of Sam Winter Moon. By now, as all the characters are being introduced, we start to see how they all fit together.
  • Just from that first page of Chapter 4, what can we tell about Sam's character? Given the prologue, we get that he is showing compassion for Cork, who just lost his father. But in Chapter 4, we find that Sam has left "Sam's Place" to Cork, so it's obvious that they have created a special relationship, that they were close even after that bear hunting outing.
In their reading responses, my students commented on how Krueger created his characters, how closely they are written in the landscape; they commented on the dialogue; they commented on the descriptions; they commented on how the conflicts are set up. All in all, I was really proud of the way they looked at this book as something equal to what they were doing: a draft that had been sweated over, that took the same techniques and struggles that they are currently working through, that what Krueger is doing here in this book is what they're trying to do in their own stories. And they're getting more comfortable analyzing the craft of the writers we're reading. I love it.

And then we took a short break and I tried to set up the Skype, so we could talk with Mike Czyzniejewski, author of Elephants in the Bedroom and co-editor of Mid-American Review. The Skype didn't work, so we conducted the interview via speakerphone. Mike was great and my students asked some great questions--and even though I know how important it is (to me, as a teacher) to get my students to talk to established fiction writers, they were just so excited about what Mike had told them afterwards that it made all the technological difficulties worth the trouble. Tonight, Chapters 10-18 of Iron Lake!

Monday, October 31, 2011

A Day in the Life: Week 11 Update

It's been a while since I've posted, but my Eng. 150 has been workshopping their second Writing Project, and there hasn't been much to report there, except that their topics and approaches are phenomenal. I just love my job. I'll have more to report after tomorrow, when they turn in their final drafts. The other reason why I've been lax here is that I've been working on my novel, since my self-imposed deadline to give the second draft to my advisor is tomorrow (11/1)--and I made it. I made it! The last quarter of it is nowhere near where I'd like it to be, but I'm seriously stuck, so it's a good time to get somebody else's eyes on it.

A side note: my Eng. 252 (Fiction) class was asking me about titles for their stories a couple weeks ago and I told them that I wouldn't be any help, since I'm really bad at titles. One of my smart-asses (smart ass in a good way) says, "What's the name of your novel?" Blushing, because I can't ever help it, stupid Swedish skin, I say, "The O'Connor Women." He looks back at me and says, "Yeah, that's pretty bad." Yes, students, it's true what I meant: I won't ever bullshit you. I will always tell you the truth.

My Eng. 252 class has started off the second half of the semester by starting William Kent Krueger's suspense novel Iron Lake and Andrea Barrett's Servants of the Map. We've moved beyond the craft-lecture portion of the semester and the rest of the semester, we'll be applying what we've learned about writing and how to read like a writer to these texts. Last week went really well as we talked about the role that place plays in each of the books, how landscape and weather plays in character development, plot and suspense, and more. My students are revising their short stories that we workshopped before Fall Break and they're working on their craft essays, due at the end of the semester. The premise of this essay is to take an element of craft (voice, character, plot, dialogue, tone, any of the things we've been talking about) and write about it: they could look at one author's craft across several craft elements or they could take one craft element and look at one author's use of it, or they could examine how several authors use it. Should be interesting--in a really good way. I see proposals of that paper in the next couple of weeks.

Right now, for the purposes of this blog and this Eng. 992 class I'm taking, I'm working on several place-conscious pieces of my own, both creative and critical and that's just fun. As part of the requirements of the class, we're asked to put together a place-based teaching unit and even though I don't know what classes I'll be teaching next semester, I'm working on putting together this natural disasters narratives class that I've been dreaming about for a long time. As I'm envisioning the class, I'm leaving it open enough that I could teach it as Eng. 101 (Rhetoric as Reading) or Eng. 150 (Rhetoric as Inquiry). I've started putting readings on the syllabus, page numbers, giving titles to the various days' discussions, due dates. It's true. I'm a nerd. But it's further confirmation that I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing with my life. That's always great.

So far, in the Ancient Disasters Unit (Writing Project 1), we're reading the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Biblical flood, with critical readings on all sorts of interpretations; then we'll read some Plato and Dialogues of Timaeus and Critias and talk about Atlantis. Yes, I know that I've got my chronology backwards (Atlantis is earlier than the Flood), but it works better this way, in terms of developing the ideas of the course:
  • What is a natural disaster?
  • How do we talk about disasters in literature? What function do they serve in the culture and history of this group of people, at this particular time?
  • How does the epic form impact the subject matter?
  • How do these stories function for readers today? Morality tales? Literal history?
  • How do these stories and the disasters themselves function in terms of creating identity?
  • How does the literature of fact and the literature of fiction here? How does one become another and how does the disaster play into that?
Their first Writing Project essay will be discussing their position on any one of these questions (and more), supported with direct references to various primary texts, as well as critical texts.

I'm pretty excited about it, but maybe today I'm more excited about natural disasters than usual, because it's the 20th anniversary of the 1991 Halloween Blizzard: more on it here at the Star Tribune. I don't remember much about it, except that it was about football playoff time and because of the snow, all the playoff games were moved to the Metrodome in Minneapolis, because all the fields were under several feet of snow. And I'm remembering my own Halloween escapades, the injustice of having to be a ballerina in a snowsuit. This is what it means to be a kid in Minnesota and that's different than any other place in the world. This is what Place means.

Right now, my sister is dressing up her dog, Marley, in the sheriff costume I sent--and I'm waiting for pictures of my niece, C., in her bunny costume. I'm promised videos.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

No Name Reading Series: Aran By Foot

The podcast for my recent appearance at the No Name Reading Series is now up on the website, excerpts from an essay titled "Aran By Foot." I read second on the podcast, about 11:56 on the timer. (It's always so weird to hear yourself speak--I don't think I sound like that at all!--and I could have sworn I spoke slower than that...)


Friday, October 14, 2011

Eng. 150: Place and the Language of Natural Disasters

It might be accurate to say that my apartment is a sort of natural disaster this morning. I'm still recovering from my weekend at ACIS, followed by the most insane allergy attack I've ever had, followed by a migraine so bad that every cell of my body rebelled. I have the broken blood vessels around my eyes to prove it. I look like a raccoon with red freckles. Funny looking, in hindsight. But such is the Midwest when the weather shifts from season to season. These are things to know about one's place in the world. (And, Maeve and Galway have been chasing each other around my apartment, knocking things over, and I've had to peel her off him more than once--and now she's chasing her tail on my bed...)

Yesterday, I taught Kim Barnes's incomparable essay "The Ashes of August" and Dorothy Barresi's "Earthquake Weather" out of A Year In Place to my English 150 class, as we continue our discussion of place and language. (This book that these pieces come out of is pretty amazing.) Yesterday was about the language of natural disasters, a topic that is becoming dearer to my own heart as I'm putting together this class for next semester on natural disaster narratives. Barnes's essay is one of my favorites of all time and it's always fun to teach those. Barresi's essay is a nice complement to it. Barresi's is about earthquakes (specifically the 1994 Northridge earthquake), but also about the death of her mother, her marriage and her parents' marriage, and the birth of her son. Barnes's essay is about wildfires, but also about family, the way that stories evolve under those conditions, with what we know and how we know it.

I started class by putting my students in their groups, then asking them to look for how many different languages were being used in these essays. In Barresi's, they identified not just the technical language of earthquakes, but also the language of California, the language of Los Angeles (which is not the same as the language of California), the language of cancer, the language of marriage, the language of motherhood. We talked about the many narrative threads that Barresi weaves in this essay, that it's about an earthquake, but it's also about marriage, it's also about motherhood, the loss of her mother, and the birth of her child. It all comes together at the end, just at the point my students were wondering if it ever would.

In Barnes's, we got the language of wildfires, the language of Idaho: even in the first page, as we get this spectacular grounding in light and color and taste (which is bookended in the last paragraph by spectacular evocation of smell), the reader is told that "the riverbanks are bedded in basalt" and I looked at my students and asked where basalt comes from. We've been talking about what it means to live on different bedrocks, how it's different to live on the limestone of the Aran Islands or the granite of Connemara in the West of Ireland. Basalt, they remembered, comes from volcanoes. Ah, yes, I said. So this place was formed by volcanoes. What she's telling us it that this is a volatile place, formed by fire, from earliest days. And it's more effective to tell us that it's basalt, than to tell us straight out what that means. Oh, they said, nodding, and I had that thrilling teaching moment where they nod at me, then scratch at the page with their pencils, making some kind of note, some connection.

We talked about what craft is happening here, that the essayist is making these stories relevant to the reader. My students knew about the 1994 Northridge earthquake, but none of them had ever been in an earthquake, they're not from California, they'd never been through a wildfire. So how do the essayists make these stories relevant? (We've been working rather hard in the last several weeks to get them beyond thinking that they have to relate to something to care.) The context makes us care, the exposition that both essayists use to develop the idea that they're working with. If it was a straight narrative about Barresi getting married, her mother dying, and having a baby, nobody would care. If it was a straight narrative about the wildfire around Barnes's home and her husband going out to fight it, nobody would care. Everyone has stories, I tell them, and nobody cares about yours. Unless you make them care. The exposition, the high exposition--that's what makes people care. (More head nodding, more pencils to page. It was a good day.) Language, the descriptions that Barnes and Barresi use, the ideas that they're developing from beginning to end--that's what makes people care.

Then we morphed the discussion into Where are these two essayists doing things that you recognize? Where is the narrative, the exposition? What's the rhetoric of the beginnings, the endings? How about the use of white space (as we talked about segmented essays last week)? The longer I teach, the more I'm realizing how much I want to break down the barrier between my students' work and published work. In my Intro to Fiction class, I had my students write their last two reading responses on one of the pieces that was getting workshopped that week (they had to write on one of the stories in the same way that they did any of the other published pieces we read) and the results were astounding. What can this story teach you about writing? I was so proud of their responses that I wanted to hug them. They talked about being able to see things in other stories that they wanted to do in theirs, they saw things they did that they wanted to avoid. They were able to look at the craft of the stories with the same eye that they did any of the other stories we talked about. It was a beautiful thing. And in two weeks, my 252 class will Skype with Mike Czyzniejewski, the editor of Mid-American Review and author of Elephants in the Bedroom, beginning the second half of the semester filled with Skype conversations with real live writers, writers who are writing what they're reading, writers who are going through the same struggles and triumphs that they are.

What I'm realizing this week, as we go into Fall Break and I won't see my students again until they turn in the rough draft of Writing Project 2, is that we've reached the point of the class where they're afraid to trust themselves. It happens every semester. We can get through the first Writing Project well enough, because they're writing about themselves, about a place they know well. Some will get the essay part, some will not. But when we get to writing about a place and its language, they lose all confidence that they have any ideas, that they have anything valuable to say. Every semester, I know it's coming, but it always seems to surprise me. Yesterday, I had a flood of students come to my office hours (the first they've done so all semester), worrying about the topic for their paper. And every one of them, every single one of them, came into my office with a fantastic idea. Absolutely fantastic. But not a single one of them had the courage to believe that the idea was a good one. And they got hung up on the sources I'm requiring them to use, as if those were more important than the essay itself. The rough drafts are going to be interesting, I think. And I have a feeling that when the mandatory conferences come around in two weeks, I'm going to be repeating myself a lot: Trust yourself. Trust what you have to say is valuable. If you don't trust what you have to say, nobody else is going to. And, my personal favorite: don't be afraid to write crap. Nobody writes a perfect first draft. Nobody. Let me tell you stories about that...

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Eng. 150: Tim Robinson's Linguistic Ecology, In Practice

This weekend, I presented a paper on Tim Robinson's Linguistic Ecology to the Midwest meeting of the American Conference of Irish Studies. My feeling is that the paper went over fairly well, even though I also felt like my audience had no idea what to do with ecocriticism or nonfiction. But, the praise I received made me spend most of the weekend in a blush, especially when my last paragraph was compared to equalling James Joyce's lyricism in "The Dead." Hefty praise, that. Not sure I live up to that, but at least the audience didn't fall asleep or throw rotten vegetables.

So, it is with great anticipation (and a great deal of caffeine, after spending the weekend fighting allergies with Benadryl, which means my eyes are not yet focusing) that I'm going to be teaching Robinson's "A Connemara Fractal" and "On the Cultivation of the Compass Rose" to my 150 class this morning. I fully expect that they're going to have massive problems with it. He's dense and complicated. I know. But we're working on getting the students beyond that, to a place where they can start to understand how awesome he is.

We're talking about language and place, today concentrating on the language of place and math and cartography. In "A Connemara Fractal," Robinson uses the language of mathematical fractals to discuss the impossibility of mapping the Connemara shoreline. Fractals find their uses in art, math, and nature, so using another vocabulary here would be silly--it's simply the most useful language he has to discuss this particular thing, this particular place. Originally, when I first read this essay, I dismissed it as being too hard, too beyond my abilities as a mathematician (I have no abilities)--but I find that every time I go back to it, I love it more. In some ways, then, "On the Cultivation the Compass Rose" is the opposite of "A Connemara Fractal." And perhaps it is more Montaignian, which is fun in a different way.

But Bret and I talked briefly this morning about using the essay form to teach place-consciousness to first-year students, to get them away from memoir and journal-type confessional writing. The purpose of the Essay (deliberately capitalized) is to make relevant ideas and moments for the readers. Just because Robinson is writing about mapping the Connemara shoreline doesn't mean anybody else is going to care about it. He has to take it beyond that simple narrative and complicate it, bring in the exposition of the math language and how that relates to his inability to comprehend the place, to elevate it beyond a diary. Everybody has stories and nobody cares about yours, so you have to make them care. It doesn't happen by accident.

Here's the questions we'll use to get the discussion going, beyond our standard "what is this essay about?" and "what is this essay about?":
  • Quiddity: the inherent nature of something, a distinctive feature, a peculiarity (p. 81)
  • What is the quiddity of "A Connemara Fractal"?
  • What are the larger implications? How and where and why is the larger idea applicable outside of math?
  • We think of math as definable and solvable (like an island, in "Islands and Images")--how does Robinson disprove that?
  • How does he work the idea of fractals into other contexts?
  • What is the nature of uncertainty? Can we know anything, truly?

As we move into discussing "On the Cultivation of the Compass Rose":
  • Formulate the a question/confusion/irritation, the most interesting question you can come up with...
  • Answer/explicate/complicate it. Prepare to present for 3-4 minutes.

A note on last week's reading responses, to which most students responded to one of the essays by Robinson that I'd assigned. I'm so proud of my students, I just want to hug them. Most of them acknowledged that Robinson was hard, just like I said he was, and that was intimidating, but they wrote about what Robinson could teach them about writing, about description, about interesting ideas. Most of the responses said it took some effort to get beyond the initial frustration, because Robinson is not the easiest, quickest read, but once they did, they really found moments and ideas and language that they really could learn from. Hooray!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Writer's Craft: Perspectives on Irish Environmental Writing

The timing here is actually pretty good: we're reading Tim Robinson in my English 150 class and tomorrow Bret and I are off to Fargo/Moorhead for the American Conference of Irish Studies: our panel is titled "The Writer's Craft: Perspectives on Irish Environmental Writing." We will be joined by the distinguished Eamonn Wall.

Here's our panel description: Ecocriticism, which has been popular in the United States for many years, has recently made the transition to a viable lens through which Irish literature can be studied. Christine Cusick's Out of the Earth (Cork University Press, 2010) and Eamonn Wall's Writing the Irish West (Notre Dam UP, 2011) are the most recent examples. While ecocriticism is a valuable literary tool, another, similar view should also be considered: how are these writers crafting their various works with an eye towards a particular environmental reading? How are essayists, poets, and fiction writers using place (all definitions of "place") to influence characters, plot, or language? This panel aims to explore the use of place and environment form the craft side of Irish writing.

My paper is titled "If all the sky were paper and all the sea were ink': Tim Robinson's Linguistic Ecology" (I'm representing the nonfiction perspective.)

Bret will be speaking on "'What we claim and what claims us': Exploring the 'Eco' in Theo Dorgan's Poetry."

And Eamonn Wall will present on "'Creatures of the Earth': An Ecocritical Reading of John McGahern's Late Stories."

I'm pretty dang excited.

The conference is taking place between Moorhead State University (fine, Minnesota State University--Moorhead) and North Dakota State University, but I went to college in Moorhead, at Concordia. It'll almost be like Homecoming, which is actually happening next week at Concordia, my ten year reunion, so I'll just walk the grounds a week early. It should be an awesome panel, chaired by my amazing undergrad Irish lit prof, Dawn Duncan. (I've been asked to chair her panel, so that's really cool.) My nerves are not being soothed by practicing my paper (which might have something to do with my nervous cats trying to kill each other because I have a suitcase on the bed), but it'll all work out. I am pretty nervous about butchering the Irish in my paper, but I'm going ask for confirmation on pronunciations (again) and then apologize profusely before I start.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Bonus Double-Post Monday! Terrain.org

The new issue of Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built and Natural Environments is newly live and there are several pieces of note that you might be interested in.

Scott Boyon, "Defining the City: On Being and Becoming" (particularly relevant to our 992 class).

What does America’s oldest city have in common with one of its youngest? The urge to define itself.

Every journey across the continent reveals to me lessons of time and geography. While they can be skimmed over the course of a flight, I prefer to read more slowly and deeply as I drive the back roads and highways. On each trip, by land or air, Erwin Raisz’s landforms map of the country is at my side.

Land patterns from the Atlantic coast westward provide condensed narratives of Earth and human histories inseparably linked, histories of ideas as well as actions, histories of change.

The oft quoted W. Scott Olsen, "River Flying in Winter: The Sheyenne River"

Here is a truth, perhaps a secret, about the northern prairie: winter is the most beautiful season. Beautiful in the way hoar frost hangs from trees. Beautiful in the way snow can fall so gently you believe, for more than just a moment, you’ve entered a place both sacred and deep. Beautiful in the way that cold air can kill you fast. Beautiful in the way that sun dogs in the morning can make it seem like three suns ignite the horizon. Beautiful in the hard contrasts of winter light, every shape a crisp edge. Beautiful in the way that clear sky on a midwinter night is so quiet you swear you can hear the radio voices of stars. Beautiful in the way that every story is about staying alive, and beautiful in the way that people smile when they tell them.

Eng. 992: Week 7 Response

The various articles we read for this week, along with the "Stories of Home" project, leaves me with a series of intersecting ideas and questions. The idea of the "tragedy rhetoric" of rural studies seemed to be dismantled by these different ways to take action in one's community, no matter if that is rural or urban. Tragedy rhetoric resonates in urban contexts as well.

What is the effect of separation (and all its definitions and contexts) in the context of place-conscious pedagogy? At what point is physical action required of a place-conscious classroom? And, is it absolutely necessary? Are there forms of mental action that are just as effective? Is writing enough of a physical action?

I started thinking about the idea of separation being a vital part of considering how and where and why we belong after I read the section of "Sustainable Pedagogy" where Charlotte discusses urban students thinking they can't relate to a nonfiction piece about a "hick," yet that is exactly how those same urban students are viewed when they are in LA. As this essay also discusses, the separation of our first-year students face between their high school home and education and their college home and education is again, vital, for them to discover how and where they belong. Without this separation, they cannot begin to consider the answers.

But it's also seeming necessary to separate students from long-held assumptions and beliefs--not that educated teachers are trying to fill the empty vessel, to paraphrase Paolo Freire, but to give the students enough room to articulate why they believe the way they do, about whatever it is they're considering. College is not a place where blind faith in ideas can flourish. Faith and ideas, yes, but blind--no. Units like the food politics unit are excellent facilitators of this kind of separation. The food politics unit is one that I've seen used before, both here at UNL and where I came from at Bowling Green State University. It's an excellent way to move beyond simple explorations of an issue and discover all its complexities--especially in rural universities like UNL or BGSU. But I can imagine that it could be very interesting to use in an urban setting as well.

All of the authors addressed ways of belonging and how that belonging is constructed. Part of it is simply valuing the students' existing experiences and knowledge and part of it is an active participation in the issues of the communities they are connected to. I appreciated Charlotte Hogg's idea that for her students in Texas, they are all temporarily Texan, just by virtue of choosing to attend that particular college. That seems like a useful way to convince students that they need to be involved in their community--however they define it--wherever they go, but I also see little light bulbs going on, I never considered that before. Maybe it's also useful to consider that one can belong to more than one community, as well as understanding that community doesn't happen magically. Effort is required to make a community and they have a part in that making. The "Stories of Home" project, taken as a whole, complicates the idea of what it means to belong--and what it means to be separated from your place (physical, cultural, emotional, political, etc.). Anne Harrison, the Orphan Train orphan, wondered where and how she belonged. The stories of the refugee families were full of being a part of more than one place. The stories of disability and courage gave another view of what it means to define yourself in one way and to have the world view you in another way. I appreciated articulation of trying to belong to a place that doesn't want you, not just in the stories of the refugees, but also in the story of Lin and Barb. In another way, Lela Knox Shanks illustrated another way of trying to find a place in a world that doesn't want you. I didn't know about this project before this week, but I can see myself incorporating this collection of stories into a class.

Donehower, Hogg, and Schell's article concentrates on separating both students and teachers from mutual bias over their own knowledge and perspectives, towards a goal of mutual inquiry. Swan's "Three Generation Work History" sounded very interesting, especially in its effects of breaking down assumptions, especially the fictions that are constructed by families--or by imagination that fills in the gaps in knowledge. Those separations are absolutely useful to begin thinking about what constitutes a community and what's been done in the past to break up certain communities or prevent communities from forming.

Using Bill Bryson's "Fat Girls in Des Moines" and Kathleen Norris's "Status," was brilliantly articulated to address these goals. Maybe I should not be surprised any longer when writers I admire crop up in our readings. I used the first page of "Fat Girls in Des Moines" just last week in my 150 class (see previous post on Beginnings and Endings), because the rhetoric of "I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to" is a great discussion starter for how he makes the reader want to turn the page. Part of it is voice, part of it is pacing. But using the memoir form as an assignment for students to engage these ideas is excellent--but I wonder if using the essay form, in the Montaignian sense of the term, would be more appropriate than memoir, for the simple reason that I think that writing can be its own form of action, and the essay a more effective form than memoir (but that's my own bias towards the essay coming forward).

In my place-based English 150 I've been using the Montaignian definition of essay, since that is what I write, what I study, and what I read. I think the form itself is particularly suitable for place-based inquiry. This type of essay is not an academic work, nor a five-paragraph essay. It is a fluid, malleable form that combines narrative, exposition, and high exposition as the canvas upon which the writer's mind moves its brush. Scott Olsen defines the essay as "the witnessed development of an idea." What makes an essay work is the writer's mind, which means that an essay on the smallest subject can become the largest essay. An essay is not strictly narrative--though that is and can be a part of it--but it is the perspective that the writer brings to the subject that is important. The writer needs to make the subject matter relevant to the reader, which is not simply "relating." The writer needs to actively make the reader care. Patrick Madden is a particularly fine practitioner of this form these days.

I just finished grading the first Writing Project, which was on an aspect of a place they're connected to. I got essays on high school (yet the essay was not a straight narrative of their memories there--it was about how communities are constructed); an essay about a student who goes to her best friend's grave on the 5th of every month was not about the student herself--it was a meditation on the tangibility and intangibility of grief. What makes an essay work is "the story behind the story," as Swan writes, which "reveals the logic, motivations, and implications visible only through insider perspectives." I use the essay to illustrate to students that not only are their experiences important, valuable, vital, but that their thought processes are as well. English 150 is called "Rhetoric as Inquiry" and the essay itself is a natural written expression of that kind of inquiry.

All of these pieces move the conversation of place and belonging beyond Donehower, Hogg, and Schell's premise that effective teaching units that engage the world beyond the physical classroom do address race-ethnicity-gender-class (that most of the composition textbooks try to promote) in ways and contexts that expands the conversation, which moves beyond simple preservationist rhetoric. Students are then able to understand that these diversity questions actually do exist in situations where they consider the community too heterogeneous to support any separations like race-gender-class, especially as students consider their own contributions towards perpetuating certain divisions as well as having those divisions perpetuated on them.

Saturday, October 1, 2011


What a great way to begin October!

It's true that part of my love of place is food-related. Maybe it goes back to childhood and the insane garden that my mom kept, the vegetables that we'd eat right out of the garden, just barely rinsed at the spigot, maybe it was the sense of camaraderie of preparing those veggies to be frozen or canned for the winter. Maybe it was just a satisfaction of growing something. I don't know. I just know that I miss having a garden.

When I was living in Bowling Green, I didn't miss a garden so much because I had the amazing Toledo Farmer's Market, that I frequented with my good friend Amanda nearly every week during the summer. I'd brew the tea, pick her up, and away we'd go. Sometimes we had shopping lists, sometimes we'd see what was good. That was the first place I'd seen brussels sprouts on their stalk. I never knew they grew that way. But I knew they were tasty. A friend of mine from church helped out his family at their stand and he always cut me a deal on canning tomatoes.

Amanda and I taught in the same English department at the university and we knew each other long before we became friends, probably through her husband, FDR, who also taught in the same department and is an amazing poet (Amanda's no slouch in that area herself). I'm sure that the change probably had something to do with food. We discovered that we only lived one street away from each other, so discussions of food became "Hey, I just made this, want leftovers?" or "Hey, I just made this, I need a second opinion!" And across the street we'd go. We started walking in the mornings, sometimes with her tank of a black lab, Bleu, who still thinks he's a puppy. (He may always be a puppy to us.)

Most of those conversations were discussions of various Food Network shows, expressions of love for the awesomeness that is Jamie Oliver, talking about locally sourced food and more. She's the one who introduced me to kale, sautéed in a bit of olive oil and butter till it's just wilted, spritzed with lemon juice, lightly sprinkled with salt and pepper. She made me Jamie Oliver's steak and guinness pie for my birthday once and I swear I could hear angels singing. That fall, we split a quarter of a cow, locally-sourced, grass-fed beef, and it was the greatest thing I'd ever done.

We are the people who take pictures of our food when we go out to eat. If you want to see us in action (albeit in written form), click here. Amanda herself writes for her very cool blog Everyday Palate.

As a cook and an eater, she's completely fearless. (But, she's not a baker. Completely different skill set, she would say. I was the baker of the two.) Part of that has to do with the influence of one Sarah Lenz, who writes on a very cool blog called Prose and Potatoes. I don't know Sarah as well, but she also teaches in the same English department. Sarah is even more fearless than Amanda, especially when it comes to unmentionable bits of various animals. She raises her own chickens. If it can be made herself, she does it.

Amanda has been the Food and Wine editor of the online journal Connotation Press for two years and this fall, they've morphed the written element of the column into a video. Sarah and Amanda have their own cooking show, Spatula. It's amazing. One ingredient, two ways. This month, it's beef and they're making burgers. Amanda is using locally sourced ground chuck from the grocery store and Sarah is grinding her own from chuck and short ribs. I started to drool, I swear. Real burgers are a work of art. These two have personality, they have skills, they have a love of food that is as evident as the finished product. This is a cooking show that you'll want to keep an eye on, if for no other reason than it's fun. Food Network, watch out!

I have heard rumors that Sarah is coming to Omaha over spring break and may drag Amanda with her--I hope so! I can see it now: Spatula: Tiny Kitchen Edition.

Friday, September 30, 2011

In Praise of Libraries

This weekend is the annual Lincoln City Libraries book sale. Anyone who's been in my vicinity in the last couple of days has heard me go on and on about it. I love libraries, public or private. I think they're among the world's greatest ideas. (So are library ladders, for that matter. I fantasize about built-in bookshelves too...) I went last year and got some amazing books and though this is only my second year in Lincoln, it's becoming my favorite part of the year. Fall is here, the sun is shining, the fields are gold, and there's a chill if you're standing in the shade. It's the perfect time of year for sitting on your couch with a book, under a blanket, with a mug of something warm.

Yesterday, I took home 63 books for very little money (today was about half that and I'll go back on Sunday, when things are half price or ten cents a piece), especially compared to what I would have spent elsewhere. I'm working on my comps and my dissertation, as well as preparing classes to teach for the future, and that all adds up to lots of books I need that my stipend doesn't cover. So, I gather every book I see that could be useful in the future, Best American Essays from the early 1990s that I don't have, Irish lit and Great Plains lit and other types of Lit that I should have on my shelf, Irish criticism on James Joyce and Sean O'Casey, books that I want to teach at some point in my life, books by people I know (which is one of the true joys of being a writer and knowing writers). Poetry that I may or may not read, but that I should own, because I know poets. Books for the independent study I'm taking this semester. I picked up paperbacks by mystery authors I adore. Three cookbooks that look like fun.

My apartment is 450 sq ft and my bookcases, four of the tall ones, are already filled to the brim, the paperbacks stacked two deep. With the aid of various types of crates, I'm able to stack the books higher, almost to the ceiling. I love the high ceilings. I moved two orange crates above the tea cabinet and separated out my comp lists, then put on top of them Irish criticism that I'm glad I have, that will be useful later, but that I don't need to get to often. Last night I turned on Anthony Bourdain and let his snark fill my apartment as I put my new books away.

There are people in my life who ask why do you need to own them? Why don't you just check them out from the library? It's true, I have a small space and a small budget. But you can't explain to a non-writer why owning the books is important. I write in the margins, I put sticky notes on the really important passages. I reread them, sometimes for professional reasons, sometimes just for pleasure. You never know when you'll need to produce a copy of something or other. I write from them, I write critical papers about them. That means that I need to be able to pull it off the shelf and find exactly what I need there.

Part is that I'm feeling exceptionally smug that I was able to find a place for the books I've brought home so far, though I might be at the end of that kind of space. The next crop of books will require some creativity in space. But there's something even bigger here. The color on my shelves is just fantastic, the kind of color you can't get any other way, not from wall paint, not from photographs and paintings hung on the wall. Hardcovers and trade paperbacks and mass market paperbacks. All sizes and shapes, various heights and thicknesses. This is a library that gets used. These are books that have had a life before they joined mine and they'll have a life long after I'm gone. This is the reason that I can never get fully onboard with e-books. I can't do it. I love the books that have somebody's inscription in them. Birthday wishes from Mom, "I bought this for you because I thought you would like it" notes.

Most of the books I brought home this weekend are well-loved. Worn. Some showing quite a bit of stress. Books are meant to be read and these have. Yet, perversely, I hope never to have read every book on my shelf. I want there to be at least one book that I haven't read, something that keeps me coming back. Sometimes I despair at never being able to read all I need to read to be a writer, to be a teacher, that there's always more out there to read than I can read--but sometimes, this is a lovely thought.

When my sisters and niece were here last weekend, both of my sisters wanted something to read before bed. The sense of satisfaction I felt at the question was the whole reason I love my library. I want my library to be a place where other people get lost, just looking to see what's there. When friends or family are looking for a certain kind of book, I want to be able to go through the shelves and just pull out book after book. You'll like this one, I want to say. Try this one. Let me know what you think. K3 returned Bill Bryson and Tim Cahill and requested fiction, which surprised me. She doesn't often read fiction, let alone fluffy fiction. I gave her Jennifer Crusie's Agnes and the Hitman. I want to be Agnes when I grow up, I said. K2 looked at me (as she'd already read the book) and said, You already are Agnes. I gave her a withering look and said, I don't attack people with frying pans.

And I want my library to be a place, filled with the kind of books that if you don't bring them back, it's not the end of the world. This is one of the reasons I love used books--there's no inherent worth in them. They're only worth what they mean to me. None of the books I own are worth much money. Of course, there are books on my shelf that would break my heart to lose, those that are written and signed by friends, those that are rare in some fashion. But barring accidents that render them unreadable--fire, spilled mugs of coffee, cats who chew on paper, like Maeve--I'll probably be thrilled that you liked the book well enough to not return it. At least that's what I'll choose to believe. It's better than thinking you just forgot. I once lent a student my signed copy of Joe Mackall's book Last Street Before Cleveland and he never returned it. I hope he got something out of the reading.

Books are living, breathing things in my world, in my apartment, on my shelves. They bear fingerprints. They bear the stories of being read. Stories make the world go 'round.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Scott Russell Sanders coming to UNO!!

Wednesday, October 12

7:30 PM
Milo Bail Student Center Nebraska Room

Light refreshments will served.

Thursday, October 13

The Writing Life: A Conversation with Students

4:00-5:00 PM
Eppley Administration Building Auditorium 102

How exciting is this?

For more information, click here.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Eng. 992: Week 6 Response

"Local Life Aware Of Itself"

On Friday, I attended the launch of Dr. Tom Lynch's new book, Face of the Earth, co-authored with SueEllen Campbell and others, and he read brief excerpts from his chapter on deserts, which he said have a lot to do with grasslands in terms of perceptions. He spoke of the vertical and horizontal sublime and it reminded me of something W. Scott Olsen wrote in his essay "Gravity":

"People who live in the mountains or visit them say, 'You can see so far!' Yet, living on the prairie, I know I can see farther. The difference is one, I believe, of a framed and unframed landscape. In the mountains, you see more surface. You see more dirt, but you see less far. On the prairie, you can't see nearly as much surface. The surface falls away with the curvature of the earth, but you can see forever."

How to look and what you see when you look at the prairies and grasslands is the essential focus between John T. Price's "The First Miracle of the Prairie" and Wes Jackson's "Matfield Green." Both consider how teachers like us might contribute to place-consciousness. Jackson advocates that universities should "assume the awesome responsibility of both validating and educating those who want to be homecomers--not that they necessarily want to go home, but rather to go someplace and dig in and begin the long search and experiment to become native." The idea of being a homecomer is especially attractive at the present moment, because it allows for people to make a home anywhere they are, whether they were born in that soil or not.

Price's essay starts out with much the same rhetorical strategy as Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air, as Price sets up a specific place that should provoke a specific reaction, yet results in exactly the opposite reaction. Price expects to feel "its character, its magnitude...something special to mark this as an arrival, something spiritual, mystical--God. Instead, I felt cold gusts working the collar of my sweatshirt, the itch of fly bites, the painful throb in my right palm where I had stuck myself on a prickly pear." Price is coming to the grasslands from a perspective after the 1993 Mississippi flood, where nature has been anything but a passive physical setting where other things happen.

The first step to forming a commitment to the landscape where one is (whether that is where one is born or where one chooses to be) is, as he asserts, a matter of language. He mentions Annie Dillard, that "seeing is a matter of verbalization," and that the 1993 flood destroyed his ability to attach language to what he was seeing in action. I felt the same way during the various Red River floods between North Dakota and Minnesota, especially the 1997 Flood. Price argues that articulation is the first step to his "own confused and contradictory relationship to my home region, my own tenuous reach, as a resident and a writer, toward commitment, responsibility, and love." He takes his own path to articulation through the words of other writers (passive learning), but then he takes the initiative to write to several of these writers, interview and meet them, and actively participate in the conversation of the place (active learning). That movement was not lost on me as a teacher, as we've been considering active learning in the past several weeks in this class.

What was particularly striking about Price's essay was the juxtaposition between the landscape itself and the writings that came out of it. The grasslands and prairies are considered empty landscapes, devoid of any inherent redeeming qualities, having no value at all until money can be made from it (by cultivation or ranching). Throughout the essay, he begins the journey to understand that the grasslands are valuable all on their own, that there is incredible biodiversity here, that this place is indeed special. As he does this, he also makes a case that the grasslands are not devoid of writers writing about them either, as some might assume. If you asked most people to name writers writing about the Great Plains, some might be able to name Willa Cather, Loren Eiseley, Ted Kooser, maybe one or two more. But the sheer number of nonfiction writers he mentions (seeing most of the names he mentions absolutely thrilled me, because some of them are quite unknown) means that there is more value here, on a literary level, than most could articulate on first glance. Some of the writers he mentions in this essay are among my favorites: Kathleen Norris and Gretel Ehrlich, Bill Kittredge and Linda Hasselstrom, and more. (And it reminded me that, sheerly by coincidence, my fiction class is reading Dan Chaon's short story "The Bees," and I had no idea that he was originally from Nebraska. I keep adding to this list of classes I want to put together--and now I'm getting some cool ideas for "Contemporary Literature of the Great Plains.")

What Price advocating is that writing can be the savior of the prairie--both in the reading and in the writing. He asks, "How might we return to that other perspective, facing in the grasslands that thing which humbles us, inspires us, throws us back upon our selves?" The next question to ask, though, is yes, but why should we? This is a question answered in a different, more economical/practical way by Jackson. For himself, Price advocates the place of the nature writer, a classification of writer that is, like the grasslands, marginalized even among the genre of nonfiction, not taken as seriously as writers who are not labeled "regional." Part of the problem is teaching prairie children (and prairie writers) that their place is not as important as other places, that writing that comes out of local places, stories of "local color," are simply charming, not important--both in literature and their own writing. As Price quotes Hamlin Garland:

"Local color, he claimed, has 'such quality of texture and back-ground that it could not have been written in any other place or by any one else than a native. It means a statement of life as indigenous as the plant growth.' Such a statement does not arise from calculated literary choices but rather from a perspective so intrinsic that 'the writer naturally carries it with him half-consciously, or conscious only of its significance, its interest to him.' It is a way of writing as natural as living."

For too long has the term "local color" been pejorative in literature, but it certainly is an example of what it means to know a place intimately (and be able to articulate that to others). The complexity that that kind of knowing offers is exactly what Wendell Berry describes, as Price quotes him later: "without a complex knowledge of one's place, and without the faithfulness to one's place on which such knowledge depends, it is inevitable that the place will be used carelessly and eventually destroyed." For the purpose of this class, asking how to facilitate students forming that type of complex knowledge is important. What constitutes this complex knowledge? Is it knowing names of plants and how the ecology works? Is it knowing the geological history (like Ashfall) and how that effects how we live in this place today? Is it knowing the human history, the toll that the Europeans forced on this particular bioregion? Is it asking students to investigate their own personal history in this place? Is it all of the above?

While Price worked through the literary presence on the prairie, Jackson articulated well some interesting economic ideas, towards a sustainable economy. These aren't perfect places, he writes, that "the graveyard contains the cuckolder and the cuckoldee, the shooter and the shot, the drunk and the sober." He writes of the realities of Place, how it is possible to become native to a place, that it requires not just social and contextual elements, but also economical ones: such things cannot--and should not--be separated. This offers hope for a larger population. As he writes of the ladies' club in Matfield Green, learning how to cope with the August heat, he writes that in what we could call "uneducated" ways, they're learning how to be a native of that place: the alternative to which is air conditioning, which is detrimental in more ways than we can count.

It makes me wonder if this is one way that we as educators can translate these ideas of place-consciousness to our students: how is it possible to become native to a place that you were not born in, didn't grow up in? John Banville, the Irish novelist, writes in his novel The Untouchable, "To take possession of a city of which you are not a native, you must first of all fall in love there." John T. Price mentioned love at the beginning of his essay, and the idea of love is also frequent in Gruchow's essays. What does it mean to love a place? How is that the same and different from loving a human being? How is it not a one-time event, that it is a way of making a life, of continually forming particular relationships? Too often we see the land as passive, that humans are (almost) the only active element on it. Both Price and Jackson articulate that in order to find value in a place, the relationship needs to be equal, that we need to see (and verbalize) how the landscape acts on us as much as we act on it.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Writing Craft: Beginnings and Endings

This week, I've seen rough drafts from my 150 class and the first round of stories from my 252 class. Oh, the potential held in these drafts. I love my job. Of course, they're drafts , so there's work to be done, but there's something so elementally thrilling about seeing students trying to work through the skills and concepts and ideas we've been talking about for the past five weeks. I love my job. In my 150 drafts, I love that when I give my students a prompt like "an aspect of a place you're connected to" that out of a class of 21 students, nobody writes the same essay. It does my little teacher heart good to see all that creativity, all that unique attention, all of the ideas that they come up with. Mostly, the biggest problem with these drafts is that my students are--as they admit out loud--still unsure of themselves, still not willing to trust what they know, but I know that this is a semester-long process to teach them to trust that their ideas are valuable. But this is a good start.

Today in class, we're talking about Beginnings and Endings. I love this particular activity, which I shamelessly stole (well, after asking permission) from the indomitable W. Scott Olsen at Concordia College. I've photocopied the first page of various nonfiction books and essays and the last page of various books and essays (not the same first and last pages) and we'll talk about the rhetoric of beginnings and endings. I have beginnings from Tim Cahill, Bill Bryson (the best opening line ever: "I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to."), Jon Krakauer, and more. We've already talked about starting an essay from a place of energy--and what constitutes energy--and so today we're going to talk about rhetoric.

What does it mean that Brian Doyle starts "Joyas Voladoras" with "Consider the hummingbird for a long moment"--what do readers do with an imperative? What about starting with some startling observation, stunning in its tone and voice, like Tim Cahill's "This Teeming Ark," which starts with "It was like trying to drink a beer on the subway at rush hour"?

And when we switch to talk about endings, we don't talk about conclusions, like we would when writing a more formal argumentative piece. We'll talk about not putting all the exposition and ideas at the end of a piece, since an essay (to quote Scott again) is "the witnessed development of an idea." We'll talk about what might be right for an essay, to come to some sort of answer (like Lopate in "One Man's Abortion") or leave things ambiguous, like Linda Hasselstrom in "Buffalo Winter."

Since we've been talking about Noah Lukeman's book A Dash of Style, which looks at punctuation from the perspective of a writer and the effect that punctuation can have on the pacing and emotional effect of a piece (rather than rules about how and when to use commas and such), we'll talk about the way these writers put their sentences together in their first and last pages. What's the effect? What are they trying to do? And how are they using their sentences and punctuation to do that?

Yes, indeed. Days like this, I just love my job.