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

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.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Gary McDowell: On Using Hybrid Texts to Lead the Creative Writing Classroom

Bonus Double-Post Tuesday! Here's a great post from my friend Gary, who teaches poetry at Belmont University. Some great thoughts here for teaching how to read like a writer, no matter your genre. The original post can be found at HTML Giant.


In the Creative Writing classroom, I don’t teach so much as I lead. Discussions. Close-readings. Deep-readings. Free-writings. Whatever it is, I keep minds attuned to construction rather than destruction. Destruction is better left to the literature classroom, where it has its purpose, surely. We don’t read to answer what or who but rather why and how. We read widely, and we imitate shamelessly; we invent, therefore, with an existing form as backbone before we learn to invent forms of our own. We string words on the page like Christmas lights across the roof; we have purpose and design in mind, but mainly, we just want shit to glow brightly. The goal: limit the variables, at least at first. As we learn to construct within the preconceived frames, we increase the variables beyond simple imitation, and the possibilities to invent then grow considerably. We understand, ultimately, that poetry can exist in many physical shapes, and we strive to keep the language malleable within whatever shape it takes.

T.S. Eliot told us that “genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” The goal in the beginning of any semester then is to get the students invested in communicating in this foreign language of image, tone, metaphor, parataxis, association. Vision, therefore, comes before technique. And then, once we’ve forged an explanation of vision, vision and technique exist together, however haphazardly at first, deus ex machina be damned. We do, though, care about technique. For instance, this semester I’m teaching Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day, and I care that the students understand what the poem is trying to do, but I care more about how it works, what its engine can tell us about our own engines, what we might learn by considering how Mayer built the poem as a vision rather than as a pile of techniques. Through the study of texts like Mayer’s, I’ve had success in leading students to identify their visions and find the techniques necessary to construct them. To put it simply, I believe in experiential learning in the creative writing classroom, and it’s for certain that we can communicate our experiences before we can understand them just as we can communicate a vision before we have the vocabulary to articulate it.


Poems are built from what we know, but what we know is limitless. We have assumptions about what we know, and my goal is to break those assumptions into workable aesthetic arguments. We can know anything. We can use research, experience, and imagination to know something and anything. Perhaps Larkin had he right: “Poetry is nobody’s business except the poet’s, and everybody else can fuck off.” But maybe he had it backwards; perhaps poetry is everybody’s business, is the business of shared knowledge and experience. To that end, and on the more pragmatic side of things, I strive to create an inclusive environment in which students can test ideas and broaden their understanding of our texts. This allows them to build their own opinions free of being “right” or “wrong,” at least temporarily. Of course there might be a right way and a wrong way to read a text when one’s writing a literary interpretation or a close-reading essay, but as writers the students benefit most from internalizing the text first and applying their own fledgling aesthetics to their reading of it. While it’s important for the students to learn how to write, it’s just as important that they learn how to be writers, and so the classroom becomes a place of experimentation, of close-reading, and of aesthetic defining. After all, helping the students learn to read as a writer is one of our most important goals.


Through the reading and study of hybrid texts, which, in my experience, lend themselves to a form of active reading that allows students more freedom, the students begin to stress visionover technique, and I am able to instill in them that they can know anything and communicate in forms of their own creation before they even understand the basis and need of those forms. After reading hybrid texts, the students’ work is more explorative and care-free because they aren’t worried about staying left-flush or maintaining a certain meter—though it should be mentioned that in a Techniques class these elements of prosody and poetics are crucial! In the past, and in the future, I’ve taught everything from prose poems, flash fictions, lyric essays, long poems, original forms, and confusing forms by writers such as Lyn Hejinian, Diane Williams, Bernard Cooper, David Shumate, Eula Biss, John D’Agata, Claudia Rankine, Joe Brainard, Carole Maso, Eliot Weinberger, C.D. Wright, Maggie Nelson, John Ashbery, Harryette Mullen, Russell Edson, Italo Calvino, and on and on. I tend to think of these works as echoes across genres, forms, and time. We read them with an eye toward construction, and we learn to mimic their moves and then discuss how and why some moves work and some moves don’t.


Carl Sandburg wrote, “Poetry is an echo, asking a shadow to dance.” That seems about right to me. By spending time immersed in these texts that are neither this nor that, students begin to see the echo of form and content, association and disjunction, intellectualism and lyricism; in other words, they start forming their own shadows, their own echoes in their writing. In C.D. Wright’s Deepstep Come Shining they might find docu-poetics at work whereas in Maggie Nelson’sBluets they might come to understand the power of obsession and meditation. The moment they start to see how these elemental ways of writing impact one another and build off each other is the moment when the magic happens. It’s like Ken Bain’s idea of building “scaffolds of knowledge.” The learning here is happening on a pyramid-like scale wherein the students accumulate knowledge and experience simultaneously. They build their visions and techniques as writers one toe-hold at a time. But the toe-holds aren’t as structured as they would be if we were reading more traditional verse—which, once again, certainly has its place. But if poetry is, as Edmund Burke tells us, “the art of substantiating shadows,” then through the reading of hybrid forms, we learn not to chase our shadows aimlessly but to capture them and put to use their shapes.

Gary L. McDowell is the author of American Amen (Dream Horse Press, 2010), winner of the 2009 Orphic Prize, and co-editor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry (Rose Metal Press, 2009). His poems and essays have appeared in Bellingham Review, Colorado Review, Indiana Review, Mid-American Review, New England Review, Quarterly West, and others. He is an Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Belmont University in Nashville, TN.

Thinking Ahead: Natural Disaster Narratives

I should not be thinking about this now, but why is it that the best ideas come when you don't have time or energy to explore them? This morning is, for instance, brought to you by Excedrin Migraine. But I'm starting to put together my basic syllabus for this class I'm thinking of on "Natural Disaster Narratives."

Fascinating article: Theodore Steinberg's "What is a Natural Disaster?" Definitely worth reading, if only because it's interesting.

Here's my preliminary idea for the course (which I'm thinking to design as either a 101 class (Rhetoric as Reading) or 150 (Rhetoric as Inquiry)):

"This course is designed around a theme of natural disaster narratives and their place in literature. What function does the natural world serve in the written word? How does it affect the subject of a piece of written work (in whatever genre)? How do humans find meaning in natural disasters--and how has that (or has it?) changed over time? (Natural disasters used as morality tales, for instance.) How does it affect the peripherals of a piece of writing? (Frankenstein would not have been written if not for the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia.) Our purpose in this class is to develop a greater understanding of the natural world and its effects not only on as as human beings right now, but also how the events of the natural world have affected literature throughout its history.

My idea right now is to structure the class chronologically in units of time: Ancient Literature; Renaissance/Medieval Literature; Enlightenment/Industrialization; Age of Technology. That way, we can trace how natural disasters are represented in literature and how that changes (if it does).

And so my goal right now is to make a master list of writings of natural disasters, both literature (canon and contemporary) and journalistic explorations. If you've got suggestions, please post them! If you have experience teaching these books, I'd like to hear it!

Agee, Jonis. The River Wife. (New Madrid earthquakes.)
Egan, Timothy. Worst Hard Time (Dust Bowl)
Epic of Gilgamesh/Biblical Flood.
Fagan, Brian. The Little Ice Age.
Ghosh, Amitav. The Hungry Tide. (tides/cyclone)
Laskin, David. The Children's Blizzard. (1888 Midwestern Blizzard)
MacLean, Norman. Young Men and Fire. (1949 Mann Gulch Fire)
O'Flaherty, Liam. Famine. (Irish Great Famine)
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. (1815 Mt. Tambora)
Solnit, Rebecca. Paradise Built in Hell. (New Orleans/Katrina)
Varley, Jane. Flood Stage and Rising. (1997 Red River Flood)

Suggestion from my mother: "The ideas brought to mind "The Great Hinckley Fire of 1894." I have no idea of literary accounts to recommend, but I remember studying about it in 6th grade, when Minnesota history was our social studies curriculum. Whether the fire was started by lightning or sparks from a passing train, no one will ever know, but the damage was catastrophic." Sounds like the beginnings to a major writing project for this class: find and research a local natural disaster. Thanks, Mom!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Eng. 992: Week 5 Response

This week's readings could not have come at a better time for me, since I had gone looking this week for the theory and critical pedagogy to go along with what we've been reading--and this weeks' readings were full of it, full of names and citations to go track down. Reading about the KCAC project (Keeping and Creating American Communities) was great, from LeeAnn Land's article about her class's project, Sarah Robbins' introduction, and then I spent a great deal of time on the KCAC website and most of the page is now bookmarked on my computer or printed out for inclusion in my growing binder of teaching place-writing resources. Since I posted on "Rosewood Township" a few weeks ago, I'll concentrate on another aspect of the readings. (His last name is pronounce grew-koe, if you weren't sure.)

What stood out to me most was the idea of movement, of active engagement, even of physical movement outside the classroom. I've been trying to incorporate active learning into my classrooms, but only so far in getting my students to be able to talk to the writers they've been reading. I have not done much with physical movement outside the classroom, as a part of active inquiry. Definitely something I want to work on. The website for Nebraska tourism--focusing here on road trips--made me want to pull my Scamp out of its dusty sleeping place and take off for parts unknown. (Won't happen anytime soon, unfortunately.) Someday I'd love to camp the Lewis and Clark route. And someday, as I discussed with a friend yesterday, I'd love to teach a class on the Great American Road Trip. Lewis and Clark will be along for that ride.

When Land writes that her class's "project developed out of my conviction that historians (public or academic) should advance public discussion about the state of their community, nation, or world," and soon after she discusses what information she felt she needed to cover in order to uncover other things, I was right back in Mark Sample's recently posted article on"Teaching for Uncoverage rather than Coverage." The KCAC principles of interdisciplinary work, research based in inquiry, public writing, and active citizenship are, now, familiar concepts we've been discussing so far this semester. The very idea of interdisciplinary work, getting students in our English classes outside the English classroom, is something it seems we're all working towards. We want our students to be able to think outside themselves, which seems to work best when they're physically working outside themselves.

This movement outside themselves helps to facilitate the ideas of global and local, something I started studying for the first time a year ago, reading Ursula Heise and Mitchell Thomashow. I can foresee revising my present syllabus to include a progression of major papers that takes the students from working inside their own local communities to researching how their community functions in the larger global community. It seems like the first step is to teach students the value of their own community, then teach them how they're connected to other communities, that what is now didn't appear out of thin air. It was created, deliberately, for a purpose. And this benefitted some people and destroyed others.

I'm also interested in this idea of diverse local texts (all possible definitions of "text") that "help[ed] construct the frameworks, fashion the metaphors, create the very language by which people comprehend their experiences and think about their world" (Lauter, qtd. in Robbins). This is an area I'd like to explore further, because it's an area I have not done much with and it has a lot of promise. The recent readings we've done about photography projects and such have provided a good beginning for me, as I think about how communities are preserved through various texts and what those texts say about those places. Robbins writes of "uncover[ing] and critique[ing] forces that have shaped their own local cultures, as subcultures in national and international contexts" and one thing I have not done--at all--is do any kind of critique of those forces. We've barely talked about them in my class. We'll probably get to it in some fashion in the second and third writing project, but I see it as a failing of the course right now as it stands. Mostly because I don't have the experience or vocabulary to have these conversations with my students.

I'm definitely intrigued by many of the writing assignments the KCAC posted: "Reading and Writing Poems About Place" (I tend to use prose, because I'm a prose writer); "Something Important Happened Here!" and I thought that using this assignment in conjunction with a class blog might be interesting, if we're exploring digital space as well as other types of place, also something that might go well with Robert's "Vanishing" prompt; "House and Home,"because Sandra Cisneros is awesome; and I absolutely LOVE the idea of student generated writing prompts. So much so that I'm incorporating this into my classes (where appropriate) from here on out.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Teaching for Coverage/Uncoverage

Aubrey sent me this link and I thought it was a very interesting article, especially one to consider in light of our place-conscious discussions. Seems like it fits exactly what we've been talking about in this class.

Any thoughts?

Yesterday, in our place studies meeting, we briefly touched on how different disciplines within the English/writing community see place studies, and I'm pretty excited for upcoming brown bag sessions on place pedagogy in undergraduate English courses--but I'm also interested in what discussions we might have in the future for how place studies can find its, well, place in literature studies and creative writing as well, especially in the UNL English department.

And so this week, as I'm trying to figure out what I want to do next semester (yes, I know, thinking too far ahead), I think I finally got a handle on how to structure this class I have in my head about Natural Disaster Narratives (those that deal directly with natural disasters as well as books that are influenced by them)--and I think I'm going to structure it chronologically, starting with the biblical flood/Epic of Gilgamesh. Anyway. I'm not too far into this planning yet, but I'm definitely going to have these ideas of coverage/uncoverage in my head as I do.

And, as I love how thoughts come out of the woodwork at just the right moments, Robert Brooke (professor of my 992 class) posted on Bret's blog about Sharon Bishop's assignment for her high school students involving the Nebraska photographer Wright Morris, as an entry into an oral history project in their town. Robert posted a version of the Wright Morris assignment, which he calls "What's Just About To Vanish." In light of today's thinking about coverage and uncoverage (which I feel like I will be exploring further in my Week 5 response), this writing assignment seems particularly timely:

"Following in Morris's intellectual footsteps, go out into your community landscape and photograph some cultural artifact that you believe is right now in the process of vanishing. Work on the photo until you get one that really resonates with what that thing is and the fact of its transitoriness. Then write the essay that goes with the photo. Why is this thing just about to vanish? What does its vanishing mean, both for the folk who really used it, and for the folk who don't need it any longer? Where do you fit in relation to these other people?"

I love this idea. I think it'll absolutely find its way into some future curriculum (maybe into Writing Project 1 of this particular 150 syllabus, should I teach it again). Part of me just wants to do it myself, which I just might.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Eng. 150: A Place to Start

It's true that Sara Evans' song "A Real Fine Place to Start" was going through my head during class today. My 150 turned in the rough draft of their first writing project, a personal essay that's designed to explore an aspect of a place they feel connected to. I'm pretty excited about what they're writing about.

Today's workshop is one I'm still in the process of developing. It mostly works, but I feel like it's going to be one of those that gets better with age. The idea is to find the energy and the heart of the text.

So, in their small groups of three, they brainstorm what might constitute "energy" in an essay. If I said, "Hey, where's the energy in this essay," what would you say? Once they had some ideas floating around, we put them on the board. Things like action/movement (which could be physical or mental or emotional); something personal, constructed with dialogue/scene; a vibrant voice (might be the result of dialogue or word choice); sentence structure that slows the reader down or speeds them up, depending on what the writer wants the reader to feel in those places; contradictory images or feelings.

Then I had them take one of their drafts, pass it to the person next to them in their group, and the group member was told to read quickly through the draft and mark in the margins/underline/star places of energy. However they defined it, mark the places which had some sort of energy.

When that was completed, I had them pass it to the next person and the new reader was directed to read quickly, but to mark scenes of action (with dialogue, etc. that put the reader right there next to them) and scenes of summary (where we're being told something happens). That's it.

When the author gets his/her paper back, they looked at the margin comments and they looked to see if what one person marked as energetic was echoed by the other person's marking of scenes of action or summary. I told the author to choose one of those moments of energy and flip their paper over and write that moment/scene with that kind of energy, as if they were going to start their paper with it--you don't actually have to start here when you revise, but I want you to write this moment as if you were going to. You always want to start from a place of energy, I told them.

I gave them time to do some writing and when we came back together, I asked what would change if you decided to start here: and they came up with ideas like restructuring chronologically, require more physical details, require more background information, etc. Some students did identify that those kinds of things were actually missing in this draft.

Next week, we'll talk more specifically about the rhetoric of beginnings and endings, with a packet I made up that takes the first page of quite a few essays and the last page. More on that next week. It's a fun day.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Eng. 150: What is Lost, What Can Never Be Lost

Today, we're reading two Gruchow pieces out of Grass Roots ("Visions" and "Bones"--which are two of my favorites) and Elizabeth Dodd's "Underground." The quest of the day is to examine what is lost and what can never be lost. We're transitioning from reading and discussing essays to drafting our own--and they're turning in rough drafts of their first essay on Thursday. I'm pretty excited to see what they come up with.

We'll talk about how to handle writing about loss, that it's easy to write about loss, but harder to make people care about yours. That there's a difference between writing as therapy and writing as literature. We'll talk about Sue William Silverman's "Voice of Experience" and "Voice of Innocence," online at Brevity, in a longer form in her recently published book on memoir.

Writing Exercises:
  1. Write about a place that seriously challenged your view of the world. Start with physical detail. What is this place? Stay on that level for now.
  2. Who were you before--and who were you after?
  3. Write about a place that should have challenged you, but didn't. Think of Jon Krakauer in the first pages of Into Thin Air. For him, not caring was a process. Other reactions may be more immediate--and that's also worthy of exploration.
  4. How did this make you feel, physically? (Gretchen Legler's Exercise #4)

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Eng. 992: Week 4 Response

I started this week's readings by watching the NE-TV piece and that formed a guiding principle for how I took Robert's questions this week: what we know about our places and how we come to know it.

The 5th graders from Aurora drew the map of their town without streets, which I thought was brilliant, but what really caught me was how they described their courthouse, the heart of their community: "We call it the Square," they said. They know what their town smells like, what it sounds like, probably better than any of the adults who have lived there their entire lives. To discount what children know is the first step to Gruchow's point, that rural education is not "real" education. These kids know that their fire department is completely volunteer (as was mine in the town I grew up in--and still is). In Ogallala, those kids also had a consciousness that's not measured in state standards. Just like the Aurora 5th graders, they knew the place they came from. Of the lake created by the dam, they said, "We call it Big Mac." They're conscious of changing priorities when it comes to the water and they wonder what happens when the water gathered in their community doesn't stay there. This is a beginning that can be applied anywhere: kids who grow up in a place know that place. At the very least, they know its nicknames and its inside jokes. I bet that you'd get a more complete answer to "tell me about your town" from a ten year old than you would from an adult. This feels like an excellent exercise for a beginning fiction class. Might have to try this myself.

To combine a couple of Brooke's guiding principles for place-based education, the active citizenry and the spiraling-outward nature of the curriculum, there's a brief mention of Sharon Bishop designing a unit she created between English and biology. That idea just stopped me dead in my mental tracks. Collaboration between disciplines is a great way to begin, beyond the obvious, but because the subject we teach students (at least at a K-12 level) is usually taught to be completely separate from others. Combine science and history? Unthinkable. (But tell that to Stephen Jay Gould.) Literature and biology? Absolutely not. (Might as well burn the Annie Dillard, then.) We teach students that writing is only confined to English classes--and in English classes, there's a certain definition of what you can write about and writing about the place you come from isn't going to be interesting to anybody else. What would have happened, if as Sharon Bishop does with her regional literature, if we had been taught in high school that Will Weaver, award-winning Minnesota novelist and short-story writer, lived five miles away? (As it was, I didn't learn about him until college.)

As I consider Robert's suggestion to start considering a place-conscious teaching units in our own places, what I notice as missing from what I've been doing is an active component. I do take my 100-level students to the Morrill Hall museum during our third writing project, but that's about it. Other friends at other institutions have incorporated service learning components. A friend who focused a class around food had her students participate in the community gardens. It feels easier to have that citizenry component--the interest in social justice--attached to composition classes.

Putting that active component into a creative writing or literature class seems more difficult, beyond having students go to readings. A former undergraduate nonfiction professor of mine actually takes his students on a 100-mile hike through the Scottish Highlands (see the video here--it's pretty awesome). I'm really interested in travel and travel writing, so I'd like to do something similar--even if it's a local sort of field trip. Actual study-abroad kinds of trips are one of those beautiful, nebulous dreams that I hope are an option when I finish my PhD.

But I run up against the problem of literature and creative writing being such sedentary pursuits--how do I incorporate that kind of activity, something new and different and exciting and relevant? Maybe it's just a matter of themed classes, readings and writings based around a specific area or idea. Irish literature is a big part of my literary interest and a good place to start, as is regional literature in different parts of the country. I still go back to Bishop's commitment to regional literature--and Bret's idea of making sure that the regional literature we teach is contemporary.

So far, the best I've been able to manage is that I've been working hard to get my students every semester, whichever class I'm teaching, to meet a writer they've been reading in person--or have a conversation via Skype. (I just set up a Skype date with William Kent Krueger for my fiction class later in the semester and I'm just thrilled.) I have other ideas (that I haven't pondered fully yet) that involve students interviewing various authors and reporting back to the class. Most writers are nice people who love to talk writing. I like the idea of upper level classes doing interviews with various literary journal editors.

As I consider those ideas, they don't help solve the problem that we're seeing in our college students, who feel transitory and not connected to Lincoln (or to Nebraska at all), who feel like there's nothing for them back in their hometowns, even if they wanted to go back. Even the study abroad idea takes students out of their place and puts them elsewhere, as if what's important cannot be found where you are--and you have to go several thousand miles away to find it. You could pick up their education, put it down in any part of the country, and it won't have changed much at all. It bears further thinking about what I can do as a teacher here, in this place, to make sure that what my students get out of my classes cannot be repeated (or repeated easily) in any other place.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Farm Tours

Today, I went with my friend Aubrey on a tour of three local farms. It was sort of an open-house kind of day for them and I like farms, I like food, I like local food, so she let me tag along as long as I agreed to navigate. I thought this was a fair trade.

We started at the Caruso-Rozzano farm, which specialized in Italian heirloom tomatoes, among other things. We looked at the rows of different tomatoes, noting differences in shape, mostly, because the ripe ones had already been picked. Aubrey bought a pint of cherry tomatoes from a little blonde girl selling the tomatoes at her own Fisher-Price stand that was right next to her parents' larger table of goodness. The tomatoes tasted like candy. And it's impossible to say no to little five year olds when they're selling anything.

Leaving Caruso-Rozzano, a B-2 flew overhead, came around and made another pass. At least I think it was a B-2. Could have been an F-117, I suppose, but as my Air Force father tried to teach his three daughters about planes, the only one I can identify on sight is a C-130, which he navigated while he was in the Air Force. But going with him to any place there are planes is always great fun. Lincoln is having an air show today and tomorrow and I bet he'd like to be here.

From there, we went to Common Good Farm, where Aubrey gets her summer CSA. This was the most interesting of them to me and I wish I'd been smarter and packed a hat and some sunblock because I only made it through part of the farm tour before I had to get out of the sun. But we walked the rows of kale and tomatoes and peppers, sampled fresh pesto and rhubarb jam. When the farm tour started, that's when things got really interesting. We saw two pens of chickens and they get moved every so often to fresh grass and grasshoppers, free range and running around. They got very excited when the little kids threw lettuce to them. We learned about the owner's reliance on non-kill methods of protecting his chickens from hawks, because Fish and Wildlife won't let you kill them. But as the farmer told us about the noise cannon things he used to scare the hawks--now they won't come near the farm--that also means that the ecology of the area is still intact. Just because you may kill the hawks that stalk your chickens doesn't mean that your problems will go away just because you kill the hawks. If you remove the predator, that has effect further down the line. (This chicken looks sketchy because of a protein issue, nothing else.)

I won't remember everything he said about his pigs (about a half dozen of them) and how he's using his pigs to get rid of bindweed--the whole process is just brilliant. He'll never be completely rid of bindweed, but the pigs have done a better job of taking care of the problem than any of the chemicals that other farmers use. Even if you spray for bindweed, you'll still need to do it every year. So that doesn't solve any problems. The pigs fertilize and chew up the soil, benefiting the soil itself, and in the fall, they're quite tasty.

From there, we went to Branched Oak farms, lured in by cows. Cows = excellent cheese, ice cream, and more. We didn't stay too long here. The reality is that cows also equal more flies. It just reminded me of stories my grandmother tells of the cows she grew up with, the milking, the dedication required, how even things like the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services were set around the milking schedules of the local farmers.

Aubrey and I also talked briefly about Wendell Berry (she's an expert on him; I am not) and advocating for solutions in terms of systems, rather than one solution for a problem. We also talked a little about my canning/urban discussion that I almost had with my class and we discussed how the local food movement has been criticized for being elitist--and how that relates to this rural/urban mindset when it comes to food. When does something like a CSA become a political choice, rather than what you do because you must? Of course, we did not fail to notice how many Priuses we saw in the parking areas of each of these farms.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Eng. 150: Preservation

I keep saying this, but I think once the semester gets going, I won't be posting this often. But for now, I have ideas (whether or not they're useful to anyone else is another issue entirely). Today, in my English 150 class, we discussed four Gruchow essays in the context of Preservation. Last week we talked about how we create places for ourselves and today we talked about how those sorts of things are preserved. But, before we could even get to that, we had to talk about how we come to know, truly know, what's important in our lives.

On the board: Further Reading (Rachel Carson, Silent Spring; Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire; Sharon Bishop, "The Power of Place"; Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses; the documentary King Corn.)

In "Corn is Not Eternal," I tried to tease out that the corn has become for us what the buffalo was to various Plains tribes, but my class--stubbornly, perhaps--persisted in thinking that corn gives us more than the buffalo did to the Plains tribes. I haven't watched King Corn completely yet, but I've started it. Since it's instant on Netflix, I recommended it. But we haven't completely reconciled what we've lost by giving corn this much importance in our lives.

Between "Remember the Flowers" and "Putting Tomatoes By," which works through what his father considers important (and how he preserves it for the future) and what his mother values (and how she preserves it), we talked about how these things (issues of pesticides/herbicides, monocultures, overdevelopment/conservation, migration from rural to urban/surburban, self-sufficiency, loyalty) come out of various mindsets. We talked about how the parents, who would certainly have gone through the Depression and the father probably served in WW2, formed their work ethics and such. I brought in Silent Spring, how the problems that Carson brings up come out of this post-WW2 mindset: warlike language (eradication), American exceptionalism, absolute trust in the government, etc. I was pleased that I got a few surprised looks, nods, like I'd just given them something new (and, I hope, interesting) to consider.

In "The Transfiguration of Bread" and "Putting Tomatoes By," the ideas of homemade vs. manufacturing were brought up, the values that each of those represent, and how the trend is going back towards homemade, that people are canning again, etc. Ironically, there's an article on the main UNL page today about canning.

But the way I ended class today is directly related to the readings we did for 992 this week. Because this book is largely rural in context and there are a great deal of my students who come from urban/surburban places, we ended with this question (which we started out in discussion, but then I took them to paper, to write about it):
  • How does all this function within an urban/surburban context?
  • How does that environment (in all definitions of that term) affect the ideas that Gruchow brings up across these essays?
  • How do these ideas apply to those places too?
  • How does that urban/surburban environment shape what you consider important and how you preserve it?
  • How much of that is access and availability vs. necessity? Are you more likely to go buy a can of organic tomatoes than to grow them yourself?
  • Because you have access to things like a farmer's market, does that change your perceptions?
  • What happens when things like homemade bread and canned vegetables become political choices (consumption, environmental, waste), based on a certain level of affluence, vs. what you do because you have no other choice?

Since I've been thinking about my city students and what they think of reading such rural writings, I'm glad that we were able to consider these questions today. Hopefully they'll bear fruit by the time the rough draft of their first paper is due next Thursday.

Monday, September 5, 2011

House Writing Exercise #2

So, because Bret told me he was stealing the dream house writing exercise (and because Kelly was talking about houses today), I figured I should probably post the second part of it. Related, but not together. This one is courtesy of the lovely Dr. Joy Castro, UNL's nonfiction professor.

Draw the floor plan of the house you grew up in. Draw in everything from doors to furniture placement. Take a classmate on a tour. Put an X on the emotional hotspot of the house and write from there, using lots of sensory details. If you want to write the story of something that happened in that hotspot, go for it. When you're done, go back, reread and find what essay you could write from this little micro-narrative. If I wrote about making Christmas cookies with my grandma, the larger idea could be something like how traditions are handed down. I once had a student write about his mom's cinnamon rolls that she made every Sunday and the essay that came from that was about how people don't take time to slow down anymore.

On a separate note, Kelly and I had a micro-conversation about houses this afternoon, wondering why do we need closure with places? We can understand needing closure with people, but why do we need it with physical places? Not a question we were able to answer.

And, perhaps the best part of the day, on a house level, was this essay context that came across Brevity's blog (the short-short nonfiction journal): an essay contest (three hundred words), for the chance to win a tiny house. I'm smitten. I love tiny houses anyway and have been obsessed with them for years (though I can't figure out where to put all my books). But these, built of 99% salvaged materials, are just works of art. I want one. Particularly the Canyon Lake one, because I just can't get over how awesome the stairs and the loft are. And I'm just in love with the potential energy efficiency, as well as smart design. I want to have enough room for a couple of people to stay over (sorely lacking in my current apartment) and I think there's good potential here. Of course, I'm way too mobile right now to be able to handle such permanence as a real house (of any size), but it's a lovely dream to bookmark and return to at odd moments.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Eng. 992: Week 3 Response

Anything that includes Paul Gruchow, I'm automatically going to be predisposed to. It's so rare to find anybody--let alone anybody outside Minnesota--who knows his work that when I read Sharon Bishop quoting him, I already figured that I would like the rest of what she had to say. (I'm teaching Grass Roots myself this semester and we read "Home is a Place in Time" as one of our first readings.) As I'm very interested in forming my own pedagogy of place, reading how hers functioned within the context of rural education struck a chord.

When Bishop argues that if a "community loses a school, it may also lose its identity," I can bear first-hand knowledge of that. When the great Consolidation/Open Enrollment happened in Minnesota in the 1990s, the goal was to close down as many small schools as possible. Students could go to any school in the area they wanted. Politicians thought that students from places like Nevis would go to Park Rapids, just as students from Akeley went the other way to Walker. As a result, Akeley lost its school and as a result, its economy has been terrible. Nevis, on the other hand, did just fine. And it's still the place, as Bishop describes, where the community gathers.

As I considered Sobel's practical advice for setting up place-conscious education in rural schools, I thought about how such a thing might work in the high school that I graduated from, but realized almost immediately that while his ideas were sound and exciting, since I'm not a public school teacher, there was little I could implement myself. It did remind me of a failed experiment when I was in high school, a student-run business. We called our pizza restaurant Tigerelli's (after our mascot, the tiger) and I worked there during the two-ish years it was open. It was great fun, but even as we were aware of the financial problems it was creating and the community issues it was raising, we students were powerless to do anything about it. The business was seen as competing with "legitimate" business in town and some community members were upset that tax dollars were paying for it (though it was privately financed by investors). Had we had Sobel's advice back then, Tigerelli's might still be in business. And it really was good pizza.

The differences between the rural (Bishop and Sobel), the urban/suburban (Brooke) and what deficiencies each of them faces in terms of place education were the most interesting to explore. I come from a rural background, but my professional life has been in urban areas of varying size (Fargo/Moorhead, Spokane, Bowling Green, Lincoln). Because I grew up in a town of 300, anything bigger than Park Rapids, the next town over (2000 people), strikes me as urban. I have, as I mentioned in a previous post, that everywhere I've lived has felt transitory, complicating my sense of belonging--something that Brooke identifies as crucial to any sort of place-consciousness: "Both aspects of belonging--a robust sense of history and a vision for the future--are at present missing in the contemporary suburban landscape." My students, as first-year college writers (in my 100-level courses) could rephrase this observation to include the bubble of college. Somewhere along the line, my rural students have been taught that their places don't matter (or don't matter to anyone else) and my urban students have no idea how they've been shaped by their environment. And, perhaps most importantly, they have no idea why any of it matters, why we're wasting our time talking about such inconsequential stuff.

Part of my goals for changing these modes of thinking in my students is wrapped up in Bishop's commitment to regional literature. I'm not teaching literature; I'm teaching composition--but the premise still stands. We're reading Paul Gruchow for this first writing project because I want them to understand that places matter, even urban places. Even though Brooke identifies an established history--and continuing history--as a problem of suburbia, there's still opportunities for students. Last semester, in Fran Kaye's Great Plains Lit class, we read William Cronon's Nature's Metropolis, about Chicago, and the far-reaching effects of that city were just plain astounding to me. From there, I speculated that the demand for white pine that Chicago started was the reason why my hometown, tiny little Nevis, was settled--because the Crow Wing Lake chain led directly to the Mississippi. There are little pieces of wonder and connection like that everywhere, even in the suburbs, I think. At least I hope so. When Gruchow wonders if you can call a place home if you don't know the names of the plants and such--that applies to my urban students as well as the rural ones. We've talked about place in class in the last two weeks, how we come to form attachments, what we attach to, and why that might be valuable to share with someone else--and how we do that is the composition part of the class.

I get the feeling that my students--perhaps it has to do with their millennial status--don't feel grounded in many places and that complicates their belonging, because they either don't recognize their own history or they don't want to be the next link in the chain. Or, they recognize both their history and do want to be the next link, but they don't know why. That's a tremendous opportunity for me as a teacher. And when they write on their reading responses "I never realized that essays could be anything besides boring!"--because I'm teaching them a more Montaignian idea of essay, rather than 5-paragraph argument--my little teacher-heart goes pitty pat. Teaching them that history isn't boring either is a great accomplishment for me, when it happens. If they can see value in things that never held value for them before, that's the beginning of some great conversations.

While Writing a Lecture on Setting for 252

I realize that I'm treating this blog as more of a blog-blog than just a record of things for this class. So, to make things easier, I've tagged the assignments as "992" and clicking on the Tags list on the right will take you right to those responses.

It's the first time in a long time that I've been able to open my one functional window in my apartment and get some fresh air in here, and how fresh it is! The cats are particularly excited to sit in a window, though Maeve is feeling evil and keeps chasing Galway out of it. Such is life in the Babine household. I just finished grading reading responses for my fiction class and I'm moving onto the next thing on my list: finalizing the power point lecture for Tuesday. I'm still nervous enough about that class that I'm over preparing, so as not to be left with an hour to go and nothing to do. I'm a little excited about that class, because we'll be talking specifically about scene and setting...and Place! (My excitement right now might be completely related to the level of caffeine in my blood.)

So, in my preparing for this class, two things happened across my internet in the last couple of days. The first is a blog entry by my friend James Engelhardt, who just moved with his family from Lincoln to Alaska. This blog entry has everything to do with place--and the complications of trying to figure out new places. You can find "Writer as Listening Body" here.

The other unexpected awesomeness was coming across a geography course description from Dartmouth: "Landscapes of Murder: The Geography of Mystery Fiction." I just about hit the roof when I saw that. I want to teach that class. Badly. Look at the reading list--not just literary fiction, but popular fiction too. If I were to have designed this class, I would have also chosen Evanovich, for the brilliant way she uses Trenton as a character (and Stephanie Plum is just awesome anyway). And I just adore Nevada Barr. Firestorm is a good one, though I might have chosen a different one. Since I'm teaching William Kent Krueger's Iron Lake this semester, this idea just is wonderfully exciting.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Eng. 150: How Do We (Re)Create Places For Ourselves?

Okay, so I probably won't be posting this much once the semester really gets underway, but so far in this class, things have been going so well that I need some sort of outlet.

First, I stumbled on this website that features great place-writing things by the amazing Gretchen Legler. She's the author of On The Ice, about Antarctica, and it's great. I met her a few years ago when we were on a panel about Women and Travel Writing at AWP. If you haven't read her book, put it on your list. In the meantime, check out these great exercises and ideas.

Today's Readings: Short-shorts by Tim O'Brien, Judith Kitchen, Emily Hiestand, and Cynthia Ozick.

Quest of the Day: How do we create places for ourselves?

Goals of the day: connect any of these pieces to ones we've already read--where is the conversation between them? (How many noticed that Ozick used "quotidian" in her piece?) Start being able to identify narrative, exposition, high exposition. How do these pieces fit into the themes of the class.

Activities: write around. I did this in groups of 3. Each student writes a paragraph, an initial comment. Write for a specific length of time. Pass to the person sitting next to them. The 2nd person reads the initial comment, then continues the conversation. The 2nd person can elaborate on those ideas, ask new questions, or take the conversation in a new direction. After a specific length of time, the paper gets passed to the third person, who reads what's already been written and continues the conversation. At the end, the third person writes something to bring the conversation full circle back to the originator. When the paper gets back to the originator, they read their own, highlighting or underlining strong, interesting, questioning moments. In their groups, they briefly discuss what they came up with, then bring it back to the big group.

Writing Exercise: Take me on a tour of your dream house. No expense spared. Take me down to the tiniest details--no detail is too small. Your dream house, since we're talking about creating a place for ourselves. (10 minutes, give or take.) Pass to the person next to you, read it, and jot down a note or two about what you can tell about what the author values, given this house. Value family, environmental ethics, solitude, etc? What details give you that impression? (This went over very well. We didn't have time to do the second half of the exercise, which we'll do next week.)