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

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.


  1. Karen,

    Like you I'm really thinking about how to deal with the fact that our students at the college level are also in transition and in something of an in between space. It changes things a little. I think the answer lies in the idea that "either all places are holy or none of them are," and finding a way to locate places within places as a way of focusing college writers. I don't think that teaching my students about Lincoln would inspire them to action but maybe asking them to focus on something within Lincoln that reflects some of the issues in their home towns might do the trick. I still have lots of thinking to do but this weeks reading feels like a start!

  2. I think that there's some value in teaching students to Be Where They Are, because if they're always wishing they were some other place, doing some other thing, they're going to miss out on a lot of life. I don't know how to reconcile these two pieces, especially because I'm guilty of doing it myself (I'd rather be with my niece!), but it seems if they leave here after four years and know nothing about Lincoln other than the football stadium, that's not good. I didn't know much about Moorhead when I left there after college, but I did know why it stunk so badly in September (rotting sugar beets) and I knew why it flooded so badly in the spring (soil composition and the geology of the Red River). Unfortunately, neither of those I learned in a classroom. So I don't know if there's an answer there at all.

  3. What you wrote about cross-discipline curriculum is interesting. I think that a science-literature-creative writing course is absolutely possible. Why not co-teach with someone from the science department? If knowing a place is enhanced by also knowing the types of trees, grasses, etc. then it makes sense to integrate ideas from other disciplines. It would make the same sense for other departments to utilize the way English departments teach writing.

  4. Karen -- You and Bret will have to help me with college level fiction writing connections, but for the secondary educators I work with we've found that the same place-immersion activities can lead to a range of genres. The Writing Marathon that's a core National Writing Project practice does this -- travel around a place in groups and write, and be surprised/energized by the writing that emerges. But so too does the interview of community elder, or an adopt-a-building project, or a Wright Morris photo shoot and then writing. I'm not sure how you'd have to adapt such activities to college fiction writing, save for embedding them in class within more robust discussion of genre features. I'd love to hear more.

    PS to Bret and the cross discipline thing: You know Nebraska's literary science writers, don't you? Loren Eiseley of the past generation? John Janovy of the current -- we had John teaching creative nonfiction writing for us off and on -- his DUNWOODY POND is an absolutely gorgeous book about the various kinds of work out at the Cedar Point Station near Paxton.

  5. I adore Loren Eiseley and I'm excited for Tom Lynch's book that's coming out--I didn't have any idea that was happening. I've read a little Janovy (and I'm jealous that he's on a friend's dissertation committee) and I can't wait to read more.