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

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!

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