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

Monday, October 3, 2011

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.


  1. "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."

    I love this and I want to see your syllabus as I am hoping to do the same next semester if I get my preference for 150. I think the connection between inquiry based writing and place based writing is like a neon sigh post saying.. this way to good writing! But that's just my bias.

  2. Karen: I loved your opening questions about separation and action -- how do we deal with the various kinds of removal from place? is writing enough of an action? Great questions.

    I've thought about the first one a lot. I *think* I believe that any robust place consciousness creates an interesting dual awareness of location -- at once of how important a given location is to you, while at the same time a painful awareness of the (mostly cultural) failings of it, when compared in your head to the truly-sustainable version of that place that might be brought into being. So a sort of dissatisfaction, even in a place we choose to be at home in, goes alongside consciousness. Maybe something sort of like the old Marxist maxim of "being in but not of the system"? I'd love help extending my thinking here.

    on writing as a form of action: well, there's writing, and then there's writing. I'd suggest that sometimes writing is social action, and sometimes not. And sometimes writing is place conscious social action, and sometimes not. . .


  3. Hi, Karen. Your thoughts on separation got me to thinking, as well. I'm with you in thinking that separation helps give students some perspective; the ability to look into their communities and homes might be easier when they have to turn around to do so. Maybe that is part of getting to what Dr. Brooke calls a "dual awareness." I love thinking about that phrase; it makes sense that we do that in our communities, even if it is unconscious. How often do students complain about their town or city or subdivision? They make claims without sometimes analyzing where that ideology comes from or what it might possibly lead to. It sounds like you've invested your class in that type of discussion, which could be one way to have the lights go on for the students. I would argue that many of my students here at UNL aren't aware or haven't acknowledged a dual awareness.

    I'm also very intrigued by your thoughts on the essay form. As you know, I'm assigning something similar for an upcoming writing project. It's really important to me that the students avoid writing strict memoir. It is similar to the poetic equivalent of writing confessional poems. I would rather have other strategies involved, even if some personal moments make their way into the writing. It seems necessary to consider how personal information is presented and what other factors influence the feelings about one's life. I'm interesting in that type of investigation in the writing. We'll have to talk more about that sometime.