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

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Digital Spaces: Preparing for Spring 2012

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Taking a Step to the Side

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

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


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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Looking Ahead: Spring Eng. 252

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

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

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

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

What fantastic ideas could you suggest?