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

Friday, January 13, 2012

Eng. 150: Morrill Hall and Disruptions

As I mentioned last semester, I'm sure that the rate of posting will go down as the semester picks up speed. But for now, enough is going on that's worth sharing that I'm going to keep at it. Today I took my Eng. 150 class to Morrill Hall, the natural history museum. The purpose of this first week in our Rhetoric as Inquiry class is, as far it is possible for me, to disrupt what they think they know without scaring them so much that they shut down out of fear. So far, it appears all is going well, on all counts.

We started out in the large mammoth and mastodon room at Morrill Hall to get our bearings before I sent them out on their own. I asked them to read Kent C. Ryden's article "Writing the Midwest: History, Literature, and Regional Identity" to orient their thinking. I asked them what Ryden had to do with us being here and one of my students very promptly answered that "we do have a history in the Midwest." The point of Ryden's article is to contrast the way that history is visible in other regions (the Northeast and the South). My student said, paraphrasing Ryden, that our history in the Midwest is not defined by an event in the way the Northeast defines itself by the Revolutionary War or the South does by the Civil War; our identity, for that matter--but that doesn't mean we don't have one.

Some moments in Ryden's article that are particularly thought-provoking:

"'Region' in this sense implies a historical veneer through which a section of the country is seen, understood, assigned meaning, and given identity according to some defining experiences located deep in the past, a crucial phase or moment at which the region was broken away, stamped for life, and set on its separate cultural course within the national collective, having achieved an identity that it is believed to maintain with greater or lesser dilution to the present day" (513).

"Lacking the historical touchstone of identity so readily available to other regions, midwesterners are required to do a different sort of imaginative work. Instead of adopting and adapting a ready-made history, they continually construct the past anew from the materials at hand...locating regional identity not in a spot but in the spot on which they stand" (513).

"Travelers in the Midwest, by contrast, notice something very different as they move through the landscape. The signs at town borders tend to bristle not with long-ago dates but with the names and accomplishments of athletic and academic champions from the local high school, a practice I have never seen in New England...a need, I suspect may seem particularly urgent in a part of the country that, unlike New England, has no obvious claim to be the locus of a national origin myth" (517, 519).

"[Many observers] are so unimpressed that they insist on seeing flatness in a landscape that is really quite rumpled, filled with swelling hills and interesting glacial leavings if not mountains. Not seeing any obvious topographical or historical significance in the landscape around them, they witness nothing at all, intuiting and projecting emptiness in a region that residents could tell them is actually richly textured; it is just that the texture is subtle, the flatness is finely calibrated and frequently interrupted, although none of these nuances is particularly obvious unless you have spent time there" (521).

"True, the region may lack a defining historical moment and an agreed-upon pantheon of cultural heroes. To expect these things, though, is to come at a definition of regional identity from the wrong direction, a direction inappropriate to midwestern circumstances" (528).

The point, I said, why we're here, is this: we're talking about this place we all home and what we know about that place that shapes who we are and how we think. We're here at Morrill Hall to either learn more about how and what history is written in this place--or to find out that maybe we don't know as much as we think we do. I asked them to be on the lookout for surprising things, weird things, things they didn't notice when they were here as kids. And I sent them to explore on their own.

While I was waiting for them, I skimmed through their first Think Pieces that they had just turned in. And I'm so proud of them that I just can't stand it. My grin just got bigger and bigger the more I read through their ideas and reactions. Most of them expressed some dismay at the confusion they felt after reading the Steinberg and Warnock articles (that we read for Wed.)--what they thought defined a natural disaster was basically destroyed--and neither I nor the authors gave a suitable definition to replace it. A great number of them admitted that these two authors forced them to be more open minded about natural disasters as Acts of God or Acts of Humans, expressing very strong religious beliefs in a God who still controls nature to teach humans a lesson. Even so, their ideas of that were complicated in ways I was very pleased to see them admit.

A few students wrote about wondering how a class on natural disasters--a subject they did not know much about--would go. Would it be boring? (This, of course, is always a chief worry of mine as a teacher, as it is for many teachers...) But already, just one week in, they're being open minded, at least, if not as excited about this as I am. And, one student mentioned that when the teacher is excited, it's a lot easier to get interested--especially at such an early hour of the morning.

When we all came back together, I asked them what they'd found and they talked about the camels, about other things that surprised them or they didn't know about. Lovely to hear what they were thinking, what they don't know about this place many of them have called home since childhood. Love it. I can't wait to talk more about Ryden's article in depth next week, as we expand our thinking.

Next week we start reading Jonis Agee's novel The River Wife--and one student, in her Think Piece, already started it and is loving it. I just love my job.

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