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

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Why I Teach, Wednesday Edition

I did my fair share of complaining this weekend for having MLK Day off, not because I object to the holiday or the reason for it, but because it comes at such a dumb time in the semester. I have the same problems with Labor Day. I just meet my students, we just get started, just start to create a momentum in our classroom and then I don't see them for almost a week. So my goal yesterday was to get some of that momentum back.

In my 150, we started reading Jonis Agee's novel The River Wife, which my students were excited to tell me how surprised they were that they were liking it. Most of them had read beyond the assigned pages. I'm having small groups do author presentations for the major authors we're reading, so my first group did theirs on Jonis--and it was wonderful. I just love this class so much I can't hardly stand it. Not only was the presentation great, giving information about her, her books, the background on the New Madrid earthquakes, GET THIS: they emailed her to get more information about some things, because they couldn't find it any other way. I just wanted to dance at their initiative. (Of course, I didn't and we were all grateful for it...) So amazing.

Then we talked about the Ryden essay from last week a little bit, because we went to the museum that day and here's the most important moment that came out of that class yesterday: when we talked about how people view the Midwest as backward, wondering if we have malls (as a student mentioned yesterday), wondering if we have running water, my question was: how is this possible? How is it possible that this is still the image of the Midwest that's out there? The point of the Ryden essay is to argue that the Midwest is just as full of history and wonderful things happening right now as any other place. But when we think of Nebraska literature or Midwestern literature, we think Willa Cather (and all my students shuddered)--we don't think Jonis Agee, or Ted Kooser, or any of the other amazing Midwestern writers who are writing fantastic work.

And here's the moment of the day: one of my student piped up and said she thought it was because we're so focused on the past here. We learn about our history in school, but we don't learn about the present and the future. We read Willa Cather, we don't read anybody else. We know this place is complicated and valuable to us, but what we're taught has everything to do with the past. Not who we are now. This isn't to say that the past and history isn't important, because it is, as we've seen in Ryden and the museum, but we need to do some thinking about the present, the here and now.

I love my job.

We talked some about The River Wife and we ran out of time, but the point of today's discussion of the book was to think about the ways that the characters were formed and shaped by the New Madrid earthquakes. Tomorrow, we're going to talk about "who is othered in this book?" I'm having them read some scholarly articles for every class, to complicated the book, but I think that I'm going to need to give them another way to think about those articles, because they're in that "if I can't relate to it, if it doesn't do anything for me, it can't matter" and that's not true. So it's going to be a matter of giving them tools to understand complicated material and question why it was so important to read that I'm having them do it.

Yesterday in 252 was the first really good day I've had in there, mostly because I'm still getting used to the MWF-50 minute schedule. Last semester, you may recall, was a Tuesday 3-hour class. I'm still getting used to the rhythm and finding out what I can and can't do in 50-minutes. But yesterday was the first day that we've gotten into the main course of fiction and craft, beginning to talk about voice and sentencing and characters. I had them read the first chunk of Noah Lukeman's awesome book A Dash of Style--and they loved it. I figured most of them probably would--but I just love that moment of "I never thought about it that way!" It felt good. The discussion after the lecture felt good. On Friday we'll talk voice and character and Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants." Not yet too deep into the Irish fiction, but that'll come. Need to find a balance of working with what they know before I push them off the deep end.

On a completely separate note, yesterday our intrepid former custodian James Cherry (he's been moved out of Andrews Hall to Seton, I hear) did his recitation of Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech in Bailey Library yesterday morning. James was there, in 1963, to hear the speech in person--something that just makes my skin tingle--but then he gave the speech. Memorized, as he's done every year for forty years. It was beyond incredible. It's been a long time since I've been moved nearly to tears by something like this. Incredible.

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