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

Friday, April 6, 2012

Eng. 252: Special Guest Star, Dawn Duncan!

On Wednesday, our fiction class was graced by my dear friend, colleague, and counterpart, Dawn Duncan. Last week, I Skyped with her Contemporary British Literature class about how our fiction class was going to approach Star of the Sea, how that might be different from how they would approach it. I talked about my own background, why I'm interested in Ireland, place studies, and the written word. It was great fun, so I was glad to bring Dawn into my classroom. Thankfully, the technology sort of worked and the internet cooperated.

Here's the link to our Imagination and Knowledge wiki, if you want to check out what we've been doing. This week, our students have been posting their "paragraphs of insight" to the appropriate pages (on characters/characterization, narrative movement, plot, conflict, etc) and it's been thrilling to see how each class is approaching this book so differently. It makes my little teacher heart go pitty-pat.

Like I did with her class, Dawn started off with some introductory remarks about how she got interested in Ireland and Irish literature, how postcolonialism was becoming popular about that time, what a postcolonial perspective meant, that some measure the "post" colony as after the colonizers leave, some measure "post" by when the colonizers arrive (Dawn is in the latter group). Dawn described it as being about power, an alien Other encroaching on the native. Studying a postcolonial perspective, then, is not about race or skin color, but the way that power is exercised on the native population.

Her description of postmodernism, too, was easy to understand, that it's a recognition that we do not live in a world of certainty, and language and identity is a part of that. One school (the negative one) says that the uncertainty of language means we can never hope to understand each other, but the positive school (Dawn's perspective) is that it's a great opportunity, because that means we live in a world that recognizes that there is no one right way to know, one right way to understand, no one right answer. The uncertainty of language brings layers of richness and meaning to any reading of a text, that what one person gets out of a reading might be completely different than somebody else--and not only is that okay, it's something to be celebrated.

Which is the major reason we're doing this project.

One of the things I most appreciate about Dawn and her critical perspectives (which come out of her personal perspectives as both a critic and a creative writer, though she mostly does criticism these days) is that what others see as a drawback or a problem, she sees as an opportunity. We bring together these pieces of knowledge and knowledge evolves.

My students then were able to ask her questions and I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised, but the questions were amazing, thoughtful, and deep. (You can see some of them on the "Questions for Dawn Duncan" page on the wiki--she hasn't answered them there yet (as of this morning), but she will. (And we posted some questions for Joseph O'Connor himself and Dawn and I will send them to him this weekend and hopefully we'll get some answers!)

After we hung up the Skype, my students were fairly buzzing with energy. They were really excited to have been able to talk with her, to hear firsthand how she approaches the book (though they found, as I did once upon a time, her breadth of knowledge intimidating--but we're looking at it as inspirational, rather than intimidating). They expressed concern that her class would think that we're doing the simplistic analysis of the book, where they're doing the more complicated (and thus important) analysis of the book--but I said that they're probably thinking the same of us. They nodded and the anxiety in the room went down.

So far, this project is going so much better than I anticipated it would, which is not to say there haven't been snags here and there, but I'm just thrilled by what's happening in my classroom, what's happening in Dawn's classroom, and what's happening in the combined digital space of our wiki. Not too shabby for the last three weeks of the semester.

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