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

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Eng. 151H: Scientific Miniatures

Last night, I read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in one sitting, the book I'm teaching for the third Writing Project for my Fall 151H.  Amazing, as I knew it would be.  It had finally stopped raining--and this morning, as I'm in town for internet and seeing the damage that ten inches of rain wreaked on Duluth, I'm feeling grateful that we only got four inches.  I have hopes that the blue sky and sunshine today will dry out the lawn enough that I can mow it this afternoon.  Seems like every time I think the lawn has dried out enough, it rains again.  But there are worse things to be curled up at the lake with tea, fleece, and a book.

I'm still working on formulating the syllabus for my Eng. 151H (Honors Rhetoric as Argument), but things are clearing up there.  I still remember when I assigned The Greatest Invention argument when I taught at Bowling Green and one of my students wrote maybe the best paper I'd ever seen for that assignment:  she argued that the telescope was the greatest invention in all of human history, the one thing that changed our lives and our world the most.  She argued that with the optics that allowed us to see so far away, we began to understand the true size of the universe and began to question our place in it (something that the Catholic Church had worked very hard to prevent).  And when we flipped the telescope and were able to examine the tiniest things, we began to question what else we didn't know.  It was a truly great paper.  So I'm thinking in terms of miniatures, of the microscope, and that's how I came up with this idea (it would be nice if I could make some sort of Scamp or tiny house comment here, but maybe I'll have to work harder to fit it in.)

And so, as my goal during my PhD is to never teach the same class twice, I've formulated this Scientific Miniatures 151.  The purpose of the class is to consider the importance of the small things we overlook--specifically insects (Silent Spring), animals and food systems (Omnivore's Dilemma), and human cells (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks).  I want to talk about the various systems that these tiny things are a part of, how our understanding of them is colored by gender, politics, history, ethics, and more.  One of the things that was most interesting to me about Silent Spring was not simply the subject matter--and its importance in the scheme of things--but how much of the rhetoric of destruction came out of a post-WW2 mentality of American Exceptionalism and the beginnings of The Miracle of Modern Science.  We have the capability to do this, so why shouldn't we?  This sort of questioning I want to form the basis for the entire semester.  I'm not interested in asking students to pick a side or form binary arguments on what we're discussing--I want them to explore the complexities of the entire argument, because it's not as easy as swatting a mosquito.  Mosquitoes that I'm sure are absolutely loving the puddles left by this week's rain around the Cabin...

With Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma, as we talk about the miniature world of plants and and animals, I have no interest in trying to convert my students to vegetarianism.  That's not the point.  The point is that I want them to start to understand how they function in the food systems that run our world.  We're in Nebraska, full of farms and farmers and Montsanto, but they don't know what that means.  I want them to consider the complexities of water and the Ogallala Aquifer (as my 150 class last semester went to Don Worster's lecture, which was awesome), I want them to consider the implications of Montsanto, I want them to become aware of local food.  It's excellent that during this part of the fall semester, the farmer's market down in the Haymarket will still be going on.  Excellent opportunities for interviewing people.  I may or may not add a blog component to this project.

And for the final project, as we read Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, we'll talk about the miniature world of the human cell.  This book will offer a great opportunity to talk about issues like gender, race, and class--since Henrietta's cells were taken without her knowledge, used without her or her family's permission.  Henrietta's cells, known as HeLa, have been used in nearly every significant scientific and medical advancement since 1951, yet her family cannot afford health insurance.  There is much more to this discussion than simple ethics, the complexities of what we bring to the conversation are endless, considering the contemporary state of research.

On that note, I'm going to close up the internet, go home to the Scamp, make up the bed and stock the cupboards for my (probably) only Scamping trip of the summer.  Oh, how I adore 60 square feet.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Eng. 180: On the Need For Crime Lit

In the past few days, I’ve been reading the crème of contemporary Irish fiction for my Focus portfolio (the second half of my comprehensives), which is Contemporary Irish Prose (1966-present), but I’m really concentrating on Celtic Tiger and post-Celtic Tiger work (1990-present).  I’ve read Seamus Deane’s Reading in the Dark (I’m going to have to read it again, I think, for pleasure), Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, Emma Donoghue’s Room, and Colm Toibin’s The Blackwater Lightship.  I’d already read John Banville’s The Sea, but I skimmed it so I could remember that the prose is stunning (it’s Banville, after all), but I like other works of his better.  This is Literature with a capital L. 

(And as I’m reading through my list alphabetically, I ended up reading three in a row that featured child narrators…so I skipped the next one on the list, Frank McCourt, because I couldn’t handle another child narrator—which is why Toibin follows Donoghue.)

But I turned in my book orders for my fall classes on Friday, my Crime Lit 180 and my Micro 151H.  (More on the 151H later.)  But the purpose of the 180, as detailed in the Aims and Scopes, is that we question what constitutes literature, why we read, and how we talk about and value that written word.  I could have chosen a reading list for that class that focused on canonical work of some sort, but for the most part, I’m not a canonical person.  It’s not my forte.  But as I started to consider what I might do for this class, months ago, I started with a maxim that’s become a staple of my classes (no matter if they’re comp, creative writing, or literature): 

I don’t care what you read, just as long as you read. 

I mean it.  I don’t care if my students are reading romance novels or Twilight or whatever the New York Times bestseller is.  You don’t have to read the latest National Book Award Winner, the latest Nobel Prize winner, the latest Pulitzer winner.  You learn as much about what makes a sentence work (or fail) in a thousand other books, a thousand other writers.  If you tell me you don’t like you read, I’ll tell you you’re not reading the right stuff.  And then I’ll hand you a book.

You can learn as much from a mass market paperback—I can learn history, I can learn politics, I can learn what it means to be human from any of a zillion “popular” books on my shelves.  But the point is not to make a distinction between Literature and other books—even though my literary fiction is separated on the shelf from my fluffy fiction—but to recognize the value (and the shortcomings) of popular fiction.  When I taught intro to fiction these last two semesters, I deliberately started my class reading short stories, but we finished up the class with a novel.  Why?  Because while my students will probably sit down to write a short story, when they want pleasure reading, they’ll probably pick up a novel.  So it was important to teach my students how to look at a novel like a writer.

Teaching literature, the flip side of that writing coin, offered a different challenge.  What kind of literature (as in a group of books) did I feel was necessary to teach, and why did I feel that way?  During my Fall 2011 fiction writing class, the novel we read was William Kent Krueger’s Iron Lake, because it was his debut novel, it had won several awards, it was brilliant, and it was a mystery set in the wilds of rural northern Minnesota.  I wanted to show my students that there are no boundaries to good writing, that you can write about anything and anywhere and it can be good—and you’ll find masters and mistresses of the brilliant sentence in all kinds of genres.  The same goes for reading.  (Ironically, in my Spring 2012, where the texts I chose were Irish, the cover copy of Joseph O’Connor’s novel Star of the Sea is described as a murder mystery.  That was an accident…)

But when it came to figuring out how a class on crime literature could function, and more specifically, on place in crime literature, I needed to justify to myself what I was doing.  I would teach Poe, because that’s where we start—and nobody does atmosphere like Poe.  I hadn’t read any Sherlock Holmes myself, which seemed weird considering mysteries are where I go when I want literary entertainment.  So we’ll read some Sherlock Holmes.  He’s also getting some contemporary film and television adaptations (with Robert Downey, Jr. and what’s his name), so there’s an enduring quality there.  I’d also never read Agatha Christie, even though I did see “The Mousetrap” when I was in London with my family in 2000.  Dad had seen the play in 1975 when he was in London and so we carried on the tradition of participating in the longest continuously running play in the world.  I thought we’d read some Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon, probably)—but then I thought we’d watch the movie, add to the discussion of forms of literature—but I really dislike Hammett.  Maybe if I hadn’t read Lillian Hellman’s memoir first I’d like him better, but I can’t.  So I switched to The Big Sleep—and we’ll watch that one.  I’ll photocopy a few pages of the book for my students, because Chandler is brilliant, and I kind of fell in love with him and his wit.  And we’d round out the “classic” portion of the semester with Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.  After the midterm paper (wherever it falls in the semester), we’ll read Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River (place-based urban) and Krueger’s Iron Lake (place-based rural), then finish out the semester with Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation (nonfiction).

But here’s the point, the reason why I think all of this is important to teach a class on:  popular fiction, specifically crime fiction, plays an essential role in how we form discussions in real life.  Because crime literature—in all its various subgenres—fills a gap in our entertainment, in our lives, that we can hardly acknowledge exists.  There’s a reason that John Grisham is the force he is—and it’s not because of his luminous prose. 

Crime literature allows us to have conversations and raise issues that literary fiction does not—and I’m not drawing a distinction, that crime lit can’t be literary and vice versa.  In the books I’ve chosen, it’s easier to have a discussion about how place and class affects characters, like in Mystic River (which is a good movie, but should not be compared to the book, which is freaking brilliant and nuanced in ways the movie cannot be).  It’s easier to talk about gender with Rebecca, how the narrator (the second Mrs. de Winter) is never named, how the character who provides the engine for the book—Rebecca—is dead, for crying out loud.  We can talk about gendering with Chandler (book/movie) too, how women are represented in hard-boiled fiction.  We can talk about violence against women being used for entertainment value.  We can talk about the effect that place has on the characters.  (I'm working on articulating a clearer vision of this, so stay tuned...)

But mostly, it’s because the world is a cool place that rarely makes sense, bad things happen to good people, and sometimes it’s nice to read a book that bears absolutely no resemblance to your own life.  And it’s easier to have these kinds of conversations about books my students are more likely to pick up on their own, and teach them what they’re looking at and how to look at the book, how to talk about what they see and what they think.  That’s what any good course will do.

Friday, June 8, 2012

State of Mind: Bears at 3rd Crow Wing!

Yesterday morning, when I woke up, I opened the bedroom door to find both of my cats sitting expectantly in the hall, like they’d been waiting for me to get my lazy butt out of bed, even though it was still a decent hour of the morning.  It was strange, to see both of them there like that, but I wasn’t awake yet, so I ignored their faintly superior expressions.  When I walked into the living room, the drapes towards the lake were open, because I’d opened them at 5:00 when the beginnings of sunrise woke me, usually also a good time to feed the cats so they’ll let me sleep for a while longer.  I’ve only been at the Cabin for a few weeks, but learned that if I opened the drapes to allow them some external entertainment, I’d also get more sleep.

But there was something wrong with the view, but it took me longer than it should have to figure out what that was.  I was still not fully awake, since I’d stayed up late reading.  And then I realized what was missing, why the cats were staring at me:  the bright spot of red that was the hummingbird feeder wasn’t there.  And when my eyes focused a little, I saw that neither was the seed feeder.  My first instinct was kids! but then I realized that there were no kids around here (and secondarily, realized I’ve been living in a city for much too long to suspect vandals first).  The red hummingbird feeder was on its side on the ground, empty, its bird perches bent.  The seed feeder was just gone, except for the broken pieces of the squirrel guard. 

Bears.  It has to be bears.

As I walked down to the lake, wondering where in the world the feeder went, I tried to keep the tune of “Waltzing With Bears” out of my head or the story that my favorite essayist Paul Gruchow tells in “Visions” of watching a bear tear apart his camp or the descriptions of baby bears in John McPhee's "Under the Snow," but failed.  Had the feeder still been there, I would have suspected deer, but it’s a pretty deer-proof spot and a pretty deer-proof feeder.  I called my neighbors to the south, at the resort, and they hadn’t heard of any bear activity in the area—and as resort owners, were not excited to hear about my visitation.  I talked to my neighbor Audrey to the north and she hadn’t noticed anything, but she doesn’t have feeders.  I certainly didn’t hear a thing.  Audrey remembered my grandparents talking about being visited by bears—and I remember those stories too.  I thought about getting the other bird feeder out of the garage and taking pity on my poor confused hummingbirds buzzing around my head or my poor confused goldfinches sitting on the pole, but I don’t want to encourage a repeat performance by my new bear friend.  I don’t want him to get used to finding food here. 

Is it wrong that I’d still like to see him?

My sister Kim, after I’d told her about my visit, said she was having a hard time being anything but excited about the prospect of the bear.  My sister Kristi texted, “Don’t you just love northwoods problems?”  To which I replied, with a smile, “What problems?”  My parents were driving into my grandmother’s assisted living facility in Minneapolis when I told them, so they would have a good story to tell Gram.  Gram loved hearing about it and told my mother some of her best bear stories.  I told my mother I hoped she wrote them down.

Later in the day, Penny from the resort called to tell me that we've got a confirmed bear, and he or she's a big one.  Apparently he walked through the resort and a few of her guests saw him--and Penny said that her dogs had gone nuts the night before that and she thought they were excited by the porcupine who's been stumbling around, but now she thinks it was the bear.  Probably right.  

I still haven't found any trace of the bird feeder itself, not in Audrey's property or the resort's or ours.  I have no idea where it went or if the bear ate it, plastic and all.  Who knows?  But the hummingbird feeder seems to have survived intact, though I'm not sure about when I should put it back up.  I was hoping to catch a glimpse of the bear last night, but he didn't appear before I went to bed and the times I got up to see if he was there were, he was not.  Oh, well.  Best to be on one's guard anyway while walking to the mailbox...