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

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Stress Tics and Tiny Houses

This semester, discussions of stress tics in both of my classes have been prevalent, especially in my 252 class, where we've talked about using them to create characters who are alive (even if they're not doing what they're supposed to be doing). So maybe that's why I'm recognizing my avoidance techniques more often than I might have otherwise done. I've got Gaelic Storm on the iTunes, because I'm of a mood to sing harmony this morning.

This morning, I Skyped with my sister K2, my brother-in-law, M., and my 2-year-old niece. (There are three of us K sisters, I'm the oldest, K2 is the middle, and K3 is the youngest.) That was a fun avoidance technique. C., as usual, was her adorable self, looking at my face on the screen and requesting instead to see the cats (I'm third fiddle), then turning to her mother and not just requesting chocolate at 9:30 in the morning, but when told no, C. shifted gears and started to negotiate with K2 for the chocolate. Watching K2 during this negotiation was just as adorable as C. doing the negotiating. Of course, C. still has eyeliner on her face from yesterday's episode of digging through my sister K3's purse, finding her eyeliner, and drawing on her face with it. (And then K3 sent us pictures, which would have been cute just with C.'s face, but since C. is potty training, C. is running around without pants these days (with leggings (and sometimes boots)) to keep her warm.

I did request of K2 support and recipes from herself and K3, because I'm trying really hard (since Wednesday) to be a vegetarian, because I know that meat consumption puts an unsustainable strain on the biology of the planet. It's really hard, because I like meat (and M. reported that he'd used his birthday gift from me to buy sirloin and beef jerky at their local meat market). But I'm trying to live what I've been preaching to my students, that it's the little ways that we're going to make a difference in our world, because realistically, we're not going to be the ones going up against the Keystone XL people.

When we hung up, I booted up my rhetoric paper (I still don't know what I'm doing, really) and then checked Facebook (I'm very good at avoidance...) and Tiny Texas Homes posted new pics of what they've been doing in March. I love these guys. They're building these tiny homes with 99% salvaged materials. Drool. Here's my favorite one: Canyon Lake.

And while I was at it, I hit up Tumbleweed Tiny Houses, because their Harbinger is my favorite, dream house in the world. Because they don't build the Harbinger or the rest of the small houses, I hadn't seen an actual Harbinger until Bethany posted hers here on the Tiny House Blog. Want, want, want. I also like their Whidbey, but I don't fancy my bedroom being right next to the front door.

In other moments, when I'm thinking even smaller, 130 sq ft small, I want the Fencl.

And the question that anyone asks when I mention tiny houses is always the same: where will you put your books? A good question. But a better question this morning: which tiny house can you imagine yourself in? Which do you like? Could you ever live in a tiny house? What would prevent you from doing so?

Friday, March 30, 2012

Eng. 252: Star of the Sea, Day 2

I'm just going to give a blanket statement about today's class: I love my classes, I love my students, and I'm more thrilled than I can say that they're loving Star of the Sea. I feel like I have very little to say other than these sorts of joy-reactions, but that's all I've got right now. When you get to the point in the semester and you know your students don't want to be there, the weather is really nice at 12:30 on a Friday, it's easy to get excited when your students actually come to class, so excited that they're tripping over themselves and each other to talk about what they noticed. To quote one of my students in his Think Piece, "This book was not quite what I was expecting, but when you think about it, all books that are worth reading are never quite what you are expecting."

But instead of reporting what we talked about in our discussions, I'm going to direct you to our class wiki, Joseph O'Connor's Star of the Sea: Imagination and Knowledge, and I'm going to relate how our class started this afternoon.

First, I mentioned stress tics and how, when we discussed them some weeks ago, I told them how one of mine is tiny houses. Well, another is planning new classes. As a result, I'm currently in love with Dennis Lehane, so while we aren't reading him this semester, I wanted to play this interview clip:

And then I asked them to consider for the rest of the semester what they would put on their own 3x5 card. I'd mentioned earlier that I have my own, in the form of a Post-It Note stuck to my sightline on my desk. It contains two quotes: "Just write the fucking thing," courtesy of the inimitable Jonis Agee. And then right below it: "That story won't unfuck itself," from Chuck Wendig.

I did this on purpose, because I had a plan. I don't often drop four letter words in class, though they do appear occasionally. First, we're reading some of the most depressing material in human history and this would make them laugh. And it did. Second, I wanted to segue into O'Connor by playing a clip of O'Connor reading, on the subject of swearing (although as you can see, not much swearing in it):

And from there we had a second day of stupendous discussion.

So, what's on your 3x5 card of writerly wisdom?

Eng. 150: How Do We Measure the Value of a Place?

Today was actually the third day of our WP3, on human-caused disasters, but we didn't have class on Wednesday because we went to Don Worster's terrific lecture titled "An Unquenchable Thirst: How the Great Plains Created a Water Abundance and Then Lost It." (The video is 84 minutes long, but it's worth watching if you can make the time.) But the larger questions we're asking ourselves include "what is the value of a place? How do we measure the value of a place?"

The crux of Worster's lecture was that Americans have been living in this "culture of abundance" for so long, a culture supported by ingenuity and technology and straight-up American exceptionalism that we cannot begin to conceive of a time and culture where we cannot have everything we want. The consequences of ingenuity, he said, "required a lot of cultural change. What do you do when the natural world does not treat you the way you should be treated?" The Homestead Act assumed the benevolence of nature, which is interesting considering that the Plains were the Great American Desert, a place of no value, a place that stood between us and our destiny to possess both coasts of the continent.

"We have become a mining economy," Worster said. We mine coal, oil, gas, and water. The rate of consumption of the Ogallala Aquifer means we will mine it dry very soon--something that is complicated by rising global temperatures. All the projections, he said, indicate that the Plains and the central US will be hotter than the global mean and will be accompanied by decreased summer precipitation. This drought will last centuries, be permanent.

What was particularly interesting during his lecture was the irony I noticed between the "Bureau of Reclamation" and the role of Mother Nature in thwarting those efforts, the idea of Mother Nature as a bitch. But Worster's larger question was what happens, then, when we turn water into a commodity, rather than a resource? Our culture is shifting from a American individualism to a community, and he spoke of the "moral economy of water." He discussed solutions to the water problem, that one is a market-based approach to water distribution, to let the markets put a price on the water and then buy and sell it like any other commodity. But what's interesting about that is the people who can afford the water will not be in the agriculture industry. And, as I question, when ever has putting a price on nature ever protected it? Is money the only thing that holds our society together?

He did propose some solutions, most of which will take an incredible mental shift: a movement back to dry-land farming, reconsidering how we define wealth and affluence (and our role as a consumer society, with our transportation, the size of our houses, etc.). He spoke of "learning new ways to be rich."

In class this morning, we put that up against the interesting interview Stephen Colbert did with Mark Ruffalo on Wednesday:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Mark Ruffalo
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogVideo Archive

And through the humor of the interview, which is about hydro-fracking, brought up some issues that my students and I then applied to our conversations about human-caused disasters and what we're reading in Erik Reece's Lost Mountain, about radical strip mining and mountaintop removal. If you watch this interview, a few things are important: how do we place a value on places? Are they only valuable if we can get something from them? Who is affected? Who has the power to act? One of the things my students pointed out--and it's only briefly mentioned at the end of the interview--when Colbert points out that Ruffalo is the Hulk, that comment is larger than a role that Ruffalo played. It brought up a really important issue of class. Ruffalo can buy a solar system to power his house. Those who live in the houses that could blow up don't have the money to fight those tracking companies.

As we moved into talking about Lost Mountain--and we were running out of time by this point--we talked about what we thought answered "how do we measure the value of a place?" and what we put up on the board boiled down to two categories: what it can do for us and location. (I didn't know what I would get when I started this activity, but again my brilliant students surprised me.) When we talked about valuable locations and what it means that a place can give us something, the issue of "pretty" came up. We talked about how we define pretty, how somebody from the mountains may not think the Plains is pretty, etc. And then we talked about how our own place was described in its infancy, as the Great American Desert. Once it became able to give us something, then it became valuable, the Breadbasket of the World. Rhetoric matters, people.

One of my students remarked that he's trying really hard not to hate humanity as this class progresses and it's true, there is a real danger of fear and disillusionment in starting to understand what's happening in the world. Over and over my students will comment that they had no idea that any of this was happening until my class. Well, I think they're being too hard on themselves. They're eighteen. Nobody knows anything by that age. But the larger question, I asked this particular student, is not how not to hate humanity, but to question how we got to this point, because if we can do that, then the next question, "what do we do about it?" is actually a step of hope.

(And then I told them about my parents buying a new house (having just sold theirs) and me trying to convince them to think differently about what they want and need in a house, because they're Baby Boomers, growing up in a culture that told them that they deserved this, that the American Dream equaled a certain size house, and what it might mean to think outside the box in terms of housing. And then I pulled out the floor plan of my dream house, because, yes, I do carry it with me, put it under the document camera, and told them my dream house was a tiny bit over 300 square feet.)

I can't wait till Monday.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Eng. 252: Star of the Sea, Day 1

We start the real part of our collaborative project today! I got to Skype with Dawn Duncan's class at Concordia College and I'm really excited about how it went, though I don't know if her students were able to take too much from it. Part of it is just the thrill of today, that we're starting Star of the Sea in my class and her class is starting the book as well and I'm really excited about the discussion that I'm anticipating will be awesome. Part is caffeine. Good morning, world!

So, I asked my class (Intro to Fiction) what they thought Dr. Duncan's class should know about what we're doing, how we're going to approach Star of the Sea. (Her class will do the same for us.) And the basic question is this, for both classes: What do we see when we look at a piece of writing? What's the difference between reading as a reader and reading as a writer?

The difference is important. As readers, at the most basic level, we want a story to take us to a place we've never been before, to meet new people, to learn of the world outside of our lives right now. As writers, we want to know what the writer has done to effect that reaction. For instance, I bet that Duncan's class will talk about fragmentation and identity in the postmodern novel (which Star of the Sea is) and how that plays into a postcolonial reading of the novel--but in my class, we'll talk about how O'Connor constructed that fragmentation. We'll talk about the shifts in POV, the shifts in form (from traditional narrative to ship's log to newspaper editorial and more). We'll talk about the way that O'Connor develops and constructs his characters to represent the questions of identity. The fact that it's a murder mystery is genius, of course, and something we'll talk about in my class as well. But a lot of our time as writers is spent at the sentence-level.

I asked my students about what I should tell Duncan's class and here are the top things:
  • The form of what is on the page is deliberate (the function of it is what the reader brings to the page). Diction and dialogue, even punctuation, is so deliberately considered through countless revisions that you have to assume it's deliberate, because nothing in writing happens by accident. So, for readers, if O'Connor is using semicolons frequently (something that is common to British/Irish authors), why would he use them, rather than other forms of punctuation? My students find themselves heavily influenced by Noah Lukeman's book A Dash of Style, which looks at the way that punctuation affects the reading of a text.
  • A reader will ask "what is happening?" and a writer will ask "how did the author create this?" A reader--and the scholars in Duncan's class--will talk about symbolism and other thematic issues; writers will ask how that symbolism and that theme is constructed. If Duncan's class is talking about identity as fluid in the text, my students will ask how O'Connor constructed the characters and the setting to affect that reading. For instance, how is the setting crafted through character in the preface, how the character of The Ghost moves through the landscape, a landscape that is also moving? How does how O'Connor craft both the character and the setting mirror the changing perspectives and the reader's understanding of those characters? And what does it mean that the movement is of a crippled character and a coffin ship?
  • And the final thing my students would like to pass on is the importance of place in fiction, that it is more than the physical description of a setting. Reading Eudora Welty's classic "Place in Fiction" is a good place to start. Setting involves atmosphere, the air a character breathes. Place, when it is done right, is as much an active character on the page as anyone who breathes. It's the reason that I was so disappointed with Benjamin Black's The Silver Swan, which I listened to on CD last week--and the reason I'm so in love with Dennis Lehane right now. Setting and place can never be neutral. (One of the reasons why last semester, the craft paper I got on William Kent Krueger's use of cold in Iron Lake turned out so brilliant.)
Her class asked some good questions too, about why they should read Eudora Welty, what was my best moment of studying in Ireland and how does that play out in my reading and writing and teaching, and other excellent questions. I talked about only being able to take history classes over there and how all classes feed the writing, no matter what they are. But history class, as well as others, just make the context of reading and writing richer. History and literature are so closely linked as to be nearly indistinguishable for me sometimes. Some of Duncan's students are studying abroad in Galway in the next few years--and I'm really excited for them.

Then, in my class, we started talking about the preface and the first three chapters. We set up the perspective shifts that the epigraphs provide, the realization that there is no one right way to tell this story--which is immediately followed by the "fake" title page, that this is a book within a book. We talked a bit about reliable narrators and how that is constructed, how we're not sure whose voice we're supposed to trust. We moved through the four chapters we read for today and some important questions we asked:
  • How many ways does O'Connor manipulate the landscape of the text, the actual form that the pages take (fake title page, footnotes, etc)?
  • What's the effect of switching POV so completely between chapters? Why does he choose to change form, rather than just change voice? How does the ship's log work a different perspective on place and setting? How does it continue to set up the ship as a character?
  • In the 2nd chapter, we get the first real dialogue of the book--and what purpose does the dialogue serve? How is it what characters do to each other?
  • In the 3rd chapter, another POV, another form: what purpose does this editorial serve that could not be delivered by any other form? On one hand it gives the reader the background information necessary to understand some of the characters, but it also serves a larger purpose of developing Dixon's character t00--how does that happen?
We almost ran out of time today and this brief synopsis isn't even close to mentioning all the things we talked about today. The class was pretty excited and engaged and thrilled and we were picking out nuances around every little corner, like the mention of the red sky in the morning during the Preface, the old sailor's ditty about danger coming--and we really came away at the end of class with a new appreciation for a writer's skill, how many ways a writer can take control of a text (we specifically talked about O'Connor's diction) and make it do exactly what the writer wants. I can't wait for Friday.

Here's the interview with O'Connor that we started with today--very interesting in a lot of ways, so feel free to comment and contribute to the conversation!

Monday, March 26, 2012

Post-Spring Break

It's gorgeous (albeit windy) out there in Lincoln today and I've spent most of my day inside, unfortunately. But it's been a really good day, even the first day after Spring Break. It was good enough that I came home, bubbling with energy and thrill when I knew I didn't have any energy to back it up with. I love my job, I love my classes, I love my students.

Two major things happened today: we started the third and final writing project in my English 150 class. I'm almost done grading their second WP, which are turning out to be really good. The first was on Jonis Agee's novel The River Wife and they wrote about how a character (an individual person) can be shaped by a natural disaster, even a hundred years or more after it happened. Then in the second project, we moved out a little and considered how the student's own community was shaped by a natural disaster. As they moved through this project, they started to ask--without any prompting from me--what do we do about this? It made my little heart go pitty-pat. Unbeknownst to them, the third project is designed to address exactly that question.

This third project is about human-caused disasters (yet another cheerful topic in a semester of cheerful topics) and we're reading Erik Reece's The Lost Mountain, about radical strip-mining and mountaintop removal. The purpose of the project is to find a human-caused disaster and propose a solution (of some sort); part of this will involve arguing why it's a disaster, because obviously the coal companies don't see mountaintop removal as a problem. The situations are much more complicated than that. As my students did their final two author presentations of the semester (on Reece and Don Worster, who's giving a lecture my students are going to on Wed night), I asked my students to consider a few things as we start reading this book:

It's not as simple as saying that places should be protected because they're pretty, because they mean something to us, because they represent something in the mythology of our country or our world. The world is a lot more complicated than that, so we have to get beyond our emotional reactions. I asked them to consider the role that the economy and class play in Reece's book--because these areas of Appalachia are extremely poor--and we'll continue to add to our list of complications. I like complications. They make life--and class--much more interesting.

In my 252 today, we started Joseph O'Connor's novel Star of the Sea and our awesome collaborative project with Dawn Duncan's class at Concordia. The truth is I'm extremely nervous. I've never done something like this before and between Dawn and myself, between our two classes of students, this could go really well or it could fail spectacularly. Add into that that I've never done a wiki before and new technology scares me. If you want to check out our wiki, click here for Imagination and Knowledge. I hope it turns out well.

Today was the Famine background power point in 252 and I thought it went fairly well, considering the subject matter. But as I was putting the power point together, it occurred to me the juxtaposition of politics and ecology, particularly The Little Ice Age and revolutions. I recommended Brian Fagan's awesome book The Little Ice Age, which I spoke of in tones I don't normally use for climate books. He's got an incredibly awesome chapter on An Ghorta Mor. And then also Michael Pollan's book The Botany of Desire, which contains his chapter on control and potatoes. I brought up the winters during the American Revolution and the famous painting of Washington crossing the Delaware. I brought up the French Revolution. (I brought up Stradivarius and the theory that the Little Ice Age partly explains the superiority of his instruments, which made a few students nod in interest.) I mentioned Mt. Tambora's eruption in 1815, the Year without Summer (and with a mention of Frankenstein), and then we get into the Famine itself. The lecture was more complicated and more linear than this, but strangely, this is what my students seemed most interested in. A lot fewer of them looked bored than I thought they would. Go figure.

We start the actual book on Wednesday and I can't hardly wait. The book is freaking awesome. The landscape of the text, the manipulation of the form, the switching POV--sigh. I asked my class if anybody had started reading yet, some had, and those that had were so raring to go, with so much to say, so many questions about it, that I really, really can't wait for Wednesday.

It's the point in the semester where I have too much to do, not enough time, but I still can't wait for the next class. That's a good sign.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Stress Tics and Crime Fiction

We're to the point in the semester where I have more things to do than time to do them in--and my stress tics are no help. This semester, we used our stress tics to help us write awesome characters and right now, on this absolutely gorgeous Saturday that should be in June, rather than April, I got my page quota on my rhetoric paper, prepped my quota for Joseph O'Connor's Star of the Sea, which we start on Monday in my 252, and my reward to myself was to work on my syllabi for fall, even though I don't know what I'll be teaching yet.

Yes. I know. I am not normal. Funny the things that help you relieve stress...

So, here's the current idea for a 101 (Rhetoric as Reading) or a 180-ish (Introduction to Literature): "Literature of Place: Crime Fiction." I've been wanting to put together a crime fiction class for a while now, but I've never sat down to do it. (I wonder why...) But as we're moving into Star of the Sea, which is, for all intents and purposes, a murder mystery, and I was listening to Benjamin Black's The Silver Swan on the way up to MN last weekend and to Dennis Lehane's Moonlight Mile on the way back down, I've got mysteries on my brain. And I've got place-based mysteries on the brain.

The sad part was that I was actually pretty disappointed by The Silver Swan and I'm hoping when I break into some of his other works Dublin will play more of a role on the page. The series takes place in 1950s Dublin, but from the way the novel unfolded, it could have been anywhere in any time, which should not be the case. Dublin--and Ireland in general--is a very specific place and the 1950s is a very specific time in the history of Ireland. It's not just a matter of landscape, but atmosphere, and the way that the place affects and shapes the characters. By the time the story finished, I knew--just from my experience with Ireland and Dublin--that the story itself could not have been set elsewhere, that the plot couldn't have happened that way without this time and place, the characters and their actions dictated by the time and place, but rather than seeming timeless, it felt generic. And for Black--aka John Banville, who I adore--it seemed too easy. So we'll see if that changes when I read some of his other books.

Here's the current reading list, with a goal towards hitting the parents of the genre, and then spending the rest of our time in contemporary crime fiction that works really well with place. The goal is to examine place and the role that place plays not only on the page, but to the reader--what do we take away from this reading? How does the author create atmosphere? How does the author use the landscape (both natural and built) to advance the story? How are heroes and villains hampered or aided by the landscape? How are characters Othered? How are women portrayed? What is their role on the page, in the story?

Trying to narrow things down has been excruciating so far--and even narrowing to authors down has not been helpful. I just got off Skype with my mother, who's read most of the books I want to assign, and we couldn't decide between various books. Maybe when my stress gets really bad, I can have two or three crime fiction syllabi in rotation... And I'm not happy right now with the overload of men vs. women here.

Okay, here's the preliminary reading list:
  • selections of Edgar Allan Poe;
  • Arthur Conan Doyle, a Sherlock Holmes to be determined;
  • Agatha Christie, short stories;
  • Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon;
  • Nevada Barr, to be determined (taking suggestions!);
  • William Kent Krueger, Iron Lake;
  • Dennis Lehane, Mystic River;
  • Janet Evanovich, One for the Money
I don't know about this. Not sure how many books I can get away with requiring of my students, even if they could probably get them for a penny on Amazon. We'll see. And again, since we're largely reading contemporary authors, I'm going to see if I can get any of them to Skype with my students. Krueger is wonderful and he Skyped with my 252 class last semester, so maybe he'd be willing to do it again, but I'm curious what would happen if I emailed any of the other living writers. Got nothing to lose, right?

If it's a 101 class, then we'll be writing three papers; if it'a a 180 (or the like), then I might just do a midterm and final paper. Because of this, I might have to cut a book, but we'll see. Sigh. So many books, so little time.

So, what do you think? Thoughts about who I should add or subtract from my preliminary list?

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Eng. 150: Reflections on WP2

I meant to write and post this post last week, but Spring Break started and I just got back last night from my whirlwind trip to Minneapolis to visit K2, K3, M. and C, then up to visit my parents and Gram (who had a bad fall last week and broke her nose and wrist), and then I came back down to Lincoln last night. It's 9:15, I'm up, showered, my pot of Maritime Mist is a quarter emptied, and I've got my books in front of me so I can get some work done before classes start back up on Monday...

On Friday, my 150 students turned in their 2nd writing project, which was on the subject of how their community was shaped and affected by a natural disaster. (Click on the 150 page at the top of the blog to see the class overview.) We started the project with the idea that every community has a disaster story, somewhere in its history. Chicago and the Fire, San Francisco and the 1906 Earthquake, just to name two. My students initially struggled with thinking that their communities in Nebraska had a story like these, because they didn't know of any. And this stressed many of them terribly.

Eventually everyone found a topic and we started reading Timothy Egan's The Worst Hard Time, about the Dust Bowl, and David Laskin's The Children's Blizzard and Ted Kooser's Blizzard Voices, about the 1888 Children's Blizzard. My class is a William H. Thompson Scholars section (I have fourteen students in there right now), which means that all these students have won the WHT scholarship, one that goes to low income and first-generation students from Nebraska. So, most of my class comes from Lincoln or Omaha, though some come from other towns. Four or five chose to work on the 1975 Omaha tornado, I had one on the 1993 East Coast blizzard (this student was born during that blizzard in Georgia), one did the 2004 Jackson, NE tornado, another did the 2006 Arkansas tornadoes, and I also had one on the 1952 Misssouri River flood.

The project included many different components (some of which I was very nervous about, never having done these things before): they were required to do interviews (this, I'd done before), but I was nervous about the blog component. Because the focus of the project was to examine how their own community was affected by a natural disaster, I wanted them to use a platform that would serve their community. I envisioned links to these blogs from their local libraries and such, to be a resource for others. When I do this again, I like the blog aspect of it, but I know better how they work and what I need to do to ask students to reply meaningfully to their group members' blogs. (I'll also spend a day more specifically talking about what makes a blog a credible source, not just for their own research, but how to make their own blogs appear credible to others.) But the blog part did offer the opportunity for students to post YouTube videos of the disasters (if they found them) or articles they found. I did have them post their interviews, as well as their interpretations of their interviews.

Something I'll do differently next time: I'll more clearly point out how our texts (the Laskin and Egan) incorporated interviews--it was something I thought we'd covered well enough, but when I saw their rough drafts, apparently that was not the case. Another thing I'll do differently: making explicit connections between the Think Pieces they posted to their blogs (which offered some really excellent critical thinking and insights) and making sure that the students transfer those to their papers. Somewhere along the line, they seemed to think that they couldn't use their Think Pieces or other things they'd posted to their blogs in their paper.

The main problem I had in teaching this project was getting my students to think about how their community was affected by this disaster--and this is something that didn't pop clear for them until I handed back their rough drafts and gave my "I'm so disappointed" speech (and this is also where I spoke about them not using their blogs and in-class writings in their papers, because that was the point...). But between the rough draft and the final draft, things started to move: they started to understand what and who their community was--and they needed to get beyond the cliches of "we found out what we were made of" and "we all came together and helped out," because that's not the point.

I used north Minneapolis as an example: last summer, a tornado hit north Minneapolis, just blocks away from where my sisters, brother-in-law, and niece live. When I went back in February for C's birthday, there were still houses that had blue tarps for roofs. In Minnesota. In February. I let that image sink in, and then I continued: north Minneapolis is historically low income, historically African-American, and most people rent their houses. It makes a difference if you live in a trailer or a stick-built house when a tornado comes through. It makes a difference if you own your house or rent. It makes a difference if you have insurance or not.

My student who did the 1993 East Coast blizzard was the key here to making this clear for my students: it's not just a blizzard, it's a blizzard in a place that doesn't have blizzards. Georgia is largely rural and there's a lot of low-income families there. What happens if you lose power and you live in a trailer? What happens if you can't buy a thousand-dollar generator to power your house? The people who lived around him were predominantly low-income and predominantly retired. It makes a difference. And by the time they turned in their final drafts on Friday (which I haven't graded yet), this really started to become clear (so when I teach this again, I'm going to start this conversation much earlier). And I'm so proud of them, I can't stand it.

Here are a few moments from their reflections that I think are amazing (and since they posted these to their blogs, which are public, I'm not crossing any privacy boundaries):

  • "The whole point of our class is to view disasters and not just to know they happened but how how they have impacted people. It's our job to not only learn about them but find ways to stop them from happening, finding ways to prevent them or just having a plan that when and if they happen we can come together as a community and help each other out."
  • "Throughout writing this paper I realized that the whole point of this paper isn't necessarily an assignment to get us a good grade in the class, it's an assignment for us to realize history in the places we come from, and what we can do in the future to help our community. It's a paper to realize that not everyone gets the same help even if they experience the same disaster. It was a paper for us to realize that the community we live in is shaped by the certain people who live there. We all have a different story to tell and we all live different experiences. That is what makes us different from everyone else. And it's our duty to learn about our history because our history is a part of us as well."
  • "Although this project was overall very stressful and difficult, it really gave me an opportunity to explore more of where I come from and even gave me the chance to meet a new family member. This project also I believe allowed me to come out of my shyness shell. The fact that I called and had a long personal conversation with a woman that I have never met in my life was actually a huge deal to me. If it was not for this project, I most likely would have never in my life taken that step."
  • "I found out so much and my reaction was a subdued elation. I felt awesome, being able to bring my mother into my work. That was one of the most exciting things about this project. I was able to show my mom what I work on and the pride that she had was immense. I could hear it in her voice while we were doing interviews. Another thing that I really liked was being able to open up the lines of communication between my extended family. After we moved from Georgia, we never really talked. I was able to get past the past and everyone was all the more excited. Old ties of friendship were renewed and that is a big thing in a family like mine."
  • "I learned more about my community and where I come from than I thought I would. It is weird to think that my grandfather and I both experienced a flood of the Missouri River. They were almost 60 years apart, but it was interesting to see how history can repeat itself. This sounds crazy, but I have learned more about Nebraska history in this English class than I have ever learned in any history class I have been enrolled in."
So, in hindsight, as much as I wanted to emphasize different ways of knowing and valuing those different experiences, I think I underestimated the value of doing the interviews and the value of the students interviewing family members. Not everything went as well as I wanted it to, but in the end, I'm really proud of my students and their progress and efforts, I have new ideas for the next time I teach this, and I'm really excited to start the next project on Monday, on human-caused disasters. And the truth is, I get more excited about what my students are doing and the conversations we've had this semester--and the conversations I know we will continue to have--every time I think about it.

Why I Love My Job, Thursday Edition.

Friday, March 16, 2012

On St. Urho

There’s an essay in here somewhere. It comes around once a year, on the sixteenth day of March, carrying a pitchfork on which grasshoppers are spitted. It speaks with a Finnish accent. It wears purple and green, so it doesn’t get pinched.

But here's the thing. Up until a few years ago--fewer than I'd like to admit--I didn't know that the story was made up. It's fake. There is no such person as St. Urho and he didn't drive all the grasshoppers from Finland, thereby saving the vineyards. He never existed. Never. It's all fake. It's a phony myth that was created in the 1950s, either in Virginia, MN or Bemidji, MN--nobody knows for sure. Maybe I should have had a clue, when nobody outside northern Minnesota knew what I was talking about on March 16th.

This seems so very, very wrong, but not on the levels I'd expect.

Maybe I should be more embarrassed than I am about being so sucked into this story that I believed it was true. Maybe I should have taken things with a grain of salt. But it never occurred to me that such a story would be true, at least on a mythic level. After all there's a statue of St. Urho in Menagha, twenty miles from my hometown. Menagha crowns a King and Queen every St. Urho's Day. Besides, the lack of logic didn't bother me. St. Patrick, who is celebrated one day later, drove all the snakes from Ireland--so why was it hard to believe that another saint had done the same with grasshoppers? One was as unlikely as the other, but most of the saints' stories are fairly unrealistic, logically. But that's the whole purpose of faith, right?

I'm also not Catholic. I'm not Finnish either. (Or Irish enough to really be able to claim St. Patrick.) So I had no real frame of reference either. How was I to know all the saints, especially the obscure ethnic ones? I was raised Lutheran, Swedish and German. Of course, according to certain sources, more than three quarters of Finns are Lutheran--and we don't do saints. We're taught that we're all saints, though I'm fuzzy on the actual theology there. It seemed enough to participate--even peripherally--in a cultural celebration, even if I didn't share the culture. It seemed enough that St. Urho (and carry over into St. Patrick's, the next day, two full days of partying) could bring together groups of people. On St. Urho's Day, everybody could be Finnish. I'm not sure why anybody would want to be Finnish--so says a staunch Swede--but that's the way it goes.

Everybody wants a hero. Maybe everybody needs a hero. One of the explanations for the invention of St. Urho is that somebody wanted to know why the Finns didn't have a hero-saint like the Irish had in Patrick. Maybe we want the illogic that comes with such a hero, a common person able to do extraordinary things, a hero that pays no attention to historical accuracy or the laws of physics and nature. All cultures have hero myths, from the Judeo-Christian traditions to the Greeks and Romans--as well as our own modern cultures. There has to be a reason for it. I want to sneer at St. Urho--just as I shake my head at all those who think green beer is a suitable celebration of St. Patrick--but I can't make myself do it. I still like St. Urho.

And what's not to love about Finnish flatbread and pasties? From the genuine Finnish bakery in Menagha? It's curious to me the invented traditions that have come with St. Urho's Day. Maybe something as invented as this is real, simply because somebody wished it into being. There are parades and celebrations all over northern Minnesota, even into Wisconsin and the UP of Michigan. People are celebrating, so by virtue just of that, St. Urho is real. It's a kind of reality that I like.

So who cares if he ever existed? I don't think I do.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

AWP 2012: Nonfiction and the Essay

I've been waiting for Carl Klaus and Ned Stuckey-French's book, Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time, since I found out it was coming out (and I will write a more detailed review when I've finished it, rather than flipping through it as I've done so far). I've spent a lot of time trying to figure out why essayists--and nonfiction writers in general--spend so much time trying to define the genre, rather than spending any time talking about anything else. Nonfiction is still the genre used to write about other genres, the mode of criticism for other genres--and this, I posit, is part of the reason that nonfiction still feels like the redheaded stepchild. Also, I'm beginning to be able to articulate another reason why nonfiction isn't taken as seriously: the first few essayists I read in the Essayists book describe the essay as playful, as an experiment, as a loose thing, a meandering of the mind--and no wonder it's not taken seriously. Or why it feels like we're not taken seriously.

Here's the point I want to make, the questions I would like to pose: Why isn't there more criticism on nonfiction? Why isn't there an outlet for it? Why are we, as nonfiction writers, not encouraged to write it?

And here's my reasoning. I'm in a PhD program where most of my writing time has been devoted to critical writing. I've spent as much time honing my critical craft as I have with my own creative work--and the unfortunate reality is that I haven't written anything creative since classes started last August, being so wrapped up in my classes and preparing for my comps (which involve two critical papers, based on my lists). Why do we spend so much time in a program concentrating on the criticism and then not value it outside of classes? I've heard too many times how much of a waste of time it is to write these seminar papers that we're never going to do anything with.

As the MFA becomes more ubiquitous and most job postings are now requiring a PhD in addition to a published book, it's clear that the standards for those seeking academic positions are changing. I would venture to guess that most of us in PhD programs--even those that offer creative dissertations--are writing a lot of critical work. At the moment, I'm putting together both my Field paper (on the contemporary Essay) and my project for my Women's Rhetoric class (I think I'm looking at how women write the Plains--specifically looking at Gretel Ehrlich, Kathleen Norris, and Deb Marquart...I think)--and so far, I've found one solid critical article on Gretel Ehrlich, I haven't done much looking for Kathleen Norris, but I'm fairly certain that I won't find any on Deb Marquart. We're being asked, as students, to write these critical papers on topics that fit with our educational path, but we don't have the critical resources to support them. This is what I found while trying to put together my Field list--and what happens every time I try to write a critical paper on a writer who's not Didion, Mailer, Dillard, or the like.

Following this PhD student angle (and the angle of the increasing number of creative writing teachers with PhDs), how many editors of literary journals have PhDs? And editors of nonfiction journals, specifically? Since this is the direction that academia is going, and these editors having critical experience, is it time that the nonfiction genre starts valuing criticism? Or do we feel like it's selling out to The Dark Side (as a friend put it recently). Is it time that we, as nonfiction writers, start proposing panels to AWP on nonfiction scholarship, delivering papers that do the work of articulating this wonderful thing that is our chosen genre? How many creative writing teachers require craft and criticism of their creative writing classes?

There is so much value in complicating our genre, bringing various writers (new and old) into the larger conversations of the genre. As has been obvious with the pre-AWP kerfuffle over John D'Agata's latest exploits, we only seem to come together to talk critically about what's going on in the genre when there's something large to argue about--and, unfortunately, usually those argument boil down to old, tired back-and-forth over the continuum of truth and fact. Why aren't we considering our nonfiction in terms of the genre itself, the craft of the work, nonfiction and rhetoric, nonfiction and ecocriticism, nonfiction and gender studies, and more? It feels like one can find isolated articles here and there that do this--but why are such articles so isolated?

Possibly a better question is if this kind of criticism is being published, have I missed it, where is it and where can I find it? It's entirely possible I'm looking in the wrong places and I would be eternally grateful if someone would enlighten me--I'm not afraid to be wrong here.

It seems like the great majority of the books on nonfiction are craft, closer to textbooks for beginning writers than they are geared to higher levels of nonfiction writers. I don't mean to say that these books aren't wonderful and valuable, because they are and I love them. I'm saying that there's a hole in our genre for critical work, written by the writers who also write in the creative sphere, because this is the next step in a full exploration of the genre.

But I hope we can start talking about the future of our genre, not just in terms of what constitutes and defines nonfiction, the essay, the memoir, persona, truth and fact, the lyric essay, and whatever else we seem to gravitate back to--towards considering the intricacies of what those nonfiction works and writers are doing.

Monday, March 5, 2012

AWP 2012: Women and Crime Fiction

Here begins a series of post-AWP posts, because I didn't have time or energy or internet to post during the conference itself. Truth be told, I still don't have energy (the train got into Lincoln at 12:15 last night and I teach this morning), but I still have that post-AWP glow of inspiration and energy that I hope will hang around for a while. It's also beneficial to let things simmer for a while and see what bubbles to the top.

I went to "Women in Jeopardy: Crime Fiction" on Thursday and I don't know what I wanted the panel to be, but I didn't get it. It was fine and I didn't know what I wanted out of it, but it left me strangely disappointed. But the basic ideas about men vs. women being represented in crime fiction were interesting and I learned terms about the genre that I didn't know before. But I would have liked to talk about the actual fiction, rather than the business of it.

On the train ride back to Lincoln from Chicago yesterday, we sat next to a woman who teaches in the MFA program at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. My friend Danielle, a first-year MA in fiction, is very interested in social justice, particularly in human and sex trafficking and we were talking about the panel and violence against women used for entertainment. This Rhetoric of Women Writers class I'm taking has been huge in giving me the vocabulary to talk about things I already feel like I know. But so much of crime fiction, so much of the thriller-type movie genre involves violence against women as the precipitating event of the plot, women needing to be saved. The panel did discuss writing strong women characters, women who have agency, where women and men come together eye-to-eye, on equal footing.

But my larger question--and this is what the three of us discussed on the train yesterday--how do you get away from that? She mentioned absolutely hating the Swedish Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (she hadn't seen the American version, and wouldn't) its adherence to this plot; Danielle and I mentioned the movie Taken (which I hated and started me on this kick). I like to read mysteries and thrillers. Someday, I'd like to write one. So how do you write the anti-version of "violence against women as entertainment." And my short answer to the woman from UNO was "I don't know." And I don't know. Part of it, yes, is giving women characters agency and the ability and tools to solve her own problems. But there's a larger issue here and I don't know what to do about it. It's definitely worth continuing the discussion, because I certainly don't have any answers.

But it's like I told the woman from UNO: things that bother me, things that enrage me, things I can't quite figure out, well, that sounds like a class I should teach.

Anybody want to weigh in?