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

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Teaching Update: IWC 100

My brain is very full right now, mostly in a good way.  It's partly, also, very full in a way I hoped would never happen.  Gram passed away on Sunday morning, at the age of 90, and her death--even though we knew it was coming--hits me in a way that I don't yet know how to process.  She was the holder of so many of our family's stories, witness to so many important moments in history, and my opportunity to get her to tell me a story, just one more time, that's all gone.  On a strictly personal level, I'm incredibly grateful that she did not die on my birthday (Friday) and that Mom and I got to take my niece and nephew to see her on Saturday, so her last memories would have included Cora "reading" her a story and Henry giggling at her.  She, a loyal Gopher fan, lived long enough for the Gophers to beat the Huskers in football for the first time since 1960 (though she was not exactly aware of it).  Things work out the way they should, but death never gets easier, no matter who it is that we lose.  But losing grandparents--something that happens with alarming frequency to my first-year students--is a special kind of loss.

You might want to check out this State of Mind post from last year, when Gram cast her ballot:  it's a good one.  But there are larger implications here, beyond the grief my family and I are working through, trying to balance that with our existing commitments (mine being to my students).  My grandmother made an incredible impact on my life.  And one way that I bring this into my classroom is that I want to teach my students--and it surprises me, every semester, that my students don't have more confidence--is that they can and will have the power to influence and impact the lives of other people, often without realizing it.

We're in the midst of Writing Project 2 right now, which is an advocacy project that involves the department's library research component.  They've researched a need in a community, formulated a solution, and are arguing for it.  And I have to say, the projects that my students are coming up with are just making me speechless.  We've had conferences this week, so I've gotten to talk to my students about their drafts, and drafts being what they are, they need work, but they're on the right track.  Mostly, my students aren't focusing on their solution yet and their audience isn't clear.  Many of them simply want to advocate for awareness and so far, convincing them that awareness isn't enough has been a struggle.  But the lightbulbs going on in this office in the last three days have blinded me.  I've told them basically that the goal of the project is for them to take this project, hand it to their audience, say hey, you've got a problem, here's a solution, here's what the solution looks like, here's why you should do it, here's research that contextualizes and supports--GO.

And I've given them this Real World Example:  a colleague and I have an idea that we want to take to the department chair.  Were we to wander in to his office and say, hey, let us do this, he would look at us, shake his head, and kindly tell us no.  So.  We're going to write up a proposal.  Here's what we want to do, here's how it would work, here's why we want to do it, and here's the research and the scholarship and the pedagogy behind it.  Which might get us upgraded from an immediate no to a maybe.  (At this point in my anecdote, this usually gets a grin from the student.)  And then the light bulb goes on.

I cannot stress enough how spectacular these proposal are.  And I will say that getting my students to focus on the local, a particular community has made all the difference in the world.  I've told them individually--and I will tell them collectively when I see them today and tomorrow--that I hope to God they actually do hand their proposal to their audience and work towards getting it implemented.  Because these are beyond good.  This is the kind of change we need.  Some example of advocacy proposals:

  • Setting up a free thrift store in each dorm on Concordia's campus to cut down on landfill waste and help students with financial issues pick up items they need (that others don't need any more).
  • Organizing a Health Day (clever name to come) on Concordia's campus once a month, to help the United Blood Services in Fargo increase their donations--but this would be assisted by nursing and premed students (to get experience), food and nutrition students (to make healthy snacks for donors), and she has a lot of other ways to get other majors involved.
  • Advocate for Pass/Fail art/music/writing classes to be included in the Wellness/PE requirement, to give students not only a physical outlet in a low-stakes requirement, but also to increase their creativity.
  • Several ideas to solve Hope Lutheran Church in Fargo's space problem--including a proposal to buy the empty St. Mark's in downtown Fargo, rather than building new.
  • Advocating for the Arc of Cass County, that the program become a permanent part of Concordia's Service Learning program.
  • Setting up mentoring programs in their high school to bridge the gap between Somali immigrant students and Caucasian students.
There are more.  I've handed back almost all the drafts, so I'm running out of remembering--but they're so good.  They seem to like that what we're doing in this class is not just a classroom exercise, that everything we're doing has Real World Implications that they can see, that we're in active pursuit of learning and expression and that there is no one right way to write these papers.  They're starting to understand that what they do has consequences--both good and bad--and that they can make a difference, that what they have to say matters.  If the need could be solved by existing solutions, it would be solved already--and that means there's a fantastic opportunity for them.  

We're shifting into WP3 today, which is a rhetorical analysis of Mary Pipher's book, The Middle of Everywhere, and they're going to be analyzing that book and honoring the unique perspectives they have on it.  I want to see how they filter that book, given the specific experiences they had doing their field research in the first project, the library research and advocating in the second project, their own personal, life experiences that make them who they are.  And I get to wave around the Real World Implications of this type of analysis, because I'm writing a book review for New Hibernia Review that was technically due in two days, but I've gotten a two week reprieve because of Gram's death.  Since we're teaching transferrable skills, here's my contribution to that.  

But it's also impossible to stop thinking about next semester, since our book orders were due.  I'm going to teach my Natural Disaster Narratives class on MWF and the Place and Community class on TR.  I'm not going to try to do the one-class/two-different-time-schedules again, like I did this semester.  It's too hard.  A few things have come up in the last few days that (a) make me think of Gram and her love of travel, commitment to conservation; (b) how I'm going to approach next semester, especially the last project on human-caused disasters:

Exhibit A:  "Enbridge Files Application to Run Pipeline Across Northern Minnesota; Opponents Gird For Fight."Absolutely not.  This enrages me to the point where I can't see and all my vocabulary is full of four-letter-words.  They want to run this pipeline through Itasca State Park, which is the headwaters of the Mississippi--and through my home county.  

Exhibit B:  "Nearly 300 Pipeline Spills in North Dakota Have Gone Unreported to the Public Since January 2012."  How many of my North Dakota students have any idea about what really goes on in the Oil Patch?

Which brings me to the timeliness of Exhibit C, from last night's Rachel Maddow Show and the world according to Nebraska, climate change, and who cares about a flyover state?

Exhibit D comes from a friend's posting on Facebook and a reminder of why place matters, how we look at place matters, and the implications of those views has.  Also, I'm just in love with maps anyway.


Friday, September 20, 2013

Teaching Update: Independent Study & IWC

I can't believe it's been so long since I last posted--and I can't believe it's the end of Week 4 already.  But I've been having all kinds of strange intersections of thoughts about community and this campus and beyond, something I'm incredibly grateful for on a personal and existential and professional level.

It's Family Weekend at Concordia, which has put me on an unexpected train of thought these last few days.  This week, it was the one-year anniversary of my beloved uncle's unexpected death, and each memory of him (and pictures that my cousins have posted) chips at my heart a little more for their grief. My godfather died, also unexpectedly, of a heart attack in May.  And then my father ended up with basal cell carcinoma on his ear, necessitating removal, which was followed by chest pains that resulted in stents (and Dad has lost nearly 20 pounds in the time since and this brand-new attention to his health has made the rest of us breathe a sigh of relief).  Too much loss and too much threat of loss in a short time and it makes me incredibly grateful for all the ways we define our families, how we love and support each other in all sorts of ways.

On a building in the "Latin Quarter"
I'm in a particularly good Irish mood today, mostly due to the misty gloom of the morning and the Barry's tea in my mug (I'm in the office, though I'm not generally here till noon on MWF), but also because I've been doing an independent study with a student on (women's) travel/place writing and as we've been reading (just finished Michele Morano's Grammar Lessons, which L. loved, as I knew she probably would) and writing, I've been free writing along with the prompts I've been giving her.  We were writing about "What does Liverpool (insert other place as necessary) eat for breakfast?" and I wrote about "What does Galway eat for breakfast," which was lovely.  Gaelic Storm's "Irish Breakfast Day" never fails to make me grin, especially when that song appears on my playlist as I'm on the roundabout in south Moorhead, on my commute from Fargo to campus.  As a result, I've got some movement on Galway hookers (I got to see the Naomh Bairbre again when I was in Galway in July and the Bonnie Roy was moored on the Claddagh Quays across from my B&B) that will help me revise my beloved Quays essay (one of my favorites, of all time).  I haven't been able to make time to do my own writing since I got back from Ireland, moved to Fargo, and started my new job. I've never done an independent study before, let alone on a subject so close to my heart, so this is exciting on a lot of different levels.

The Bonnie Roy
The Naomh Bairbre

L. and I came to the reading list like this:  I proposed a fairly long list of books that fit with her desires for the independent study (she could also propose possibilities), which is to do some substantial writing about her study abroad in Liverpool last semester, and from that list, she chose four books, plus a craft text.  Here's our reading list:

  • Michele Morano, Grammar Lessons: Translating a Life in Spain.
  • Erik Weiner, The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World.
  • Alice Steinbach, Without Reservations: The Travels of an Independent Woman.
  • Robert Root, ed., Landscapes with Figures: Nonfiction of Place.
  • Bill Roorbach, Writing Life Stories: How to Make Memories into Memoirs, Ideas into Essays, and Life into Literature.

Inside the Galway City museum
What's great about this list is that two of these books L. suggested--and I haven't read--so this is as much a learning experience for me as it is for her.  She turned in her first writing yesterday, on the Scouse accent of Liverpool and how that translated (ha) into the culture shock and travel disorientation of her arrival to England and her study abroad.  So much possibility there.  She turned in three pages and one look at it and I know what she has there will be at least twenty pages.  That kind of promise is so exciting.

I've been doing ten hour days in the office this week, unusual for me, since I generally do much of my course prepping and grading at home (and I got rough drafts from all three IWC classes this week, so in the immortal words of the Dowager Countess of Grantham, "What's a weekend?").  It's Family Weekend this weekend, so the campus will shortly be filled with parents and families, all excited to draw the community closer together.  This morning--and this is why I'm here on a morning when I'm not generally here--is because during community time, the English department is hosting Coffee and Conversation for (English) students and their families.  (The way that Concordia's schedule is constructed, on Fridays, time from 9:20-10:20 is left unscheduled for meetings and gatherings and events--very cool.)

My IWC classes have been going very, very well and I'm seriously excited to see these drafts they've turned in.  My TR morning IWC has been a challenge of late, for a variety of reasons, though I'm hoping that we've turned a corner.  Part of the challenge with that class is that the chemistry is wonky, it's at 8:00 in the morning, and it's a TR class, which means the class is 100 minutes long.  Earlier this week, they were not only staring blankly and clearly not paying attention as I was explaining how to use quotations (obviously not the sexiest subject), but a few of them got snarky and aggressive with each other.  They turned in rough drafts yesterday and I sent a prefacing email suggesting bringing some kind of caffeinated beverage or anything else they may need to stay awake--and I walked into class yesterday morning to the most boisterous, nearly-frightening GOOD MORNING!.  Is this the caffeine talking?  I asked.  Yes, they said.  In the immortal words of Dr. Jerry Hathaway from Real Genius, up the voltage.  But the whole situation is a good reminder of what it means to be a teacher of first-year writing and the attitude most students have about writing.

But to bring this reality check back to my point:  there are at least four students in that particular class who are dealing with heavy personal issues, which I suspect is coloring their attitude and performance in that class.  One of them is from Colorado, where his family and friends are all affected by the flooding there, and I started to wonder about the unhealthy bonding this class has done and how we could work together towards a more positive community in there.  I have no idea how to go about this, to make it fit with department expectations, but I started to wonder if this particular class could work on a project together, as a positive community united in outreach, rather than a negative community united in their dislike of my class, to support those Coloradans affected by the flood.  Food for thought.  But I've already changed my activities and approach to that class--hopefully the shift will help.  Can't hurt.

My final thought is this: from the moment I first set foot back on this campus, the transition from long-ago student to faculty, this place has been exactly what I needed, as a teacher and a human being.  It's a place that speaks my language, that the place-conscious pedagogy I so value is reflected in the college's mission and core curriculum; even though the language we use is different, the movement is exactly the same.  Start local, move outward towards the global.  This place so values the first-year experience that the faculty teaching the Inquiry Seminars and the faculty teaching the Inquiry--Written Communication and Inquiry--Oral Communication wanted to have time before the semester started to talk.  Wanted!  This is a place where even full professors teach composition, because they believe it's important.  Creative writing professors, literature professors, journalism professors, rhetoricians--everybody teaches IWC.  This is a place where my department chooses to get together once a month to talk about teaching and pedagogy.

And yet, since I'm on a one-year contract, and the MLA Job List just came out a week ago, I have to apply for all the jobs I can possibly find and resign myself to the fact that I will go elsewhere next year. Way to set the bar too high.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

IWC 100: These Things I Know

To tell the truth, I'm slightly terrified.  I've never done a Writing Marathon before and I'm not convinced that doing my first one with my 8:00 class full of sleepy freshmen was a good place to start.  But live and learn.  I will do this two more times (at 2:40 today and 1:20 tomorrow) and I'm very interested to see how it all goes.

(If you've never heard of Writing Marathons or the National Writing Project, start here.)

We're thinking about communities and knowledge these days (and I say "these days" because I have one class that's on a MWF schedule and two that are on a TR schedule) and when I ask them to free write about "something that they know," I get blank stares and after they've written for a while, it's been pulling teeth to get them to say things out loud, because even if they can't verbalize it, what they're reacting to is that some forms of knowledge are valued and others are not.  They're afraid of sounding dumb, like a thing they know will get them laughed at.  These classes are all fairly talkative, so this is a brand new wrinkle for them.  But then somebody gets the ball rolling.

So far, they've started out with bodies of knowledge that are fairly valued.  I know how to play basketball.  I know how to solve a Rubik's Cube.  But then, as I've learned, somebody shouts out something less valued.  I know how to jump start a car.  I know why my hometown can only grow potatoes, strawberries, and edible beans (because the soil is sand).  I know how to knit.  I know how to make a "mean corn chowder," one of my students said yesterday, to which I replied:  "Why do people always say that?  Why is it always 'mean'? Why don't people make 'nice' corn chowders?"  This made my class laugh.  Then, because the class is getting more comfortable, they shout out things that are less and less valued as bodies of knowledge, but are still important.

How do we come to know these things?  We've read a few pieces from Paul Gruchow's book Grass Roots--and we talk about the different ways that Gruchow has come to specific knowledge.  Sometimes it's personal experience, sometimes it's a mentor, sometimes it's basic, gut-level curiosity that leads us to Google or to the library.  Who owns various bodies of knowledge?  What do the women in a community know?  How is that different than what the men know?  What do insiders know that outsiders don't?

Today, I brought to class two different articles that considered the relationship between place and community in very different ways.  The first was an article from the Huffington Post about the "25 Healthiest and Happiest Cities in America" and Minneapolis-St. Paul was #3 (for scores in heart health) and surprise of surprises, Fargo was #6, for strength of faith.  Also of interest was what HuffPo labeled as the "Happiness Hub," the Northern Plains Botanic Society.  I know where I'm going with my camera when I get some (make some?) free time.  But this idea of Our Place (and by that I'm including Moorhead with Fargo) as being a healthy and happy place--rather than being in the middle of a wasteland, a piece of flyover country, a place considered of little value to Those of Discerning Taste, is incredibly interesting.

My friend Jeannie also posted this article about Cleveland: "The American Grandeur of Cleveland."

But the other article I brought was from MPR:  "Minnesota Food Insecurity Still at an All-Time High."  How do we, then, measure happiness?  What are the obstacles to creating strong communities?  How can we truly be a place that measures high on happiness indices but still has more than ten percent of its citizens not knowing where their next meal is coming from?  What is the obstacle to all Minnesotans--and Americans in general--having adequate food?  My parents' church in the Cities participates in Kid Pack, which packs weekend food for kids whose only meals might come from school.  On the weekends, then, those kids might go hungry until Monday, when they can get lunch at school.  Then my friend Mandy posted an article about New Jersey throwing food away if a child cannot afford lunch.  I have no words for that.

Not true.  I have lots of words.

But thinking about this:  what do I know?  What do I know that is inherent and unique to the place?  How do I see things in a way that nobody else does?  This is why I'm jumping off the high dive, pedagogically speaking, and sending my students on a Writing Marathon (I hope to God it works and they're not screwing around out there):  what do they see that nobody else does?  How do their own bodies of knowledge affect what they see and how they think about it?  And what questions does it raise for them?

I'm looking forward to finding out.  The debriefing from my first class described the experience of doing the Writing Marathon as awesome and fantastic, freeing.  Because they didn't have to worry about comments of any sort, they could--and did--let themselves write anything they wanted.  They talked about the places they felt comfortable in, places they felt very uncomfortable in (other dorms, etc.) and then we talked about the difference between insiders and outsiders and what do those communities need to know, to feel comfortable?  I will admit to being surprised that they had such positive experiences with the Writing Marathon, since I had absolutely no idea how it would go and what they would gain from it.  But I am heartened, bolstered, intrigued, and thoroughly eager to see what my other two classes make of the experience.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

IWC 100: Writing and Community, Concordia-Style

This week has been a revelation to me, filled with two full days of new faculty orientation and two days of full faculty workshops.  On Wednesday, the only day this week without workshops, I went with my new friend and colleague in the English department to the campus Corn Feed, something she'd never experienced before.  It had been years since I had been to one, so I was looking forward to it.  All you can eat corn, served by members of the faculty, staff, and alumni.  You could even have your corn served to you by the president or his wife.  It's a good time, full of smiles and laughter.  Nobody can be unhappy while eating corn on the cob.  It's impossible.

Our mascot, Kernel.  Fear the Ear.
Earlier in the week, one of our speakers told us that this Corn Feed is one of the only times that members of the community will physically set foot on Concordia's campus.  For all that we are a globally-oriented campus community, wanting to create community with our neighbors near and far, I suspect there's a perception and a barrier that keeps various communities away from our physical campus.  When I heard this, I filed it away for further thought at a later time.

The acoustic duo Flatlands, who I heard many times when I was a student. 
But this is the kind of place who asks, quite seriously, in its faculty workshops, "What kind of community do we aspire to be?"  It's true that my three IWC classes will focus on the relationship of place and community.  But what I am relearning--and learning new from this different faculty perspective--is this commitment to a campus community and how that contributes to the global community.  But, even as there is no specific place studies attention here, this is a place that already is exercising these tenets I know well:  start local and move outwards to the global.  If I didn't already know Concordia's mission statement, it would have been carved on my bones this week with its repetition:  The purpose of Concordia College is to influence the affairs of the world by sending into society thoughtful and informed men and women dedicated to the Christian life.  (More on the mission statement later, but the discussions this week about the "Christian life" part of it were particularly fascinating to me, especially with discussions of the recently approved Campus Atheists student group--and the discussion of even though we have this Lutheran foundation, we're exercising that foundation in a variety of very cool, very inclusive, very varied ways.)

This was vibrantly clear to me several times over the course of the week, with two shining examples:  the first was on Thursday morning, as we gathered for the beginning of the faculty workshop, and who should walk by, but Dr. Leigh Wakefield, my Cobber Band director.  He looked at me, and with instant recognition, called me by name without any hesitation and gave me a huge hug.  I haven't seen him since I graduated, but he still remains one of the most influential and inspirational people in my life.  He gets mentioned every semester, on the first day of every class I teach, because, as I tell my students, there were 150 of us in band, 50 of whom were flutes, and by the second week, he not only knew our names, but knew about us and would call us by name and ask about our lives.  Surely I can learn their names in the first week.  Dr. Wakefield hasn't changed a bit and he's still a person who can raise your joy quotient just by being in the same space.  At the coffee break, he dashed back to his office in the music building to fetch the black and white photograph of my mother's hands playing piano that I gave him in 1999 and that he still has in his office.  He wanted to show me he still had it.

The second moment happened on Friday morning, with the faculty banquet having been held the night before (and new faculty being introduced).  At the coffee break, my PE professor, Larry Papenfuss, came to find me in the crowd.  He reintroduced himself, said he didn't know if I'd remember him (he's not one I'd forget either), and told me how excited he was to see my picture up there at the banquet the night before.  And so we talked for quite a while, catching up.

A few moments from various times of the workshop came together in a way that surprised me, especially as I was thinking about community formation.  We heard the reports on the budget, enrollment, and such, and a few things jumped out at me:  the first is that 19.7% of our freshman class are Legacy students (those who have had family members attend Concordia) and 15% of the freshman class is first-generation students.  We heard numbers on students of color, about male/female ratios.  But I kept coming back to the Legacy/1st Gen. numbers, especially as I considered the nature of privilege in attending a private liberal arts college, one whose roots are Norwegian.  It's going to be difficult to convince non-Legacy students to attend Concordia, especially ones who have crossed various colleges off their list simply because of price.  But there has to be a way to make it easier and more welcoming for first-generation students and students of color (and in my mind, particularly students from the Native American communities of the Upper Midwest) to come to this place.

At UNL, I worked for a semester with the W.H. Thompson Scholars program, a scholarship program that consisted of only first-generation and low-income students from Nebraska.  The students form a cohort and take specifically designated WHT sections of various core classes (I taught a composition class) in their first two years, with professors who have had some training in the specific needs of low income and first-generation students.  Their experiences and perceptions of the way the world works is not like any other group of students and in all the classes I taught at UNL, that particular section might have been my favorite.  And I just got an email a couple of days ago from a former student from that class, for whom I wrote a recommendation letter for her admission to the nursing program--and she wrote to tell me she got in.  Various other events were set up through the Thompson family, including the E.N. Thompson Forum on World Affairs (the year I taught the WHT class, the theme was Water and Global Security, which was fascinating.)  If you're curious about my WHT class, click on the Topics on the right and find W.H. Thompson Scholars.

But it got me thinking about the ways a program like this could work at a place like Concordia.  Concordia is blessed with generous alumni, like Ron Offutt, whose name graces the spectacular new Offutt School of Business (that I got to tour this week)--and even though business isn't my thing, just hearing from the new faculty who will be working there, it's going to be an incredible place to work on a business degree.  Perhaps there could be a capital fund drive of some sort to support a scholarship system for just this purpose, to bring in more viewpoints and voices.  We heard a lot from the Concordia Language Villages this week--and there was brief mention that there are no courses in any Native American languages, either at CLV or on Concordia's campus.  (Which, then, made me think of my dear friend Aubrey, who spent three intensive semesters at UNL learning Omaha, and then while I was shopping at a thrift store this week, I found a book on Dakota verbs.)  Each year, several groups of students do work on reservations (Justice Journeys trips, etc)--but it seems like this could be a terrific opportunity for expansion and enrichment.

But a community needs to start with the local, not only on a campus, but in the ways that we break down the barriers--physical and perceptual--between a campus and the larger community it participates in.  This week, I have been overwhelmed by the recurring feelings that I am in the right place, that I'm finally in a place that believes in first-year writing as much as I do, that I'm in a place that values the student above all else, a place where "student-centered" is not an empty catchphrase of academia.  This is a place where everyone, from adjuncts to full professors are straight-up excited for the students to arrive tomorrow.  This is a place where first-year courses are not farmed out to the person with least seniority.  This is a place where as much of our job is to help students find their passions, to find what their vocation could be.  All of this feels so familiar to me, because it's been my teaching philosophy from the beginning--which I'm guessing comes from seeing it modeled in my undergrad--but it's beyond my capacities for language to express how wonderful it is to be in a place where what I do and how I feel about teaching and how I feel about my students matches up with the institution.

Of course, the reality is that this contract is only a year (and the MLA JIL comes out way too soon for my comfort level), which means that I save my ideas for a more appropriate time and place. (Like a blog...)  But if I only get to be here for a year, it's going to be one of the most amazing sequences of months I can imagine.  

Now.  Back to the syllabi.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

IWC 100: Place, Community, and Responsible Engagement

First, start here, with listening to Richard Wilbur, reading his poem "The Writer."

If you want the full text of the poem, click here, where there is also an audio version.  When we started our new faculty orientation on Monday, our president, Bill Craft--who is a former English professor himself--would read this poem to end his remarks to us.  For myself, who is simultaneously writer and teacher, there's no better way to start my brain going in the right direction.  But then, Ernie Simmons began his remarks with the deceptively simple question of "Why are you here?" which is a question I often use to start my classes, since I am so interested in place studies and place-conscious pedagogy.  That question gets to the heart of the existential reasons why we are here in this classroom, on this campus, on this earth--but it also requires the practical.  Simultaneously, it also wonders about the physical placement as well as within space and time.

Right now, as I'm sitting at my desk in my half-unpacked apartment with my patio doors open as long as the heat and humidity stay bearable, I can say that I am here, at my desk and in cyberspace, because I need a place to think through the last two days before I can articulate what I want to in my syllabi.

For myself, I answered (in my head) that I am so thrilled to be in a place like Concordia that values first-year writing and the first-year experience as much as I do.  This is a place where the first-year experience is so vitally important that full professors routinely choose to teach in it.  This is a place where I heard, over and over, from the First Year Experience workshop last week to the speakers at our New Faculty Orientation, how excited they are about first-year students, how excited they are to be teaching, even after decades here.  I heard, over and over, about the arc of the student experience, how we are participating in the work of educating the whole student, for a whole life.  Nowhere else have I heard so much about helping students find their passion.

Dr. Peter Hovde, professor of political science, gave us some advice, advice that he had received over the years, advice that is valuable no matter how long one has been teaching, something I would like to ruminate on further (at a different time and space):

  • Always find a way to teach more than you know.
  • Walk into the classroom with important questions, not answers.
  • Let the quality of what you do speak for itself.
  • Be real with students.

My classes, no matter if they are composition, creative writing, or literature, have been based for some time now on a place-conscious pedagogy, which starts local and expands out towards the global.  It's amazing to me that such could have been the foundation for the CORE curriculum at Concordia and its guiding principle of BREW:  Becoming Responsibly Engaged in the World.  Dr. George Connell, director of the Humanities Division, told us that the view of the Humanities is of the impregnable Ivory Tower (moreso than some of the other divisions), but BREW ensures that this does not happen.  What I found particularly interesting about his remarks was a quote that I'm going to butcher, but something to the effect that words mean what they mean because of the implicit contradictions of those words.  If BREW means Becoming Responsibly Engaged in the World, what are the implicit contradictions?  Irresponsible Disengagement/Overengagement?  But what might Irresponsible Engagement look like?  At what point does Responsible Disengagement become the right course of action?

My classes will be based on the 254 I taught this summer, with some adjustments to the standards of Concordia's English department, but I will still be teaching a project that requires field research (place observation as well as first-hand investigation of the community) to understand the relationship of a particular community to the place where they are; the library research paper will shift, then, into being the advocation paper, finding an issue of importance to that community and advocating for them; the third project will be the textual/rhetorical analysis of Mary Pipher's book The Middle of Everywhere.  Given how these projects worked in my summer 254, with my students becoming incredibly involved in their projects and communities (many to their deep surprise), I hope that something similar will happen with my first-year students.  Associate Dean Lisa Sethre-Hofstad spoke of Lara Galinsky's "Moment of Obligation" and I hope to use the article in my classes, because it's a perfect articulation of what I'm already thinking.

I'm excited to see how various aspects of this unique, specific Concordia community show up in my class, from the annual Faith, Reason, and World Affairs Symposium (on Happiness) and how do our ideas of place and community show up in the symposium?  What is the relationship of place and community to various ideas of how happiness is constructed or revealed?  On a more practical level, what natural and built environments are being used for lectures, concurrent sessions, and other events and how does that add to or detract from the rhetoric being used?  What about the cultural events on campus, the music, theatre, art, visiting lectures, and more?  How do those work to form community, not only in the fields they operate in, but also across the campus--and even wider, to the entire Fargo/Moorhead community?  I'm toying with the idea of giving my students the option to live Tweet various functions, for the purpose of asking them to discern whether or not such social media activities promote or inhibit community function.

In the course of this morning, I hunted through my various memory boxes, because I knew my beanie from my freshman year was here somewhere.  Not only did I find it, but I also found my student ID.  Beanies are one obvious, visual way that Concordia creates community among its first-year students.  But this afternoon, it's another:  a Corn Feed, a time for Cobbers new and old to gather and feast on the mascot.  (Strange, now that I think about it, that the Huskers never did much with corn...)  My new friend and colleague in the English department has never been to a Corn Feed before.  I feel a need to educate her.  It's quite a unique experience.

Monday, August 12, 2013

State of Mind: Back to School Reading Edition

I'm back!  This summer has not been a good one for posting, something I really wanted to do during my summer 254 (which was absolutely incredible in so many ways), through the process of getting a job and defending my dissertation, ending my summer class and packing up my apartment and movers coming, to my lovely two-week trip to Ireland to present at the International Association for the Study of Irish Literatures on the subject of place in Irish noir, and now the moving-in to my new apartment in Fargo.  I have books on the shelves!  I have internet!  And I think I know where, maybe, half my stuff is.  It's all here somewhere, right?

I may have had a slight breakdown in Target over the weekend as I was shopping for that stuff you need when you move into a new place and the teenage girl in front of me had her shopping cart loaded with college ruled paper, binders, pens, and other assorted back-to-school supplies.  It can't be Back to School yet!  This distressed me on several levels:  an inability to comprehend that we're into the second week of August, that the semester starts in two weeks and I haven't gotten my syllabi done, that I haven't even gotten to enjoy the pleasure of my own school supplies shopping.  But this coincided with my movers good-naturedly complaining about having to lug eighty boxes of books up to the third floor and one of the movers asking if I'd actually read all these books (I said, "most of them.") and the other mover confiding that he hated reading.  "Dangerous thing to tell an English teacher," I said.  He said that he'd dropped out of school, was a slow reader.  I told him what I tell all my students:  reading is a muscle, it's not magic.  You have to practice.  But the reality is that it doesn't matter what you read as long as you read.  You could read car magazines, you could read newspapers, you could read short stories--it doesn't matter.  I don't know if it made any difference, but one effect of teaching first-year writing for so long is that I have to combat this culture of fear around reading as much as I have to combat the fear of writing.  There's an incredible amount of shame I've noticed surrounding those who say that they hate reading (and writing).  Maybe it's partly a culture of exceptionalism that says that if you're going to do something, you have to be an expert at it.  So then, maybe it's easier to say that you hate something and avoid it.

Of course, I didn't tell him that my idea of tourist destinations when in Ireland included Chapters bookstore in Dublin and Charlie Byrne's in Galway...

Maybe it's intimidating to haul eighty boxes of books up three flights of stairs, but if my mover had stuck around long enough to see those books on the shelves, he would have seen that my shelves are the least-intimidating shelves ever.  There are writers that scare me, writers I've never read, and I admitted this to my mover (though I will only admit those writers out loud, not in print), which made him laugh.  But my shelves of nonfiction are incredibly varied, from books on cheese and dirt (two separate books) to books on natural disasters, to memoirs and histories and all kinds of random stuff.  My Irish shelves don't contain much in the way of scary authors (I only have Joyce's Portrait...and I have no shame in admitting that Joyce scares me...)--and if he'd checked out the shelves of literary fiction and crime literature, that's the least scary part of what I do.  Crime literature?  Seriously?  Except for the subject matter, there's nothing easier to get into than mysteries.  Yesterday, I finally decided to get over my distaste for Dashiell Hammett as a human being (I read Lillian Hellman's memoir ten years ago, learned to dislike Hammett for his treatment of her, and refused to read him...)--and finally pulled The Maltese Falcon off the shelf, settled down on my new balcony in my zero gravity chair, and started and finished it in one sitting.  Glorious prairie night.  And it was a good book, as I knew it would be.

But then, today, as I'm crossing all kinds of things off my To Do list (update insurance policies, get paperwork in order for my new job, etc), my friend Karen Craigo posts to Facebook this graphic:  Surprising Book Facts.  My first reaction, as a reader, as a writer, as a teacher, is disappointment and a certain amount of resignation.  But even as I try to crawl out of that hole of despair, I realize that the nature of this graphic is misleading and it goes back to what I told my mover.  Perhaps we place too much value on the books themselves, as a form, rather than what they contain.  It's something I've been thinking about as I've been shelving my books and wondering where to put my One Story archive.  By reimagining the form that reading takes, we put more value on the words, the sentences, the ideas.  With so many literary journals going online, the delivery method of the work and the inherent value we put on that method needs to change.

It doesn't matter what you read, as long as you read.  In a few short weeks, I will tell my students that nothing will teach you more about how to put a sentence together than reading.  Even if you don't like what you're reading, you can still learn something from it.  I will tell them about my dislike for Cormac McCarthy, but there are few who taught me more about language.  I will tell them that "that [wo]man can write a sentence!" is the best compliment I can give a book.  On my flight from Shannon, Ireland to Chicago (where my television didn't work, so I had to read while everybody else watched movies...), I started and finished Declan Burke's Slaughter's Hound and Joy Castro's Nearer Home.  I tweeted a few days later that I felt like my soul had been singed when I landed in Chicago.  Both books were incredible, in different ways, but the result of them was the same:  as a reader, it made me want to read more, to keep following the characters wherever they would go; as a writer, they made me want to write.  I included Burke in the paper I presented at IASIL and as I revise that paper into an article for publication, I can't wait to include Slaughter's Hound in my analysis.

I've also seen this graphic floating around cyberspace too and I think it's going to be the newest addition to my office door.  It's been so long since I've been able to read anything just for the pure pleasure of it and I'm hoping that now that I'm done with my PhD I'll be able to get back to the joy of reading.  For the last three years, I haven't read anything that hasn't been assigned for a class, on my exam reading lists, or something I'm teaching in my own classes.  If I've wanted to explore something new, I've had to justify it by writing something critical on it or teaching a class where I could include it.  That's how I got to read all kinds of natural disaster narratives, that's how I got to read all kinds of fun crime literature.  I might have to justify fun reading to myself this way for a while longer, but such is the life of an academic, though.

It's helpful to see reading, visually, in terms of this graphic, though.  Twenty minutes doesn't seem like a long time at all, though the cumulative effect of all those words and sentences and ideas is so much larger than the equivalent of sixty whole school days of reading.  I didn't have a television while I did my PhD (no physical room in my tiny apartment) and I don't plan to buy one now that I have room.  I have Netflix on my computer and that's enough.  I hope that I can spend my downtime reading the books on my shelves that I haven't read yet.  The Lincoln library book sale has ensured that there are more books on my shelves than I could possibly read--and I see this as a good thing, not a bad thing.  But I also like to reread books (and I don't understand those who don't reread books--but that's another blog post...).  There's always something more to be found, even on my own shelves.

Maybe the disconnect is in differentiating between fun-reading and work-reading, between reading that happens in a long-form book or another form.  I'm not sure how to break that down into something else, but maybe that's the first, necessary step.  There is no bad reading, there is no bad time spent reading.  Even writing that isn't the best (like this book my mother lent me, self-published by a man in her hometown about a crime that went on in his family's business, or even poorly written online work) will teach you what not to do, as well as good writing teaches what to do.  While this graphic focuses on elementary students, the same can be applied to college students.  Who will be better critical thinkers?  Who will be better writers?  Who will be more compassionate human beings?  Who will discover new interests, new curiosities, things they never knew existed?  I never thought about it that way before is my favorite thing to hear as a teacher.

It's time now to get back to unpacking, adding new things to the To Do list, and planning to end for the day around 4:00, so I can sit on my balcony in my zero-gravity chair in the prairie evening with something new to read.  Or maybe something I've read before.  The possibilities are endless.

So, here's today's question:  which authors/books are you afraid of?  And what's on your list to get your twenty minutes of reading in?  What books would you recommend to others to get their twenty minutes?

Friday, June 21, 2013

Eng. 254: Investigating Knowledge

Yesterday was a fun day in 254.  It's nearly the end of Week 2 of 5 and though we've gotten fairly comfortable with each other, since we see each other every day, yesterday was the first day when the discussion has just felt really good, that indefinable something that makes a class period, the students, and the material all just click.  It got to the end of class and I didn't want to let them go.

We're still in the beginning stages of the second Writing Project, but that doesn't mean much because of our shortened schedule.  We examined a place in the first WP, the rough drafts of which I saw this week and the final drafts of which are due on Monday, and the drafts were excellent--and going to get better with revision.  Such a varied group of places.  We've shifted now into considering subcultures and tribes within communities, particularly those associated with a particular place.  My students have the option to continue WP1 into WP2 or they could choose a completely different place and community.  Things seem split fairly evenly as to who is continuing with the same place and who is choosing another.

Interviews are an important part of this next project and my students are required to interview at least two, preferably three, members of the subculture they are investigating--so yesterday, we talked about how we measure the knowledge of a community, what constitutes valued knowledge, and such.  We talked about our positioning in this process, what about ourselves affects the way we view data (fixed positions, subjective positions, textual positions).  In the course of the lecture-ish portion of the class on interviewing, we watched Jon Stewart interview Michael Pollan and we talked about how deceptively brilliant Stewart is at interviewing--and what is he doing as an interviewer that we could learn from?  We talked about rapport, about following the informant's lead, building on background knowledge that the interviewer has done (there are such things as stupid questions).  Then, as I'd assigned them to choose any Paris Review interview they wanted, we looked at how those interviews were conducted, what strategies were being employed.  We're Skyping today with Debra Marquart, who wrote The Horizontal World: Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere that we're reading for our class--and it's my goal to have my students practice their interviewing techniques on her as we talk to her about her book, about place, about community.

Their reading included the first chapter of Mary Pipher's book The Middle of Everywhere, "Cultural Collisions on the Great Plains," and Lisa Heldke's article "Farming Made Her Stupid," as well as two pieces from Paul Gruchow's Grass Roots, "What the Prairie Teaches Us" and "Remember the Flowers." We started with Pipher and how she writes about community in Nebraska, the goals she has for investigating the refugee populations that have come to call this place home since the 1990s, and the associated issues with changing populations.  She writes, "These trends can be called many names but, for shorthand, I will call them globalization.  Many writers have explored this phenomenon, but they have ignored the questions that most interest me.  How do these processes change us humans?  How do they affect our choices, our relations with one another, our allegiances, our mental and social health, our sense of place, and--at core--our identities?"  She considers the various subcultures she belongs to, how the fabric of Nebraska is changing--and it's really interesting that as she notes the various writers who have come from Nebraska (and then a bit later, mentions the wonderful Minnesotan essayist Bill Holm)--and my students and I talked a little bit about the relationship between writers and place, that writers who come from places that are not considered valuable (like the Great Plains) want to set their works elsewhere, in sexier places, like Los Angeles or New York.  I talked about Sean Doolittle, his work, and his visit to my class last semester--and I could see something new, not exactly understanding, but something close, fill my students' faces.

We also read Heldke's article, which talks about how different bodies of knowledge are either valued--or not valued--from one community to another.  Her article starts off with a conversation she had with a colleague about a group of students who were about to spend a month in a large U.S. city and that many of them will have no idea how to use the subway:  "Sue described the students' unfamiliarity with urban mass transit as if she were reporting on a deficiency in basic arithmetic skills.  No, more fundamental than that, really; more like not knowing how to wash one's hands.  Knowing how to navigate a metropolitan transit system is, to her, a fundamental life skill of the sort that every human being has--or had better have, before they consider themselves a college graduate."  She goes on to consider this idea of metrocentrism: "One chief characteristic of that metrocentric perspectivee is that its inability even to countenance the possibility that living in a small town or in the country requires any particular forms of knowledge.  Let me sharpen that: its inability to countenance the possibility that living in a small town or in the country requires any desirable forms of knowledge."  With this perspective, farmers possess either no knowledge or no desirable forms of knowledge--and the article gets better from there, discussing stupid knowledge, metrocentrism, and more.  It's a very cool article.

I told my students the story of my grandfather, who took his older brother's place in the WW2 draft, and after four years of dodging kamikazes in the South Pacific, he returned home to the farm in southwestern Minnesota and (I'm not clear whether it was his father or brother who said this) his family, in these words, thought he was on a "four year vacation."  But, as I told my students, to a farmer, nothing else is considered work.  Certainly a farming--or at least gardening--perspective has resurfaced in recent years, with fights over Monsanto, the organic markets, and other agricultural issues, but farming is still not considered valued knowledge within the larger American community.  My students hopped in with their experiences, of times when their knowledge was not valued, of experiences where they might have contributed to this process--and most importantly, how when they go out to do their interviews this weekend, they can be aware of what they're doing.

It was truly a great day.  I can hardly wait to talk to Deb later this morning!

Monday, June 17, 2013

Eng. 254: Community, Field Reports, and a Sense of Place

Today, my students are turning in their Field Reports that they did over the place they chose for their first Writing Project (the rough draft of which is due tomorrow).  They did place observations, first-hand field research, interviews and such, and I'm very excited to see what they turn in tomorrow.  My class--which has ten registered, nine who came to class today--is very smart, willing to talk, and that's such a nice change of pace from my first-year students who I have to teach to trust themselves, that what they have to say is valuable.  It says a lot for these students (most of whom are upper classmen), but it also says a lot about the community we've been able to create in our class in just the last week.  On Friday, it was that spectacular moment when the class feels comfortable enough to call each other by name.

As I handed back the Field Reports they wrote on our Morrill Hall excursion last week, we talked about the danger of using "there is/are" sentence constructions when describing things, simply because verbs are important--and they should always make their verbs do double duty.  Spark is a much better verb than is.  They nodded at me.  Excellent.

We did a bit of a write-around, with my students writing on their Field Reports for today, helping their group member push their details and descriptions harder, looking for where to expand and push analysis (brain work) and reflection (personal/emotional) work.

And then we hopped into a guided free write to get them moving on their rough draft, due tomorrow:

  1. What is unique or compelling about this place?  What drew you to it in the first place?  Is it visually compelling?  Is it emotionally compelling?  What about it creates the curiosity that you are feeling?
  2. How would you describe the sense of place?  What is it, on an existential level?  What purpose does it serve?  What major questions does it pose for you?
  3. What contributes to that sense of place?  What is the physical structure?  Spatial?  Auditory?  What goes into making that place what it is?
  4. What function does this place serve?  Is it practical?  Entertainment? Existential?
  5. What are the other senses inform how you perceive this place?  Unpack what "noisy" and "quiet" sound like.  What individual sounds can you identify?  What is the acceptable noise level of this place?  Why do we have that perception?  Why must museums be quiet?
  6. What is your purpose in this paper?  What are the curiosities and questions and such that are propelling your investigation of this place?  What do you want your readers to understand when they finish your paper?
  7. Are you uncovering some universal truths, given your exploration of this place?
  8. How does your primary research add to the texture of your exploration?
  9. Who has access to this place?  Who is denied?  What is the reasoning between who is allowed access and who is not?  What are the reasonings behind who is allowed and who is denied?  Is it safety, privacy, exclusivity, etc?  How does that influence your perceptions and experience of the place?  How does it affect the place itself? Does it make the place more compelling, less compelling, or something else?

I'm really looking forward to seeing these rough drafts.  My students are exploring places like Memorial Stadium, the Lincoln Blood Bank, Goodwill, Village Inn, and others.  Should be a spectacular mix of ideas and places!

Sunday, June 16, 2013

State of Mind: Fast-Paced Summer

  • Happy Father's Day--to all the fathers and grandfathers, by blood, by choice, by serendipity.  There are so many ways we create family.
  • I'm really hoping to finish my Tim Robinson article today, a prospect that is being hampered by the atmospheric pressure inside my head.  Apparently there will be storms in Lincoln today.  No matter:  Excedrin and a lake of water have taken the edge off, so I can work.  I'm hoping that the lingering pressure in my head will dissolve my writing-filter, knock out the self-censor, so I can get this bad boy done.  It's turning out to be much more of a beast than I thought it would.  Write a paper on Tim Robinson and Chris Arthur and argue for more Irish nonfiction writers to write Montaignian essays?  Sure, no problem.  Piece of cake.  Ugh.  Not so.  It'll be good when it gets done, but it's proving to be harder than I anticipated.  
  • I can officially announce now that I've taken a one-year position teaching composition at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, starting in August!  That means that I defend my dissertation on Tuesday the 25th and I will graduate!  I'm seriously excited about it, getting back to Minnesota, teaching at this spectacular institution, and seeing what cool things will happen in the next year.
  • This means I have to move!  And pack up my tiny little apartment while still teaching my summer class.  My parents were coming down this week to bring me boxes, pack up my books, and take them North, so I would have some floor space to pack, but those plans have become tentative.
  • The draft programme for IASIL is out!  How cool does my panel look?  Of course, I haven't started writing the paper, because I've been working on my Robinson article, but this should be a really cool experience.  This also means that I can back off using Benjamin Black and Stuart Neville in my paper and concentrate on some other writers.  Bring on the Ken Bruen! 

  • My 254 class continues to go well, as we all adapt to the 5-day schedule and the longer hour and a half class period.  They turn in their rough draft of their first project on Tuesday.  Should be interesting.  We went to Morrill Hall on Thursday--which was, as usual, wonderful--and they used it as practice for doing place observation and writing up a field report.  We had a great time talking about their experiences in class on Friday.  I'm really going to miss Morrill Hall when I move to Moorhead.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Eng. 254: What Constitutes Community?

Yesterday was the first day of class for the first summer session and I met my 254 class for the first time.  I had eleven registered, nine were there.  Most of them are upper classmen and that should be interesting--I've never taught this many upper level students (in a 200-level class) before, I've never taught a summer class before, and I've never taught such a condensed schedule before.  But I'm really excited about the class, so I hope they will be too.

I started yesterday with a variation on SueEllen Campbell's "Layers of Place," which was published in ISLE in 2006.  It's an exercise she says takes about 45 minutes, so that's about how long I planned for.  I added some of my own questions and didn't use all of hers, but the purpose is to consider how layered our relationship with place is--and can be.  I know that most of my students have never thought about place and probably never thought about the ways that place shapes their identity.  So, I asked them to think about a place that means a lot to them.  It can be a place they call home or it can be a different place.

  • What do you actually see, with your eyes, right now?  Forget what you know and think only about what you see.  Be concrete, detailed, and straight-forward--the visual facts, but precise.  Avoid metaphors.
  • Consider your perspective as a lens.  What happens if you zoom close?  Do you see streets?  Houses?  Veins on leaves?  Cracks in foundations?  What happens if you zoom back?  What do you see from space?  (I showed them this photograph of the Moore, Oklahoma tornado track (from a very cool article on Slate) and I also told them about the Missoula Floods, the Channeled Scablands in eastern Washington, and the ripple marks visible from space).
  • How, why, do you know this place?  How do you feel about it?  Think about the story of your relationship with this place:  when did you first meet?  How did your relationship develop?  Was it love at first sight?  A gradual friendship?  Any quarrels, rough spots, temporary separations?  
  • Do you think your own identity, or your sense of yourself, the shape of your life, how you matter to yourself, is somehow tied up with the identity of this place?  
  • What people do you see?  What do they look like, individually?  What groups do they form themselves into?  How many different communities make up the human element of this place?
  • What human events have happened here?  Who has lived here, or spent time here, and how?  How has this place been tied to events happening elsewhere, through commerce or politics?  Who owns it, or controls what happens to it?  How have different parts of our culture thought about this place?  Is it a kind of place we have typically valued, or not?  
  • What threatens the place?  Pollution, poverty, warfare, invasive species, habitat loss, climate change, strip mining, deforestation, desertification, suburban sprawl, volcanic explosions, hurricanes, golf course or ski area development, disease?  
  • When people in your community talk about this place, what words and terms do they use?  What is the insider language of this place?  When outsiders talk about this place, what terms do they use?
We used this free write as our springboard to get to know each other and my students' choices of places were as varied as I expected.  One student wrote about the digital space he occupies between his birthplace in Germany and his life in the United States and how Skype and such gives him a better foothold in two worlds; another wrote about his grandfather's birthplace in Rhode Island and how he wants to go to law school up there, because of the sense of history; another wrote about the house she lived in for fifteen years.  It was a terrific start.

Then I had them make a list of all the communities they belonged to:  academic communities, athletic, religious, etc.  What are the characteristics of a community?  What makes a community different than a group of people all standing in the same place at the same time?  We got a good list going on the board:  similar foundation (experiences, knowledge, beliefs, etc.), similar purpose and goals, a common language, common location (even if it's digital).  This turned out to be a great start to considering who we are together in our class and where we will go from there.  For class today, I assigned Paul Gruchow's "Home is a Place in Time" from Grass Roots, Evelyn Nieves' "Public Libraries: The New Homeless Shelters" from Salon, and W. Scott Olsen's "The Love of Maps," published in Weber Studies.

As I finished prepping for class this morning, I also found this article from The Guardian, "The Complexity of Defining Community," so I copied it and I'll bring it to class to talk about, as we get into some of the very cool nitty gritty of our large-scale questions and goals for the class:  how do we define community?  How do we define rhetorical practices?  What different communities do we all belong to? What issues are important to those communities?  How is language used and valued in those communities?  

I'm pretty excited to see where we go from here.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Eng. 254: Writing and Communities

This morning, as I'm finalizing my syllabus for my English 254: Writing and Communities, which starts next Monday, I'm thinking about conflicts.  At the moment, the biggest conflict is inside my head, the argument of my brain and skull against the barometric pressure changes that have turned my local radar a delightful shade of green and yellow.  But my Excedrin is kicking in, smoothing off the sharp edges, and I'm running my Almond Biscotti tea leaves again.  For the time being, my cats are not in conflict, asleep in their separate spots.  I have to keep an eye on Maeve, because her favorite time to attack Galway is when he's asleep.  

But as I run my leaves again and refill my electric kettle, I am reminded that any community, no matter how large or small, has its own rules.  I've just returned from a month Up North with my family, where one of its most specific rules is if you empty the teapot, fill it.  This either means running the leaves again and filling up the teapot or filling the kettle to heat so when the pot is ready for refilling, the water is hot.  There are more rules to the community of my family (like taking off your shoes when you enter my sister's house), but that's the one I'm thinking of this morning, mostly because for the four weeks I was with my parents, Mom and I were up at 6:00 every morning and we spent a lot of that time with our hands wrapped around our mugs, waiting for their dog Daisy's best friend JoJo to come for their morning romp. Try as she might, Daisy has never been able to make friends with the cats, another eternal conflict when we come to visit.

This is the first time I've taught 254 and the first time I've taught a summer class, so both will be an adventure.  But as I put Post-Its on various pages in my books, ready to take them to campus to get them scanned, I'm getting more and more excited about the class.  (I would not have been able to do this without the help of the awesome Susan Martens, for sure.)  Here's the description of the class:

This course will investigate the relationship of place and community, a lens through which we will develop a way of looking at what and who surround us, physically, intellectually, and emotionally.  Throughout the class, as you study, read, and write about issues important to you, you’ll develop three writing projects through which you will 1) represent a community through your experience of it primarily as a place; 2) represent a community through your study of it primarily as a tribe; 3) represent the combination of personal inquiry and researched inquiry in a final writing project that investigates how humans have shaped this place—and how has it shaped us, the community who lives there? What are the issues important to the stakeholders in this community (which includes you)?  Our purpose in this class is to develop a greater understanding of the ways place influences our community identity, to actively inquire into the ways that community is formed and expressed, and to communicate what we have learned in modes that best suit our audience and purpose.

I'm using Paul Gruchow's book Grass Roots and Debra Marquart's book The Horizontal World: Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere, excerpts from Mary Pipher's The Middle of Everywhere and the anthology The Big Empty: Contemporary Nebraska Nonfiction Writers.  We will question the relationship between place and identity, we will explore how communities are created and for what purpose, what conflicts are represented by the community, and we will work towards advocating for issues important to the community.  To do that, we will explore how knowledge in a community is created, what forms of knowledge are valued and which are not, and how the distance between what is valued and what is not affects the community as a whole.  I'm looking forward to my students being able to Skype with Deb Marquart, a part of my pedagogy I consider essential, to get my students to talk with the writers we are reading, to more fully understand that we are a community of writers and that the community extends beyond our classroom.

Right now, my class stands at eleven students and their majors (and years) are all over the map, so we'll have an incredibly rich opportunity to explore different communities and places.  

The day before I left Minneapolis to drive back to Lincoln, my sisters' neighborhood in north Minneapolis had their annual community garage sale, which is always immense, always a lot of fun, and I hope it's becoming an annual tradition for us (now that we've done it, as a family, for three years--which includes my brother-in-law's mother and sister as well).  Each year, we've found things we've really needed, and it has been so much fun to walk around those alleys with the family, basking in the community atmosphere, the brats and such that the Lions Club sells, the closing off of a couple of streets so that musicians can set up their equipment.  This year, I got to carry around my four-month-old nephew, wrapped in a sling, snugged against my chest, and I barely felt him, because he hasn't cracked ten pounds yet.  And my niece, three years old, who proudly had dressed herself in a red, white, and blue sundress with plaid shorts underneath, with pink Crocs, (and the really cute white hat my sister put on her head to protect her from sun).  Two years ago, her daddy bought her a little slide for the backyard, which sent her into hysterical tears when we tried to show her what it was for.  This year, I found a loveseat to replace mine that needs replacing at a garage sale where all the proceeds were going to charity.  There were three jars we could choose from:  north Minneapolis, the Oklahoma tornadoes, and I forget what the third was.  I chose the north Minneapolis jar, as it was just about exactly two years since a tornado ripped through the area, only about ten blocks from my sisters' house.  I've used the north Minneapolis tornado as an illustration before in my classes (particularly my Natural Disasters class) to illustrate that not all communities are the same.  When I came back for Christmas of that year, many of the houses still had blue tarps for roofs.  Had the tornado touched down in Edina, roofs would have been repaired immediately.  This usually turns on a light inside my students and they start to understand what community means.

When I finish my syllabus, I'll head to campus, to Andrews Hall, into another of the communities I claim as mine.

Monday, May 13, 2013

State of Mind: On Friendship, Grief, Gingersnaps and Equality

As I write this, my parents are in Florida for my godfather's funeral, who died suddenly of a heart attack last Wednesday, and my three-month-old nephew is giggling at me (or his hanging raccoon) from his bouncy chair on the table next to me.  Yesterday was Mother's Day and while my sisters, brother-in-law, niece, and nephew spent church and brunch with our 90-year-old Gram, Mom and Dad were en route to Florida to take care of my godmother.  In her suitcase, my mother carried a container of gingersnap cookies that Cora and I had made earlier in the week, from my great-grandmother's recipe.

My mother has known Liz and Bruce for forty years; she met Bruce at freshman orientation at college.  Mom and Liz would later room together; Liz and Bruce would marry the week after graduation.  Over the course of forty years, their friendship would remain strong.  When their daughter arrived, my mother would be her godmother.  When I came along, Liz and Bruce would be my godparents.  Liz was maid of honor for my mother, a sister by choice, since my mother is an only child.  These are the kinds of friendships that turn into family and the incredible loss of Bruce brings other issues of mortality into sharper focus, closer to home.  I remember when my grandmother's brother died, I overheard somebody I didn't recognize say something about what it means when the cousins start dying off.  The same thing is happening now:  my parents are now the generation that is facing mortality and I've heard from various sources that the Boomer generation will not live as long as their parents, one theory being that they're so dependent and trusting of "the fixes" that they do not feel the need to take care of their bodies and their health because there will always be an angioplasty or Lipitor to take care of the problem.

When Gram turned 90--three days after being diagnosed with terminal cancer--Liz and Bruce sent a lovely note filled with memories, one of which was memories of Liz coming to stay with Mom during college and Gram making gingersnaps for her.  The chewy kind, not the crunchy kind.  Liz wrote that she spent most of those weekends face-down, sleeping, because that's what college kids do, but she wrote of the incredible love and hospitality that Gram showed her.

When my sisters were in college, attending the same college that Liz, Bruce, and my mother had (Luther College in Decorah, Iowa), the Hoberts lived not too far away and provided occasional weekends-away for my sisters when the seven-hour drive up to northern Minnesota was too far, physically standing in for my parents when my sisters needed that support.  When Hoberts moved from Iowa to Florida, we made good use of their moving sale, ending up with their yellow couch, which was a queen-size pullout.  It weighed a ton. I have good memories my sisters and I trying to haul that thing up several flights of stairs when K2 moved to Rochester, because it was too big to fit in the elevator.  It's rather hard to move a couch that size, that heavy, when you're laughing like loons.

The news about Bruce came while I was dropping Cora off at her house after babysitting her at my parents' house.  Cora had extracted a promise from me that the next day, we would make animal cookies (spritz, which we usually just make at Christmas).  As I drove back to my parents' house, trying to process the loss, naturally imagining my own parents and their various health issues in the place of Liz and Bruce, and the realities were not comforting.  Since I bake when I'm stressed, the prospect of making cookies with my three-year-old niece seemed like the natural thing to do to deal with the grief.  And so, as I took butter out of the fridge to come to room temperature overnight (and then putting it in the microwave for safekeeping, since Daisy Doodle has been known to eat anything left on the counter), I found my great-grandmother's recipe for gingersnaps when I went looking for the spritz recipe.  Cora calls them "Molasska" cookies.

This had to be the recipe that Gram used to make the gingersnaps that Liz remembered.  And so on Thursday, after the spritz were done (and Cora heard "squirrel" when I said "swirl," so they were animal cookies after all), I made a batch of gingersnaps for Mom to take to Liz.  These are the perfect gingersnaps.  They're not too heavy on the molasses and the other spices fill out the flavors--and they're chewy.

On Mother's Day, we took Gram to church, even though she doesn't hear much of it and then we took her to my sisters' house for brunch (which my brother-in-law had made while we were out).  The pastor asked the congregation to think of all the mothers we've had in our lives, beyond the one we call Mom. Who else has nurtured us, taught us, been formative in who we are?  The way we define family is unique to each individual and no two families look quite alike, nor should they.  This doesn't make one family better or worse than another.  The house I grew up in doesn't look like the house that Cora and Henry are growing up in--and I have no plans for children myself.  We talk about the sandwich generation, about the role the economy is playing in grown and educated children living with their parents, of active aging parents moving in with their Boomer kids.  Families do not look the same as the seeming ideal of the 1950s household, simply because how long we live, when we choose to retire (if we can, at all), and the decisions we make that cause us to question and affirm the relationships of those closest to us.

Today the Minnesota State Senate is voting on Marriage Equality (the House passed the bill on Friday) and it's expected to pass, then will be signed by the governor.  This follows Rhode Island and Delaware  approving marriage equality in their states and it appears Illinois is next in line.  Sometimes our families are legal in nature, sometimes they are by friendship and choice, sometimes they are religious.  We don't need our families to all look the same, but we all want the same thing out of life:  to love and support each other, to teach and challenge each other to be better and larger than themselves, to take care of each other when we cannot do that for ourselves.  That is what families do.

That is the reason that my mother is in Florida right now, the reason that I'm babysitting my niece and nephew today in their stead, watching Henry snuggle and toot in his sleep, the reason that I used my great-grandmother's gingersnap recipe to send Gram's love to Liz.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Summer Reading: Sarah Bakewell's HOW TO LIVE

All this happened in the span of thirty minutes:

...I packed up my 3-year-old niece and 3-month-old nephew into my mother’s car and drove them the fifteen minutes to their house, after a day of babysitting them;

...while I’m standing in my sister’s foyer (with my brother-in-law), my father calls to say they’d just gotten the news that my godfather, a dear friend of my mother’s from college (married to her college roommate), died this morning from a heart attack at the age of 63;

...on the drive back to my parents’, two cop cars and an ambulance taking care of a bad accident on 42nd St. in Robbinsdale.

The grief is intense right now, but that’s not why I feel the need to write right now.  It’s because today has been full of those little moments, my nephew’s volcanic puking and my niece’s cheeky adorability, my dad trying to get Henry to sleep, my mother painting with Cora, the brightness of the flowers I brought to my sister’s work to cheer her on her first day of work back from maternity leave, my parents’ dipsy goldendoodle playing ball by herself outside and refusing to come in.  The reason I need to put this all to paper (cyberspace?) right now is because I’ve just finished Sarah Bakewell's National Book Critic Circle Award winning book, How to Live, or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, and as I close the back cover, I’m responding to this truly excellent biography of Montaigne as a human being as well as an essayist myself.

I foresee that I’m going to be recommending this book to everyone I see, both writers and non-writers.  Bakewell’s book is gorgeously multi-layered:  to learn about the writing means learning about the man and learning about the writing and why his Essais were so brilliant and revolutionary (in terms of writing, not necessarily their ideas, though there is argument for that) is that their purpose spans time and place:  I find echoes of current political attitudes towards civil rights in the rights taken away during Montaigne’s time; Bakewell also mentions Tiananmen Square in the context of Montaigne’s philosophies.  Bakewell’s weaving of biography and criticism and such here is exactly what Montaigne’s essays are supposed to do—and they exist both in and out of space and time.  Especially in light of those three moments of this evening—the children, my godfather’s death, and the car accident—the question of How to Live? is particularly poignant.  And Montaigne’s approach fills in some of the gaps that need to be filled, not just in my life, but others’ too.

But because I am a writer, an essayist, I keep coming back to the writing aspect of things, Bakewell’s discussion of Montaigne and his writing:  “The idea—writing about oneself to create a mirror in which other people recognize their own humanity—has not existed forever.  It had to be invented. […] Unlike most memoirists of his day, he did not write to record his own great deeds and achievements.  Nor did he lay down a straight eyewitness account of historical events, although he could have done…”  Montaigne, Bakewell argues, "was the first writer to create literature that deliberately worked in this way, and to do it using the plentiful material of his own life rather than either pure philosophy or pure invention."  I’m in the midst of writing a critical article on two Irish essayists (the essay is very, very rare in Irish literature) and it’s been very interesting to recognize aspects of Robinson and Arthur’s philosophies of writing craft in Bakewell’s observations of the 16th century Montaigne: the belief in the local, the ordinary, the purpose in getting to the minutiae so as to show the universal in a specific place, the specific in the universal experience. 

That’s why my niece and nephew matter, that’s why Bruce matters, it’s why the people still dazed from their car accident matter.  It doesn’t matter that you don’t know any of them—if I write my joy in my family right, if I write my grief right, if I write the fear of uncertainty right, you’ll recognize your universal in my specific.  And if I write an essay that tries to work through my godfather’s sudden death, the grief that my godmother must be feeling, the grief that my mother must be feeling, I will naturally return to the everyday memory-making that is forming my (and my parents’) relationship with Cora and Henry, how it’s the everyday memories of Bruce that will linger longest, how the car accident and Bruce’s heart attack are reminders not just of how quickly life can turn—but why it’s not the dramatic moments that are important.  We won’t talk about Death when we gather to remember Bruce—we’ll talk about his life, the quirks that made him absolutely unique.  And if I wrote that essay, if I wrote it right, you could substitute any name you wanted for the people I’ve mentioned, and the ideas should still work.

This is why essays matter.  This is why essays are essential.  Joan Didion wrote that we tell ourselves stories in order to live—but we write essays in order to live, as well. 

The whole point of Bakewell’s book—and of Montaigne himself and his writings—is to learn to pay attention.  No other writing form does this in quite the way the essay does.  The uncertainty that the essay relies on—Montaigne’s classic “though I don’t know”—is amplified by the Stoic, Epicurean, and Skeptic philosophies that prized different perspectives as a way to understand the interactions of self and world.  What made Montaigne great—and his Essais what they are—is his absolute commitment to refusing to commit to a side.  His are not arguments—they are explorations.  The multiplicity of perspectives he considers is absolutely unique at this point and this is what allows his work to find that specific in the universal and the universal in the specific.  (Even though it could get him in trouble.)  To find the value in the ordinary, rather than in the dramatic and impressive, is a good lesson for all of us.  She writes of Montaigne using Plutarch’s (fictional) techniques of “stuffing in fistfuls of imagination, conversations, people, animals, and objects of all kinds, rather than by coldly arranging abstractions and arguments.”

But I keep returning to Montaigne’s belief in the power of the ordinary, the power of considering all possible perspectives.  These are the things that are important to me right now, the making of memories with Cora, so that some of her earliest memories of me are things like cooking and baking, even to painting our toenails (like we did a couple of days ago).  Cora was quite upset that I’d taken our matching polish off my fingernails, so it might have to go back on when she gets up.  But this is my life, nothing new under the sun, but it still feels special and wonderful.  Why that is is the beginning of an essay.

Joe Bonomo, in a recent post to the Brevityblog, observes, “Essayists like to quote this line of Vivian Gornick’s, and for good reason: “What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.” Those quoting her often overlook Gornick’s next sentence: “For that, the imagination is required.” This isn’t the imagination that we associate with a fiction writer conjuring up invented experience; this is the imagination required to see actual experiences as threads in a larger fabric, experience that until it is shaped in language and reflection remains private, the equivalent of the scrapbook or Instagram photo that means so much to me, yet so little to you.”

When Bakewell writes, “Montaigne reminded his contemporaries of the old Stoic lesson:  to avoid feeling swamped by a difficult situation, try imagining your world from different angles or at different scales of significance.”  Bonomo, likewise, has a similar perspective: " It’s the charge of the autobiographical essayist to turn himself slightly, to alter his gaze so that it faces a direction other than inward, to merge with language and another’s self to produce something fresh, startling, and vividly human."  But what the essayist attempts is different, because what we do is not invented.  It may be a play of the imagination, but the purpose is different.  It is a matter of paying attention, at a different angle than what fiction writers or poets do.  All genres are necessary.

I take a break from this to try to convince my parents’ dog, an adolescent, overly-exuberant doodle, to come in and stop barking at people walking by—she won’t—and I spend a good twenty minutes failing to catch her.  (She’ll listen to my parents, but they’re not here.) I come in—without her—and my irritation is poisonous.  Maybe it’s better that I don’t catch her while I’m in this mood.

Then, Bakewell in one of her delightful Montaignian moments, reminds me, “We understand nothing of a dog’s experience: of ‘the rapture of bones under hedges, or smells of trees and lamp-posts.’ They understand nothing of ours, when for example they watch us stare interminably at the pages of a book.  Yet both states of consciousness share a certain quality: the ‘zest’ or ‘tingle’ which comes when one is completely absorbed in what one is doing.  This tingle should enable us to recognize each other’s similarity even when the objects of our interest our different.  Recognition, in turn, should lead to kindness.  Forgetting this similarity is the worst political error, as well as the worst personal and moral one.”

The same is true of joy as it is of grief.  All that binds the two are the ordinary moments of life, both absolutely universal and absolutely unique.  And in the waning light of this day, as I sit at my parents' dining room table as rain moves in, a male cardinal on the fence, fire-bright.