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

Monday, January 7, 2013

First Day of the New Semester!

I don't actually teach till tomorrow, but today is the first day of what looks like will be a stupendous semester.  Lots of fun things going on, lots of projects and deadlines and such, but all of it is of the Really Exciting variety.  By some fluke of bureaucracy, I have two creative writing classes this semester, a 250 (Intro to Creative Writing) and a 252 (Intro to Fiction).  I will say the degree to which I was disappointed I didn't have a comp class surprised me, since I was really excited to try my Natural Disasters class again (and just have one new class to prep with my dissertation revising and defense coming up in the next two months)--but looking a gift class in the mouth is dumb.  I'm so excited about these classes.

In my 250, we're going to be concentrating on form (for the most part).  I'll be teaching form poetry, using Eavan Boland and Mark Strand's The Making of a Poem, because I think it's really important to disorient my students' ideas of poetry--and my prose students' ideas of language--and narrow their focus down to what a line, what a word, what a syllable, what a sound can do.  I also think that students should have exposure to form poetry in intro classes, even if they choose not to write in those forms.  We'll be writing short stories in the fiction unit, naturally, and the goal is to transition from language and image to the shape of a story, how a story add Language and Shape to Idea, writing Montaignian essays that move away from the shape of experience and give precedence to the shape of thought.  It's the first time I've gotten to teach nonfiction in a creative writing setting--and I'm pretty excited about it.

My 252 is something I've taught twice before, in settings different enough that I hardly consider them the same classes.  The first time was Fall 2011, a weekly night class, a schedule I adored, and I chose texts that were only loosely grouped around place, trying to teach them that they could write about anything, set anywhere.  In this class, I learned that teaching a novel (and by accident I'd chosen a mystery novel) is essential to my fiction pedagogy.  The second time, Spring 2012, the schedule was an afternoon MWF, and I used contemporary Irish fiction to challenge my students to apply what they know about fiction to texts they would usually only find in capital-L Literature classes, not creative writing classes.  This class also provided the opportunity for our cross-class collaboration with Dawn Duncan's British Literature class--as we read Joseph O'Connor's novel Star of the Sea.  (The choosing of a novel was deliberate, but by accident, it turned out to be another mystery novel...something that now has become a permanent part of my pedagogy.)  I've scheduled either in-person or Skype visits with various writers we will be reading--and I'm excited about that too.

This time around, it's a TR schedule, and I'm really looking forward to seeing how the longer class periods twice a week balance between the once-weekly and the MWF schedule.  Because I knew I'd have to rearrange the schedule anyway, that the two syllabi I already had prepared wouldn't exactly fit the new format, I figured I might as well choose new texts:  so, this time, I'm teaching contemporary Nebraska fiction.  One of the most important moments of my entire educational career came in a Minnesota Writers class when I was in college, where I learned not only about the literature that comes from my home state (I had no idea that the first American to win the Nobel Prize for literature was a Minnesotan), but also that I, as a writer, could write about Minnesota.  It was an incredible moment.  As a result, I think it's absolutely essential for both writers and scholars to know the literature of their home state--to the degree that I think a course in Nebraska Writers should be mandatory for all English majors at UNL.

So, I've chosen to use Ron Hansen's She Loves Me Not: New and Selected Stories, which is just out; Ladette Randolph's anthology A Different Plain: Contemporary Nebraska Fiction; and Sean Doolittle's thriller Rain Dogs.  I tried to get Ron Hansen to Skype with us, but his schedule would not permit it.  Sean Doolittle was excited to participate--and the Omaha novelist is actually making the trek to Lincoln to visit my class in person.  Guess how excited I am about that?  And my delightful advisor, Jonis Agee, is coming as well, to talk with us about short stories.

Both classes will become more aware of how they fit into the existing community of writers, not just by talking to established creative writers in person or via Skype, but as we participate in the life of the writing community at UNL.  Sherman Alexie is coming to launch the Winter Issue of Prairie Schooner; Prairie Schooner is also doing a "Global Ireland" event, to which my friend Eamonn Wall is coming; I'm looking forward to in-class and out-of-class excursions to Morrill Hall; Michael Forsberg, the eminent Nebraska photographer, is having an exhibit at the Great Plains Art Museum...and more, and more, and more.

This is also the semester where I revise and defend my dissertation.  I finished the draft of it before I went North for Christmas (a good thing, because the only thing I accomplished Up North was making a zillion Christmas cookies with my seriously delightful niece), which means I revise it over the next six weeks or so, and defend it in March.  (My niece will be getting a brother about the time I hope my revised diss is done, which coincides with my grandmother celebrating her 90th birthday, so that's another time-sensitive goal.) With a TR teaching schedule, that means the bulk of my MWF can be devoted to writing.  I've never had something like this, time-wise, and I'm pretty excited about it.

Today's writing thought, from Matt Bell's website, which is always a good way to start the day:

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