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

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.