"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!

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