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

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.

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