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

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.

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