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

Saturday, August 24, 2013

IWC 100: Writing and Community, Concordia-Style

This week has been a revelation to me, filled with two full days of new faculty orientation and two days of full faculty workshops.  On Wednesday, the only day this week without workshops, I went with my new friend and colleague in the English department to the campus Corn Feed, something she'd never experienced before.  It had been years since I had been to one, so I was looking forward to it.  All you can eat corn, served by members of the faculty, staff, and alumni.  You could even have your corn served to you by the president or his wife.  It's a good time, full of smiles and laughter.  Nobody can be unhappy while eating corn on the cob.  It's impossible.

Our mascot, Kernel.  Fear the Ear.
Earlier in the week, one of our speakers told us that this Corn Feed is one of the only times that members of the community will physically set foot on Concordia's campus.  For all that we are a globally-oriented campus community, wanting to create community with our neighbors near and far, I suspect there's a perception and a barrier that keeps various communities away from our physical campus.  When I heard this, I filed it away for further thought at a later time.

The acoustic duo Flatlands, who I heard many times when I was a student. 
But this is the kind of place who asks, quite seriously, in its faculty workshops, "What kind of community do we aspire to be?"  It's true that my three IWC classes will focus on the relationship of place and community.  But what I am relearning--and learning new from this different faculty perspective--is this commitment to a campus community and how that contributes to the global community.  But, even as there is no specific place studies attention here, this is a place that already is exercising these tenets I know well:  start local and move outwards to the global.  If I didn't already know Concordia's mission statement, it would have been carved on my bones this week with its repetition:  The purpose of Concordia College is to influence the affairs of the world by sending into society thoughtful and informed men and women dedicated to the Christian life.  (More on the mission statement later, but the discussions this week about the "Christian life" part of it were particularly fascinating to me, especially with discussions of the recently approved Campus Atheists student group--and the discussion of even though we have this Lutheran foundation, we're exercising that foundation in a variety of very cool, very inclusive, very varied ways.)

This was vibrantly clear to me several times over the course of the week, with two shining examples:  the first was on Thursday morning, as we gathered for the beginning of the faculty workshop, and who should walk by, but Dr. Leigh Wakefield, my Cobber Band director.  He looked at me, and with instant recognition, called me by name without any hesitation and gave me a huge hug.  I haven't seen him since I graduated, but he still remains one of the most influential and inspirational people in my life.  He gets mentioned every semester, on the first day of every class I teach, because, as I tell my students, there were 150 of us in band, 50 of whom were flutes, and by the second week, he not only knew our names, but knew about us and would call us by name and ask about our lives.  Surely I can learn their names in the first week.  Dr. Wakefield hasn't changed a bit and he's still a person who can raise your joy quotient just by being in the same space.  At the coffee break, he dashed back to his office in the music building to fetch the black and white photograph of my mother's hands playing piano that I gave him in 1999 and that he still has in his office.  He wanted to show me he still had it.

The second moment happened on Friday morning, with the faculty banquet having been held the night before (and new faculty being introduced).  At the coffee break, my PE professor, Larry Papenfuss, came to find me in the crowd.  He reintroduced himself, said he didn't know if I'd remember him (he's not one I'd forget either), and told me how excited he was to see my picture up there at the banquet the night before.  And so we talked for quite a while, catching up.

A few moments from various times of the workshop came together in a way that surprised me, especially as I was thinking about community formation.  We heard the reports on the budget, enrollment, and such, and a few things jumped out at me:  the first is that 19.7% of our freshman class are Legacy students (those who have had family members attend Concordia) and 15% of the freshman class is first-generation students.  We heard numbers on students of color, about male/female ratios.  But I kept coming back to the Legacy/1st Gen. numbers, especially as I considered the nature of privilege in attending a private liberal arts college, one whose roots are Norwegian.  It's going to be difficult to convince non-Legacy students to attend Concordia, especially ones who have crossed various colleges off their list simply because of price.  But there has to be a way to make it easier and more welcoming for first-generation students and students of color (and in my mind, particularly students from the Native American communities of the Upper Midwest) to come to this place.

At UNL, I worked for a semester with the W.H. Thompson Scholars program, a scholarship program that consisted of only first-generation and low-income students from Nebraska.  The students form a cohort and take specifically designated WHT sections of various core classes (I taught a composition class) in their first two years, with professors who have had some training in the specific needs of low income and first-generation students.  Their experiences and perceptions of the way the world works is not like any other group of students and in all the classes I taught at UNL, that particular section might have been my favorite.  And I just got an email a couple of days ago from a former student from that class, for whom I wrote a recommendation letter for her admission to the nursing program--and she wrote to tell me she got in.  Various other events were set up through the Thompson family, including the E.N. Thompson Forum on World Affairs (the year I taught the WHT class, the theme was Water and Global Security, which was fascinating.)  If you're curious about my WHT class, click on the Topics on the right and find W.H. Thompson Scholars.

But it got me thinking about the ways a program like this could work at a place like Concordia.  Concordia is blessed with generous alumni, like Ron Offutt, whose name graces the spectacular new Offutt School of Business (that I got to tour this week)--and even though business isn't my thing, just hearing from the new faculty who will be working there, it's going to be an incredible place to work on a business degree.  Perhaps there could be a capital fund drive of some sort to support a scholarship system for just this purpose, to bring in more viewpoints and voices.  We heard a lot from the Concordia Language Villages this week--and there was brief mention that there are no courses in any Native American languages, either at CLV or on Concordia's campus.  (Which, then, made me think of my dear friend Aubrey, who spent three intensive semesters at UNL learning Omaha, and then while I was shopping at a thrift store this week, I found a book on Dakota verbs.)  Each year, several groups of students do work on reservations (Justice Journeys trips, etc)--but it seems like this could be a terrific opportunity for expansion and enrichment.

But a community needs to start with the local, not only on a campus, but in the ways that we break down the barriers--physical and perceptual--between a campus and the larger community it participates in.  This week, I have been overwhelmed by the recurring feelings that I am in the right place, that I'm finally in a place that believes in first-year writing as much as I do, that I'm in a place that values the student above all else, a place where "student-centered" is not an empty catchphrase of academia.  This is a place where everyone, from adjuncts to full professors are straight-up excited for the students to arrive tomorrow.  This is a place where first-year courses are not farmed out to the person with least seniority.  This is a place where as much of our job is to help students find their passions, to find what their vocation could be.  All of this feels so familiar to me, because it's been my teaching philosophy from the beginning--which I'm guessing comes from seeing it modeled in my undergrad--but it's beyond my capacities for language to express how wonderful it is to be in a place where what I do and how I feel about teaching and how I feel about my students matches up with the institution.

Of course, the reality is that this contract is only a year (and the MLA JIL comes out way too soon for my comfort level), which means that I save my ideas for a more appropriate time and place. (Like a blog...)  But if I only get to be here for a year, it's going to be one of the most amazing sequences of months I can imagine.  

Now.  Back to the syllabi.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

IWC 100: Place, Community, and Responsible Engagement

First, start here, with listening to Richard Wilbur, reading his poem "The Writer."

If you want the full text of the poem, click here, where there is also an audio version.  When we started our new faculty orientation on Monday, our president, Bill Craft--who is a former English professor himself--would read this poem to end his remarks to us.  For myself, who is simultaneously writer and teacher, there's no better way to start my brain going in the right direction.  But then, Ernie Simmons began his remarks with the deceptively simple question of "Why are you here?" which is a question I often use to start my classes, since I am so interested in place studies and place-conscious pedagogy.  That question gets to the heart of the existential reasons why we are here in this classroom, on this campus, on this earth--but it also requires the practical.  Simultaneously, it also wonders about the physical placement as well as within space and time.

Right now, as I'm sitting at my desk in my half-unpacked apartment with my patio doors open as long as the heat and humidity stay bearable, I can say that I am here, at my desk and in cyberspace, because I need a place to think through the last two days before I can articulate what I want to in my syllabi.

For myself, I answered (in my head) that I am so thrilled to be in a place like Concordia that values first-year writing and the first-year experience as much as I do.  This is a place where the first-year experience is so vitally important that full professors routinely choose to teach in it.  This is a place where I heard, over and over, from the First Year Experience workshop last week to the speakers at our New Faculty Orientation, how excited they are about first-year students, how excited they are to be teaching, even after decades here.  I heard, over and over, about the arc of the student experience, how we are participating in the work of educating the whole student, for a whole life.  Nowhere else have I heard so much about helping students find their passion.

Dr. Peter Hovde, professor of political science, gave us some advice, advice that he had received over the years, advice that is valuable no matter how long one has been teaching, something I would like to ruminate on further (at a different time and space):

  • Always find a way to teach more than you know.
  • Walk into the classroom with important questions, not answers.
  • Let the quality of what you do speak for itself.
  • Be real with students.

My classes, no matter if they are composition, creative writing, or literature, have been based for some time now on a place-conscious pedagogy, which starts local and expands out towards the global.  It's amazing to me that such could have been the foundation for the CORE curriculum at Concordia and its guiding principle of BREW:  Becoming Responsibly Engaged in the World.  Dr. George Connell, director of the Humanities Division, told us that the view of the Humanities is of the impregnable Ivory Tower (moreso than some of the other divisions), but BREW ensures that this does not happen.  What I found particularly interesting about his remarks was a quote that I'm going to butcher, but something to the effect that words mean what they mean because of the implicit contradictions of those words.  If BREW means Becoming Responsibly Engaged in the World, what are the implicit contradictions?  Irresponsible Disengagement/Overengagement?  But what might Irresponsible Engagement look like?  At what point does Responsible Disengagement become the right course of action?

My classes will be based on the 254 I taught this summer, with some adjustments to the standards of Concordia's English department, but I will still be teaching a project that requires field research (place observation as well as first-hand investigation of the community) to understand the relationship of a particular community to the place where they are; the library research paper will shift, then, into being the advocation paper, finding an issue of importance to that community and advocating for them; the third project will be the textual/rhetorical analysis of Mary Pipher's book The Middle of Everywhere.  Given how these projects worked in my summer 254, with my students becoming incredibly involved in their projects and communities (many to their deep surprise), I hope that something similar will happen with my first-year students.  Associate Dean Lisa Sethre-Hofstad spoke of Lara Galinsky's "Moment of Obligation" and I hope to use the article in my classes, because it's a perfect articulation of what I'm already thinking.

I'm excited to see how various aspects of this unique, specific Concordia community show up in my class, from the annual Faith, Reason, and World Affairs Symposium (on Happiness) and how do our ideas of place and community show up in the symposium?  What is the relationship of place and community to various ideas of how happiness is constructed or revealed?  On a more practical level, what natural and built environments are being used for lectures, concurrent sessions, and other events and how does that add to or detract from the rhetoric being used?  What about the cultural events on campus, the music, theatre, art, visiting lectures, and more?  How do those work to form community, not only in the fields they operate in, but also across the campus--and even wider, to the entire Fargo/Moorhead community?  I'm toying with the idea of giving my students the option to live Tweet various functions, for the purpose of asking them to discern whether or not such social media activities promote or inhibit community function.

In the course of this morning, I hunted through my various memory boxes, because I knew my beanie from my freshman year was here somewhere.  Not only did I find it, but I also found my student ID.  Beanies are one obvious, visual way that Concordia creates community among its first-year students.  But this afternoon, it's another:  a Corn Feed, a time for Cobbers new and old to gather and feast on the mascot.  (Strange, now that I think about it, that the Huskers never did much with corn...)  My new friend and colleague in the English department has never been to a Corn Feed before.  I feel a need to educate her.  It's quite a unique experience.

Monday, August 12, 2013

State of Mind: Back to School Reading Edition

I'm back!  This summer has not been a good one for posting, something I really wanted to do during my summer 254 (which was absolutely incredible in so many ways), through the process of getting a job and defending my dissertation, ending my summer class and packing up my apartment and movers coming, to my lovely two-week trip to Ireland to present at the International Association for the Study of Irish Literatures on the subject of place in Irish noir, and now the moving-in to my new apartment in Fargo.  I have books on the shelves!  I have internet!  And I think I know where, maybe, half my stuff is.  It's all here somewhere, right?

I may have had a slight breakdown in Target over the weekend as I was shopping for that stuff you need when you move into a new place and the teenage girl in front of me had her shopping cart loaded with college ruled paper, binders, pens, and other assorted back-to-school supplies.  It can't be Back to School yet!  This distressed me on several levels:  an inability to comprehend that we're into the second week of August, that the semester starts in two weeks and I haven't gotten my syllabi done, that I haven't even gotten to enjoy the pleasure of my own school supplies shopping.  But this coincided with my movers good-naturedly complaining about having to lug eighty boxes of books up to the third floor and one of the movers asking if I'd actually read all these books (I said, "most of them.") and the other mover confiding that he hated reading.  "Dangerous thing to tell an English teacher," I said.  He said that he'd dropped out of school, was a slow reader.  I told him what I tell all my students:  reading is a muscle, it's not magic.  You have to practice.  But the reality is that it doesn't matter what you read as long as you read.  You could read car magazines, you could read newspapers, you could read short stories--it doesn't matter.  I don't know if it made any difference, but one effect of teaching first-year writing for so long is that I have to combat this culture of fear around reading as much as I have to combat the fear of writing.  There's an incredible amount of shame I've noticed surrounding those who say that they hate reading (and writing).  Maybe it's partly a culture of exceptionalism that says that if you're going to do something, you have to be an expert at it.  So then, maybe it's easier to say that you hate something and avoid it.

Of course, I didn't tell him that my idea of tourist destinations when in Ireland included Chapters bookstore in Dublin and Charlie Byrne's in Galway...

Maybe it's intimidating to haul eighty boxes of books up three flights of stairs, but if my mover had stuck around long enough to see those books on the shelves, he would have seen that my shelves are the least-intimidating shelves ever.  There are writers that scare me, writers I've never read, and I admitted this to my mover (though I will only admit those writers out loud, not in print), which made him laugh.  But my shelves of nonfiction are incredibly varied, from books on cheese and dirt (two separate books) to books on natural disasters, to memoirs and histories and all kinds of random stuff.  My Irish shelves don't contain much in the way of scary authors (I only have Joyce's Portrait...and I have no shame in admitting that Joyce scares me...)--and if he'd checked out the shelves of literary fiction and crime literature, that's the least scary part of what I do.  Crime literature?  Seriously?  Except for the subject matter, there's nothing easier to get into than mysteries.  Yesterday, I finally decided to get over my distaste for Dashiell Hammett as a human being (I read Lillian Hellman's memoir ten years ago, learned to dislike Hammett for his treatment of her, and refused to read him...)--and finally pulled The Maltese Falcon off the shelf, settled down on my new balcony in my zero gravity chair, and started and finished it in one sitting.  Glorious prairie night.  And it was a good book, as I knew it would be.

But then, today, as I'm crossing all kinds of things off my To Do list (update insurance policies, get paperwork in order for my new job, etc), my friend Karen Craigo posts to Facebook this graphic:  Surprising Book Facts.  My first reaction, as a reader, as a writer, as a teacher, is disappointment and a certain amount of resignation.  But even as I try to crawl out of that hole of despair, I realize that the nature of this graphic is misleading and it goes back to what I told my mover.  Perhaps we place too much value on the books themselves, as a form, rather than what they contain.  It's something I've been thinking about as I've been shelving my books and wondering where to put my One Story archive.  By reimagining the form that reading takes, we put more value on the words, the sentences, the ideas.  With so many literary journals going online, the delivery method of the work and the inherent value we put on that method needs to change.

It doesn't matter what you read, as long as you read.  In a few short weeks, I will tell my students that nothing will teach you more about how to put a sentence together than reading.  Even if you don't like what you're reading, you can still learn something from it.  I will tell them about my dislike for Cormac McCarthy, but there are few who taught me more about language.  I will tell them that "that [wo]man can write a sentence!" is the best compliment I can give a book.  On my flight from Shannon, Ireland to Chicago (where my television didn't work, so I had to read while everybody else watched movies...), I started and finished Declan Burke's Slaughter's Hound and Joy Castro's Nearer Home.  I tweeted a few days later that I felt like my soul had been singed when I landed in Chicago.  Both books were incredible, in different ways, but the result of them was the same:  as a reader, it made me want to read more, to keep following the characters wherever they would go; as a writer, they made me want to write.  I included Burke in the paper I presented at IASIL and as I revise that paper into an article for publication, I can't wait to include Slaughter's Hound in my analysis.

I've also seen this graphic floating around cyberspace too and I think it's going to be the newest addition to my office door.  It's been so long since I've been able to read anything just for the pure pleasure of it and I'm hoping that now that I'm done with my PhD I'll be able to get back to the joy of reading.  For the last three years, I haven't read anything that hasn't been assigned for a class, on my exam reading lists, or something I'm teaching in my own classes.  If I've wanted to explore something new, I've had to justify it by writing something critical on it or teaching a class where I could include it.  That's how I got to read all kinds of natural disaster narratives, that's how I got to read all kinds of fun crime literature.  I might have to justify fun reading to myself this way for a while longer, but such is the life of an academic, though.

It's helpful to see reading, visually, in terms of this graphic, though.  Twenty minutes doesn't seem like a long time at all, though the cumulative effect of all those words and sentences and ideas is so much larger than the equivalent of sixty whole school days of reading.  I didn't have a television while I did my PhD (no physical room in my tiny apartment) and I don't plan to buy one now that I have room.  I have Netflix on my computer and that's enough.  I hope that I can spend my downtime reading the books on my shelves that I haven't read yet.  The Lincoln library book sale has ensured that there are more books on my shelves than I could possibly read--and I see this as a good thing, not a bad thing.  But I also like to reread books (and I don't understand those who don't reread books--but that's another blog post...).  There's always something more to be found, even on my own shelves.

Maybe the disconnect is in differentiating between fun-reading and work-reading, between reading that happens in a long-form book or another form.  I'm not sure how to break that down into something else, but maybe that's the first, necessary step.  There is no bad reading, there is no bad time spent reading.  Even writing that isn't the best (like this book my mother lent me, self-published by a man in her hometown about a crime that went on in his family's business, or even poorly written online work) will teach you what not to do, as well as good writing teaches what to do.  While this graphic focuses on elementary students, the same can be applied to college students.  Who will be better critical thinkers?  Who will be better writers?  Who will be more compassionate human beings?  Who will discover new interests, new curiosities, things they never knew existed?  I never thought about it that way before is my favorite thing to hear as a teacher.

It's time now to get back to unpacking, adding new things to the To Do list, and planning to end for the day around 4:00, so I can sit on my balcony in my zero-gravity chair in the prairie evening with something new to read.  Or maybe something I've read before.  The possibilities are endless.

So, here's today's question:  which authors/books are you afraid of?  And what's on your list to get your twenty minutes of reading in?  What books would you recommend to others to get their twenty minutes?