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

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.

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