"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.

No comments:

Post a Comment