To tell the truth, I'm slightly terrified. I've never done a Writing Marathon before and I'm not convinced that doing my first one with my 8:00 class full of sleepy freshmen was a good place to start. But live and learn. I will do this two more times (at 2:40 today and 1:20 tomorrow) and I'm very interested to see how it all goes.
(If you've never heard of Writing Marathons or the National Writing Project, start here.)
We're thinking about communities and knowledge these days (and I say "these days" because I have one class that's on a MWF schedule and two that are on a TR schedule) and when I ask them to free write about "something that they know," I get blank stares and after they've written for a while, it's been pulling teeth to get them to say things out loud, because even if they can't verbalize it, what they're reacting to is that some forms of knowledge are valued and others are not. They're afraid of sounding dumb, like a thing they know will get them laughed at. These classes are all fairly talkative, so this is a brand new wrinkle for them. But then somebody gets the ball rolling.
So far, they've started out with bodies of knowledge that are fairly valued. I know how to play basketball. I know how to solve a Rubik's Cube. But then, as I've learned, somebody shouts out something less valued. I know how to jump start a car. I know why my hometown can only grow potatoes, strawberries, and edible beans (because the soil is sand). I know how to knit. I know how to make a "mean corn chowder," one of my students said yesterday, to which I replied: "Why do people always say that? Why is it always 'mean'? Why don't people make 'nice' corn chowders?" This made my class laugh. Then, because the class is getting more comfortable, they shout out things that are less and less valued as bodies of knowledge, but are still important.
How do we come to know these things? We've read a few pieces from Paul Gruchow's book Grass Roots--and we talk about the different ways that Gruchow has come to specific knowledge. Sometimes it's personal experience, sometimes it's a mentor, sometimes it's basic, gut-level curiosity that leads us to Google or to the library. Who owns various bodies of knowledge? What do the women in a community know? How is that different than what the men know? What do insiders know that outsiders don't?
Today, I brought to class two different articles that considered the relationship between place and community in very different ways. The first was an article from the Huffington Post about the "25 Healthiest and Happiest Cities in America" and Minneapolis-St. Paul was #3 (for scores in heart health) and surprise of surprises, Fargo was #6, for strength of faith. Also of interest was what HuffPo labeled as the "Happiness Hub," the Northern Plains Botanic Society. I know where I'm going with my camera when I get some (make some?) free time. But this idea of Our Place (and by that I'm including Moorhead with Fargo) as being a healthy and happy place--rather than being in the middle of a wasteland, a piece of flyover country, a place considered of little value to Those of Discerning Taste, is incredibly interesting.
My friend Jeannie also posted this article about Cleveland: "The American Grandeur of Cleveland."
But the other article I brought was from MPR: "Minnesota Food Insecurity Still at an All-Time High." How do we, then, measure happiness? What are the obstacles to creating strong communities? How can we truly be a place that measures high on happiness indices but still has more than ten percent of its citizens not knowing where their next meal is coming from? What is the obstacle to all Minnesotans--and Americans in general--having adequate food? My parents' church in the Cities participates in Kid Pack, which packs weekend food for kids whose only meals might come from school. On the weekends, then, those kids might go hungry until Monday, when they can get lunch at school. Then my friend Mandy posted an article about New Jersey throwing food away if a child cannot afford lunch. I have no words for that.
Not true. I have lots of words.
But thinking about this: what do I know? What do I know that is inherent and unique to the place? How do I see things in a way that nobody else does? This is why I'm jumping off the high dive, pedagogically speaking, and sending my students on a Writing Marathon (I hope to God it works and they're not screwing around out there): what do they see that nobody else does? How do their own bodies of knowledge affect what they see and how they think about it? And what questions does it raise for them?
I'm looking forward to finding out. The debriefing from my first class described the experience of doing the Writing Marathon as awesome and fantastic, freeing. Because they didn't have to worry about comments of any sort, they could--and did--let themselves write anything they wanted. They talked about the places they felt comfortable in, places they felt very uncomfortable in (other dorms, etc.) and then we talked about the difference between insiders and outsiders and what do those communities need to know, to feel comfortable? I will admit to being surprised that they had such positive experiences with the Writing Marathon, since I had absolutely no idea how it would go and what they would gain from it. But I am heartened, bolstered, intrigued, and thoroughly eager to see what my other two classes make of the experience.