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

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Teaching Update: IWC 100

My brain is very full right now, mostly in a good way.  It's partly, also, very full in a way I hoped would never happen.  Gram passed away on Sunday morning, at the age of 90, and her death--even though we knew it was coming--hits me in a way that I don't yet know how to process.  She was the holder of so many of our family's stories, witness to so many important moments in history, and my opportunity to get her to tell me a story, just one more time, that's all gone.  On a strictly personal level, I'm incredibly grateful that she did not die on my birthday (Friday) and that Mom and I got to take my niece and nephew to see her on Saturday, so her last memories would have included Cora "reading" her a story and Henry giggling at her.  She, a loyal Gopher fan, lived long enough for the Gophers to beat the Huskers in football for the first time since 1960 (though she was not exactly aware of it).  Things work out the way they should, but death never gets easier, no matter who it is that we lose.  But losing grandparents--something that happens with alarming frequency to my first-year students--is a special kind of loss.

You might want to check out this State of Mind post from last year, when Gram cast her ballot:  it's a good one.  But there are larger implications here, beyond the grief my family and I are working through, trying to balance that with our existing commitments (mine being to my students).  My grandmother made an incredible impact on my life.  And one way that I bring this into my classroom is that I want to teach my students--and it surprises me, every semester, that my students don't have more confidence--is that they can and will have the power to influence and impact the lives of other people, often without realizing it.

We're in the midst of Writing Project 2 right now, which is an advocacy project that involves the department's library research component.  They've researched a need in a community, formulated a solution, and are arguing for it.  And I have to say, the projects that my students are coming up with are just making me speechless.  We've had conferences this week, so I've gotten to talk to my students about their drafts, and drafts being what they are, they need work, but they're on the right track.  Mostly, my students aren't focusing on their solution yet and their audience isn't clear.  Many of them simply want to advocate for awareness and so far, convincing them that awareness isn't enough has been a struggle.  But the lightbulbs going on in this office in the last three days have blinded me.  I've told them basically that the goal of the project is for them to take this project, hand it to their audience, say hey, you've got a problem, here's a solution, here's what the solution looks like, here's why you should do it, here's research that contextualizes and supports--GO.

And I've given them this Real World Example:  a colleague and I have an idea that we want to take to the department chair.  Were we to wander in to his office and say, hey, let us do this, he would look at us, shake his head, and kindly tell us no.  So.  We're going to write up a proposal.  Here's what we want to do, here's how it would work, here's why we want to do it, and here's the research and the scholarship and the pedagogy behind it.  Which might get us upgraded from an immediate no to a maybe.  (At this point in my anecdote, this usually gets a grin from the student.)  And then the light bulb goes on.

I cannot stress enough how spectacular these proposal are.  And I will say that getting my students to focus on the local, a particular community has made all the difference in the world.  I've told them individually--and I will tell them collectively when I see them today and tomorrow--that I hope to God they actually do hand their proposal to their audience and work towards getting it implemented.  Because these are beyond good.  This is the kind of change we need.  Some example of advocacy proposals:

  • Setting up a free thrift store in each dorm on Concordia's campus to cut down on landfill waste and help students with financial issues pick up items they need (that others don't need any more).
  • Organizing a Health Day (clever name to come) on Concordia's campus once a month, to help the United Blood Services in Fargo increase their donations--but this would be assisted by nursing and premed students (to get experience), food and nutrition students (to make healthy snacks for donors), and she has a lot of other ways to get other majors involved.
  • Advocate for Pass/Fail art/music/writing classes to be included in the Wellness/PE requirement, to give students not only a physical outlet in a low-stakes requirement, but also to increase their creativity.
  • Several ideas to solve Hope Lutheran Church in Fargo's space problem--including a proposal to buy the empty St. Mark's in downtown Fargo, rather than building new.
  • Advocating for the Arc of Cass County, that the program become a permanent part of Concordia's Service Learning program.
  • Setting up mentoring programs in their high school to bridge the gap between Somali immigrant students and Caucasian students.
There are more.  I've handed back almost all the drafts, so I'm running out of remembering--but they're so good.  They seem to like that what we're doing in this class is not just a classroom exercise, that everything we're doing has Real World Implications that they can see, that we're in active pursuit of learning and expression and that there is no one right way to write these papers.  They're starting to understand that what they do has consequences--both good and bad--and that they can make a difference, that what they have to say matters.  If the need could be solved by existing solutions, it would be solved already--and that means there's a fantastic opportunity for them.  

We're shifting into WP3 today, which is a rhetorical analysis of Mary Pipher's book, The Middle of Everywhere, and they're going to be analyzing that book and honoring the unique perspectives they have on it.  I want to see how they filter that book, given the specific experiences they had doing their field research in the first project, the library research and advocating in the second project, their own personal, life experiences that make them who they are.  And I get to wave around the Real World Implications of this type of analysis, because I'm writing a book review for New Hibernia Review that was technically due in two days, but I've gotten a two week reprieve because of Gram's death.  Since we're teaching transferrable skills, here's my contribution to that.  

But it's also impossible to stop thinking about next semester, since our book orders were due.  I'm going to teach my Natural Disaster Narratives class on MWF and the Place and Community class on TR.  I'm not going to try to do the one-class/two-different-time-schedules again, like I did this semester.  It's too hard.  A few things have come up in the last few days that (a) make me think of Gram and her love of travel, commitment to conservation; (b) how I'm going to approach next semester, especially the last project on human-caused disasters:

Exhibit A:  "Enbridge Files Application to Run Pipeline Across Northern Minnesota; Opponents Gird For Fight."Absolutely not.  This enrages me to the point where I can't see and all my vocabulary is full of four-letter-words.  They want to run this pipeline through Itasca State Park, which is the headwaters of the Mississippi--and through my home county.  

Exhibit B:  "Nearly 300 Pipeline Spills in North Dakota Have Gone Unreported to the Public Since January 2012."  How many of my North Dakota students have any idea about what really goes on in the Oil Patch?

Which brings me to the timeliness of Exhibit C, from last night's Rachel Maddow Show and the world according to Nebraska, climate change, and who cares about a flyover state?

Exhibit D comes from a friend's posting on Facebook and a reminder of why place matters, how we look at place matters, and the implications of those views has.  Also, I'm just in love with maps anyway.


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