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

Friday, September 20, 2013

Teaching Update: Independent Study & IWC

I can't believe it's been so long since I last posted--and I can't believe it's the end of Week 4 already.  But I've been having all kinds of strange intersections of thoughts about community and this campus and beyond, something I'm incredibly grateful for on a personal and existential and professional level.

It's Family Weekend at Concordia, which has put me on an unexpected train of thought these last few days.  This week, it was the one-year anniversary of my beloved uncle's unexpected death, and each memory of him (and pictures that my cousins have posted) chips at my heart a little more for their grief. My godfather died, also unexpectedly, of a heart attack in May.  And then my father ended up with basal cell carcinoma on his ear, necessitating removal, which was followed by chest pains that resulted in stents (and Dad has lost nearly 20 pounds in the time since and this brand-new attention to his health has made the rest of us breathe a sigh of relief).  Too much loss and too much threat of loss in a short time and it makes me incredibly grateful for all the ways we define our families, how we love and support each other in all sorts of ways.

On a building in the "Latin Quarter"
I'm in a particularly good Irish mood today, mostly due to the misty gloom of the morning and the Barry's tea in my mug (I'm in the office, though I'm not generally here till noon on MWF), but also because I've been doing an independent study with a student on (women's) travel/place writing and as we've been reading (just finished Michele Morano's Grammar Lessons, which L. loved, as I knew she probably would) and writing, I've been free writing along with the prompts I've been giving her.  We were writing about "What does Liverpool (insert other place as necessary) eat for breakfast?" and I wrote about "What does Galway eat for breakfast," which was lovely.  Gaelic Storm's "Irish Breakfast Day" never fails to make me grin, especially when that song appears on my playlist as I'm on the roundabout in south Moorhead, on my commute from Fargo to campus.  As a result, I've got some movement on Galway hookers (I got to see the Naomh Bairbre again when I was in Galway in July and the Bonnie Roy was moored on the Claddagh Quays across from my B&B) that will help me revise my beloved Quays essay (one of my favorites, of all time).  I haven't been able to make time to do my own writing since I got back from Ireland, moved to Fargo, and started my new job. I've never done an independent study before, let alone on a subject so close to my heart, so this is exciting on a lot of different levels.

The Bonnie Roy
The Naomh Bairbre

L. and I came to the reading list like this:  I proposed a fairly long list of books that fit with her desires for the independent study (she could also propose possibilities), which is to do some substantial writing about her study abroad in Liverpool last semester, and from that list, she chose four books, plus a craft text.  Here's our reading list:

  • Michele Morano, Grammar Lessons: Translating a Life in Spain.
  • Erik Weiner, The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World.
  • Alice Steinbach, Without Reservations: The Travels of an Independent Woman.
  • Robert Root, ed., Landscapes with Figures: Nonfiction of Place.
  • Bill Roorbach, Writing Life Stories: How to Make Memories into Memoirs, Ideas into Essays, and Life into Literature.

Inside the Galway City museum
What's great about this list is that two of these books L. suggested--and I haven't read--so this is as much a learning experience for me as it is for her.  She turned in her first writing yesterday, on the Scouse accent of Liverpool and how that translated (ha) into the culture shock and travel disorientation of her arrival to England and her study abroad.  So much possibility there.  She turned in three pages and one look at it and I know what she has there will be at least twenty pages.  That kind of promise is so exciting.

I've been doing ten hour days in the office this week, unusual for me, since I generally do much of my course prepping and grading at home (and I got rough drafts from all three IWC classes this week, so in the immortal words of the Dowager Countess of Grantham, "What's a weekend?").  It's Family Weekend this weekend, so the campus will shortly be filled with parents and families, all excited to draw the community closer together.  This morning--and this is why I'm here on a morning when I'm not generally here--is because during community time, the English department is hosting Coffee and Conversation for (English) students and their families.  (The way that Concordia's schedule is constructed, on Fridays, time from 9:20-10:20 is left unscheduled for meetings and gatherings and events--very cool.)

My IWC classes have been going very, very well and I'm seriously excited to see these drafts they've turned in.  My TR morning IWC has been a challenge of late, for a variety of reasons, though I'm hoping that we've turned a corner.  Part of the challenge with that class is that the chemistry is wonky, it's at 8:00 in the morning, and it's a TR class, which means the class is 100 minutes long.  Earlier this week, they were not only staring blankly and clearly not paying attention as I was explaining how to use quotations (obviously not the sexiest subject), but a few of them got snarky and aggressive with each other.  They turned in rough drafts yesterday and I sent a prefacing email suggesting bringing some kind of caffeinated beverage or anything else they may need to stay awake--and I walked into class yesterday morning to the most boisterous, nearly-frightening GOOD MORNING!.  Is this the caffeine talking?  I asked.  Yes, they said.  In the immortal words of Dr. Jerry Hathaway from Real Genius, up the voltage.  But the whole situation is a good reminder of what it means to be a teacher of first-year writing and the attitude most students have about writing.

But to bring this reality check back to my point:  there are at least four students in that particular class who are dealing with heavy personal issues, which I suspect is coloring their attitude and performance in that class.  One of them is from Colorado, where his family and friends are all affected by the flooding there, and I started to wonder about the unhealthy bonding this class has done and how we could work together towards a more positive community in there.  I have no idea how to go about this, to make it fit with department expectations, but I started to wonder if this particular class could work on a project together, as a positive community united in outreach, rather than a negative community united in their dislike of my class, to support those Coloradans affected by the flood.  Food for thought.  But I've already changed my activities and approach to that class--hopefully the shift will help.  Can't hurt.

My final thought is this: from the moment I first set foot back on this campus, the transition from long-ago student to faculty, this place has been exactly what I needed, as a teacher and a human being.  It's a place that speaks my language, that the place-conscious pedagogy I so value is reflected in the college's mission and core curriculum; even though the language we use is different, the movement is exactly the same.  Start local, move outward towards the global.  This place so values the first-year experience that the faculty teaching the Inquiry Seminars and the faculty teaching the Inquiry--Written Communication and Inquiry--Oral Communication wanted to have time before the semester started to talk.  Wanted!  This is a place where even full professors teach composition, because they believe it's important.  Creative writing professors, literature professors, journalism professors, rhetoricians--everybody teaches IWC.  This is a place where my department chooses to get together once a month to talk about teaching and pedagogy.

And yet, since I'm on a one-year contract, and the MLA Job List just came out a week ago, I have to apply for all the jobs I can possibly find and resign myself to the fact that I will go elsewhere next year. Way to set the bar too high.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

IWC 100: These Things I Know

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.