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

Sunday, March 30, 2014

IWC 100 (NDN): Final Drafts and Reflections

I can't believe how bad I've been about reporting on my classes this year.  I'm just going to blame it on the incredible mental energy required in starting a new job, with new classes, while also being on the job market.  And once again, I'm writing this as we're under another blizzard threat, this one of the Out Like A Lion variety.  I'm supposed to go to Aberdeen, to Northern State University, to read--a reading that was rescheduled from last fall because of a blizzard.  If I can't get there, again, the blizzard might have bruises from my temper.  But we'll see.  I'm glad I haven't taken the winter survival kit out of my car yet.

Mostly, it's a week of readings--and it's been long enough since I've read that I'm way too excited about it. Especially since it's my first reading since my first book, Water and What It Knows, was accepted by the University of Minnesota Press!  How exciting is this?!  So, I'm reading in Aberdeen Tuesday/Wednesday and then I'm part of the Faculty-Student Reading Series at Concordia on Thursday night and I'm reading with seniors Lisa Streckert and Heather Burtman.  And we're all reading some form of travel writing--it should be awesome.

Anyway.  To the classes.

A few things have happened in the NDN class lately.  They turned in their final drafts, with their Prezis, last week, and I've been working my way through them.  And I am incredibly humbled by the work that they've done, to the point where I don't care if they're brown nosing me in their reflections with what they've learned.  I don't care.  This field research project, which asks them to research a disaster that happened in their hometown and create not only a written paper but a Prezi that will be attached to their local library/historical society/newspaper, is heavily dependent on interviews and primary research.  Most of them have never done interviews before and one of the things I've been most impressed with them is watching them get over their fear of talking to people.  The ones who have gotten the furthest out of their comfort zones and emailed mayors and other people they don't know have produced the most interesting projects.  The ones who only interviewed family and friends are definitely lacking the truly fascinating perspectives.  I had a couple of projects that went generationally with their interviews, interviewing somebody from their own generation, their parents' generation, their grandparents' generation--and that was likewise fascinating.

In their reflections, many of my students wrote that they're no longer afraid of talking to people they don't know, that the risk involved in calling up the mayor or somebody who works for the DNR is worth it.  They might say no, but they might say yes.

One thing I learned:  next time I do this, I might require that they talk to somebody in the government, somebody outside their family/friend memory bank.

Another thing I learned:  next time, I'm going to ban the phrase "the community came together" or "we learned what we were made of" or anything remotely resembling that cliche.  In one paper, I counted "the community came together" 12 times. The sad thing is that those cliches mask the truly interesting moments.  What does it mean that the community came together?  For that student, part of it was that the community housed students from the local colleges.  In another paper, it meant new networks that brought together disparate groups of people.

Another thing I learned:  next time, I'm going to focus more on how what happened in that place is different from any other time and place. For instance, I had many students writing on the various Red River floods, from Fargo to Grand Forks to Valley City, from 1997 to 2009.  What's the difference between Fargo's experience in 1997 and Grand Forks' experience?  Between Fargo and Valley City?  Between Fargo and Oxbow?  They're absolutely different--but how?  We're going to spend more time on that.  In hindsight, I'd do more with examining how the Tri-College affected the Fargo-Moorhead flood efforts; I'd do more with the Air Force Base in Grand Forks.

Something that freaked me out:  when my student writing on the 1997 flood in Grand Forks wrote that he was two years old when it happened.  When did I get old?

The goal of this project is to create new knowledge that has never existed in this form before.  And for me, the real risk of this project is the public Prezi, which I've never required before--because I want that community engagement.  I want my students to understand how what they do in a classroom is much larger than an assignment, that they are a part of something larger.  Concordia is committed to Being Responsibly Engaged in the World (BREW)--and right here, for this project, that's what that means for us.  I'm so ridiculously proud of my students, even the ones who clearly didn't care and didn't put in the time or effort--such is the life of a teacher of required composition.  Because these Prezis are public, I'm sharing a few of them as they come in (attached to their local organizations) and I'll post more as I get them.  Several of my students will be interviewed about their projects by their local newspapers and have parts of their papers published.  One of my favorite moments has been watching their faces (and reading this in their reflections) when they hear from these places, that anybody actually wants their work--and is excited about it.  They've never considered that anybody might be interested in what they're doing.

So, here's the Prezi on the 1972 flood in Randall, MN:  click here.

I learn things every time I teach.  Learning from my students is my favorite part of the job, even as another favorite part of my job is hearing "I never thought about it that way before."  During this project, I watched one student learn that all the tornado prep we all take for granted (tornado drills in schools, going to the basement, etc) came about because of the 1965 tornadoes through Minneapolis, not too far from where she lives.  I watched another student pore into the archives of her town's newspaper and discover that the majority of the photographs she'd been looking at were taken by a great-uncle who had changed his name.  I watched student after student question how memories turn into history and why it's important to preserve what we know, even if it's a storm that took place six months ago--because it's history.  It formed us, even if we're not completely aware of all the ways.

My students in these two classes have been remarkably resilient throughout this semester.  It's been A LOT of work for them, but I cannot believe how much they've grown and improved.  But it's also a test to spend an entire semester on natural disasters, which is one of the most not-cheerful subjects in the world.  I'm so proud of them.

Last week, we watched Donald Worster's lecture on water and the Great Plains--and a huge kudos to my students for not falling asleep.  I had to preface the lecture with why I was torturing them with it (and I pushed pause several times for us to discuss what he was saying, so we broke it up), but it's really hard to watch a guy standing behind a podium and he doesn't move and the camera doesn't move.  We'll start discussing Eric Reece's book The Lost Mountain tomorrow, about mountaintop removal coal mining, and last week and this week, my students are bringing to class examples from news sites about current human-caused disasters going on right now.  So far, we've had articles on the Casselton, ND explosion, the Galveston oil spill that happened last week, and the mudslide in Washington.

We're approaching this last project--on human-caused disasters and why the subject of them is so complicated--from the perspective of exploring complications.  My brilliant sister Kim Babine, who is the legislative liaison for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED).  She's going to Skype with us in two weeks, to bring us another set of complications to think about.  What's the state's interest in subjects like this?  The Sandpiper pipeline that's proposed to run across Lakes Country (and too close to the Headwaters of the Mississippi River)? What about the PolyMet mine in the Iron Range?  How does the state balance economic development and making sure there are jobs, so people can feed their families, with natural resource management and conservation?  It's not as easy as saying Keystone Pipeline Good (or Bad).  So, what are the complicating factors?

And my final thought today is that the Hjemkomst Center has an exhibit right now on Minnesota Disasters.  Be still my ridiculous heart.  I wonder if there's a way to get my students up there.  Hmmm.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

IWC 100 (NDN): Special Guest Star, Ted Kooser!

I've had a couple of really spectacular classes this week, not only in my Natural Disaster Narratives (NDN) classes, but yesterday in my Place and Community class (also IWC) was also really great.  This morning, our sunshine is back and I don't quite believe the Weather Channel when it says it is two degrees and there isn't any windchill.

This morning, we had a bit of shuffle with my NDN classes, because Ted Kooser (we read his book of poetry, Blizzard Voices, last week) had to reschedule our Skype, which was supposed to be Monday.  So we talked about interviewing on Monday and today we mashed the beginning of Timothy Egan's The Worst Hard Time with our phone conversation with Kooser.  We basically did it, but Friday's going to be a day full of Dust Bowl.  It's true, just like all these other disasters, I get too excitable about it.  I had to give my students the disclaimer that the Great Plains is a subject I get very excitable about, I have soapboxes and opinions, and this does not mean that mine is the only opinion, that I am trying to convince them of something, or that they cannot disagree with me--in fact, I would like to be disagreed with.  

Grasslands!  Bioregions!  History! Why should anybody care?

I can feel myself getting excited just typing.  It's a problem.  I did recommend Google for those terms and places they don't recognize, so we'll see how that goes.  Also, there's a certain level of inexpressible glee that only comes from teaching books that have that many Post-It notes in them, that many notes in the margins, the book that you guard with your life and never let anybody touch, because those notes are not replaceable.

But why should anybody care?

I look forward to pressing them on this question as we keep going.  History is only boring when you forget that it's about real people.

Then, about 9:00, we called Ted Kooser, who's just about the nicest person on the planet.  We started off with some questions about the blizzard itself, about the poems (why he chose to not name the voices, where Ron Hansen's short story gave them names), we asked about the poetry as preserving something that might otherwise be lostwe asked about his writing process--AND HE READ US A BRAND NEW POEM HE WROTE THIS MORNING.  Be still my little teacherly heart.  We talked on Monday, as we were going through some interviewing things, about getting the interviewee to say something new, and it doesn't get much better than that.  He talked about getting up at 4:30 to write, suiting up for the work, and I think it made an impression on my students that he considered it work.  He talked about writing every day, and he talked about failing most days, that only a couple of days out of the month does he end up with anything that's usable, but he needs to show up.  He talked about working in the insurance agency and the importance of being able to write--not creative writing--but just clear communication.  

After we hung up with him, and we were debriefing, my students seemed a little stunned that he read us a new poem, that he apologized for its rough form before he did (and I said, remember that first workshop we did when I told you no apologizing for your work (they nodded), and I said, it doesn't go away...).  They also seemed very taken with the idea of failure and that he allowed himself the failure.

This blog post is indeed today's love poem to Ted Kooser.  I love the guy.  What I didn't know is that a jazz musician named Maria Schneider put some of his poetry to music and she just won a bunch of Grammy's.  Poetry is alive.

And the world is beautiful.

Friday, January 24, 2014

IWC 100 (NDN): Ground Blizzard #4

From Wednesday:

There's a certain deliciousness to the fourth ground blizzard of the winter landing on a day that my NDN classes meet.  We're still talking about earthquakes, but it's still relevant.  I don't know what it is about ground blizzards--as opposed to regular snow-from-the-sky blizzards--that have this special quality.  I was a bit nervous about leaving the house this morning, because where I live in south Fargo is basically open country, which equals white out.  But once I got out of my maze of apartment complexes, the roads were protected enough that it wasn't too bad.  Could be worse.  I'm just glad the roads weren't slick.

Today we finish Jonis Agee's The River Wife--and on Friday, we get to Skype with her.  I'm excited about that, just by itself, but I've had a lot of caffeine already this morning, so I'm even more excited.  To back up a few days, I introduced them to the concepts of the Southern Gothic--which this book fits into--and asked them to pay attention to a few things in particular.  First, instances of the supernatural--ghosts and other weird things (like references to Jacques staying young and fit as he ages).  Second, the role of the built environment (the inn, the house) in the formation of the plot, as well as the natural environment.  These ideas seemed to catch fairly well, and in the days since we first talked about this, they've been able to discuss them in class.

The other major concept I introduced them to was Othering.  I had them read two brief pieces on it--and this coincided with one of their weekly Think Pieces, so many of them wrote on it.  As I expected, they mostly wrote about high school cliques, the treatment of jocks and nerds, as what they knew of Othering--and so in the last couple of classes, I've asked them to go further.  Where does Othering happen?  How and why does it happen?  What's the role of power in Othering?  One of my students, who is of Latino descent, however, wrote about his experiences Being Othered--and it always breaks my heart to read about how terribly they've been treated.  It's one of those teaching moments that I want to bring to the large group, but I would never embarrass the student like that.

We talked about MLA on Wednesday, which chewed up a lot of our class time, so we didn't get as much time to talk about the book as I wanted--so that's our plan for today.  It's always a risk to teach a book you love (and always so delightfully surprising when students write about how surprised they are that they like it)--but this book is so, so good.  I think we'll also do some in-class writing

I'm still struggling to get my students to pay attention to the news and current events (West Virginia--Elk River, in particular), but I think that will come as we get into talking about more current things.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

IWC 100 (P&C): Blizzard Days and Pursuit of Place-Consciousness

7: 32 am.  This morning, I am not in a good place.  I do not feel good.  Most of this is due to the fact that someone in my apartment complex thought it would be a good idea to plow the parking lots with the little backhoe thing that makes the most annoying beep-beep sound when it backs up--at 11:00 last night. He did a lot of that backing up (plowing out the parking spaces, mostly) outside my apartment window and he didn't finish till after midnight.  My alarm goes off at 5:00.  Add to that my inability to read the ingredients on the yogurt I bought two days ago--which contained sneaky artificial sweeteners, which I'm allergic to--and no wonder I've been feeling like crap.  It's dark, it's cold (-12 with -29 windchil), and I'm about to walk into my 8:00 classroom, for only the third time.

Sun Dogs, South Fargo, -36 windchill
Last Thursday, when we would have had class, Concordia closed (which shocked everyone, because it NEVER closes)--because we were about to have a blizzard with very dangerous winds.  Not much in the way of new snow, but ground blizzards are just as bad.  People in town, apparently, were complaining that everything was closed when it was just fine--but once you got out of the wind-protected inner streets, it really was very bad.  I live in South Fargo and I couldn't see the street from my apartment window for most of the day.  But the point is that I'm playing catch-up with this class on a syllabus that doesn't leave much wiggle room.  So it'll be interesting to see how the new class plan I've cooked up for today works.  We don't know each other very well yet, so I'm hoping that we can get talking.  We'll see.

And yesterday, on the way home, we got hit with Polar Vortex #2, which took the windchill down to -35.  The sky was clear and blue, with the wind kicking up enough of the ground snow to make visibility a problem as I was driving home.  As a result of all this, the sun dogs were glorious.  Full sun dogs.  So, I went a few blocks south of where I live and took some pictures.  There's just something about sun dogs that makes me irrationally happy.

Here's the class plan, to talk about some readings from Paul Gruchow's Grass Roots (on the rural world), some excerpts from Emilie Buchwald's anthology Toward the Livable City (this is a change from last semester, when I didn't use very many urban pieces at all, which in hindsight was a ridiculous oversight), with a couple of chapters from our textbook on Fieldworking, and a couple of critical articles.  It's going to be a hefty day.

But here's the plan:  Because we can't talk about each of these pieces individually, like the original lesson plan, I'm going to get them into their groups and get them to do some synthesizing--and to do this, I'm going to have them make some web/bubble charts and get them on the various white boards in the classroom.  I need to get them physically out of their chairs and moving if I have any hope of them doing more than staring at me.

Here is the prompt:

  • With references to as many pieces as possible, what do places require of us, to know them well?  What kind of knowledge is required?
  • How do we come to know a place well?  (Look particularly at the Fieldworking chapters.)  And why should we?  What is at stake if we do not know the place where we are?
  • What kinds of knowledge do these pieces reference?  (For instance, Gruchow mentions breadmaking and tomato canning.)  What kinds of knowledge are valued?
    • What are the differences--and similarities--between rural knowledge and urban knowledge?  Put Gruchow's tomato canning alongside the urban gardening piece--what do they have in commong?
  • What is the larger purpose in coming to know a place?

10:00 am.  Post-class.  Sometimes I need to forcibly remind myself that my freshmen are still not completely college students.  That they will make enough wrong assumptions that I need to be more explicit than I think I need to be.  For instance, they assumed that since we didn't have class on Thursday, we would push everything back.  So half of them did not have their assignment for the day done.  But I had (a bit) assumed that something similar would happen, so this get-out-of-your-seat sort of activity would at least form a composite of knowledge.  

I also underestimated my international students.  I haven't had students with such severe language issues before and this is already proving to be a challenge--in just basic comprehension.  I'm meeting with them (separately) tomorrow, to hopefully clear some things up and give them some tips, but I also set them up with Academic Enhancement, as another resource.  This is going to be a tough semester for them--and a huge learning experience for me.  Right now, the problem is basic comprehension of the reading--and so I worry, greatly, that if reading is this much of a problem and, as they told me after class today, that they can't follow their group-mates' conversation, the writing is going to be even more of a hurdle.  Whew.

So, at various times in the activity, I had them write their bubble webs on the board--and one of the coolest things about the way this turned out is that even though they were all working with the same basic material, the connections and webs they made were completely different.  Love this.

We did this for about an hour--this is a 100 min class--and to bring it together and talk about some of these ideas, I asked them to do a free write.  Make connections, write about things they connected and discovered that they hadn't before class.  And then we used that to talk about some of these ideas and articles--ideas of idea-diversity, mixed realities, even how integral food is to our cultures.  We talked about Paul Gruchow's farming ideals with the article we had read on urban gardening; we connected urban knowledge to rural knowledge and how in certain ways we devalue both.  

To wrap things up, I walked them through one of the chapters in their Fieldworking textbook I had assigned and watched their faces change as I briefly flipped through freewriting (which we have done), bubbles and webs (which we just did) and then introduced them to double-entry field notes, which they will do.  I think this is definitely an activity I will do again.  

On Thursday, we're doing their proposals in class, so I'm excited to hear where they think they might ground their papers.  Last semester's projects were diverse and fascinating, so I'm looking forward to these too!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

IWC 100 (P&C): What are Stories For?

Tim Robinson's awesome map of the Aran Islands, on my office wall.
Well, the plain truth of today is that I didn't plan enough to fill 100 minutes.  It happens, I suppose, but I'm always annoyed with myself when I do.  It's only the second time I've seen these students, courtesy of a TR schedule and starting the first week on a Wednesday.  It's also 8:00 on a snowy Tuesday morning, my students don't know each other (or me) yet, and so they're not sure how to handle themselves.  This I know.  But I definitely need a different method for provoking discussion on these two essays that I assigned for today:  Paul Gruchow's "Home is a Place in Time" from Grass Roots and W. Scott Olsen's "Love of Maps," which I think I pretty much assign to every single class I teach.  Of course, it's a completely different thing to be teaching these two pieces at Concordia (while I'm pretty sure that my office used to be Paul's office, if my memory is correct).

This morning was all about the power of perspective and how we come to ground ourselves and consider our identities.  But I started thinking about this in a different way last night when I downloaded this fisheye photo app for my phone and I started playing with it.  When I was finishing the prepping for class this morning, taking pictures of whatever I could find in my office, naturally I fixated on Robinson's map, which is on the wall behind my desk.  Scott stops by my office on the way to his office, says something sarcastic, and I waved my copy of his essay at him, which he grabbed to see what kind of marginalia I'd written.  I still haven't convinced Scott, who is the map guru, to read Robinson, which at this point is just sheer stubbornness on his part.  (In this way, he's a bit like my dad;  I've given my dad stacks of books and authors that I know he will LOVE, but he will only read them when he has nothing left in the house and no other choice--and then, of course, those become his favorites.  If only he would trust me months earlier...)  After Scott left my office, I took this picture of Robinson's map, and I liked the larger perspectival ideas it gave me.

I started class with the boring stuff I wanted to get on their radar and out of the way--audience, Aristotle, context, purpose.  Then, as I'd asked them to read a critical article in one of our books about rhetorical reading and the construction of meaning, I said that I'd spent the last twenty minutes talking about the responsibility of writers--but what is your responsibility as a reader?  Obviously, not everything will be entertaining, but teachers don't assign work willy-nilly.  How do you, as the reader, embrace your responsibility and get what you need to out of the piece?  This led to a fairly interesting discussion about active reading, about using your own personal experience and way of thinking, about actively seeking to make connections to the article and the larger class (even a question as simple as "why in the world do we have to read this?").  Then we looked at the previous page, which lined up Dawn Duncan's Closer Reading steps (which is different than the Close Focus assignment I detailed the other day).

Then I asked them to pull out Gruchow (and I should have had them do this with Olsen too, but I didn't).  Okay, Gruchow.  Who is Paul Gruchow?  Blank stares, as I expected.  I nodded.  This is what Dr. Duncan means by close reading, what these authors mean about your responsibility as readers.  Pull out your phones.  This is why God invented Google and Wikipedia.  (Which got the expected laughter.)  Who is Gruchow?  Slowly, they started to pull out information about who he was, what he wrote, etc., and they started to make other connections (Minnesota Book Award, suicide) about why they should Google these things.  I did tell them, after they made the MBA connections and read about his death, that he was bipolar, that he finished a draft of a memoir about depression before he died, that I've only made it partway through.  I told them, imagine these sentences, writing about depression.  And in one of the most amazing moments of the day, the vast majority of my students got That Look on their faces like, oh, God.  They knew exactly what I meant.

Our discussion of Scott's essay started, as I always do, with this idea of dwelling, and how many ways there are to consider dwelling and You Are Here.  I had them in groups, looking at the sections of this essay, for how many ways he thinks can answer that question.  They had a harder time with it than I expected, but it's still only the second time I've seen them.  And it really felt like a good chunk of them hadn't done their reading.  Or weren't awake yet.  Or something.  We did get a few things moving, in terms of ideas that resonated, of the belief that stories matter, that human connection matters, that the question of why should anybody care that Olsen is on the interstate or that Gruchow's mother dies? is in this idea of if I tell my story right, you will be able to see your universal in my specific.  And isn't it a wonderful thing to know that we're not alone.

On Thursday, we're scheduled to do a Campus Writing Marathon (sort of), but we're supposed to have weather, so I don't know how that'll shake out.  I will prepare some class stuff, just in case.  But I did tell them to bundle up and prepare for weather, so unless it's dangerously cold, I might send them out anyway.  Might yield some very interesting impressions.

Friday, January 10, 2014

IWC 100 (NDN): BEAM and Closer Reading

I don't mean to neglect my Place and Community IWC as I post to this blog, but the sum total of our first day of class yesterday was lovely freewriting and starting our discussion of place and community, and I'm really excited about them--it didn't take much to get them to start talking, even on the first day.  Here's the link to the free writing I did with them yesterday--and it turned out great.

So, today in my NDN I'm trying something completely new and different that newness is just a little bit terrifying.  I assigned my students Mary Warnock's article "What is Natural? And Should We Care?" and Theodore Steinberg's "What is a Natural Disaster?" and I knew that the Warnock article would turn them inside out.  I did preface those articles with "not for entertainment" and honesty about the denseness of the work, and that gave us a starting point this morning.  But in the course of my teaching in the last few years, I've been struggling with the most productive way to teach students how to read critical articles.  I've been conscious of arguments against close reading--and for that, I keep coming back to Heather Horn's article in the Atlantic a few years back, in which she writes:

"Close reading" is about taking a chapter, a page, a paragraph, or even a single sentence, and picking it apart to extract meaning or see what the author is doing.  It's a vehicle for teaching students about cadence and imagery, hopefully leading youthful minds to appreciate the complexity of authors' thoughts.

We should end it.  Students almost universally hate close reading, and they rarely wind up understanding it anyway.  Forced to pick out meaning in passages they don't fully grasp to begin with, they begin to get the idea that English class is simply about making things up...and constructing increasingly circuitous arguments by way of support.  [...] What the attentive reading proponents ignore is that many students are in danger of failing to see the literary forest for the trees.

This, I admit, is a valid criticism and actually one I share, to some degree.  As a creative writer, I believe that sentences have power and much can be learned from the microscope--but it cannot be the only lens we use.  Dawn's Close Focus asks students to get to the nitpicky of a page, research the terms they don't know, names they don't recognize, and to use Google and Wikipedia for the purposes they were invented for.  I've seen this in action, more than once, and I have been inspired to try it, though I haven't been exactly sure how.  Until now.

Because, then, my friend E. gave me Joseph Bizup's article "BEAM: A Rhetorical Vocabulary for Teaching Research-Based Writing." This morning, I melded these together for the first time to see if this method might work.

The premise of Bizup's BEAM is to reconsider the nomenclature of research, from the standard primary, secondary, and tertiary to language that asks how that research is being used.  He argues that definitions of "primary," "secondary," and "tertiary" vary even by discipline, so this isn't the most productive conversation.  Instead, he proposes asking how and why we use sources--for Background, Exhibits, Arguments, or Methods--and as he details his use of this in his own classroom, as a method not only of critical reading, but also critical writing, his use of BEAM offers new perspectives and nuances to how we construct and communicate ideas.  I had my students, in class, read the middle section of Bizup's article, where he defines and explains his terms, and then we talked about the idea.  Basic reactions?  My students loved the idea.  Loved it.  With a vigor I hadn't expected.

And so then, we flipped back to the Warnock article and started into the Close Focus, as a combination of tools for handling dense written work.  Dawn's Close Focus exercise goes beyond thinking about "what does this elm tree symbolize?" because I agree that that's the wrong nitty gritty of a page.  She wants them to research people, places, events, and terms on the page that they don't know--and some other aspects geared towards the study of literature that don't really apply here now. Here's how it worked with Warnock.

  • Start with the author, title, publication and date.
    • Where was it published?  Philosophy.  Why does that matter?  We know it's going to be a particular type of argument and it's not going to be zoology.
    • The title has an asterisk.  Follow the asterisk and what does that tell us?  Huh, it says "Royal Institute of Philosophy Annual Lecture, 2002."  Anybody know what the Royal Institute of Philosophy is?  Me, neither.  So I hopped on Google (with the projector focused on the screen, so they could see what I was doing) and found out it's British, we found out its history, how long it had been around.  Searching further into their Annual Lecture, we found out that it's a pretty big deal.
    • Why does it matter that we know it's a lecture?  Well, we decided, that the rhetorical choices for a lecture in the way an argument is structured will be different than an argument that will only be read.  There might be some repetition, there might be a more conversational tone.
    • Mary Warnock.  Anybody know who that is?  Me, neither.  Back to Wikipedia.  She's a Baronness, born 1924. Philosopher, with some pretty extensive educational credentials.  A Big Deal.
  • We went through the first page together.  Nothing of note in the first paragraph, but then we come upon The Treatise of Human Nature.  What does the italics tell us?  Yes, it tells us that it's most likely a book.  Two lines later, we learn the author, David Hume.  How many of you know what The Treatise of Human Nature is about?  And who is David Hume?  Back to Google.  Scottish philosopher.  This published in 1739-1740.  What else was happening in the realm of science, religion and philosophy in the 18th century?  My science students were quick to jump on the Age of Enlightenment, the Age of Reason.  Ahhhh, yes.  That gives us some room to consider Warnock's ideas of natural, unnatural, and moral judgments of each.  
  • Okay, so Warnock is bringing up Hume.  Why?  If we were to toss Bizup's BEAM in here, how is this source functioning?  We decided B.
From there, I told the class to pick a page and pull out their phones or computers (which may be the first time I have actively encouraged cell phones in my class) and for them to hit up Google and Wikipedia.  I gave them about ten minutes and then we came back together and they shared what they had found.  I think three students volunteered to share their pages and what their Googling had turned up--and it was all very good, very interesting, and exactly what I was hoping for.  (At the end of class, I strongly suggested that they use this strategy to work on understanding the articles I assigned for Monday.  We'll see if they do--I hope they do!)

Then we jumped into comparing both Warnock's article and Theodore Steinberg's "What is a Natural Disaster?"  I asked them to consider purpose:  why would I have them read Warnock (and torture them with it) when it doesn't have anything to do with natural disasters?  Why did I pair it with Steinberg?  That got them thinking about my thought processes and I could start to get them to consider the teacher's perspective in putting things together--they might not see the connection right away, but if they put some effort towards it, they'll probably find it.

And I borrowed from Bonnie Stone Sunstein and Elisabeth Chiseri-Strater's Fieldworking textbook (which I did not assign for this class) which asks students to consider various things via three questions:
  • What surprised you?
  • What intrigued you?
  • What disturbed you?
Steinberg's article begins with a discussion of the 1889 Jonestown Flood--and can we consider that a natural disaster?  I also posted a link to the water contamination in West Virginia right now--and can we consider that a natural disaster?  We'll definitely talk about them when it comes to the third writing project and human-caused disasters, but where along the spectrum do we fall?  I told them that there is no one right answer to this question, it's definitely not black and white, and they'll need to decide for themselves what they think.  But, I stressed, since the beginning of time, we've struggled with how to understand the world around us--and one function that disaster stories have is as morality tales (a theme of Steinberg's).  One benefit of being at a Lutheran college is that I can toss off Bible stories and they know exactly what I'm talking about.  So the reason I started with these two articles is that I wanted to give them a foundation for the role of stories in our societies and our struggles to explain what is largely inexplicable--and that there is a wide range of discussion about what we can consider natural and unnatural.

So, this combination of reading strategies and discussion strategies actually resulted in some good--though brief--discussion of these two articles.  I'm hoping we can use them next week, even as we don't talk directly about natural disasters on Monday, because we didn't get as deep into them as I wanted.  In the future, though, I don't know that I'll use Warnock again.  I like it, but I think it's too far in the deep end to throw students so early in the semester.  But teaching is endless revision.

Both of my classes handed in their first Think Pieces today and I'm excited to read them (even as I'm interested to see how many of them could follow directions and use MLA formatting...).  

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

IWC 100 (NDN): First Day of Class!

My MWF classes (two of them) will be my Natural Disaster Narratives (NDN) classes; the TR class will be my Place and Community.  So, I met with my first class this morning, bright and early in a classroom where the digital thermometer on the clock read 63 degrees; the second was at 11:50 in another classroom that wasn't much warmer.  Hard to be professional when you're trying not to shiver and turn blue.  There are only 13 people in that class, eleven of whom where there (the others had Polar Vortex-related travel delays) and already they're talkative and at least beginning to be interested in what we're doing.  The later class is at capacity and it has a noticeably different energy and chemistry.  (Part of it I think is the time of day and the character of student who signs up for an 11:50 class and I actually think the physical make up of the room, which is long and narrow, is partly to blame.  I anticipate moving the desks around a lot in there.)

I warned them that I get irrationally excited about this stuff, so beware, and both classes laughed. Better to weird them out on the first day of class than save it for later.  And I did get excited.  And it was excitement, more than anything else, when my students didn't know where New Madrid was--or who Mitch McConnell is.  Ah, the field is wide open!  Much learning will happen!  (I also gave them my standard speech about checking the news as they left.)

In addition to our Moodle site, I pulled up the spectacular maps by John Nelson of tornado tracks over the last 56 years and left that on the projector as we went through the general First Day of Class housekeeping.  (I'm also fond of his other maps, so you should definitely follow the links to see them.  Gorgeous.)

But then as I scrolled through the F0, the F1, F2, F3, F4, and then stopped on the F5 map, I asked them what they saw.

And then I made circling motions around the northernmost line, that horizontal line that crosses the North Dakota-Minnesota border, and somebody said it:  that looks close to here.  I nodded.  That's Fargo, I said.  Something sparked behind their eyes--they were not expecting that.  Fargo was the tornado (system, as it was a supercell system) that provoked Dr. Theodore Fujita into creating his scale of measuring tornados--and that 1957 Fargo tornado was an F5.

What this map represents, I told them, is more than a record of destruction.  If you could find somebody to tell you about the 1957 Fargo tornado, they'd tell you a story--they probably wouldn't tell you the wind speeds.  If you asked somebody about the 1997 Red River Flood (which I immediately thought of through this Polar Vortex, because the last time that happened, it was January 1997 and we know what happened two months later...), they might tell you how deep the river got, but you're more likely to get a story.  Stories like this matter.  The historical record of them matters.  It's important to know, if you live in Missouri, about the New Madrid fault line, and know its history of a major shake every two hundred years, and know that we are now overdue.  (I said this to the later class and when I said "every two hundred years," 3/4 of them looked down at the syllabus to make sure that I did write that the last one happened in 1811.)  It's important to know that the Red River floods.  We have to know what it means to live here, as opposed to any other place, because the difference matters.

I didn't mention much about Storm Christine wreaking havoc on Ireland, but here's a link to some of the truly awe-inspiring photographs of what that storm did:  click here.
Then we did some free writing as a way to do some introductions:  I introduced free writing to them, as the concept and method, and then I asked them to write (and follow their tangents) about what does it mean to live in this place on this day?  After about 5 minutes, I asked them to write about how they learned what they were writing about.  Some grew up knowing, taught by parents or grandparents or even bad experiences.  I told the story about my friend E. and I taking our friend L. shopping for winter gear early last semester, because L. hasn't ever had a real winter, and as we kept loading her down with a good jacket, snow pants (she insisted on them), boots, hats and mittens, we had to teach her that she needed to dress in layers, not just one thick sweater.  We picked up a little pink shovel for her car (which, we learned later, was appropriated by her daughter) and we taught her that she needed to pick up kitty litter--and the cheap stuff, not the Tidy Cats.  At this point in my story, the majority of my later class looked lost, so I asked how many of them had kitty litter in their car--and one person raised his hand.  So we had a mini-discussion about it.
All in all, an excellent first day of the semester.  I've about got my housekeeping for the day done, so I'm ready to take off my heels (which always makes me feel like a badass teacher) and put on my Sorel Snow Lion boots (which make me feel equally badass) and head out into the -7 (-20 windchill).  This, a trick I learned from watching my mother put on her boots with her Sunday finery to walk to church and then put her shoes on once she got there.  But also this knowledge that after this weekend and the windchills of nearly -50, -20 doesn't seem so bad.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Prepping the Spring Semester

I'm hoping that spring semester will be kinder to my writing time than fall was, especially with regard to keeping this blog current with the exciting things that are happening in my classes.  I'm not exactly sure where the fall semester went and I'm not exactly sure how spring semester snuck up so fast as to be starting on Wednesday.  My three IWCs ended up fairly well and the independent study I did with a senior, on travel writing, turned out really, really well--so I'm going to take that basic framework we used and create an actual course syllabus out of it.  (In my spare time...)   I'm trying to write this book review on Anna Ryan's Where Land Meets Sea--which is a very, very cool book--but I've got too much on my mind to sit still, and I'm getting distracted,  because in reading Ryan's book, it has direct and specific implications for one of my IWC classes, so here we are.  Yet I hoped the review would be done by the end of today...

Last semester, I had three IWC 100 classes (the first-year writing class) and I taught the same course across all three of them, both the MWF and the TR schedules--and that was really rough.  This semester, I'm going to be teaching my Natural Disaster Narratives on MWF and Place and Community on TR.  I'm hoping it'll be easier than trying to balance the same class on two different schedules.

Mostly I'm getting distracted because we're having the Polar Express here in the Midwest (it's not that bad in Fargo yet, just -16 air temp and -35 windchill) and my friends in Galway are getting battered by a storm that's producing some spectacular flooding.  This, then, has led to seeing several articles about how global warming doesn't exist because it's -40 (oh, dear) and reminiscences of 1997, the last time this trough happened.  Also, weather does not equal climate.  But since I'm teaching on natural disasters, all of this is interesting to me.

Brief Reflection on Fall Semester:
I think my favorite moment of last semester came in my Credo section, where they asked me a question, and true to form, I answered that there was no one right way to do it, and they all laughed and said they were going to put that on a t-shirt.  But on a separate note of reflection, I feel like my insistence on No One Right Way really became part of my teaching this semester in a way that it had not been comfortable before.  This made my students nervous in a lot of ways, because they wanted me to tell them what to do and how to do it.  I rewarded risk a lot more this semester than I have in the past--particularly on the last paper, when I had two girls come into my office after getting B's on their second project and wanting to know how to get an A on their last project.  I had to remind them that there wasn't anything they did wrong to get a B, that I don't start with an A and mark things off; I start with a C (I expect that everything that comes in will be average) and I grade up or down from there.  But I told them (they came in separately) that they were playing things too safe for an A.  What they were doing was excellent work, excellent B work.  So I encouraged them to take a risk in their final paper.  Risk their language, risk their structure, see what happens.  And I tell you, when I saw the rough drafts of their third paper, they just about blew the top of my head off.  Truly spectacular work.  Looking forward to doing more of that this semester.

So, here is the plan for the spring semester:

IWC 100:  Natural Disaster Narratives
We're reading Jonis Agee's The River Wife, Ted Kooser's Blizzard Voices (along with Ron Hansen's short story on the 1888 Children's Blizzard, "Wickedness"), Timothy Egan's The Worst Hard Time, and Eric Reece's The Lost Mountain.  The class is scaffolded to start local, with the land under our feet, so we will read Jonis's novel as a springboard to talk about the implications of knowing the natural history of the place we are living.  What does it mean to live in this place on this day?  We'll talk about local knowledge, which reminds me of my friend Leila (new in the political science department) who moved from California and had no winter gear and no real idea how to handle winter here--so Erika (new in English too) and I took her thrift store shopping, where we found her Sorel boots, a good winter coat, snow pants (she insisted), a shovel for her car, layers to keep her warm (we had to explain that layers were much preferable to, say, a thick sweater).  For this first project, they'll write a summary-response-analysis and I'm excited that Jonis will Skype with us.

The second project will branch out a little--and while I wanted them to construct a digital project that would be attached to their local library, I've backed off that a little.  They're going to read about the 1888 Children's Blizzard and the Dust Bowl and they're going to do field research to research a natural disaster that happened in their community and explore how it affected that community.  Every community has a disaster story and it will never be the same story.  My own compromise to this project is that they're still going to write a paper, but they're going to create a Prezi to accompany it (so that they can incorporate digital sources).  Doing this project in the spring will be interesting, because the Red River always floods in the spring.  And Ted Kooser is going to Skype with us.

The third project moves further out towards the global and the idea of active citizenship by exploring human caused disasters.  We'll read Reece, on mountaintop removal coal mining, which should be interesting, because it looks like Mitch McConnell will have a primary challenger.  Add to that the controversies over Enbridge wanting to build a pipeline through Minnesota Lakes Country (including Itasca, the headwaters of the Mississippi) and the Bakken oil fields, it should be interesting.  Last week, a train carrying crude from the Oil Patch exploded in Casselton, ND (25 miles from Fargo)--and this summer, a train carrying the same crude exploded in Quebec, killing 47 people and leveling neighborhoods.  I can get really worked up over this stuff, so I'm going to have to rein myself in...  But I'm excited that Leila is going to come talk to my class about energy politics (she's teaching a class on energy politics this semester), so that will be another perspective.

IWC 100: Place and Community
This course isn't going to change a whole lot, except for some of the readings--and figuring out what to do at the end of the semester, which seemed to drag.  My students last semester really seemed to like this class, so I'm excited to refine it.  We're reading Mary Pipher's The Middle of Everywhere again, which students liked more than they thought they would. And what's interesting this time around is that a lady my mother does water aerobics with--who also applied for a grant through the government agency my sister works for--is basically doing what Pipher advocates, down in the Cities.  I'm going to see if I can get in touch with her and see if she'll Skype with my students.

The first project will still be the field research paper, the exploration of the relationship between a specific place and community.  A couple of chapters in Anna Ryan's book will be relevant to their fieldworking project, so I'm excited to bring that in.

The second project will again be the advocacy project (the library research paper) and I've definitely got a stronger idea of the pitfalls that will happen, so I hope I can head those off earlier.  One of the best moments of last semester happened in a student's reflection with her third paper, when she wrote about doing her advocacy paper and interviewing the heads of Dining Services about the food waste she saw, and in her final reflection, she wrote that just the act of asking the questions motivated change, because no longer were pots of soup being brought out early, which cut down on the amount of soup they had to throw away.  Just the act of asking the questions.  But doing this project also gave them confidence that they could make a difference, that they had credibility as college students, they had brilliant ideas, and that their voices mattered.

The third project, the summary-analysis-response, turned out to be the surprise of the semester for me--and for them.  Each of them was writing an analysis of Pipher's book, but even as I knew that none of them would write the same analysis, the fact that I strongly encouraged them to use their personal experience as it colored their reading hit most of them in a place they hadn't seen for a long time.  More and more, as the years go on, I realize how much my students have been taught that their personal experience doesn't matter in papers, which is crap.  I told them, for example, that I can't just magically forget that Pipher is writing about Lincoln, Nebraska, a place I know very well.  It colors how I read that book, because I know exactly what she's talking about.  The same goes for their experiences, personal, educational, or otherwise, and to leave that out of the thought process development is going to be extremely problematic.  And as a result, when I saw the final projects, I was stunned with how far my students had come over the course of the semester.

Other Spring Semester Goals:
I'm excited for spring on the Plains, simply because it's going to be a more dramatic example of why place is important, which will be an important part of both classes.  I'm also going to implement a version of Rachel Maddow's Best New Thing in the World each day in my classes, to get them talking about the world around them.  I'm hoping to manage my time better this semester, so I can get some writing done, some revising of the dissertation-book and send out some of those pieces, and I hope that my employment situation settles itself (I'm on the job market) so that I know if I can take the Scamping trip to Nova Scotia like I'm saving for or if I have to spend that money on moving.  I'm thinking about Nova Scotia (and Scamping) a lot lately, because my niece's birthday is coming up in February and her birthday always falls around the Minneapolis RV Show, which has become an annual tradition.  It always gets me too excited about camping, too early.

Now that I've written my way through these thoughts in my head, I think I can actually write my book review now.  Onward!