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

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.

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