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

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!

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