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.