November 19, 2013

Heart Land

I've enjoyed hunkering down in Iowa for these weeks. Teaching at Cornell College has been a revelation--the focus on creative nonfiction, with an emphasis on incorporating science on technology, has been a great change of pace. Some thoughts....

1) Meeting with students five days a week permits no room for procrastination. Each week takes on its own thematic shape and pace. The 10-11 AM "workshop hour," in which I divided my 15 students into groups of 3 and 4 for the sake of informal conversation, was both my single best decision (in terms of getting to know my students) and the worst decision (in terms of conserving my own work time).

2) I am still not a morning person.

3) This generation of students doesn't use email much. They don't send a confirming reply unless you explicitly request it, so it can feel like you're shouting into the void. On the upside, I was glad they so readily left behind their laptops in coming to class.

4) Lecturing on five books, a dozen articles, and the craft of nonfiction is a lot for one month. I used cards with abstract keyword prompts (e.g., for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: gender, class, race, identity) to guide discussion. Being a teacher requires an extraordinary vocabulary, one which you can and will flub from time to time, and then you must decide: do I correct myself in front of my students?

5) I still haven't figured out how to balance the needs of the students who get lost in class-wide silences, and the ones who use those silences to shape their answers. 

6) No matter how sophisticated your class, arts and crafts are a good thing. Every time I can work erasures onto a syllabus, I do, thanks in large part to Mary Ruefle's great craft essay. This time around, we're using outdated science textbooks courtesy of Cornell College's library to shape creative texts from "uncreative" sources. 

7) Never give back graded work at the beginning of class; always wait until the end. 

8) Students are comfortable reading beyond their level in an academic field, as long as they are regularly assured that it's okay to not "get" everything. I was delighted by how many gravitated to Leonard Susskind's The Black Hole War, opting to read it in its entirety, which I suspect is in part because he is so generous on this point. 

9) Strange that we ask students to spend four years offering up informal opinions--"Did you like it?"--and close analysis on the page, without offering practical experience with the intersection of the two: the 1,200-word book review. That's a real-world writing skill. We talked about what reviews are meant to do, reading examples from the New York Times Book Review and The American Scholar, and they wrote their own. 

10) You never know which readings students will love, and which will elicit a "Meh." You never know which personal details to share, or which questions to answer only with editing. You never know who dreams, deep down, of being a poet. 

Back in my own undergraduate days at the University of Virginia, I realize that I had no idea how hard it was to run a class. In recalling the things we harped on--spotting typos, expecting a 100% correct answer to every question, sulking when someone returned graded papers later than expected--I'm embarrassed. And newly grateful. 

Most nights I come home to Collin House and daze out with an infinite supply of SVU episodes. But I made it to Iowa City to see Hailey read from her new book, SWOOP, at Prairie Lights, and afterwards we sat by the fireplace at Sanctuary. In Cedar Rapids, I walked the Czech Village, then camped out at the NewBo Market to watch a juggler and snack on fresh falafel. On a tip from the gentleman who specialized in Eggenberg glass, I drove to Solon and found an oasis of entrepreneurship. The Salt Fork Kitchen is on one side of the street, with a bloody mary bar stocked with house-picked onions and four different pepper sauces. On the other side of the street, Big Grove Brewery sells six varieties of in-house beer--I recommend their seasonal IPA, the Redheaded Stranger--and serves dishes like this elaborate roasted cauliflower, with curry sauce and coppa ham. (That morning, the chef had also carved a duck from a whole pear, which then roamed the length of the bar. Not for sale.) These two places, staffed by enthusiastic 20- and 3o-somethings, have only been open a matter of months. I hope they thrive.

I came to Iowa with no expectations. I leave thinking I could live here.

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