Blogging and Place… Three Recent Contacts and Implications for the Classroom

smallerlydia.jpg A Willa Cather-esque Scene (think My Antonia) of Lydia, my husband’s grandmother, who traveled out to the Dakotas, alone, as a would-be homesteader around the turn of the 20th century, just to be told women couldn’t claim land. Undeterred, she got a job with the telegraph company and eventually married a homesteader.

As I finish up a couple of talks for next week’s visit with Lanny Arvan and his Learning Commons and Gail Hawisher and her students at The University of Illinois, I keep thinking about the place itself. That part of the country’s center. How flat it is out there–flatter, perhaps, than anywhere I’ve ever been (Lanny has told me that it is flatter than Wisconsin, my husband’s home state–and that’s as flat as it gets for me, New Englander that I am). I find myself both excited and apprehensive about that fact and how it will make me feel.

Such thoughts sent me back into my Willa Cather, to the opening description in O Pioneers!:

“One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away. A mist of fine snowflakes was curling and eddying about the cluster of low drab buildings huddled on the gray prairie, under a gray sky. The dwelling-houses were set about haphazard on the tough prairie sod; some of them looked as if they had been moved in overnight, and others as if they were straying off by themselves, headed straight for the open plain. . .”

It sent me digging around for this photo I wrested from my husband a long time ago, a photo that speaks to me with its smiling Lydia amid the emptiness, her companion looking off –where?–and the shadow of the photographer. The whiff of stories. The pile of lumber. History. Railroads. Migrations. The vast flat plain and sky–flat, empty, flat. No Rockies backing it, ending it–just the horizon. And so I’ve selected a window seat on the plane…

And it makes me think about my camera and whether I should try to get out into the country. It makes me think about Nancy White and the way she travels in Australia, pulling photos she takes that day in whatever place she is in, into her Flickr-based talks. How aware she is of her surroundings and how they have an impact on what she blogs (she even has a blog just for the trip) and on her talks. And it makes me think of my former student and friend from San Antonio who has moved to Jerusalem with her new, French husband and what a mosaic of places inhabit her being and how her connection to so many perhaps contributes to her gifts as keenly perceptive and observant and sensitive writer. And it pulls me to Steven Berlin Johnson’s new website, outside.in, because it’s a wonderful idea–to gather the stories, the concerns, the talk of a place, the geography of a place ,

“So what is outside.in? In a phrase, it’s an attempt to collectively build the geographic Web, neighborhood by neighborhood.” from SBJ’s description

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To get us involved in our communities, get us talking, sharing, thinking aloud and together– This is what I am trying to do in a way with my students and blogging together on Motherblogs as well as alone–to share, collect, build and consider the learning going on in our classroom and to connect it to the places and events and people around us. It is essential for students to think about the place, the actual geographic place they are in at college, just as it is essential, as Bill Shutkin of The Orton Family Foundation said the other morning on his Vermont PublicRadio commentary, for a community to think about how a school defines its town:

A school is a community’s premier symbol of its own survival, of its ability to reproduce itself over time as a living, breathing, thinking place. This is why a community that loses its school often feels it’s also lost its identity. It’s like losing a vital organ or worse, its soul.

To see a school disappear is, for a moment, to see a community’s life flash before its eyes.”

To that end, my group of first-semester first-year students will research and write about our Vermont county in the next course unit. As part of the research, I’ve asked them to get outside and observe the place, and they’ll take pictures and record the ambient sounds. Perhaps we should set up an outside.in account… as a gathering spot for our materials. I like the idea of such a site better than a wiki because the fluidity of a blog, the storyness of it as it unfolds, post to post, feels like people talking, breathing, interacting, each post somehow preparing the way for the next and linking back to the past posts. As long as people read one another’s contributions, that is. (And that’s a real issue in all human communication–listening–if only those in power would listen to one another and to those without power…)

Awareness of place and discovering it more deeply by writing about it drives, in part, the Blogging the World project, as students on study abroad programs learn as much just being absolutely alert in a place as they do in books and classrooms. Imagine what happens when learners connect the three… Read, for instance, the remarkable blogging of Emily on Paris (she’s blogged her hometown, New Orleans, and her school home in Vermont as well), how being in those places conjures up the realities, both harsh and wondrous, of history and culture, of people and events and literature and self. twoshadows.jpg
Read what happens to a professor and his students (all international students grappling with what it means to go to school in the US, in Vermont) when they read and respond to her blog in light of what they are reading and wrestling with in their course and experience as new students in a foreign place.

And away from the real place, here, Vermont, where as close as I get to Illinois is our neighbor’s field, at least in mind’s eye, cornfield.jpgI move through the books into that other place, to reconnect to memories of the Great Plains, memories quite vivid, but of a young girl on the coast of Maine, reading, reading hammockmaine.jpg of other places, of that other place:

“I wanted to walk straight on through the red grass and over the edge of the world, which could not be very far away. The light air about me told me that the world ended here: only the ground and sun and sky were left, and if one went a little farther there would be only sun and sky, and one would float off into them, like the tawny hawks which sailed over our heads making slow shadows on the grass.” Willa Cather My Antonia

If I hadn’t gotten myself entangled in the threads of this blogpost, would I have pulled Willa Cather from my shelf? Would I have rooted around for the photo of Lydia and the ones of the cornfield and the hammock and the shadows? Would I have thought about the correspondances between what I read on Emily’s blog and what my old student must be experiencing in her new home? Would I have slowed down enough to think along these threads when a million other things clamor for my attention? I don’t think so. Blogging this post has pulled me into my most alert, alive sensory thinking and remembering, and as I drive home tonight, I’ll keep the radio off, look at the last leaves on the trees, breathe in the cold wet October, try to hear the geese pouring South and feel this place.
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One Response

  1. I just thought I would drop a message that I was surfing past your blog, and happened to notice the black and white photo of the two people on the step of a cabin, with the cloudy skies et. al.

    That is a really powerful picture – it has a real aesthetic beauty about it!

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