Thinking Locally As the Semester Ends

Today opens the last week of classes for me until September, and so as I stand on the cusp of a semester’s leave, many thoughts about my students, my teaching, my family send me to the blog. And it’s a twist I appreciate, for I turn to this global medium to talk about the importance of grounding the Web 2.0 work locally. I continue to grapple with balance, with the relationship between what I do at the computer and what I do away from it, and how to help students understand the importance of going out in the world to learn about its various workings and stories and marvels and tragedies and then to apply that learning, that communicating, that collaborating back here, locally, in the communities in which we live. I want to study the blogging of Laura, Toril and Lanny, for they so seamlessly weave the threads of their home lives into their blogging about the world and their work. They think aloud about how difficult it is to bring these two realities together: the online networking and the in situ groups with whom they work. I would like students to weave more of the personal, of the particular, of the here-and-now into their academic writing; they seem detached, almost clinical in their approach to writing as soon as evaluation, grades, school enter the picture. And no wonder.

But there are lovely exceptions. One student told me last week that writing about her dance practice, trying to tell the world about its role in her life, about the role of art in our lives, has helped her to understand and then to articulate something momentous for her–she wanted to write about how dancing a classical Chinese dance role, which she loves but also finds confining, is something she does in her quest to belong, to find a connection in her life to place and people and culture– how important this sense of belonging somewhere has become for her as she, a Chinese woman growing up in Japan and now studying in the United States, looks ahead to her adult life. It reminds me, too, of my sister-in-law’s wonderful film that she will screen tomorrow in New York, Shalom Ireland, which she made as a way to understand her own heritage as a Jew with roots in Ireland, a seemingly odd convergence of cultures. I want my students to ask the very questions she has asked: Where do we belong? >How do we belong?

How do university students cultivate a sense of rootedness to a place, a local place when places begin to look and feel so much the same in this country and increasingly in other countries with the malling and the sprawling? How do students who travel across states, continents and oceans to go to university keep rooted to place because and in spite of communications technologies? Are my students too tied to home by the phone so that they do not really connect with Vermont as a place instead of Middlebury as a school? Does my having them blog out to the world interfere with their ability to look around them and make ties here? Or does it help them to become more observant, more aware, more caring citizens of their local worlds as they hear stories of other persepctives, of other places? And am I, as a mentor to them, staying as aware as I should of the fact that, as Chip Bruce tells us,

“No two of us live in the same information age”? (Literacy in the Information Age, p.333)

Or what Bill McKibben contends in The Age of Missing Information:

“We believe we live in the ‘age of information,’ that there has been an information ‘explosion,’ an information ‘revolution.’ While in a certain narrow sense this is the case, in many ways just the opposite is true. We live at a moment of deep ignorance, when vital knowledge that humans have always possessed about who we are and where we live seems beyond our reach. An Unenlightenment, An age of missing information.'” (As quoted in Bruce, p. 334)

Every day at my country home begins with some configuration of the family taking Finn for a pre-dawn or edge-of-dawn walk through the fields–ours and those of neighboring farmers. Every day ends with a final walk down our long driveway. When it’s 20 below, or sheeting cold rain, no one volunteers. Finn is always ready to go, especially if we’re in for, what our Irish neighbors called, “a bit of dirty weather.”
morning fog And though we fuss about leaving the warmth of pre-dawn bed, we’re glad to be thus grounded in the quiet, subtle shifts of the seasons in our physical, natural world. milkweed opening Right now early December careens from a bizarre in-between-ness, neither fall nor winter as Finn still picks up ticks, as geese seem to fly north as much as south, as the fields hold their green, as the snow is slow in making a first appearance.
Finn drinking in the field

And then we move into our human community, driving through town on the way to work. Stopping in our bank, our post office, our natural foods cooperative, our local corner grocery store means catching up with the people we know as much as it means running errands. We have no chain stores downtown; we still have a locally-owned bank, independent grocers, a bakery, coffee shops. My husband takes forever on errands because he seems to know everyone from all of his work on local boards; I know everyone of a certain age, people I taught in high school in the late eighties.

It makes me think of Timothy Beatley’s contention that,

“A significant pathway to greater meaning in our lives and greater commitment to place is understanding and knowing the landscapes, creatures and people living here.” And this sobering quotation he includes by Terry Tempest Williams: “‘….if we don’t know the names of things, if we don’t know bighorn antelope, if we don’t know blacktail jackrabbit, if we don’t know sage, pinyon, juniper, then I think we are living a life without specificity, and then our lives become abstractions. Then we enter a place of true desolation.'” (Native to Nowhere: Sustaining Home and Community in a Global Age)

My students don’t know these things about the land or the town here. Until they were assigned to read our local newspaper a couple of weeks ago, it hadn’t occurred to them that we had poverty here or that dairy farms were suffering or that we still have a dairy in my village or that our county has a bevy of artisanal cheesemakers. Their lives are so tethered to campus and to home (and by that I mean their families). But not to the people and places of the town and county in which they will live for the next four years. And when they do finally get out there and take a look around, they are struck by the stories, by the rich complexity of the place.

This is the strange thing about a college town, especially in a rural place–how it’s very strength–the flooding into the area of new ideas and perspectives and cultures– can now in this age of instantaneous, continuous communication links to the world beyond the local, be at once something to embrace and something to be wary of. And it’s linked, I think, to something else I’m noticing about our students. They have a hard time telling stories. True stories that link their intellectual inquiry to their own lives. Why it matters to study history, philosophy, chemistry, geography–to them– What all those things have to do with the here and now. I’ve been working with seniors on essays for the Peace Corps, graduate schools, fellowships; I’ve been working with high school seniors on college essays, suggesting–tell your story in your own voice–what do you want people to know about you? How are you connected to things and people and places you hold important? They often look terrified. What should be the most natural thing in the world to do as an act of human communication–to tell stories–leaves them flustered, for they are out of the habit of it. It feels too risky.

Likewise, as Francine Prose points out in her new book, Reading As a Writer:

I liked my students , who were often so eager, bright, and enthusiastic that it took me years to notice how much trouble they had reading a fairly simple short story. Almost simultaneously I was struck by how little attention they had been taught to pay to the language, to the actual words and sentences that a writer had used. Instead, they had been encouraged to form strong, critical, and often negative opinions of geniuses who had been read with delight for centuries before they were born.” (p. 10)

And it reminds me of things I have been reading lately as I try to get my head around ways in which I can help my students and myself use the Web as a means of communication and expression to root themselves firmly to the local as well as to the global conversation the way Stephen Johnson is doing with HOw well are we doing this in our universities? And that is one reason I’m so looking forward to having Middlebury graduate Sarah Kramer of StoryCorps visit campus on Thursdaysarahkramer.jpgto tell the stories of helping people tell their stories of family and place. I want students to get to know their community so they will not become part of a world of lost connections, that hollow existence that Timothy Beatley describes:

Americans, it seems, work harder and longer, often to support increasingly higher levels of consumption and personal debt, in a kind of overwhelming spiral of stress and anxiety…
The hectic pace of American life reinforces stultifying uniformity in our communities…
With minimal civic involvement, little time or inclination to know one’s neighbors or one’s community, it is perhaps not surprising that there is considerable fear and anxiety about ‘others.’ Both a product of our current culture and considerable obstacle itself to strengthening place and community, this fear often keeps us apart. (p.19)

And so, as this semester ends, and I step out of the classroom for several months, I want to remind myself to think creatively about how and where online and offline meet, how one can complement and deepen the other for our students in residential colleges as they navigate the challenging waters of a 21st-century adulthood.
early morning fog