Tuesday, January 25, 2011

White Whales and Octopus Experts


Someday I'd really love to teach a seminar class in literature that is cross-listed with a science course. I took a seminar like this in community college, a co-taught class on farm literature and the ecology of food production: "Seed, Soil, and the Soul", it was called. The professors were good, and the books were okay -- but even with some average materials and some less than interested classmates, the class turned out to be amazingly challenging and even life-changing for a few of us (it was the very next year that I became a vegetarian). The novels kept us humanities types interested in the difficult science work, and the science (both natural and political) behind what happened in the novels helped the bio students get some context for their work. This is how good interdisciplinary classes should work at the lower levels of undergraduate study.

Early interdisciplinary study is important as students explore possible majors, and is helpful for students who do not look forward to taking general education requirements in disciplines where it might be difficult for them to do good work. Co-taught, crosslisted, six hour courses seem to me like a great approach to this. The only other incarnation of undergraduate interdisciplinary work I have experienced was a three hour course listed as IDS (Interdisciplinary Studies), on the topic of wellness. We read awful, mass market paperback books and argued about health insurance. Wellness is important, I guess, since students are often taking care of themselves for the first time, and learning how their decisions affect their health and the environment. But how was that an interdisciplinary study? And how is interdisciplinary studies a field of study that has its own three-letter acronym in the course catalog, along with ENG, PHL, MAT and the others? There has to be some ENG, PHL, MAT, PSY or whatever making up that IDS. Otherwise it's just some kind of self-help or potpourri course you'd take at the YMCA.

Unfortunately for the community college kids of tomorrow, the college where I took that awesome English-Biology mash-up course had to tighten its Honors Program budget, and stopped doing the seminar classes. Were those cross-listed courses a weird thing?

I hope the seminars come back to College of DuPage, and I hope other schools are offering similar opportunities. I mean, the class had enough of an impact that I still think about it. The IDS Wellness class on the other hand, was mostly forgettable, except the really annoying parts that just made me angry (like having to write in APA style even though I was a declared English major -- what a waste of paper).

So I had one of those rare shower epiphanies about what I would want to teach. An "Introduction to Literature" course cross-listed with marine biology or marine ecology. I think marine biology and other oceanic sciences are going to be pretty important as the globe continues to warm. What better way to get bookworms interested in what's going on with the planet and its watery denizens? And what better way for budding biologists to explore the history of man's fascination with the sea? This would probably be a sophomore level class -- so they already know how to write, but aren't too busy with major requirements to really get into a class. The reading selections would be pretty obvious. Just in case the little scientists don't take any more literature, at least they'll end up with a few books to put on their display shelves. And each text serves a purpose (a porpoise - ha!).

Rime of the Ancient Mariner
-- to expose students to British literature (you would be surprised how many start college having read only American authors), to get them used to reading poetry, to get English students to start thinking about recurring maritime themes in literature

Selections from Moby-Dick -- No one's going to read the whole thing while they're busy memorizing stuff out of the biology textbook! But everyone can stand some exposure to great books. We won't have them read the chapter entitled "The Crotch." And we can have serious discussions about whaling.

The Old Man and the Sea -- It's short, and it will provide some 20th century relevance that doesn't come in a paperback with soft-focus, sad looking little girls on it. Maybe we'll talk about overfishing.

Rachel Carson's The Sea Around Us -- This'll be the glue that holds it all together! A literary sort of book by a real live marine biologist.

And last but not least, Some Marine Biology Textbook.

Of course in order to teach this class I'll have to befriend a marine biologist -- an octopus expert, a sea cucumber connoisseur. Preferably one who also likes white whales. There's a catchy course title in there somewhere.

It seemed like a good idea in the shower anyway.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Land of Eaves

Anyone with an eye for beautiful things is bound to complain about strip mall architecture once in a while. But its latest trend here in the midwest is more maddening than the ugly, low 1970s strip of shops we grew up hating, and just as out of place as those adobe and stucco numbers that were popping up everywhere from Tucson to Buffalo for a decade or so. I searched in vain for what to call this new style of commercial architecture, and I don't think the builders who produce it are educated in architecture to the point where they would even know what to call it. A professor called it New Urban, but it's more like a square dung heap. So I'll describe it: angular, squared off, tall buildings with extremely wide overhanging eaves, and extremely low pitched roofs. Here is one from this area:


I'll tell you why I hate it. I hate the overhangs because they are too high to provide cover, and stick out so far that icicles will almost certainly fall on and kill the person who can't calculate their trajectory. This is a problem in the Midwest. You don't walk right next to a building because ice falls. Put the eaves out six feet, ten feet, twenty feet... how will we know where to walk? In addition to the the lack of practical applications for these wide roofs, I have a more important objection: they look idiotic. It has somehow become a status symbol of commercial architecture, that whoever has the widest most massive eaves must have the fanciest establishment.
A fancier option, with walls of glass and stone pillars. Dick's Sporting Goods chose this one, because we all know how fancy sporting goods can be.

What's strange about these buildings is they house everything from your typical strip mall denizens -- liquor stores and sporting goods shops -- to all manner of city and public buildings, to high-end medical offices (like, you know, places where people who have insurance go). The city of Aurora and the village of North Aurora both built new police stations in the past year, and they look like this:

It looks almost like this... they didn't quite come through with the grass and trees

Granted the city and medical buildings that go this architectural route are usually thicker and sturdier looking than the strip malls. They pay for the nice facades, a taller entryway, and the widest roof that won't fall off. (Now I'm curious what will happen to these things after a few years of blizzard snows landing on them. Don't the architects know why Alpine roofs are pointy -- not flat?)

I think what bothers me most about these monstrosities is that they are trying to look incredibly important. That's great for the police station and the courthouse and the library*, but won't they look stupid ten years from now? The liquor store does not need to command anyone's architectural respect. And the doctor's office in the middle of the cornfield does not need to impress anyone. The people on the other side of the cornfield are just glad it's there.

Buildings are for living in, living with, and for using their spaces. These crazy roofs and imposing facades do not make them inviting, especially on a backdrop of flat ground and white sky. (I've seen some of this style of building look decent in Phoenix or Palm Springs, with well-watered greenery all around and a southern sort of flair to the facades.) The massive roofs, if anything, make a person feel small and unwelcome. Personally, these buildings frighten me when they're free-standing without any other tall structures nearby. There's one all alone on desolate Route 34 between Yorkville and Plano, soaring into the sky and slashing it with its violently protruding black eaves. Terrifying.

Commercial design of strip malls will always change with the trends, but I don't see why other public spaces should be built on a whim. I guess that's my point here. City planners, put some thought into your buildings and who is going to be using them -- or even enjoying them if you don't build a sea of eyesores! Don't look to the liquor store or the new hair salon down the street for your inspiration. Let's go back to a simpler time when strip malls were the only thing that looked like strip malls. We've kind of gotten used to those anyway.

*The Batavia Library was built in 2002 in a modest neoclassical sort of style. It doesn't have a wide roof, and never fails to look inviting. And if you sit on the bench next to the Mark Twain statue under the portico, you will actually be protected from rain and falling ice. You can't go wrong with columns on public buildings. So symbolic! So structurally useful!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Pile Day


Don't you love pile day? Thanks to Amazon Prime all my shit ships in two days these days, and lands in a glorious well-timed pile on my doorstep. I came home to the pile on Saturday, and in it was the following:

T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land with original manuscript (which makes me want to make crazy notes and arrows on everything)

The Textual Condition
(which sounds like a terrible disease of the intellect)

The Life of John Milton (which will either blow my mind or put it into hibernation)

MLA's Literary Research Guide (which I thought was stupid at first but might become indispensable this semester)

I was also supposed to order some huge tome of Milton works, but I think I have them all between various Nortons and crappy Penguin editions. It wasn't a critical edition we were supposed to get, so I don't think I'll get flogged or anything. There were a couple required Shakespeares too, but I'm planning on extended loans from the public library. In undergrad the profs were all about saving us poor English wretches money. Hopefully grad school profs are just as lenient about textbook editions. If we've come this far in English (instead of heading off to law school or MBA school with our liberal arts BAs), then we really don't have any money.

So this is it, and here we go. Milton on Mondays and research on Wednesdays is it, for now. I won't know my crazy Fall schedule until March (I hope it's crazy! And full of snotty, despondent, eye-rolling freshmen writers! The more you do the more you can do...)

Looking at my newest book pile on the first week of the semester is always a joy, and this semester it is an especial joy because I'm only reading literature and doing research. No theory, no reflective essays, no pondering the state of the academy (or the state of my future...my future state? I stopped following the MLA on Twitter because it was all so obnoxious...). None of that junk. Just good gritty work on this here pile.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Place's Place


I recently began reading Bloodroot: Reflections on Place by Appalachian Women Writers, edited by Joyce Dyer (an Appalachian outmigrant herself). I'm not through with it, because I've admittedly been skipping back to the writers whose "place" most closely resembles my grandmother's place of upbringing. But when you're dealing with place, how near or far a place is from your own becomes very important.

I've been interested in my Appalachian heritage for some time, but this interest has become more urgent as my grandmother's health wanes. I'm not interested in this heritage in a genealogy sort of way -- I'll leave that up to my Aunt Mary Virginia -- but in a cultural, and partially socio-political way. And of course, in a deeply personal way that I tie to my family's and my own fierce connection, attachment, or involvement with place.

My first real study of Appalachian art and politics was in my second English comp course at the community college, here in Illinois of all places. The professor chose to teach us to write argumentative essays by showing us politically charged documentaries --I think it worked. We watched Stranger with a Camera and read Harry Caudill's Night Comes to the Cumberlands. Only then did Appalachia crystallize for me as its own culture, and as a place that is deeply troubled, yet capable of producing some of the clearest and most thoughtful American voices.

My next way into Appalachia was through writing it. I joined a writers group after that comp class, and wrote stories and vignettes about my family. I received a lot of positive feedback on everything from descriptions to dialog, but what always got the most kudos was my building of a place. My group mates felt they knew just what it was like to stand in grandma's kitchen, or to walk the ridge where grandpa has slept in the Virginia earth since Thanksgiving 1964. I never felt like I put all that much craft into getting these places across. They just sort of came out of me. Like I was born with brown hair and a little voice, I was born with ready-made images of mountains and streams and chipped coffee cups and pickled beans that I could just unwrap and present to anyone who was interested.

I wasn't raised in Virginia. I wasn't even born in Appalachia proper. Though to get from Grandmother's to Dad's one must drive under the Appalachian Trail (my sister and I would race to spell it first as soon as it came into view, "A-P-P-A-L-A-C-H-I-A-N!"), western Maryland is a few miles too far north to qualify as the southern highlands. So though I grew up in the shadows of the smaller Appalachian ridges, south of the Mason-Dixon Line, a stone's throw from West Virginia where the mountains soar, I am an outmigrant's child. So why I am so tied to a place I never really lived? I think the answer is that these aren't purely genetic ties, but cultural and narrative ties that were strengthened by living in a place that was a fair surrogate for "real" Appalachia, and by sharing this new place with grandmother who sounds as if she never left the hills.

I have lived so many places, and the only non-Appalachian place that has any claim on my soul is Arizona. It has mountains of a very different kind, but they provided a backdrop I could get used to. In between those mountains you can see far too far. The never-ending views between the ranges made the landscape something new and exciting. Most people from grandma's place, if they had ever seen Arizona, would find it stark and barren. (My dad took my grandmother on a truck trip through the state, and when she saw a pointed mountain in the distance, she asked if it was a slag heap...) For me touching down in Arizona was like a trip to Mars. Stark and barren in parts, sure, but fantastic and wonderfully confusing. No where else I have lived, whether beautiful and captivating like California or maddeningly flat and nondescript like Illinois, has ever gotten a hold on me like AZ.

You might say everyone has a connection to their home, how it looks, the type of people who live there -- but I have to argue that this is different. Appalachia is not just a hometown you miss or a geographic region that makes you comfortable. It is, like an island or a lost homeland, a borderland of sorts. Appalachian peoples can be looked at through a postcolonial eye just like any once-colonized people. While the list of who took land from who goes back millenia for any given tract of earth, I think it is fair to say that these first immigrants to the Americas who struck out into the hills mingling with God knows how many peoples who were already living there, were colonized, in the last two centuries by mining and logging empires. Appalachians, you might argue, have an advantage in American society because they are white. They may have an easier time leaving Appalachia and joining the rest of mainstream American culture. But why should they leave? And more importantly, if it comes down to leaving, why should they leave their culture behind? And maybe even more importantly, they're not all white. The concept of Appalachian whiteness is precisely what has made it okay to write them off as a culture, to ignore their poverty, and to make jokes at their expense. While political correctness has removed the humor from all situations and issues surrounding race, it is still quite all right to make incest jokes about hillbillies. Jokes aside (even Appalachians tell them about Ozarkians, and vice versa), the problems of the region are largely ignored. Even Martin Luther King, Jr. thought it necessary to speak about the hungry children of Appalachia alongside the hungry black children of the deep South, as people who have been overlooked.

That was a political aside -- I'm writing to talk about place, remember? When I saw Bloodroot I had to have it. It was everything I'm interested in (women writers, place, semi-matrilineal families), minus the politics! My latest way, then, into Appalachia is through its literature.

So to come back to place, this book has given me what I've been looking for when trying to explain why place is so important to my identity, and even why it sometimes becomes important for success at my endeavors. Not that I need to be in Appalachia to succeed --for I never truly have been in Appalachia. But why I might not go to the first ugly place that offers me a job, why I might consider the place with hills before all the other possibilities, and why I always, always try to think of ways to go home. I was done with Tucson when I left. And when I mentioned I might go "home," an ex-boyfriend told me not to "cut off my nose to spite my face," that "moving doesn't change anything," and other such rhetoric as I have heard spewed from people who don't have their own strong sense of place. Well, as much as some of you don't have a home or even a need for one, there are some of us -- Appalachians and their descendants, in particular -- who will always try to get back to it, and if that doesn't make practical sense (for we are a surprisingly practical bunch when it comes to making our way in the world), we will try to find a place that suits us, even if we're stranded in Illinois, or Ohio, or blessed with some opportunity in the big city. One contributor to Bloodroot found the only hill in the flat Ohio town where she teaches, bought the house in top of it, and put her office in the unfinished attic, so she could envision herself on a ridge. I chose a house by a river, which creates its own natural hills by its banks. You can't even swim in this river and the "hills" are laughable. But that's all the place I could make for myself in Chicagoland, where I moved for the practical purpose of being close to my son's very involved grandparents. Maybe I'm silly, but these women (some natives of the hills, some outmigrants' daughters) have made me realize that that is just what we do. We pine for our place, even when we've got a decent one.

This book has also brought me to a final and startling conclusion that going for a Ph. D. has always partially been my way to get to a different, but more familiar place. Not a meal ticket, but a ride ticket. Some of my school picks have changed since I had to postpone hightailing it out of the flatlands, but I still plan on shuffling off pretty quickly if a school will give me the means. My choices are in Tennessee, North Carolina, the wilds of New York state, etc. You know, places with hills.

I'm going to come back and edit this a little to add in some quotes and facts from the book, to show you that my ramblings are not isolated, but shared by a relatively ancient family of deep eyed, high cheeked women.