Writing Partnerships: Service-Learning in Composition

deansThomas Deans is one of only a few SL/Composition gurus that’s publishing, and Writing Partnerships is a great resource for instructors like me at two-year institutions like Lake Superior College. The book is both theoretical and practical, and Deans uses three case studies that exemplify the paradigm that he develops.

Deans begins by setting the whole concept of service-learning in the contexts of John Dewey and Paulo Freire. He then fleshes this out into his service learning paradigm:

  • writing for the community
  • writing about the community
  • writing with the community

He develops each of the above with a case study.

Writing for the community is shown through the example of an upper level WAC sport management class at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Students there work with community non-profits, developing actual written usable projects, like a First Aide manual for adolescent swimming instrucors at a local YMCA. This practice is probably best suited for four year institutions where experienced writers can more confidently apply their skills to real world situations.

Writing about the community is shown through the example of first year composition students at Bentley College near Boston. Here, students are partnered with community groups in non-writing service situations like tutoring in an urban elementary school after school program. Students are asked to use their service experiences later in the analysis of a social issue, writing an essay that would also include more traditional research. This comes closest to the type of SL I’ve attempted in my composition classes (minus the traditional research element).

Writing with the community is really what I aspire to, though it’s a daunting undertaking. Deans’ case study is Linda Flower’s Community Literacy Center (CLC) partnership with the English Department at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Founded in 1991, the CLC is located in urban North Pittsburgh. There, undergraduate and graduate student mentors work with urban youth specifically to affect grassroots change. This social activism often takes the form of writing in the CLC’s own publications, and also in other community forums (like newspapers). In Deans’ case study, he shows how CLC students and mentors worked together to address a city curfew issue.

A partnership like the CMU/CLC partnership is much larger than any one instructor/one class situation. Clearly it would require institutional commitment and money. However, I noticed a new Minnesota Campus Compact grant that might fund the beginnings of such a partnership between LSC and local Duluth institutions like Life House, CHUM, Daminao Center, or the Union Gospel Mission. A new 2000 level writing course would probably need to be developed to facilitate the project. It’s something I’m exploring, anyway.

Deans ends the book with several appendices with practical documents from the various case studies, and annotated lists of service learning projects being done at various institutions nation-wide.

Deans also has a student text, Writing and Community Action: A Service-Learning Rhetoric with Readings, that I’ve asked Pearson for a copy of. It might be something I can use with a Comp II class next year.

Posted in Books, Sabbatical | 1 Comment

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

OscarAfter I got off the plane in New Orleans a few weeks ago, I proceeded to get on the wrong shuttle, which took me to the wrong hotel (glazed with rain water, beside the white chickens). Turns out that Hilton Garden Inn is not exactly Hilton, like Chevy is not Cadillac, and that there are several of these McHiltons in the city.

It turns out I was saved from a tragic fate by a Golden Mongoose…wait, I’m ahead of myself. Turns out that Penguin Book rep Terese Neumann made the same mistake (much to the mirth of two retired Pennsylvania gamblers, for whom our wrong shuttle was right), and she proposed we share a cab to the right hotel. Upon reaching the correct hotel, to our horror we discovered that the driver was a man with no face…err, I’m ahead again. Upon reaching the hotel, aforementioned Penguin discovered she was cash poor, so I bailed her out with assurances that she’d make good when I visited her exhibit in the CCCC exhibit hall. She was true to her word.

Sorry for the long story, but later while I was handing the money she owed me back to her in exchange for books, she gave me a deal on Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz’s second offering, telling me I had to read it FIRST, and I had to let her know what I thought. “I think it’s going to win the National Book Award,” she said.

Well, Terese. Here it is.

I don’t know anything about National Book Award criteria, but Oscar Wao was fascinating, challenging, and well worth reading in spite of what I’ll call some inconsistencies.

Oscar de Leon (Wao is a nickname he earns) is a pathetic Dominican American whose brief and wondrous life is chronicled in these pages. What fascinated me wasn’t Oscar so much, but the rich portrait Diaz draws of Dominican life and history over the last 75 years, the scifi/fantasy references (particularly Tolkein) that permeate every page, and the footnotes. Footnotes have never been this much fun.

I’ll admit that I’m a Dominican historical neophyte, and that Trujillo (Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina [aka El Jefe, Fuckface, or Sauron]) was not someone with whose horrific crimes I was familiar. I can’t say that any more. Through the middle part of the last century, the Dominican people have suffered as much as any people on this planet.

For me, the richest parts of the novel are the histories of Oscar’s mother, Beli, and grandfather, Abelard, whose tragic stories intersect with El Jefe’s in ways that would certainly place him among the worst dictators of all time. Though it’s fiction, from what outside reading I’ve done, I’m certain that Diaz does not exaggerate.

As for Oscar himself, I wasn’t sure I really cared much about him (only about 1/3 of the book is about him). What I found inconsistent were the spare narratives of Oscar’s early life narrated by our Watcher, Yunior, up against the richness of the stories of Beli and Abelard. In theory, Yunior narrates the whole book, but there’s just something missing from his Oscar narratives compared to the others until Oscar returns to the DR himself, and suddenly becomes a compelling character.

Oscar’s transformation is worth waiting for, though, especially since we get one last look at the Golden Mongoose and the man with no face.


Posted in Books | Leave a comment

Out of the Silent Planet

planetAfter reading Surprised by Joy, I got a hankering to reread C.S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet, which I’d enjoyed in my youth. I had this notion that it might fit into my Science Fiction class next fall. Upon rereading it, I discovered that it wasn’t as good as I remembered it, and I won’t use it in my course.

That’s not to say it’s not worth reading. As one might expect from Lewis, he’s got some theological underpinnings embedded in this space journey, as well as commentary about interplanetary colonization. Perhaps cosmology is a better word than theology. What we learn in Planet is that the various planets in our solar system are each governed by their own diety. Beyond that, it’s not too theologically deep. That depth gets played out in the rest of the trilogy (Perelandra and That Hideous Strength).

Since I’d read it before, Lewis’ surprises weren’t surprising any more; however, when I read it the first time, the “silent planet” wasn’t what I expected it to be, and neither was our planet’s diety.

I like the Britishness of our hero, the philologist Dr. Randsom, who in moments of crisis is apt to say things like “Dear me!” or “I say!” but I don’t plan to complete the trilogy any time soon.

Posted in Books | Leave a comment

A Sucker Runs Through It

bradThere’s a scene at the end of A River Runs Through It where Paul (Brad Pitt) has the big one on, and wades down the raging torrent engaged in the epic struggle between fish and man. He’s thoroughly enraptured, and if I remember right, is never seen again (who could imagine a better ending). Well, except for the disappearing part, that was me Thursday morning at about 10:17 a.m., and I finally get what it’s all about.

Minnesotans, in theory, exit the womb with fishing tackle (poor mom), but I’ve been a pretty weak fisherman through the years, partly due to the fact that I don’t drive, and partly doe to the fact that I’m lazy. However, after Thursday, this may change.

My bothers Dave and Nate, and my friend Scott Norr have been trying to make a fisherman out of me for six or seven years now, and it may finally take. Scott had me out for my first steelhead run on the Sucker River up the shore from Duluth, and I’m going to come clean right away. It was the big one. It got away. It hardly matters. What matters was having it on.

Steelhead are naturally reproducing rainbow trout that were introduced into Lake Superior and its tributaries about a hundred years ago (give or take fifty). Every spring they run up the rivers for a few weeks to spawn, and this is when some guys get obsessed. The weather is crappy, the water is 36 degrees, they’re in it up to their hips, and steehead guys are in paradise.

We’d been out for a couple of hours drifting yarn flies (don’t I sound like an old hand?). We were working upstream from the Old 61 bridge, and the river was a torrent, though it had calmed down considerably since a downpour earlier in the week. Scott looked mighty perfesshinal wading through the torrent or winding through the bank brush. Me, I looked like a moron with two left feet, but I was slowly getting the knack of drift fishing.

I lost one fly to the bottom, and Scott coached me through my first snell knot. I decided to change my yarn fly from green to pink, and I’ll brag here. That decision was the key.

Oh, why be modest. That decision has changed my life.

Back out in the current, the sky threatening to open, the falls ahead of me roaring like Niagara Junior, I was back doing my double handed drift thing, thinking that this was a lot of fun and maybe we’d catch fish the next time.

Then there was a new bump I hadn’t felt before.

And then SHAZAM!

I’ve hooked plenty of fish through the years and enjoyed every one of them, but this was something new. This was like, HOLY CRAP! My adrenaline nearly popped my cap off. Lady steelhead was pumped, too.

She shot up into the falls for a second, and then shot down right past me (nearly through my legs) and started pulling line out of my reel faster than I could reel it back in. I called to Scott, who was lost in his own reverie, but as soon as he saw what was happening, he coached me something fierce.

“Move downstream with her,” he crooned, “and don’t fall.” Here’s where I did my Brad Pitt impersonation. I was reeling like crazy and still losing ground, so Scott had me tighten the drag. Meanwhile, I was speaking in tongues and maybe shouting a few things that would make mom cringe, stumbling down the river to a solid spot to take my stand.

On the other end of the line, with the current in her favor, lady steelhead was still winning, and as I tried to pinch the line and haul the rod back to gain some traction against her, the line went slack.

A let down? Well, sure. I didn’t even get a good look at her, but word is that nobody lands their first steelhead. On the upstream, for close to a minute (that might be a stretch) I was completely absorbed in something beyond words. I could work really hard to try to describe it here, but I would fail. Until I felt it, I could never have understood.

I want to that do again. Definitely the pink yarn. Definitely pink. Pressure’s on for number two.


Posted in General Musings | 2 Comments

(De)Constructing 4C(s) (Con)ference T(it)les: Attending CCCC again for the first time

And now for the personal challenge. Sarah threw down the gauntlet in regard to my claim that I could write a poem completely from Postmodern CCCC 2008 conference titles.� (Yes, in one broad sweep I’m lumping Postmodern and Deconstructionist et al thought into one binary basket.� Mercy!)

In truth, I think such titles are on the wane at CCCC. When I attended 15 years ago, I could swear that every other one paren(the)sized or bracketiz[ed] something of por[ten]tious (Un)Meaning (but I’m not going to support the accuracy of my memory; for this exercise, gut feeling is enough). derridaOf over 600 scheduled sessions this year, I only found about 20 PoMo/DeCons. Also, of those 20, not one used []s (parenthesis ascending). How (Dis)appointing. I and Jacques Derrida de(rid)e a (de)clining down(turn).

My rule was to use only words or phases appearing in conference titles. I wimp(ed) out on my original goal to write a sonnet, but I offer it anyway as a monument to mean(ing)less/ful[ness].

Derrida’s Gift

(re)Defining Community
Reclaiming the (Con)Textual Product
(Re)claiming the Literacy Agenda
Reasearch(ing) Spaces
(Re)Building Reality
Reinterpreting and (Re)inscribing Bodily (Un)Realities
(Re)Charting the (Dis)Courses of
Aliens, (Ex)Gays, and Lesbians
Call(ing) and Response(ding) to
Changing Realities
(Re)presenting Hidden Realities
(Re)Writing Political Landscapes
Writing Real(ities)
(Re)Writing the Realities of
New Orleans

Posted in Poems, Sabbatical | 1 Comment

CCCC 2008 New Orleans

4COne of the great perks of my sabbatical is that I got to attend the Conference on College Composition and Communication in New Orleans a few weeks ago. The knock against CCCC in community college circles is this; it’s a bunch of grad students and windy PhDs just reading papers with post-modern titles like “(Re)Charting the (Dis)Courses of Faith and Politics.” That’s a fair criticism.

Call me strange, but I like those po-mo titles. I’m thinking of collecting some and creating a po-mo poem at some point. As a grad student, I presented twice at CCCC, and I felt like I was part of an important conversation, something that I don’t feel very often when I’m in the thick of teaching. Therefore, I thoroughly enjoyed the conference, appreciated the efforts of those dewy eyed grad students and windy PhDs, and came away with some new energy. I attended more sessions than ought to be legal, so MnSCU got it’s money’s worth, too.

I’ll include links to my full conference notes below, but first let me briefly note three ideas that have stuck with me.

  1. The Believing Game. Peter Elbow, Pat Bizzell, and some others presented around this idea that Elbow apparently coined several year ago. The believing game is essentially the neglected ugly sister of critical thinking. Academia has essentially honed the doubting game to a highly developed skill. We train our students to study everything looking for weakness. For this we have Descartes to blame, since he swore to question everything. The doubting game, of course, offers something important, but the believing game offers something of equal importance. It allows us a way to understand things that really seem wrong. As Elbow said, “That really sounds wrong to me. Help me think about it some more so that I can understand what you see as valuable about it.” Basically, we ignore the believing game, jump straight to the doubting game, and are worse critical thinkers for it, resulting in polarized discussions at all levels of discourse.
  2. Institutionalized Service Learning. I attended a Service Learning Special Interest Group meeting where I met a lot of great people doing interesting things in service learning. What was interesting, though, was what someone brought up about the dangers of institutions co-opting the SL train for their own purposes. Until hearing this, I had only considered that institutional support must be a good thing. However, when institutions start using it in their PR, then we lose that edgy, Freirean, grassroots element and our students just become showcase tools. It’s not all bad, but it’s something to think about.
  3. Community Publishing. There’s a whole grassroots movement that would be exciting to get involved in where people from primarily low-end socio-economic neighborhoods are writing and publishing their own stories – self ethnographies, so to speak. My favorite is New Orleans’ own Neighborhood Story Project. I’m thinking about somehow getting LSC students involved with places in Duluth like CHUM and Damiano Center, working similarly to help those people tell their stories.

That’s the short scoop. If you want to read all of my voluminous notes (you really don’t want to, but my deep respect for you, oh reader, tells me that making them available to you is the right thing), follow the links below.


Posted in Sabbatical | 7 Comments

In line with the Bayou Steppers

While visiting with Rachel and Abram of the Neighborhood Story Project in New Orleans Saturday (April 5), Sherry and I found out that there would be a Second Line Parade noon the next day starting at some obscure street intersection that meant nothing to us touristas. parade6I had a slight notion what this meant because my daughter’s school Jazz Band had played a Second Line piece at a concert last year.

It was an all brass (tuba playing bass) with percussion (snare and bass drum) mobile procession. It was loose, fun, everyone got a solo, and I got to play long comping on a banjo (I’m a third rate banjo player, but I’ve learned to fake playing most stringed instruments). We were a bunch of white kids (grant me this one exaggeration) trying on our “soul.”

Turns out that Second Line parades happen nearly every Sunday in New Orleans. parade1They’re local events sponsored by Social and Pleasure Clubs from around the city where a brass band and costumed dancers lead neighborhood people winding through their own streets. No one watches a Second Line parade because everyone’s in it. As it winds its way, it grows as people come out of their houses and join the parade. Since Katrina, these parades have taken on an even more symbolic role of hope, unity, and community than they already had.

parade2Our particular Second Line Parade was sponsored by the Bayou Steppers, (advertised on their banner as the first integrated social and pleasure club in NO). The picture here I stole from NOLA Entertainment, but we were at this very parade. It started at the very humble intersection of 2nd and Dryades where people were milling around while the band got organized. Sherry and I had a quick lunch of some great Cajun shrimp soup with a boiled egg in it sold from the back of a rusty pickup. Then the band started up and we headed out.

It was an amazingly beautiful day, which my pathetic photos don’t do justice to, but suffice it to say that the music was amazing and I’d have missed my flight home to be there if I’d have needed to.



It was a great party – sunny and 80 degrees while at home Duluth was in a sleet storm. It wasn’t all happy, though. At one point, the whole parade stopped while the brass band played a dirge (Just a Closer Walk) to honor someone who had recently died (we never found out who, but it’s a frequent Second Line phenomenon). Also, we wound through a neighborhood that was probably only about 1/3 occupied. Below is an upper level apartment that appeared occupied, but still in shambles.


The parade wound toward downtown and pretty near our hotel, so we eventually abandoned it to catch our flight home.

Interestingly enough, when I was asking hotel staff about Second Line parades, one woman directed me to Harrah’s Casino, where a Second Line band parades around 24/7 while people pump cash into slot machines. The average tourist doesn’t get out of the Quarter/Hotel/Casino district of New Orleans, so she was just responding to what’s normally expected, I guess. I’m glad we didn’t take her advice.



Posted in Sabbatical, Travel | Leave a comment

New Orleans: a quick tour 30 months post-Katrina

First, an apology. My photography here is pathetic. My kids (on a school trip) had the digital camera, and in an effort to travel light, neither Sherry nor I brought our good 35mm with us to New Orleans, so I ended up buying a disposable camera. Ugh! I’ve never been so sorry I was cheap. I’ve done some terrible digital “enhansing,” but is green sky really better? I’m going to cheat and include a few pertinent pirated internet photos.

But first, a map. Later I’ll refer to the the Lower Ninth Ward (east of shipping canal, right edge of map about half way down), lake Pontchartrain (top), and the drainage canals (running north into Pontchartrain). Study this. Quiz later.


The serious cartographers can find a great series of flood level maps here.

Now I think we’re ready. Here’s the current state of some low income neighborhoods.


This is the rubble of St. Bernard, a low income housing project demolished within the last month (photo taken from the wrong side of a moving bus). All over New Orleans, such projects are being demolished despite protests. Lafitte is another large one we saw that was block after block of rubble. Federally funded, such projects were once updated via a 1 for 1 system. In other words, you tear one down, you build a new one. This kept people in viable housing.

However, recent changes in Federal law have superceded the 1 for 1 system. Federal money is now going toward “mixed income” neighborhoods, where low and middle income family are integrated. The theory is that such neighborhoods will experience fewer of the social problems that have traditionally plagued low income “projects,” such as St. Bernard and Lafitte, or our own Harbor View in Duluth.

The bottom line is that low income housing is being demolished and not replaced. The people who once lived in such places are scattered in a diaspora. Where are they living? No one is sure.



These are pictures from the Lower Ninth Ward, the low income neighborhood that was hit first and hardest by the storm. It’s too complicated to really get into, but the first news out of New Orleans was that it had dodged a bullet; the Lower Ninth Ward had flooded, but the rest of the city was in good shape. Whew! This turned out not to be the case as the rest of the city slowly filled up. Regardless, the Lower Ninth was definitely hit the hardest. About 1 in 3 homes are currently occupied. No one really cares now, just like no one cared when it was first flooded.

Here’s some middle income housing.



These homes are up near Lake Pontchartrain not far from the drainage canals whose levees burst after the storm surge filled the lake. These neighborhoods had a post-war feel to them that’s hard to explain. About half of them seemed to be in a rebuilding phase; the other half were still in shambles. Currently, people living in these neighborhoods battle snakes and rats, in addition to everything else one might imagine.

So what about the afore mentioned drainage canals?

canal 1

It’s common knowledge now that most of New Orleans (outside the French Quarter, hotel district, and St. Charles Ave.) is below sea level; well here’s visual proof, should you need any. This is the 17th Street Canal just before it meets Lake Pontchartrain, and the water level is clearly higher than the surrounding neighborhood. Every moment of every day, thousands of gallons of water are being pumped out of New Orleans and into these canals, which then drain into Pontchartrain. Most of the stretch of seawall and levee seen here was washed out after Katrina was gone and the skies had cleared. The storm surge had worked its way through the swamps into Pontchartrain, and then up these canals. It didn’t overtop them. It just pushed through them because of faulty construction.

Below is a picture of the solution.


This looks north, the opposite direction from the previous picture. The digitally enhanced sky looks ominous, doesn’t it. Lake Pontchartrain is behind that dam-like structure straight ahead, which is brand new (post-Katrina). The idea is that the next time there’s a hurricane, these dams will close, keeping the lake water from entering the canals. The apparatus on the left is a pumping system which will pump water out of the canal and into the lake. Simple.

That Army Corp of Engineers! What they won’t do for several hundred thousand people who insist onliving below sea level.

I promised a quiz, so here it is. True or false: New Orleans will flood again.

Answer in next post.

Posted in Sabbatical, Travel | Leave a comment

Getting out of the French Quarter

Last week I went to the CCCC convention in New Orleans. It was a great conference, but the best part of it happened afterwards when Sherry and I got out of the Quarter and adjacent hotel district and into the real city.

rachelSince my sabbatical focus is Service Learning and Civic Engagement, I went to a conference session about something called the Neighborhood Story Project, where I met Rachel and Abram. NSP is a pre/post-Katrina grass roots, neighborhood based community publishing project whose goal is help New Orleans neighborhoods to tell and publish their stories. On Saturday, Sherry and I were able to join up with their Post-Katrina tour, and see a lot of the rest of the city.abram

The French Quarter is interesting, but underneath all New Orleans kitsch, it’s your basic tourist trap. It escaped Katrina largely unscathed, and most tourists don’t get beyond it.

Greater New Orleans, however, is a post-war landscape. I’m going to publish pictures later (was used old fashioned film which is not developed yet – such a luddite), but I wanted to throw this up here to let you know that there’s going to be more in the coming weeks.

Because we made a few local connections, we were also able to worship at First African Baptist Church in the 6th district, whose sanctuary had four feet of water after Katrina, and then join a Second Line Parade that started not far away at the intersection of 2nd and Dryades, also in the 6th district. Both of these events would probably rank in my top ten of amazing experiences.

Think of this as sort of a trailer. I can tell y’all are excited.

Posted in Sabbatical, Travel | 2 Comments

Surprised by Joy

joyI was in a religious book store with my brother and sister-in-law who were in possession of a 40% off coupon expiring that day. It was clear that I would commit a sin if I didn’t save some money, and so I bought this C.S. Lewis memoir of his early life. It’s been the best 40% I’ve ever saved.

OK, that might be overstatement, but I did enjoy Lewis. He wrote it in 1955, and it’s about his spiritual life through his childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. Basically, it’s about how he reasoned his way to his Christian faith.

I picture him as Anthony Hopkins (weirdly) writing this in a tweed jacket in his Oxford study back in the fifties, but if you know the Chronicles of Narnia, then you know that even though he’s something of a stuffy academic, he’s never dull and usually surprises you with a wry turn of phrase.

“Joy” comes to him in a few isolated episodes throughout his childhood and adolescence. It’s hard, even for Lewis, to describe what he means by it, but it’s sort of a very intense, bitter-sweet pang or longing that he experiences quite unexpectedly, and then can’t quite figure out where it comes from or why. Much of his intellectual and spiritual life is spent trying, and failing, to recreate that joy.

During his adolescence and early adulthood he describes himself as an atheist, but eventually through various things – people, books, experiences – God comes to him. The chapter where it ultimately happens he titles “Checkmate,” and then describes God’s chess moves (and then I lost my bishop, etc.). Having lost more chess matches than I’ve won, I could relate. I’m sure God would best me, too.

Joy is very droll, but it’s not preachy, and really very interesting. One of my favorite parts is near the end where he talks about the role of heaven and hell. He writes:

I have never seen how a preoccupation with that subject at the outset could fail to corrupt the whole thing. I had been brought up to believe that goodness was goodness only if it were disinterested, and that any hope of reward or fear of punishment contaminated the will. (231)

I was glad to hear that I’m not the only one to suspect a corrupting influence there. I also like his observations of organized church:

And then the fussy, time-wasting botheration of it all! the bells, the crowds, the umbrellas, the notices, the bustle, the perpetual arranging and organizing. Hymns were (and are) extremely disagreeable to me. Of all musical instruments I liked (and like) the organ the least.

Philip Pullman, who’s The Golden Compass trilogy is very popular right now, has made a big deal of out bashing Lewis. I love Pullman’s books, but I love Lewis’s, too. Oh, the botheration of it all.

I’m gonna make that word a regular part of my vocabulary.

Posted in Books | 4 Comments