As I embarked on this project, my intention was to “test drive” my ideas with my Fall 2009 section of Argumentation (Alaska Pacific University’s freshman composition course), and then to teach the (presumably) improved version in Spring 2010. However, my Spring 2010 class has only two students in it, so I am combining results of both teaching experiences for my Difficult Dialogues work.
My overarching ambition for the class has been to have students think critically, by means of reading and writing and classroom discussion, about what it means to be a human being in the world today. How do we live meaningful lives that nevertheless ensure that future generations will be able to do the same?
My learning from the Spring ’09 faculty intensive included the value of slowing down my instruction, the importance of direct observation, and the necessity of place-based knowledge. In order to incorporate these into my teaching, I devised an assignment sequence that built cumulatively on a variety of practices:
· One of the first class activities involves spending time out of doors, in the vicinity of University Lake. My instructions to students are to spend up to an hour outside paying close attention to their observations. I suggest that they refrain from talking to one another or to others whom they might encounter, in favor of focusing more completely on what they notice about themselves and their reactions to stimuli in the environment. Although they are told not to write anything while out of doors, once they return to the classroom everyone does some in-class writing before we share our experiences.
· This activity is incorporated into two formal writing assignments, the first of which is a reflective paper that invites students to think about the meaning to them of places that have been significant or even formative for them, with specific reference to the importance (or lack of it) to them of the real or the romanticized “Alaska.”
· The second formal essay, assigned at the end of the course, asks students to present an argument as to why someone looking at going to college should (or should not) consider going to college in Alaska.
The Books of the Year
I also assigned a paper focused on the 2009-2010 UAA/APU Books of the Year: Seth Kantner’s Shopping for Porcupine and Charles Wohlforth’s The Whale and the Supercomputer. These were taught in conjunction with Velma Wallis’s Two Old Women and the Canadian feature film The Snow Walker to stimulate thinking, discussion, and writing about Western vs. indigenous ways of knowing and relating to the land.
Two Readings on Species Extinction
Finally, I assigned two 2009 essays addressing species extinction, Jennifer S. Holland’s “Race to Save the Frogs” (National Geographic, April 2009) and Elizabeth Kolbert’s “The Sixth Extinction?” (The New Yorker, May 25, 2009), both notable for the absence of place-based observations. These readings, particularly when considered with and against the Books of the Year assignment, really allowed students to evaluate the importance of indigenous knowledge to a complete understanding of the world and our place in it.