I am eight years old, staring skeptically at a wall of rock and bone at Dinosaur National Monument. My father, who is six-five, the largest thing in my world, holds my sister, who peers up from under her pink Mickey Mouse cap and announces, “I want to be an alientologist when I grow up!” Years later, my students and I will see dinosaurs here at Morrill Hall, the Nebraska State Museum of Natural History, but I want my students to see something unknown to most of them: 12 million years ago, an Idaho volcano dumped a foot of ash on the Great Plains, resulting in a watering-hole death trap three hours north of Lincoln. What makes the Ashfall fossils unique, I say, is that the matrix holds them in three dimensions. Most fossils collapse once the flesh has decomposed and if they collapse into a way that keeps the order of bones intact, we say that the skeleton is articulated, as if the order of bones allows us to speak of them. What is missing when we cannot articulate the bones, when they are telling us something other than what we expect them to say? Must we create new words—like alientologist—to represent this new awareness? How do you know who you are unless you know where you come from, unless you know the place where you stand right now?
An interdisciplinary place-conscious pedagogy guides my classes, starting local and moving outward to the global, from the role of local place in students’ lives to how they function in the global community. Place-based writing is essential to teach students that the place they call home is valuable. My composition classes give students multiple modes of entry into college writing and reading, to foster community advocacy and challenge them to responsible engagement in the world. In the diverse world of North Hennepin Community College in Minneapolis, where my current students are refugees and immigrants, low-income and first-generation students, we read nonfiction that challenges and respects their perceptions of the world, because they know the power of place, even if they do not have the vocabulary for it. It makes a difference to read Kao Kalia Yang’s memoir of being a Hmong immigrant in St. Paul and recognize your experience in someone else’s words. My creative writing classes use local texts to interrogate what we can write about and how we can write it. In my latest fiction writing course, I used contemporary Nebraska fiction to teach my students that good writing happens everywhere. In Intro to Literature, we question how crime literature can provoke discussions of literary concepts across canonical lines. My interest in contemporary Irish prose is rooted in understanding these texts as local rather than national, and Irish literature is valuable in a creative writing class as well as a literature class.
Technology gives us tools to participate in the larger community of writers and readers, the last step of the local-global facets of place-conscious pedagogy. Skype allows us to talk to an editor in Ohio about publishing; email facilitates an interview with a novelist in Ireland about craft; blogs put a composition student’s research back into their local community; a wiki aids my fiction class in collaborating with a literature class at a different university who is reading the same book. This active quality of my classes inside and outside the classroom comes down to this: no matter the activity or experience, it all feeds the work, it inspires the story, it sparks the research, it fuses new ideas together.
Back at Morrill Hall, my students and I gather under a barrel-vaulted ceiling reminiscent of a ribs of bone, surrounded by mastadon and mammoth skeletons. They tell me about things I’ve never seen or never seen quite that way, rocks and minerals that glow in the basement, the new knowledge that camels originated in Nebraska, a tiny articulated fossil deer with the even-tinier fetus bones still inside it. They form phrases and sentences slowly, in quiet voices, as if speaking quickly and loudly would chase away these brand new ideas. As we sit among those prehistoric pachyderms, we transfer those ideas to paper: some write phrases and impressions, some sketch what they see, each in their own way articulating their new place in the world.