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 writing students and I will see dinosaurs here at Morrill Hall, the Nebraska State Museum of Natural History, but this is the important moment: 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?
An interdisciplinary place-conscious pedagogy guides my classes, a pedagogy that values starting local and moving outward to global citizenship and action and my pedagogical values of articulation and engaged collaboration. My undergraduate classes use place-based reading and writing assignments to give students with varied personal and educational backgrounds multiple modes of entry, to foster community advocacy via field research and to challenge them to responsible engagement in the world. My undergraduates are refugees and immigrants, low-income and first-generation students, and we read Kao Kalia Yang’s The Latehomecomer, about being a Hmong refugee in St. Paul, because my students are not blank slates: they bring experiences and knowledge systems often not recognized as valuable. My creative writing classes use local texts to interrogate what we can write about and how we can write it. In a recent undergraduate creative writing course, I used contemporary Nebraska fiction to teach my Nebraskan students that there are powerful stories and poems to be written in places considered empty of value. In my literature courses, place studies is a lens to apply literary concepts of race, class and gender to crime literature from Poe to Joy Castro to Sarah Vowell, a lens that invites students from criminal justice to psychology to articulate their knowledge in the context of our literary work. Reading diverse texts is necessary to moving outwards towards becoming responsible citizens in the world outside our classroom.
Technology strengthens place-conscious pedagogy across digital space. I can link a creative writing class with a postcolonial literature class at another institution in which we both guide our students in reading Joseph O’Connor’s novel Star of the Sea. Students instruct each other about fiction craft and postcolonial theory, collaborate in small groups comprised of students from both classes, and articulate their findings in an online wiki to support our pedagogical purpose in creating new knowledge, rather than students simply being consumers. In the community college setting, technology supports my commuter students, whose chief obstacles to education are transportation and childcare. In the low-residency MFA environment, digital space means students can collaborate in discussion of shared and individual texts from across the country, apply critical craft to their creative work in workshops, and ultimately articulate the skills and knowledge they have gained in their craft paper and thesis project. From Skype to Zoom to Google Hangout, technology collapses space so we can collaborate as a class across distance, as well as one-on-one. As each student chooses a craft element to pursue in their craft paper semesters, I create a specific learning environment that takes advantage of my digital work at Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, which is online and fully open access. As a result, technology creates an active learning atmosphere that feeds the work, sparks the research, and 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 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 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.