On agrarianism.

This is a strange little post, perhaps, because I’m describing a work in progress, but it’s so darn exciting that it feels worth sharing.

So for a few years I’ve been leading reading and discussion groups for the Maine Humanities Council through their “Let’s Talk About It” program.  This time, I’m creating a brand new series for them: “People, Purpose, Place: Agrarian Novels in the USA.”

What is agrarianism, you ask?  A range of things.  But mostly a philosophy and a practice of living on the land, asking, as Wendell  Berry has put it, “what the land requires of us.”  Berry is a key voice of contemporary or “new” agrarianism, and he’s a handy figure because he’s one of the few people writing both critical AND literary work within and about the theme.

The “new” before “agrarian” is important, some argue, because the last folks to claim that title were Twelve Southerners who in 1930 published a manifesto called “I’ll Take My Stand” which was basically a rant against industrialism and a defense of a land-based, individualist and communitarian way of life.  New agrarianism similarly argues against technology for technology’s sake and is similarly committed to exploring the real, human and environmental costs of contemporary ways of life.  New agrarianism is, however, inclined to treat both women and minorities with greater respect and perhaps to more deeply understand the world as the large, complex, and interconnected beast that it is.  The new folks are also more likely to actually BE farmers; the first crew were largely poets and writers with a commitment to the idea of farming.  (And if you want more of the theory on this, see the essay collections The Essential Agrarian ReaderThe Unsettling of America; and The New Agrarianism for more.)

If you’re yawning, bear with me.  This stuff makes for amazing novels, full of generosity and landscape and primal sex.  Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer was our first; Wendell Berry’s A Place on Earth came next.  In November we read Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath; December will bring John Nichols’ The Milagro Beanfield War; January Ruth Ozeki’s All Over Creation.  Other hot contenders have included Annie Proulx’s That Old Ace in the Hole, Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, and Edna Ferber’s So Big.  Even on the Berry front, it’s unclear whether Jayber Crow would be a better choice than A Place on Earth; I chose the latter because of its insistence on the slow and patient pace of agrarian life and its complex ecosystem of characters and families, engaging in their lives through and across a staggering array of forces.

Some folks have said that there’s too much sadness in these novels.  Some have said that they move to slowly.  No one, however, accuses them of idealizing life on the land, which makes for a nice change from the genre of the idyllic pastoral.  In fact, it strikes me that all of them demonstrate a commitment to a kind of clear vision, a seeing of the world as it is and as it should be, that sounds almost more Buddhist than American (if we’re willing to accept as “American” the bustle and pressure and meaninglessness of advanced capitalist life).  Across the board, these writers are asking questions about value and about survival, about community and the meaning of our work and our capacity to feed ourselves, or not.  I couldn’t believe it when Steinbeck elbowed his way into this series, but there he was…you can’t discuss agrarianism at ALL in this country without understanding that historical perspective on the engineered migration of human lives and labor based on the application of corporate profit mandates to the land itself.  Plus, the ending of that novel is the most poignant statement of human resilience and generosity EVER.  (Go back.  It’s gotten better since high school.)

I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments if you want to read along with us!  As a sometime college lit teacher, nothing pleases me more than writing and talking and thinking with others about books and what they mean…so jump on in!

On teaching and learning, part 1

I say “part 1” because I assume there are going to be a bunch of these.  Yes, I’ve started teaching again — just one course, for senior-level university students, in which they study issues of sustainability and write a thesis on it.  I have always loved teaching, especially the part about getting to design awesome new courses myself, so this is very satisfying.  But this is the first time my time (and income) have been so incredibly constrained, so there have been some challenges on those fronts.  Raising babies, as they say, is really a full-time job.  But here’s what I’m learning so far:

1. Adult learners rock.  The average age at the public institution where I’m teaching is 32; the student body is 80% women; sounds like everyone has kids or jobs or both, and often several of each.  These people are not interested in wasting time or money, and they bring their whole selves to the course.  Keeps me on my toes.

2. Online teaching (the course is “blended,” so we meet face-to-face for just under half the weeks of the course) takes a lot of preparation but is no different, in essence, from other forms of thoughtful and effective pedagogies.  There are lots of cool new tools to learn and lot of time necessary to get things up and running, but it’s all premised on the same basics: start where people are; be clear about goals and processes; provide space, time, and encouragement for exploration.  Whenever possible, engage people’s whole selves — we know from research as well as from common sense that people learn about what they care about.

3. And go meta.  It’s always worthwhile to teach ABOUT what we are doing: reading and writing ABOUT research help us think more intentionally and more effectively about what our goals and methods are when we do our research.  Especially for adult learners, the largest obstacles often have nothing to do with the reading, research, or writing itself: they have to do with the mystification of the process and the apparent inaccessibility of the culture.  (Because of sentences like that one.)  But it’s not a closed club, and it’s not rocket science.  We are already scholars.

For those of you who don’t know me, it might be relevant that I’ve taught at three very different kinds of institutions before that, some of them very prestigious and all of them full of very interesting and engaged students…as well as a variety of folks who are there because of parental or cultural expectations.  Much of the energy you bring to the classroom (and course design, and responding to writing, and all the other places and activities of teaching) has to go toward motivating students and capturing their elusive (and often partial) attention.  As I’ve always said: you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink…good teaching, then, is about finding ways to make the horse thirsty.  I’ve typically done that through community engagement, which works powerfully for these purposes and often has the beautiful side effects of waking students up to vital issues of (in)difference, (in)justice, and the inextricability of our various lives.  But these students, this summer, already KNOW a lot of that stuff — they’ve lived it.  And I’m thrilled for the chance to support them in their deepening scholarly work.

On the day after I taught my first class this week, I was home reading with my younger son.  He does not like reading, or has not.  This has troubled me mightily, as I adore books and so does my older son.  I’ve noticed that there are a few books Chi likes, and they all have baby-pictures in them, or songs, or overt rhythms, or moving parts.  I’ve been waiting and waiting for the time when he begins to like STORIES for their own sake, when the characters and plot-lines take on importance.  But on that morning, I learned something essential: maybe he won’t ever like stories for the same reasons I do.  Maybe he is simply motivated in different ways.  But that doesn’t mean he won’t also be a reader.  He recently fell in love with Grandma’s dog when they brought her here on a visit, and after they went home again we actually called Grandma and Grandpa to Facetime…with the dog.  Chi could not contain his excitement, and he bounced and shouted and tried to grab the phone.  Afterward, I remembered a book he had rejected before, a collection of dog “portraits” in pictures and poems that the rest of us had loved.  Well, my heavens.  Now it’s Chi’s favorite book ever.  And I was reminded, for the nine-hundred-and-eighty-first time: what we do as teachers is NOT to make people into us, or even assume that we might want to.  What we do as teachers is try to figure out what moves them and work from there.  We try to give them the tools, the know-how, and perhaps even the inclination to understand and move purposefully in the world.  Because a sense of caring, just as much as a set of competencies, is what we need to try and fix what we see is broken.