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Michael Steinberg's Blog--Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction

#44 Part 3, Articulation: On Using the Essay to Teach Place-Consciousness to First-Year Writers (Part 3) by Karen Babine

#44 Part 3, Articulation: On Using the Essay to Teach Place-Consciousness to First-Year Writers (Part 3) by Karen Babine

Introductory Note: I've gotten a good deal of positive frrdback to the first two parts of Karen Babine's "Articulation: On Using the Essay to Teach Place-Consciousness to First-Year Writers." This is the third of a possible four or five installments. If you missed the first two, they appear right below this one. I'll post the fourth installment on December 9, one week from today.

Below. is my original introduction to the piece:

This month’s guest is Karen Babine, the founder and editor of the very fine, online magazine, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies assayjournal.com

Karen’s contribution, Articulation: On Using the Essay to Teach Place-Consciousness to First-Year Writers, is, as its title suggests, a personal, yet very detailed and meticulously researched piece on/about using the essay to teach “place” to first-year-writers. Although it’s aimed at first-year students and freshman composition teachers, this essay, I believe, will be of great value to just about anyone--both experienced and beginners--who teach and write literary nonfiction.

For those who follow this blog, Karen’s essay is a departure of sorts. For almost four years, I’ve been posting personal/teaching essays on/about matters of genre and craft. I've written some and selected guest writer/teachers have written others. Karen’s piece, an expansive essay--a thoughtful, thought-provoking, personal/critical essay. Not only is it an informed, in-depth, study on/about the teaching of place, but it also re-visits an important conversation about teaching writing, about the relationship between creative writing (in this case, literary nonfiction) and composition, and about the writing process itself--a passionate, transformative, approach to writing that began in the 1970’s. The movement included a host of concerned practitioners, rhetoricians and theorists, and beginning teachers of composition. It thrived for almost three decades before being replaced ,in the late 80’s, by a traditional, heavily prescriptive, outdated, methodology, an approach that’s being taught today in most public schools and in many colleges and universities as well.

This essay is a reflective, complex (and a very important, I believe), piece. And so, I’ve chosen to post one segment each Wednesday for four consecutive weeks.

The third segment appears below.

Note: In this and in each subsequent post, I'll include the full list of citations.


For the third Writing Project, my students and I spend a class period at the University of Nebraska State Museum, more familiarly known as Morrill Hall or the Elephant Museum. In the chamber off the main hall, an exhibit of Ashfall: twelve million years ago, a volcano in Idaho erupted in what is called the Bruneau-Jarbidge Event. It dumped enough ash on the Great Plains to create a mudpit out of a watering hole, resulting in a death trap that preserved two hundred different skeletons of animals. Most of my students—even the ones who have generational roots in Nebraska—do not know this place exists, let alone that it is three hours north of Lincoln.

One of my students follows me into the exhibit.

“This is my favorite exhibit in the whole place,” I say to fill the silence.

My student, who only voices his most important thoughts, nods. He then asks if the volcano in question was the Yellowstone eruption—and I am thrilled that he even knew of the Yellowstone caldera eruption—and I almost hate to tell him that it wasn’t, but I have to admit I do not know which specific volcano created Ashfall.

I leave him to wander the museum on his own and I lose myself in the bones of five species of prehistoric horses, three species of prehistoric camels, one species of rhinoceros—the teleoceras major. (There are several species of prehistoric rhinoceros native to the Great Plains.) One rhinoceros skeleton was found nose-to-nose with its calf. Smaller mammals that were the ancestors of the antelope and deer of the Plains, birds and turtles and tortoises and other reptiles that largely remain the same today as they were then.

What makes the bones of Ashfall unique is that the matrix holds them in the same position as their moment of death. Most fossils collapse into one dimension once the flesh has decomposed, once the skeletons have been stripped by the scavengers who take advantage of the opportunity. There is nothing left to hold the bones together and they collapse. 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 the bones allows us to speak of them. What is missing when we cannot articulate the bones?

During the next class period, I tell them that the Western Black Rhino has just been declared extinct in Africa. This is place, I tell them. And I wonder how we articulate a place like that, one that no longer knows the Western Black Rhino.

Praxis: Using the Essay to Read Place-Consciousness

When I ask my first-year students to name Great Plains writers (not just Nebraskan writers), I rarely get anything beyond Willa Cather. But the reality is that the Great Plains—just like the Minnesota I grew up in—is wild with writers, one of whom, Ted Kooser, Pulitzer Prize winning poet and former Poet Laureate, teaches in our English department at UNL. How can we expect them to know—and value the writing of place—if we do not teach them? How can we expect them to value the writing of place that they are doing—if we do no teach them that their voices are as valuable as what is already in print? In her article “Sense of Place,” Sharon Bishop writes of proposing, in 1986, to replace the traditional anthology of literature with Nebraska authors in her sophomore English class (66). She complicates the reading of Nebraska literature by asking the students to actively participate in writing the stories of their place (with an oral history project), and the result is the sort of active learning that is so central to place-conscious education. But the idea is larger than a simple syllabus change: the result is that she is teaching her students that literature that matters is still being created in this place, that the students are also participating in the creation of that literature.

Since our first Writing Project in 150 is designed to explore an aspect of a place that the student is connected to—does not have to be home—we are looking at Gruchow for examples of how one writer does that, as well as forms that we can use for inspiration. Phillip Lopate writes that “Eventually, one begins to share Montaigne’s confidence that ‘all subjects are linked to one another,’ which makes any topic, however small or far from the center, equally fertile” (77). We consider W. Scott Olsen’s “The Love of Maps,” which explores all possible answers to the question that starts his essay: “Why are you here?” We talk about answering that question through history, theology, philosophy, weather, and more. We discuss that Judith Kitchen’s short-short “Culloden” is about more than being at Culloden on her birthday. Readings like these emphasize that there is no one right way to know something, that any moment we consider profound in our own lives can be articulated to our readers, so they can share in the experience.

On the day we discuss “What Is Lost and What Can Never Be Lost,” we have read two Paul Gruchow essays out of Grass Roots (“Visions” and “Bones”) and Elizabeth Dodd’s essay “Underground,” from the anthology A Year In Place. It’s easy to write about loss—but it’s not easy to make people care about your loss. Since we are starting the day with “Visions,” about Gruchow’s childhood experience with the ghost of a cowboy in his bedroom and an adult encounter he and a friend have with a grizzly bear who tears apart their camp, we question beliefs and superstitions, growing up, and what do we lose when we put away “childish” beliefs? The cleverly titled “Bones” is about Gruchow’s lifelong obsession with bones. The content itself of these readings is the place-conscious element of the class, as we consider how other people relate to their places, how they form attachments to places and how they forcibly reject attachments.

But neither Gruchow essay is about its subject: “Visions” is not about the cowboy ghost, nor is it about the bear incident. “Bones” is not about bones. “Visions,” as we tease out of our discussion, is about how we make sense of loss: Gruchow is reacting to the loss of childhood curiosity and awe, what he feels like he has been required to give up to become an adult. The scene with the bear is his antidote to that loss—a re-mythologizing that counteracts the myth of the cowboys and Indians by finding awe and curiosity in nature. Does he create a new mythology here, with bears as mythical creatures—charismatic megafauna, a term from ecocriticism I introduce to them—stories we hear but never see ourselves? This is how he makes us, as readers, care about what he is doing, by making the stories he is telling evidence of some larger purpose. In “Bones,” what happens when all that is left is bones? Are the stories gone? How can they be part of something larger, when nobody knows the stories they represent? I want them to see that the Essay form is a perfect outlet for these kind of ideas that we are learning. We read as writers to discern how Gruchow achieves the effect that his content offers and this is the composition classroom element: how does writing work?

Then, to expand the day’s lesson into analyzing the craft of Gruchow’s essay, I bring in a concept from the fiction writer Jerome Stern, from his book Making Shapely Fiction. Good essays use all resources available to them—and many of them come from the techniques of fiction. Stern advocates that, just like children, when we as writers want the reader’s attention, throw a tantrum and make a scene (Stern 211). Stern writes, “When you ‘make a scene,’ you create a memorable moment. You interrupt normal patterns. The scene gets remembered as a significant event in a life history” (211). Put the most important moments into scene, with dialogue, action, sensory detail, and characterization. The same is true of nonfiction scenes, as they are simply another way of knowing. Stern concludes this way: “Remember the wisdom of the child: Make a scene when you really want everyone’s full attention” (211). In “Visions,” where does Gruchow want our attention as readers? The cowboy section is largely told in summary and it is fairly short; by contrast, the bear scene, where the grizzly bear rips apart their camp, is nearly ten pages long. That, by craft, signals that something important is happening here, because he puts the reader right there next to him, as if we are watching the bear with him. So, I ask my students, where are the most important moments in your essay? Where should you throw a tantrum and make a scene?

To contrast, we conclude our discussion with Elizabeth Dodd’s “Underground,” which my students find unsatisfying, as the Essay was missing the universal quality we all wanted. It is Week 4, and my students are beginning to find that elusive place where they read both as readers and writers. My students are more comfortable identifying narrative, exposition, and high exposition, and high exposition is something that Gruchow is particularly good at, finding the universal qualities in whatever he is exploring. But as we looked at Dodd’s essay—reading for content first, then reading as writers—we discuss that while she is working with the wonderful idea of stories buried and so many possible interpretations of “roots,” “underground,” etc, we decide that it does not rise above the level of reporting. We want more, as readers. As writers, we are able to understand why. We understand her drive, why she is writing this, digging through the mythology of the place that has been drowned by a dam, a struggle for independence and identity. We understand that. But we want high exposition. We want her to make us care, to link what she is doing to something universal that we can understand, even if we don’t know her, don’t know the people she was researching, don’t know the place where she was. What we learn from this essay is what is missing, what can be found in the space between Elizabeth Dodd the writer and the Elizabeth Dodd on the page.


Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park. University of Nebraska State Museum. 2011. Web. 29 Nov. 2011
Bishop, Sharon. “The Power of Place” The English Journal 93.6 (2004): 65-69. Jstor. Web. 12 September 2011.
--- “A Sense of Place” Rural Voices: Place-Conscious Education and the Teaching of Writing. Ed. Robert E. Brooke. New York and Berkeley: Teacher’s College Press, 2003. 65-82. Print.
Bishop, Wendy. “Suddenly Sexy: Creative Nonfiction Rear-Ends Composition” College English 65.3 (2003): 257-275. Jstor. 10 June 2010.
Brooke, Robert E., ed. Rural Voices: Place-Conscious Education and the Teaching of Writing. New York and Berkeley: Teacher’s College Press, 2003.
--- “Suburban Life and Place-Conscious Education: The Problem of Local Citizenship”
Coakley, Tom. “How to Speak of the Secret Desert Wars.” Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction 12.1 (2010): 95-108. Print.
Dodd, Elizabeth. “Underground.” A Year in Place. Ed. W. Scott Olsen and Bret Lott. Salt Lake City, UT: Utah UP, 2001
Gruchow, Paul. Grass Roots: The Universe of Home. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 1995.
---Boundary Waters: The Grace of the Wild. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 1997.
Gruenewald, David A. “Foundations of Place: A Multidisciplinary Framework for Place-Conscious Education.” American Educational Research Journal 40.3 (2003): 619-654. Jstor. 20 Nov. 2011.
Kitchen, Judith. “Culloden.” In Short: A Collection of Brief Creative Nonfiction. Ed. Judith Kitchen and Mary Paumier Jones. New York: Norton, 1996.
Lopate, Phillip. “What Happened to the Personal Essay?” Against Joie de Vivre. Lincoln, NE: Bison Books, 2008.
Madden, Patrick. “The Infinite Suggestiveness of Common Things.” Quotidiana. Lincoln, NE: Nebraska UP, 2010. 1-10.
Morano, Michele. “In the Subjunctive Mood.” Grammar Lessons: Translating a Life in Spain. Iowa City, IA: Iowa UP, 2007. 25-38
Olsen, W. Scott. “The Love of Maps.” Weber: The Contemporary West. 14.2 (1997). Web. 29 Nov. 2011.
Robinson, Tim. Setting Foot on the Shores of Connemara. Dublin, Ireland: Lilliput Press, 1995.
Root, Robert. “Naming Nonfiction (A Polyptych).” College English 65.3 (2003). Jstor. Web. 14 Nov. 2011.
---“What the Spaces Say.” Home page. Central Michigan University. Web. 29 Nov. 2011.
Smith, Alexander. “On the Writing of Essays.” Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 27 Oct 2006. Web. 29 Nov 2011.
Stern, Jerome. Making Shapely Fiction. New York: W.W. Norton, 1991.
Tredinnick, Mark. The Blue Plateau: An Australian Pastoral. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2009.
--- “The Essential Prose of Things” The Land’s Wild Music. San Antonio, TX: Trinity University Press, 2005.
UNL Factbook. Office of Institutional Research and Planning. University of Nebraska-Lincoln. 1 Sept. 2011. Web. 29 Nov. 2011
Wilson, Jason. Foreword. Best American Travel Writing 2011. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2011. ix-xii.

(The next segment, part 4, will run on December 9)

Bio Note:

Karen Babine is the author of the essay collection Water and What We Know: Following the Roots of a Northern Life (University of Minnesota Press, 2015) and the founder and editor of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in River Teeth, Weber Studies, Ascent, Slag Glass City, and more. She is currently English Faculty at North Hennepin Community College in Brooklyn Park, MN.

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