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Personally Speaking/Into the Wild

Mid-September. Amidst the bustle that is an early fall afternoon at a small liberal arts college, we sought a quiet yet energetic space to begin the work of our course, “American Myths, Community and the Individual.” These were not just any eight students. These were the newly minted Gap students, just returned from 26 days in the Boundary Waters. Twenty-six days without a shower. Twenty-six intense days of wilderness backpacking, kayaking and rock-climbing. As a group now seated in a circle in a Mulva Library classroom, they fairly vibrated with a sense of readiness. 

I’ve never experienced a first day quite like this. Here I sat with eight new students who had already worked hard together, disagreed with one another, laughed with one another, shared meals together, had conflicts. I was the stranger, encouraging them to place that experience and the upcoming ones of my course into a critical framework. They were ready: ready to learn, ready to engage, ready to work.

So began our outside-the-box course together. For the next four weeks, we would study American culture and history from the vantage point of the students’ community service across four locations in the United States and through various myths of American identity. By myths, we mean stories that tell us truths about a culture. At the same time, however, myths themselves are falsehoods that prove unreliable in the final analysis. Bearing this paradox in mind, the students would read, view and discuss fiction, poetry, essays and films about American culture, at the same time that they were using academic and experiential learning to tease out various myths of American experience.

In the Boundary Waters before my course even began, they read Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild,” which we used to examine the idea of the “rugged individual.” While river-rafting, maintaining trails and reclaiming campsites on the Upper San Juan River, the students discussed Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickel and Dimed,” evaluating the concept of “meritocracy” and consumerism in American culture. In Chicago, they tutored immigrants, visited prison inmates, and heard stories from former gang members. And they read Chicago writer Sandra Cisneros’ collection “House on Mango Street” to examine the idea of “separate but equal.” In Tennessee, the students began to uncover the varied meanings of community while helping the elderly in their seasonal farm cleanup. They read Ernest Gaines’ novel “A Lesson Before Dying” and studied Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech to consider how community-building takes work and patience, and has not always come easily.

For me, this has all been new territory. The students were traveling without me for much of the course. I was able to meet with them in person for the first week, and for the next three weeks they used iPads to communicate with me. They discussed their experience and ideas together, with the assistance of their two staff leaders. Even when they were off the grid – on the river, for example – they kept track of their responses to the assigned texts and experiences through journals and essays. I had to trust in the work I had put in while designing the course, in the material I had chosen for the students to read and in the assignments I had crafted.

The students’ comments were revealing. One quoted the young protagonist in Sandra Cisneros’ work: “ ‘Those who don’t know any better come into our neighborhood scared. They think we’re dangerous. They think we will attack them with shiny knives. They are stupid people who are lost and got here by mistake ... our knees go shakity-shake and our car windows get rolled up tight and our eyes look straight.’ This quote from ‘The House on Mango Street’ shows how most white people think and feel when driving into a bad neighborhood. I actually felt the same way until this week.” 

We worked on reading closely, thinking deeply, crafting smart questions perhaps even more than answers, making connections across difficult concepts and linking the theoretical with the practical. The students reflected this in their self-evaluations: “One of the first things I took from this course was to wonder why things are the way they are. … I now find myself asking questions and chasing after answers to the questions I don’t know. … This course has taught me to read between the lines, and try to find a deeper and less literal meaning from the text …” Here we see a gift that a college education can encourage in a student: deeper complexity, rather than simple answers. 

Nov. 13, 2014