Writing Mount Tahoma: Place-Based Writing

Wendy Call
Pacific Lutheran University

Summary


In this discussion-based creative writing course, we take Mount Rainier / Tahoma / Ta-co-bet as topic, text, and inspiration. Students read a variety of literary texts about Mount Tahoma, by a wide range of authors from the 19th to the 21st centuries, delving into the mountain's impact on humans – and vice-versa. By studying the writing of local authors, Native writers with ancestral ties to Mount Tahoma, and well-known visitors and admirers such as John Muir and Denise Levertov, as well as visual art inspired by the mountain, we develop deeper connections to this local landmark. Through our own creative nonfiction writing, we will explore what the mountain means to each of us. In a final, multimedia project, we will create a (collective) digital, literary homage to the mountain, with a particular focus on the climate-related challenges that Tahoma faces (and, of course, we all face). This course requires at least one day-long visit to Mount Rainier National Park.

Course URL: NA
Course Size:
15-30

Institution Type:
none selected

Course Context:

"Writing Mount Tahoma" is an upper-division undergraduate course that is cross-listed in English and Environmental Studies. It can count for a major or minor in either program. Generally, the students are evenly divided between the two programs. As a writing-intensive course, some students also take it to fulfill the general-education writing requirement. It is a workshop-based course, capped at 15 students.

Course Content:

This is an upper-division creative writing course focused on the genre of creative nonfiction. It also had significant topical content, introducing students (at least in a cursory way) to the geologic, natural, cultural, and political history of what is now Mount Rainier National Park.

It is, at heart, a writing course, introduced to students this way in the syllabus:
We will read, write, and offer feedback on one another's work. About one-quarter of our class time together will be completing writing and revision exercises. Another quarter will be devoted to workshop sessions of your drafts. In each class session, we will discuss literature and we will write. We will read our work aloud, record it, and learn to present it in digital form. We will also learn from writers and from people with deep relationships with Mount Tahoma, through our interactions with writers, historians, and other scholars and activists who will visit PLU this semester.

Course Goals:

These course objectives are listed on the course syllabus, addressed to students.
"Writing Mount Tahoma," a course designed for writers (who must also be serious readers) with an interest in Mount Tahoma, will:
1) immerse you in the past, present, and future of the giant (threatening and threatened) volcano that rises just 50 miles southeast of our campus;
2) explore deeply the ways in which nature and wilderness shape—and are shaped by—our human consciousness/es and perception/s;
3) develop your ability to offer constructive criticism to your classmates about their creative writing;
4) help you read as a writer – that is to say, evaluate writers' structural, narrative, lyric and stylistic strategies;
5) hone your writing revision skills through rigorous practice; and
6) develop all the skills needed to create a multimedia literary product, including writing, digital design, audio / video recordings, and/or photography.

Course Features:

The course is writing-focused, but also brings in multi-media creative expression. The creative mode that students choose in addition to writing, for the final project, is up to them. They have chosen, for example, comics, creating a children's book, designing postcards, developing a sign-on letter, and writing / composing / performing a song.

"Writing Mount Tahoma" is an experiential course, with place-based writing exercises, engagement with visual and literary arts, outdoor spaces, and visiting The Mountain itself as core learning experiences.

Over the course the semester, students learned directly from professionals / practitioners in a variety of disciplines about how they perceive Mount Rainier and the ecological threats it faces. In Spring 2016, for example, those professionals included: an ecologist / photographer, climate geoscientist, historian, indigenous studies scholar, a poet / performer and a writer / activist.

Course Philosophy:

My teaching philosophy for "Writing Mount Tahoma" is based on three principles:

1) Start in the present time.
To help students begin to think about historical aspects of Mount Tahoma and how the peoples of the region have engaged with The Mountain, we start in the present moment, where students tend to be most comfortable, and move backwards in time. This also allows them to engage with present-time indigenous communities / cultures, before encountering historical representations of Native Americans who have lived in Mt. Tahoma's bioregions.

2) Start where students are.
First, we devote a couple of weeks to exploring definitions of "wilderness," through some of the disciplinary lenses provided by guest speakers. Then, I ask students to write about their personal, earliest experiences with what they perceived as wilderness. Some write about the trees just beyond their backyard fence. Some write about television shows—not just nature shows, but cartoon episodes—they remember from childhood.

3) Start in the body.
In this course, I approach writing through the senses, with one class session devoted to human sensory experience, emphasizing that creative writing should share sensory experience, rather than (or in addition to) emotional and intellectual experience. Once we have rooted ourselves in our corporeal, sensory selves, we move outward. First, to the question "WHERE are we?" – the most basic (and yet complex) bioregional question. Later in the term, we move to a question that I learned from indigenous scholars and educators: "Why are we HERE?"

Here is how the course is presented to students, on the syllabus:
This experiential and interdisciplinary learning augmented the core course activity: reading, writing, and offering feedback on one another's writing. About one-quarter of the class time (a total of four hours / week, with a 15-week semester) was devoted to writing and revision exercises. Another quarter will be devoted to workshop sessions of your drafts. In each class session, we will discuss literature and we will write. We will read our work aloud, record it, and learn to present it in digital form. We will also learn from writers and from people with deep relationships with Mount Tahoma, through our interactions with writers, historians, and other scholars and activists who will visit PLU this semester. We will read together, write together, explore a snowy mountain together, laugh together, and figure out how to spark our creativity together. We will learn more about The Mountain and its past, present, and future than you ever imagined possible. To allow the time and space for creative, place-based practice in our lives is a joy and an honor. Let's enjoy it!

Assessment:

For the first half of the semester, student writing is evaluated only based on level of effort, timeliness, and engagement with course themes (very broadly interpreted). The first graded essay is not due until the mid-term date. Each student writes a weekly post to the course's online discussion forum. Through their reflection in that forum, I assess (but do not grade) their progress toward each course objective. At the end of the semester, when they submit their final project, they also complete a two-page (single spaced) process essay in which they evaluate their own learning process through the term. (Please see the course syllabus for information on the grading breakdown for the course assignments.)

Syllabus:

Teaching Materials:

Writing Exercises & Writing-Workshop Critique Guidelines (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 35kB Aug24 17)

References and Notes:

Barcott, Bruce. (1997). The Measure of a Mountain: Beauty and Terror on Mount Rainier. Sasquatch, 1997. 1057061-074-6

Kirk, Ruth. (1999). Sunrise to Paradise: The Story of Mount Rainier National Park.University of Washington Press, 1999. 0-295-97771

Carpenter, Cecilia Svinth. (1994). Where the Waters Begin: A Traditional Nisqually Indian History of Mount Rainier.Northwest Interpretive Association, 1994. 0-914019-33-3 (This book is out of print.)

Please see the (attached) syllabus for a list of all required course readings: Laird Christenson and Hal Crimmel's pedagogy anthology, Teaching About Place: Learning from the Land (University of Nevada Press, 2008, 9780874177329) was a central guide for me as I developed this course.