A new ‘landscape’
Over the weekend, Marshall was a new setting for the Minnesota Writing and English Conference
MARSHALL — The people gathered at Southwest Minnesota State University over the weekend weren’t strangers to talking about writing and English education — they were all teachers, after all. However, the SMSU campus was a big change of scenery for many.
On Friday and Saturday, the Minnesota Writing and English Conference was held at the university.
“This is the first time it’s come here,” said Mary Ellen Daniloff-Merrill, professor of English at SMSU and one of the local coordinators of the MnWE Conference. Over the past 10 years, the annual conference has been held in the Twin Cities area.
This year’s conference theme, “Connecting Landscapes,” lent itself well to southwest Minnesota, said Richard Jewell, general coordinator of the conference. The landscape is a “very present” part of life in the region, Jewell said.
The MnWE conference is organized by a committee of educators, including college English and writing instructors, and teachers who work with high school students taking college courses.
“We started as, and still are, an all-volunteer organization,” Jewell said. Educators from the University of Minnesota system, Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, private colleges, and community and technical colleges have all taken part in MnWE.
The decision to hold this year’s conference in Marshall came about with the help of Daniloff-Merrill and Lisa Lucas Hurst, assistant professor of English at SMSU. While serving on MnWE’s volunteer committee, they thought it would be a good opportunity to strengthen the connection between the Twin Cities area and southwest Minnesota, Daniloff-Merrill said.
“I’m so proud,” that SMSU was able to host the conference this year, she said.
The MnWE Conference is a little different from other academic conferences, Jewell said. It’s meant to be less formal, and to give participants a chance to work with each other in small groups.
During the conference, participants discussed different issues in teaching, from the perspective of different “landscapes.” Those could include educational landscapes, or even psychological landscapes — the different experiences and voices that students from diverse backgrounds bring into the classroom.
In her keynote presentation on Saturday, author and teacher Kirstin Cronn-Mills said stories help us shape our world. Teachers and writers can help guide students through different mental landscapes.
“Books give them that ability to go other places without leaving their chairs,” she said. Cronn-Mills said it was important for students to read stories about and written by a diverse group of people. Students in Minnesota schools and colleges come from diverse backgrounds, and it can make a difference to see their experiences reflected in stories.
Including diverse voices in the classroom was a focus for many of the sessions at the conference. The conference included a reading by SMSU students in the university’s Access Opportunity Success Program, as well as an exhibit of stories collected by the Migrant Voices Project. As part of the project, SMSU students conducted 49 interviews with immigrants who moved to the Marshall area in the past 30 years.
Physical landscapes were part of the discussion, too. The conference included sessions on writing about place, and in one panel, SMSU English professor David Pichaske talked about the effect of the southwest Minnesota landscape on area writers.
“They seem to be shaped by place,” Pichaske said during the panel discussion. He used author Bill Holm’s metaphor of the “prairie eye” to explain some of the style of southwest Minnesota writers.
“I think, first of all, the prairie eye sees what it sees,” Pichaske said. Southwest Minnesota writers’ work, he said, tends to be concrete and straightforward. “They’re about the thing, rather than the idea it stands for.”
Bringing the MnWE conference to Marshall, was also a good chance to introduce a new group of people to the area, said local writer and instructor Steve Linstrom.
“A lot of them have never spent much time in Marshall,” Linstrom said, so conference organizers helped prepare a welcome. Marshall Mayor Bob Byrnes spoke to conference on Friday, and later that day, former Marshall Community Services director Harry Weilage took participants on a tour of Marshall’s downtown and the Lyon County History Museum.
“The tour was designed to give them a flavor of the arts in Marshall,” including the three murals on Main Street, Linstrom said. It was great to be able to have local residents and officials meet with conference participants, he said. “They’re very proud of the city, and that came through.”
“It was interesting hearing people’s perspectives of Marshall,” in talking with conference participants, Linstrom said. People’s reactions were positive, he said.