Review by Mack Hassler
North Country: A Pedagogical Almanac contains 19 short non-fiction essays of Memoir about the first arrival as a new Yooper to what she calls “… to live on the northern edge of beyond.” p. 11. Carolyn Dekker writes about her experiences since 2015 as a young professor of English at Finlandia University. I will have much more to say about the state of higher education and the bad news about this famous old school in Hancock at the end of this review. Most of Dekker’s essays, however, are a delight to read—even though she had done her graduate work in Ann Arbor, the UP is totally new to her and at first very alien. Also, most of the essays about discovering the North weaves in her wide reading and how she works in teaching her students. One of the best dated October 2017 and titled “Apples and Time Machines” has a lot to say about the science fiction novels of Octavia Butler and Kurt Vonnegut. She thinks the mode of time travel is a rather ineffective fictional device, but in this essay it is useful for her to describe her own marriage and blended family. She tells her students and her readers that she wishes she had been there in the time lost before she met her older husband and his daughters. Dekker herself is very effective with the girls and makes them her daughters indeed. As she writes about it, she does the same work with her students and with her right-minded teaching of literature that ranges from the poems of Mary Oliver to a lot of French literature and trips far from the North Country, leaving her old dog and the snow behind as they travel to Paris. She works hard to teach them to read and to write well and to think for themselves, and she seems never to impose an ideologic line of thinking on these Yooper kids. Another fine essay blends in the Byronic Hero, her love of horses, with her blended family of grown daughters and all things French. Dekker’s range of reference is impressive from her first viewing of Hancock across the bridge rising up the steep streets to the Quincy Mine to all the world literature she knows.
I know this academic profession. I was about the age of Dekker when I began to teach at Kent State University well over a half-century ago. I was working on Byron and some other Brits when the crisis hit our university with the student riots of 1970 and the death of four students in the May 4 clash with the Ohio National Guard. Many of us were afraid that our school would be closed and our work with students would have to end. The last essay in the Dekker collection deals with the struggles over the pandemic and the economic effects on student enrollment. These are not shootings but are just as lethal. The danger is that open-minded and helpful teaching will have to end. Some advocates think that we must teach more like propaganda to mold the minds of students toward one political solution or another. Dekker’s Memoir does not characterize her work with students and with the literature she insists they read as yielding to any ideologic program. Like her daughters, she wants her students to think for themselves. But there is a lot of anxiety about both the costs and the political pressures on higher education that can be sensed in these fine essays. And with much too much irony, just as I learn of Dekker and her work I read in the Baraga and Houghton County newspapers that Finlandia with close its doors. These essays are not “teaching evaluations” of her work, but they are very fine non-fiction works. If she needs to find a new teaching position, this book can surely help her do that. And I hope she can remain a Yooper– perhaps across the Bridge in Houghton at Tech. Or perhaps the fine, old Suomi tradition at Finlandia can muster up enough “sisu” to remain open for its students. Dekker is enough of a Yooper to talk about this way of fixing things at the end of an early essay, “This is the most Yooper thing. Something is broken and we make the repair from the resources at hand. We make do.” p. 29. So regardless of whether or not sisu kicks in here to save Finlandia University, I surely recommend Carolyn Dekker’s fine mix of memoir and teaching theory for any reader concerned about the health of higher education in America.
North Country, A Pedagogical Almanac, by Carolyn J. Dekker (Black Lawrence Press, 2023), 137 pages, paper, n.p.