Writing Class Connects UC Davis to Navajo Nation

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A recent virtual meeting of a University Writing Program class took place at UC Davis and Diné College at the Navajo Nation in rural Arizona. Students in both classes are learning about writing, but they come from very different worlds, each with something to contribute to the other.

Joseph Horton started the collaboration while earning his master of fine arts degree from the University of Michigan and serving as a writer-in-residence at Diné College. When he arrived at UC Davis as a lecturer last year, he brought the collaboration along.

“The students in both places read some of the same books and have similar assignments. That can serve as an icebreaker,” Horton said. “It’s not really meant to be a cultural exchange, but there is some of that.”

Small and big schools provide contrast

Diné College has only about 1,300 students scattered over several locations, while UC Davis has about 35,000 in one place. Nearly all the Diné students are Native Americans from the Navajo Nation while UC Davis students come from a wide range of ethnic, educational and geographic backgrounds.

During the joint classes, each group of students can see the other 600 miles away (as the crow flies) on a big screen. Horton and his faculty colleague at Diné College, Molly Wilson, introduced the classes to one another and outlined their goals of bringing the two together virtually. It took a while for the students to open up.

“Our students tend to be on the shy side and it can be hard to get them out of their shells,” Wilson said.

But after a while, the two groups began a lively interchange, sharing the difficulty they sometimes have writing (“What part of writing do you hate the most?” “Words.”) and how boring life in Tuba City and Davis can be (“Go see the cows.” “Without getting into trouble?”)

Share writing ideas and lives

Then they opened up about what they’ve been writing about – everything from women’s makeup to the irony of electric cars being dependent on coal-generated power to rehabilitation for those with post-traumatic stress disorder to their career goals.

"The Diné College students seemed so integrated into their environment whereas in Davis it is so easy to be detached at a moment’s notice,” said Dianne Vue, a human development major. “I want to be more conscious of how my writing interplays with my own community and how I identify or ground myself within my community through my writing."

“This collaboration really opened my eyes to what is out there in the world and it makes me hopeful for what we young writers can do for the future and our world," said Danielle Macedo, a double major in design and psychology.

“Many of the (Diné) students find purpose in the struggles that they see to generate ideas in their writing efforts, which is both a form of therapy and a way to become closely invested in the work,” said Nikki Katakis, a psychology major. “I would like to push myself to that level of vulnerability and passion when writing about my cultural heritage."

Writing about water issues

Long-term plans are for UC Davis, Diné College and several other schools to collaborate on a collection of writing about environmental issues, Horton said. Most likely the focus will be on water issues in the West in light of ongoing water concerns in California and the Navajo Nation, which is one of the driest areas in the nation. “On the reservation, hauling water is a part of life,” Horton said. “We hope to create a collection with diversities of geography, perspective and experience.”

— Jeffrey Day, content strategist, College of Letters and Science, Division of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies. jaaday@ucdavis.edu