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Montana Western's Roger Dunsmore earns Humanities Montana award

UMW News Bureau

roger_dunsmore bwUniversity of Montana Western Visiting Assistant Professor of English Roger Dunsmore will be honored as a Humanities Montana Hero on Thursday, Sept. 6.

 

The organization, based in Missoula, Mont., will recognize Dunsmore and six others as part of their Humanities Heroes program.

Humanities Montana defines recipients as “people who have contributed significantly to the humanities by presenting engaging programs, hosting many humanities events, composing important books and articles about humanities topics, donating funds to sustain humanities work, and more.”

Dunsmore — the author of nine books of poetry and essays focusing on a blend of ecological writing, indigenous thought, nature poetry and oriental thought — has been a member of the Montana Western English Department since 2005. He began his teaching career at the University of Montana in 1963 and has nearly 50 years of teaching within the UM system to his name.

Dunsmore — the author of nine books of poetry and essays focusing on a blend of ecological writing, indigenous thought, nature poetry and oriental thought — has been a member of the Montana Western English Department since 2005. He began his teaching career at the University of Montana in 1963 and has nearly 50 years of teaching within the UM system to his name.

Dunsmore began teaching at UM as a freshman composition instructor in 1963 and by the next year he was teaching half-time in the English department and half-time in the humanities department. After spending a year traveling and writing poetry in Europe, Dunsmore became the only full-time faculty member in the UM humanities department when he started in 1968. He taught several courses on American Indian history and mythology, and, with academic freedom afforded to him by the university, began to develop a unique cross-disciplinary curriculum that would help shape the rest of his teaching and writing career.

“I was required to teach an upper division course and I taught a course called ‘Nihilism and Sainthood,’ which showed how the religious and philosophical mind and the nihilistic mind were similar,” Dunsmore explains. “I was given a lot of latitude early in my career.”

In 1971, Dunsmore’s creativity and collaborations would eventually help lead to a groundbreaking program at UM called the Round River Experiment in Environmental Education. Dunsmore and a group of faculty from the chemistry, economics, English, geology, humanities, philosophy and political science departments began teaching courses within the Round River Experiment program primarily in the outdoors.

“We all had spent too much time in classrooms,” Dunsmore says. “The classroom was the Montana outdoors. We literally took students off the plane from cities back east and took them on 11-day backpacks in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.”

Eventually, the Round River Experiment would become the University of Montana Wilderness and Civilization program, which is still currently active as a part of the UM College of Forestry and Conservation. Dunsmore taught within the UM Wilderness and Civilization program from 1976 to 2003.

Dunsmore’s interest in Native American history and traditions began to solidify in 1983 and again in 1987 when he received National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Fellowships to attend eight-week seminars on American Indian Literature at the University of Illinois in Chicago and the University of Arizona in Tucson. His work in Chicago and Tucson would lay the groundwork for his book “Earth’s Mind: Essays in Native American Literature,” which was eventually published by the University of New Mexico Press in 1997. In 1988, Dunsmore continued his work on “Earth’s Mind” when he scaled back his full-time work at UM after he was invited to a Arizona Humanities Council Scholar in Residence program to train teachers at the largest Indian High School in the United States in Tuba City on the Navajo Reservation.

Dunsmore’s first year of partial retirement from full-time work at the University of Montana came in 1988, but the writer stayed busy within the UM system, accepting two UM Exchange Fellowships with Shanghai International Studies University in mainland China in 1991 and again in 1997. His time in China further inspired his interest in Oriental thought and Dunsmore spent the better part of the 1990s studying Chinese history, literature and traditions as well as Mandarin.

Dunsmore retired in 2003 as Professor of Humanities, Emeritus at UM. Serendipitously, Dunsmore came to the University of Montana Western in 2005 just as the university became the first public university in the nation to implement a block scheduling system in which students take a single class at a time. For Dunsmore, teaching in the block system was a perfect fit.

“It suits how I teach,” he says. “It’s like an extended workshop. I think the intensity of three hours every day for 18 days allows a small community to form. We get to know each other better and the students get to know each other better. It lends itself to a personal, experiential environment, which is how I teach. It also allows a trust to form and as that grows people really start writing out of their guts without holding back.”

Dunsmore now teaches an advanced poetry writing workshop at Montana Western and often finds himself teaching to students from rural backgrounds similar to his own.

Hailing from a rural community in Michigan, Dunsmore says his passion for the interface between urban and rural life began early in life.

“My people are basically dairy farmers and carpenters,” Dunsmore says. “My dad was the first in his family to get educated. He went into public health and was a very dedicated public servant who had strong rural values but also valued urban life. I’m grateful for both the rural and urban roots.”

“My people are basically dairy farmers and carpenters,” Dunsmore says. “My dad was the first in his family to get educated. He went into public health and was a very dedicated public servant who had strong rural values but also valued urban life. I’m grateful for both the rural and urban roots.”

Dunsmore’s father would move his family from Michigan to Pittsburgh, Pa. where he worked as a pioneer in public health in Pittsburgh and eventually in the U.S. steel industry. Dunsmore’s father fought to protect the public health and environment from some of the most egregious pollution violations in the country. His work and convictions led to major reforms within the steel industry, although it was not without a cost; the Dunsmore family was routinely threatened because of his father’s work. Dunsmore says his father’s fortitude in the face of such opposition instilled a deep ethic of environmentalism within him at an early age. That ethic continues today is reflected in the Humanities Montana award.

In addition to his writing and contributions to the University of Montana system, Humanities Montana recognized Dunsmore for his extensive efforts bringing the arts to communities throughout Montana.

Dunsmore was shortlisted for the Montana Poet Laureate twice in 2005 and again in 2007. Dunsmore, his wife Jenny Fallein and writer Cedar Brant formed the Bent Grass Poetry Troupe in 2007. Built from an informal poetry gathering at Dunsmore’s home since 1998, the Bent Grass Poetry Troupe tours across Montana and brings spoken word and interactive arts gatherings to communities as far away as Ekalaka, Mont.

For the past four years, Dunsmore and Fallein have also donated their time teaching poetry and yoga at a rehabilitation prison for women in Boulder, Mont.

“We’re not trying to make poets out of them,” Dunsmore admits, saying a comment he often receives reflects the goal of their visits. “But they regularly say, ‘For the two hours we’re here with you we don’t feel like we’re in prison.’ That’s the most wonderful complement we receive from them.”

Dunsmore’s own writing is represented in nine books spanning over 40 years of work. Those books — “On the Road to Sleeping Child Hotsprings,” The Bear Remembers,” “Laszlo Toth,” “The Sharp-Shinned Hawk,” “Bloodhouse,” “Greatest Hits,” “Tiger Hill: China Poems,” “You’re Just Dirt” and “Earth’s Mind” — reflect Dunsmore’s unique blend of ecological writing and indigenous thought and oriental thought.

For Dunsmore, his writing represents something much more important: his salvation.

“For me, it’s a form of sanity,” Dunsmore explains. “It probably saved my life. Before I started writing I had no way, no vehicle to express or explore what I was feeling. Poetry has given me that.”

While he shies away from accolades, Dunsmore says he is proud and honored to be recognized by Humanities Montana.

“Recognition of one’s work by one’s peers is a good thing, a valuable thing,” Dunsmore adds. “There is the danger of getting wrapped up in egos, but I feel good about this recognition. It’s fitting coming from an organization like Humanities Montana. I like that the award is democratized and represents the folk arts, indigenous and traditional art forms and people who have supported the arts.”

The Humanities Heroes reception and awards ceremony will be held at the Bozeman Public Library at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 6. More information about the free public event is available at www.humanitiesmontana.org/humanitiesheroes.

For more information on Roger Dunsmore, visit his website at www.earthsmind.com.

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