On the Writer’s Responsibility and the Weight of Words

writerOne of the things that I have been mulling over during the past few months as I anticipate returning to the classroom after a year’s sabbatical, and, in particular, to the Paideia classroom, is how I might best help students acquire an appreciation for the weightiness of writing.     I will be quite satisfied, if, in the course of my teaching, I am able to pass on to students the concept that writing isn’t merely an activity that is sometimes necessary to perform in order to obtain a grade in a class, and is not simply a personal act – but is an act that unites writer and reader in a manner that has far greater significance.

One thing I hope my students can grasp is that when one writes, one writes not merely for oneself, but for the one who will ultimately read the words written. Because the reader’s thoughts are guided and impressions are formed on the basis of the written word, the author has a subtle degree of power over the reader.  Now that power is not in any sense absolute, to be sure, but its existence in the reader-writer exchange does imply an ethical responsibility on the part of the author to wield that power with respect for the reader (and for truth).   I strongly suspect that the idea of such a responsibility is quite foreign to many students, so one of the first things I explicitly tell them each Fall is that writing is no private act, but requires them to think carefully about what they’re saying and how they say it. I don’t know enough about contemporary secondary education Language Arts methods to be able to point to a cause in high school English pedagogy for the lack of a sense in students’ minds of this responsibility.  I would definitely appreciate feedback from any who know more about this than I.  Is it possible they’re never taught it explicitly?

I wonder, too, whether a contributing factor is an emphasis in today’s English classrooms on the ‘personal essay’ as the primary form of writing.  One thing that crops up continually in my students’ writing about texts we read in Paideia is examples of essays that seem to be a hybrid between book report and diary entry.  Again, I’m not sure this is due to explicit emphasis in the classrooms they’ve been part of, but whatever the case,  this kind of writing is frequently what I see in their first papers, and requires attention to undo.   When a student’s default writing mode is ‘personal reflection’, opinion is king, and evidence is irrelevant.  (as an aside… if one assigns such ‘personal essays’, which we don’t in our course, how does one even evaluate such an essay for grading purposes?  I suppose one can look only at style and grammatical correctness, but… ugh.)  The emphasis on ‘personal essays’ also might help explain students’ perplexed looks when their first paper receives a ‘C’ for lacking evidence or a hard-to-find thesis.   I’ve had students question whether the reason their paper received a lower-than-expected grade (which for many is an A-) was that I disagreed with their opinion – good teaching opportunity, I suppose.

One nice thing about Paideia, as contrasted with the typical freshman comp course, is that we don’t do anything with the ‘personal essay’ format, but spend the whole fall semester working on what might be called the ‘academic essay’ – thesis-driven argumentative essays based on texts that we read.  As such, then, we can from day one address the need of the writer to responsibly and respectfully craft an argument to defend a proposition- an argument whose persuasiveness is not found in the personality of the writer, but in the choice of the evidence, the explication of the text and the proposition being argued for, etc.  As an outsider to the art of rhetoric (in professional training, anyway) it’s a joy to be able to pass on to students that this responsibility, and the broad strokes description of the academic essay are directly applicable even to something as arcane as elementary particle physics, my own research field.  Whether one is describing the relationship between Beowulf and Wiglaf at the end of the epic poem, or the interpretation of a particular decay mode of a system of quarks bound together that we have observed in the laboratory, the task at hand is largely the same.  This methodological synergy between the sciences and humanities is really what floats my boat and makes teaching Paidea a real pleasure.   The responsibilities of writers across the board are of one piece.  Ultimately we write about, and aim to persuade our readers of, what we believe is true about a given subject… and crafting articles and essays in which we undertake this act is no idle task.

A Thought from Walker Percy

I picked up a couple of volumes of Walker Percy essays a few months ago as I started thinking about returning to Luther after my sabbatical, and in particular as I was thinking about teaching in Paideia again.  I had also picked up some Richard Weaver on rhetoric (with a hat tip to the guys at the Christian Humanist podcast) and I’ve been moseying through these volumes as time permits.

One of the first essays I read from Percy was “The Delta Factor”, in which Percy looks at the question of (in his time – though it is to some degree a phenomenon that transcends time) the modern malaise that manifests itself in dissatisfaction with life or oneself, alienation from oneself and others, ennui, etc… the book itself, The Message in the Bottle, is a collection of his essays dedicated to the study of, as he puts it, “man’s strange behavior and man’s strange gift of language, and […] how understanding the latter might help in the understanding of the former.”  (9)

abbyflatfishPercy begins this essay by listing a number of probing questions that could very well lead to excellent discussion concerning the nature of man, our interactions with others, our language, our culture, etc.; many of these questions set out a contradiction – much in the same way Andy Rooney started off his segments on 60 Minutes with a “Have you ever wondered…”   There are some really great questions in that collection, but a couple that stick out are these:

“Why is it harder to study a dogfish on a dissecting board in a zoological laboratory in college where one has proper instruments and a proper light than it would be if one were marooned on an island and, having come upon a dogfish on the beach and having no better instrument than a pocket knife or bobby pin, one began to explore the dogfish?”

“Why is it all but impossible to read Shakespeare in school now but will not be fifty years from now when the Western world has fallen into ruins and a survivor sitting among the vines of the Forty-second Street library spies a moldering book and opens it to The Tempest?” (5)

Yes, Mr. Percy, why is that?  What is it about us that these things are such striking illustrations of something we’d probably all agree is true?  What has happened to us as a culture that the fascination with either the natural world, or appreciation for the literary genius of a Shakespeare (or Eliot, or Kafka, or Wordsworth, or Dante) is either absent or deeply suppressed?  Why is it that the exploration of the human condition in a dusty old work by an unknown Anglo Saxon poet isn’t worth our time?  Why the study of a Turner or Constable land and seascape is something that elicits yawns?

Is the cause of this in our society in general?  Among our educators?   Parents?  Genes?  One certainly can identify a number of potential targets in Percy’s questions – and the questions he asks should set us pondering for a spell.

The picture I’ve included as an inset in this post is from the recent trip my oldest and I took back to Washington state to visit with my family on the occasion of my grandmother’s 95th birthday.  There Abby stood – for the better part of a half hour – poking the dead flatfish (of whatever kind it was) with a stick, turning it this way and that, examining its teeth, underside, fins, etc.    Could never have replicated that experience with a prescribed exercise on a lab bench (or worse, sitting at a computer screen Googling about the subject).

One more interesting ponderables from Percy’s essay to leave you with… certainly they would serve most ably as conversation starters with a good friend over a glass of wine or beer.  (as long as it’s GOOD beer, not the pale yellow swill that most of America seems to think is worth consuming)  This one touches more directly on Percy’s major theme of language… so here it is:

“Why is the metphor Flesh is grass, which is not only wrong (flesh is not grass) but inappropriate (flesh is not even like grass), better and truer than the sentence Flesh is mortal, which is quite accurate and logical?” (5)

Enjoy… 🙂

On the Reading of Old Books

cslewiswritingatdeskC. S. Lewis has a wonderful piece written as an introduction to a translation of Athanasius’s “On the Incarnation” that is often referred to as “On the Reading of Old Books”.  In it, he argues for the importance of listening to the voices of the past that have made their way to us via the medium of print if we are to have anything approaching a sound perspective on the present.  His point of view needs to be trumpeted again to today’s young (and old) adults, for it seems to me that we are living in an era in which the voices of the past are almost drowned out beyond hope of hearing by the cacophony of the voices of the present (many of which have a particular distaste for the same voices of the past).

When we fail to seek a solid acquaintance with these voices of the past, Lewis argues, we stand the risk of being unable to understand ourselves well – and to see weaknesses in our thinking or in our society.  I think he’s exactly right… and the trend I see today regarding the willingness to consider points of view that are separated from us by distances measured in time rather than space is not a positive one for our society.  If we live insulated from those voices, we are prone to greater and greater degrees of blindness about our ways of thinking about each other, about God and about the world.  We become more and more easily convinced that we have risen to the pinnacle of understanding, and that our worldview lacks any shortcomings or flaws. We think so highly of ourselves that we are liable to regard anything coming down to us from prior generations as useless or irrelevant – because we have progressed so far, and because “life just looks different today”.  We become completely unable to hear anything that doesn’t fit our own preconceived notions of what is right, just and important.

Every year I have students in class who struggle with the idea of reading anything older than they are.  This is by no means the NORM among my students, but every year a couple of them have a readily observable ambivalence about reading works that are very old at all, and argue that, because those books are old, the authors really can’t have much to say to them and certainly have no good ideas that can practically be applied to their lives.    These same students often raise the concern in the other direction – that they “just can’t relate to the author’s point of view”.   This latter concept is intimately connected to the former, but I find myself much more sympathetic to it – because I do believe it’s probably quite true, given the literary diet that the students have likely consumed for most of their lives, and at least some of the responsibility for that lies in people other than the students themselves.

That said, it can be a struggle to open the eyes of those who are (in varying degrees) willingly keeping them shut.  But, as Lewis writes in his essay, this is the job of the teacher… if only most teachers today understood this to be their job, and weren’t hampered by ridiculous ‘outcome-based’ educational standards that scuttle every effort to truly educate the student.

What’s with the Blog Title?

WalrusCarpenter   “The time has come,” the Walrus said,
   “To talk of many things:
   Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–
   Of cabbages–and kings–
   And why the sea is boiling hot–
   And whether pigs have wings.”  

(Lewis CarrollThe Walrus and the Carpenterfrom Through the Looking Glass, 1872)

So goes a favorite stanza of a poem that, when I hear it, always transports me back, way back, to my childhood… and so begins a new blog for me, giving me room to reflect on the life afforded me as a professor in a liberal arts context at Luther College.  While I teach physics primarily, one of the wonderful things that has happened over the past several years is that I have been able to join the faculty who teach in Paideia, our first-year common course that covers, generally, the humanities.  As a freshman at Whitman College many moons ago, I thoroughly enjoyed our core course – which then was divided into three tracks: Great Works, Ancient Greece, and The Origins of Modernism, the last of which I chose.

As the years went on and as I became more and more convinced that I wanted to teach physics in a liberal arts college where genuine conversation across disciplines and divisions of the college were commonplace, and where I could someday teach a course like that which I had.  That vision came to fruition in the fall of 2010, when I was first able to become a member of the Paideia faculty as well as carry my usual load in physics, and I haven’t looked back since.  It’s a great pleasure to be able to straddle the humanities/science divide, and take students along on a journey of discovery as they read works of literature, history and philosophy that they’d otherwise probably not encounter.    I’ve stumbled and gone on with fits and starts, but have grown to truly enjoy this part of my teaching life… and hope to be a part of Paideia for years, nay decades, to come.

This blog is simply an avenue for me to reflect on teaching, particularly in the liberal arts context, but also on the use of the humanities in higher education, the things one can learn through exploration of classic (and not-so-classic) works in the humanities in general, etc.   I’m sure my reflections will expand further into the realm of the general state of education (higher, secondary, primary, home education etc) and the like… but I hope you enjoy and welcome comments and dialog along the way.