We covered good ground today as we approach the close of the first week of September. And I believe we are ready to dive into Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring. The book is a literary and cultural achievement and it is one of those books that ya just gotta read.
What follows are a few post-class notes. I was going to write an email but then realized I might have more to say that would be useful to put up here on the class blog.
Reading for Week Three
Get started! The schedule page under Tuesday September 12 lays out the reading: the first 184 pages of Silent Spring and the secondary materials below that will help you understand the cultural and literary context and the extraordinary public reception and controversy.
Read Rachel Carson, Silent Spring. We will discuss Chapters 1-11. 1-184. Discussion Partners: Madison and Chelsea
Read Mark Stoll’s virtual exhibition, Silent Spring, A Book that Changed the World, for an overview of the global reception and impact of Silent Spring as well as the book’s legacy in popular culture, music, literature, and the arts.
Read Frank Graham’s assessment of public responses to Carson’s science writing, as well as the more general problem of new scientific evidence, Fifty Years After Silent Spring, Assault on Science Continues.
Think about Carson’s writing and the popular movement of environmentalism in the United States. Look at the cultural materials on the Media Archive of this course blog and consider environmentalism as a social movement, as well as the social and cultural formations of environmental concern: writing, advertisements, television, music, film
Each day of class when we are discussing a book this semester we will be rewarded with the insights of two discussion partners. The responsibility of the discussion partners is simple: send Mark your notes on the reading by noon on the day of class. Your notes, page references for passages, a draft of the essay you are working on, a list of questions—the form is what you want it to be. Every discussion partner should, however, provide me with at least five page references. I will then post what you send on the Ephemera page and we will use what you come up with as a place to start or to enrich our discussion in class. Also, I will expect you to be a bit more active in class and will look to you to help carry the discussion. I am happy to meet with you before class or talk by email if that will help you to prepare for the responsibility.
Next week: Madison and Chelsea are up for Tuesday and Ethan and Devon are up for Thursday.
The blogs are coming along nicely. Each blog is indicating a living and breathing human being, a unique standpoint from which to take up the literary and cultural materials we are studying. The only housekeeping we have is making sure we use the categories consistently. For Week 1 the category is “First Thoughts.” For Week 2 (due Sunday September 10) the category is “Second Thoughts.” Delete all the other categories from your post and your blog. You can as many tags to a post as you would like!
Our discussion in class was centered on a sentence I find quite useful. It is from the writer and editor Ed Hogan: “Know what you are doing and do it well.”
Know what you are doing. This injunction for writers (for anyone creating something, really) is more elusive than it might at first appear. In class we looked at some writing and precisely how the writing was doing what it does. English majors are familiar with this kind of looking—but all writers need to cultivate this perspective. What did we see? We saw writing that makes connections (to personal experience, other classes, to other texts and contexts. We saw writing focused around a question. We also saw writing less aware of what it is trying to do, or doing a few or many things.
Let me suggest that you go back to your first essay in this class, your blog post titled “First Thoughts,” and ask yourself, “What is this piece of writing doing?” If you find it is evident, go ahead and then ask, is it doing this thing well? Examples might include:
- Describing a text
- Coming to terms with a question
- Making connections (for a reader, between an idea and a personal experience, another text and/or context, etc.)
- Linking a text to a context or event
- Forwarding or recirculating selected passages from a text for others (your readers) to consider
And so on. Now, if you find that your First Thoughts post is not really aware of what it is doing; then please take some time to revise what you have written. This process will help you prepare for your essay this week. (nota bene. Most writers, and surely for me, find it difficult to see clearly what something is doing. We are always looking through a glass darkly as an author. So consider sharing your writing with a reader (friend, partner, whoever) and ask them to tell you what she or he things the writing is doing. This exercise can be exasperating, but it most always leads to a productive revision.)
Now, for your essay this week: please categorize it as “Second Thoughts.” I recommend that you have a look at the essay I wrote before class as one example of an essay that is doing something and attempting to do some of the things that work well when writing a digital text. When you sit down to draft your essay, think about a mode of expression that is inclusive (people who don’t know about the topic you are writing about or the context); consider taking the reader through hyperlinks to relevant or related materials; link to video or audio resources.
When I look at the essay Slow Violence, and I ask what it is doing, I guess I would say that it is thinking about how we might move from a prevailing discourse and vocabulary about nature (violence) and then recognizing that human reasoning is fallible which creates the challenge of gathering support for addressing environmental crisis (in this case anthropogenic climate change).
Do it well: throughout the semester we will be talking about ways of doing things with texts. I like what the writer and teacher Joseph Harris says about what English majors are usually doing when they sit down to write about texts: “to make interesting use of the texts you read in the essays you write.”
This is sensible advice. But we will have to do some talking about that word “interesting.”
One of the things I might add here about the post I wrote this morning called Slow Violence (a title with an implicit reference to Rob Nixon’s seminal 2013 book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor) is that its attempt to do this thing well (connect the crisis to the way we think) is based on moving from one place to another. As I said in class, I am starting to reread Rachel Carson. I read Kolbert’s commentary in this week’s New Yorker. I got wind that Rebecca Solnit had written something interesting (as usual) in The Guardian. I thought about Rob’s book. I then made a connection somehow to reading about recent research on the challenges of reasoning and all of a sudden these connections began to take shape.
What is that shape? My essay, an attempt, begins with a specific passage from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, moves through a series of related texts engaged with the same scientific and moral questions, comes back to more passages from Silent Spring to anchor the essay, and then ends up somewhere quite different from where the essay started. That different place has to do with thought and action, human fallibility, collective knowledge, and so on. One of the ways I am trying to write, I might add, is by thinking with (as opposed to about) the authors and ideas I am discovering in connecting their texts.
I am looking forward to reading your Second Thoughts on Monday. Have fun. I’ll see you next week.