Tag Archives: reading and writing

We are in Thought

When minds close, democracy begins to close. Fear creeps in; silence overtakes speech”

-Terry Tempest Williams, “The Open Space of Democracy”

One of the things that happened to me today when I was moved to include an epigraph for what I am writing here was that there were too many options to choose from. I took this to be a good sign.

I spent some time this morning reading through your blog posts. Each of you is thinking through, and with, the readings that have preoccupied us these past Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. I appreciate our efforts as we struggle to find words to express what is most often glimpsed and rarely expressed. We are demonstrating, at least to my mind, that thinking is something that we do together—that thought is not so much in our heads but that we are quite literally in thought. Might this be Emerson’s intimation in his riffs on “the mind of the Past”?

Let me begin this survey of your blogging by calling out Miles and Savannah for their exemplary use of tags. In “Fulfilling the Ideal,” Miles writes his way into Williams’ commencement speech “The Open Space of Democracy.” He calls attention to qualities of democratic life, including insecurity and vulnerability, mentioned by Williams, the messy and chaotic space of democratic life. But the post is really driving at the relationship of the terms Miles uses as tags: democracy, knowledge, empathy. Might this be a beginning, perhaps a new start? Miles quotes Williams: “Empathy is vital to a properly functioning democracy.” This is, indeed, the core of what Williams is asking her audience to consider. “I came to understand through an education in the humanities that knowledge is another form of democracy, the freedom of expression that leads to empathy,” she says.

Or consider Savannah’s post “The Man Thinking” and the tags “Commencement,” “democracy,” “Ralph Waldo Emerson,” and “Scholars.” This piece of writing begins with two paragraphs about the occasion and genre of the commencement or convocation (as we talked about in class). The essay then shifts to Emerson’s “The American Scholar.” I’m left wondering, though, what is it at stake here? One place to begin may be the quotation from Emerson about books. “Each age, it is found, must write its own books; or rather, each generation for the next succeeding. The books of an older period will not fit this.” This might offer a way into talking about claiming (not receiving) an education and/or the interesting relationship between open minds and open hearts.

Another place to begin is with confusion. We are grateful to Ben for saying precisely this in his “Commencement Speech Response” (a title that might be on its way to another). He quotes Williams, “I have always believed democracy is best practiced through its construction, not its completion.” He then offers a reading that clarifies the conclusion. Perhaps a closer and more extended reading of this idea—construction, building, making as opposed to a fixed structure, completion, made? What does it mean to define democracy as a process and not something achieved? Did not Emerson and Whitman say much the same thing. . . ? And Patrick, in “Emerson Again: Beware the Emotional Response in Politics,” artfully selects a sentence vibrating with implications both past and present: “In the degenerate state, when (a man is) the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of another men’s thinking.” And Stephanie, in a delightfully titled post “Make us uncomfortable. Make us think. Make us feel” explores the meaning and implications of what Williams calls “Responsive citizenship.” There is a thread that might be an organizing feature of this blog post: the continuity between Whitman and Emerson’s call for thinking and feeling and response.

These are some of the examples we can learn from and build on as you continue reading, thinking, and writing.

 

 

 

Habits of Mind

Success in this class begins with an interest in what you are doing. Once you get interested you will be ready to think about what and how you are learning in school. Effective writing is a product of interest and engaged learning and below you will find five areas of work for you to consider as you write.

Intellectual Habits Consider first the intellectual habits that are most often at work in any process of learning:

  • Curiosity – the desire to know more about the world.
  • Openness – the willingness to consider new ways of being and thinking in the world.
  • Engagement – a sense of investment and involvement in learning.
  • Creativity – the ability to use novel approaches for generating, investigating, and representing ideas.
  • Persistence – the ability to sustain interest in and attention to short- and long-term projects.
  • Responsibility – the ability to take ownership of one’s actions and understand the consequences of those actions for oneself and others.
  • Flexibility – the ability to adapt to situations, expectations, or demands.
  • Metacognition – the ability to reflect on one’s own thinking as well as on the individual and cultural processes used to structure knowledge.

These “habits of mind” will help you as you work to formulate and share your understanding through the thinking, reading, and writing in this course:

  • Rhetorical knowledge – the ability to analyze and act on understandings of audiences, purposes, and contexts in creating and comprehending texts;
  • Critical thinking – the ability to analyze a situation or text and make thoughtful decisions based on that analysis, through writing, reading, and research;
  • Writing processes – multiple strategies to approach and undertake writing and research;
  • Knowledge of conventions – the formal and informal guidelines that define what is considered to be correct and appropriate, or incorrect and inappropriate, in a piece of writing; and
  • Abilities to compose in multiple environments – from using traditional pen and paper to electronic technologies.

These intellectual habits, ways of knowing, and ways of writing were developed by the Council of Writing Program Administrators, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the National Writing Project. For a more detailed account of the habits of mind and experiences read the complete “Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing.”

Emerson Reading History

“Let it suffice that in the light of these two facts, namely, that the mind is One, and that nature is its correlative, history is to be read and written”

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

What are we to make of Emerson reading history? “There is a relation between the hours of our life and the centuries of time,” he writes in the third paragraph of “History,” the opening essay in in the First Series of essays published in 1841. His essay probes the relation between our lives and the past to build a case for reading and writing history “actively and not passively.”

For Emerson, the reading of history is an act designed to empower a reader, or in his words, “to esteem his own life the text, and books the commentary.” This is a radical proposition—should we have the ability to read it. It is a proposition that was radical in Emerson’s time as well as our own. What it really means to “live amid hallucinations,” as Emerson will say in his essay “Illusions,” is to live a life of unrealized potential. We read history to know our selves.

Early in the essay Emerson appears to reduce history to the interpretation of a single person. “All history becomes subjective; in other words, there is properly no history; only biography.” Yet to presume that he is endorsing a subjective approach to knowledge, or to knowing the past, is to misread Emerson. For as the essay goes on to elaborate, history will only come alive when we make the past a part of ourselves—for we are defined through the ongoing process of relating to the world around us. “Every mind must know the whole lesson for itself, — must go over the whole ground. What it does not see, what it does not live, it will not know,” Emerson writes. The challenge is to bring history alive in the present, to make it an inseparable part of our experience in the world. As Emerson explains, “All inquiry into antiquity, — all curiosity respecting the Pyramids, the excavated cities, Stonehenge, the Ohio Circles, Mexico, Memphis, — is the desire to do away this wild, savage, and preposterous There or Then, and introduce in its place the Here and the Now.”

For Emerson, history is not limited to “the civil and metaphysical history of man.” For he also talks about natural history, the history of the external world:

But along with the civil and metaphysical history of man, another history goes daily forward, — that of the external world, — in which he is not less strictly implicated. He is the compend of time; he is also the correlative of nature. His power consists in the multitude of his affinities, in the fact that his life is intertwined with the whole chain of organic and inorganic being.

Whether or not we are studying cultural or natural history, we only come to know history when that knowledge becomes ourselves. “Civil and natural history, the history of art and of literature, must be explained from individual history, or must remain words.”

The essay “History” is a users guide to reading and writing history—to making history. For Emerson, in reading history actively we are engaging in the building of ourselves. That is to say, as a student of history, I release “the genius and creative principle of each and of all eras in my own mind.” When Emerson says at the end of the essay that a person is “a bundle of relations, a knot of roots, whose flower and fruitage is the world,” he means what he says.