Shifting standards of normalcy

In the course of a few weeks, everything has changed so drastically. I remember saying about 3 weeks ago, “Sure, COVID-19 will come to Michigan, but they won’t close school.” Then, after Schlissel closed school, I assured myself the administration couldn’t shut down commencement – the school had too much money at stake. Even after being dealt that blow, I told myself bars would stay open indefinitely. “College kids are dumb,” I remember telling my roommate. “If Ricks can keep making money, it’ll stay open.” Restaurants and bars shut down three days later.

What we consider “normal” is shifting rapidly, and I’m beginning to think about this in the context of my Capstone project. The best writing, in my opinion, challenges a widely accepted norm, destabilizing the seemingly sturdy foundations of an idea or phenomenon. I’m currently reading Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino, and this is something she does well. Tolentino writes about things many others have already tackled – feminism, weddings, racism, reality TV – but probes why we hold the basic truths that we do and then pokes holes into those truths. For instance, in an essay about the idea of the difficult woman, Tolentino digs into the modern feminist approach of defending celebrity women who are publicly critiqued, suggesting that perhaps we are beginning to conflate the criticism of a woman with her worth. She doesn’t just embrace modern feminism and run with it; first, she finds the limitations of certain widely accepted assumptions.

I want to do this with my project, too. In discussing the ideas of anthropocentrism and the environment, I’d like to shake people’s faith, ever so slightly, in their belief that human lives have inherent worth. I don’t want to do this in a destructive or aggressive way, but in a thoughtful way that makes my readers rethink their relationship with the environment. Tolentino is a good model – she’s radical without being degrading or judgmental.

I think the COVID-19 outbreak has actually shed some light on the extreme extent to which our presumptions of normalcy can change. Actually, the conflict I’m addressing about the value of a human life might have more to do with COVID-19 than I originally thought. We’re now seeing a desperate scramble to protect basic human life – the actual life itself, not the material things we used to think were really important (like clothes, shopping, and other luxuries). Perhaps this focus on human life is anthropocentric, but it’s also humble in some ways. Lots to think about.

The temptation of proposing a solution

As a recap, I’m writing about the link between climate change and Judeochristian religions. Specifically, I want to figure out if any human-centric school of thought can truly align with an environmental mindset.

One of the first pieces I read on this topic is called “Environmental Theology – A Judeo-Christian Defense.” Written by scholar P.J Hill, this piece, like many others I’ve read, takes a strong stance and is solution-oriented. Hill argues that the anthropocentric (human-centric) nature of Judeochristian theology is in fact useful for tackling climate change. His main point is that climate change is a human problem, and thus demands a human solution; we need uniquely human voices to advocate for uniquely human policies that operate within our societal structures.

I appreciate Hill’s focus on practicality – i.e, if we want to make actual progress, here’s what we need to do – but it’s made me wonder how solution-oriented I want my piece to be. My original plan was to focus more on the fundamentals (what about the Old Testament/Torah is anthropocentric, and philosophically, what that means for environmental action). However, I’m realizing much of what informs religious people’s actions is not the text itself, but the personal biases and political beliefs that influence their textual interpretations. I’m not sure operating exclusively on a fundamental level will be useful; I need to think about how these mindsets can translate into climate action, and how religious people can “reconcile” their faith with their views on climate change. There’s something inherently solution-oriented about my project.

So, how far into the solution do I want to go? I’m not approaching this on the defensive, like Hill does; I’m more of an observer. But I do need to keep parts of my project very tangible and action-based because that’s the nature of the issue. I’m feeling very conflicted about how to approach this. My plan is to begin by comparing and contrasting different “calls to action” – like Hill’s. Perhaps by critiquing a few ideas, I’ll be able to ask of myself and readers, where do we go from here?

Tackling Capstone from multiple disciplines

In launching my Capstone project, I’ve been reflecting on an essay I wrote last semester in English 325, titled “It’s Just a Girl Crush.” In this essay, I explored the pervasive idea of the “girl crush” (an attraction between presumably straight women) from many different lenses – biological, social, cultural – as well as in the context of my personal experience.

As I wrote “It’s Just a Girl Crush”, I ended up teasing out much of the nuance tied up in this topic, and even probed some of the ways in which female sexuality diverges from male sexuality. I think what allowed me to tap into the many layers of the girl crush was my emphasis on interdisciplinary research. For instance, I investigated the girl crush from a scientific perspective, finding that indeed, sexual attraction and romantic, crush-like feelings do not always go hand-in-hand. However, I also found from reading some academic theory that in fact, women’s sexuality is far more fluid than men’s, and influenced by different factors, so it’s possible for a woman who sees herself as predominantly straight to experience significant attraction to other women throughout her life. In addition, I found it helpful to look to pop culture and more sociological analyses, discovering that the girl crush is problematic in many ways – for instance, it glamorizes and “straightens out” same-sex attraction and contributes to bi-erasure. If I hadn’t used these many different lenses, I wouldn’t have been able to understand the complexity of the girl crush, a social construct that is rooted in both truth and stereotype.

I’m proud of the nuance I was able to achieve in this essay, and going into my Capstone project on the relationship between religion and climate change, I hope to achieve a similar level of multidisciplinary thought. The premise of my project is that many liberal houses of worship in the United States have proclaimed their commitment to environmentalism, and similarly, many religious scholars have pointed out ways in which religious texts and tenets support an environmentalist mindset. However, I want to dig into this idea of compatibility, to see if there is in fact some inherent disagreement being smoothed over. I hope to extend that critique to the environmental movement itself by illuminating the cognitive dissonance most people need to hold in order to reconcile their personal needs with their environmentalist beliefs.

To make this critique interdisciplinary, I plan on drawing from the perspective of religious environmentalists themselves, perhaps taking a more academic approach to presenting their analyses and arguments. I’d also like to rely heavily on personal observation, since I’m someone with both a Christian background and a strong interest in environmentalism. Hopefully, that personal experience can be bolstered by others’ sociological commentary. Perhaps working in scientific research on the timeline of climate change will also help me get my argument across. Overall, I think that using frameworks from different disciplines helps to enrich and complicate a piece of writing. I welcome any suggestions as to how I can achieve that effect in my project.

TED Talk: What You Didn’t Know About Shock Therapy

For my final project, I wrote and filmed a mock TED Talk on electroconvulsive therapy (“shock therapy”). The TED Talk, titled “What You Didn’t Know About Shock Therapy”, was inspired by a Michigan Daily article I wrote after Michigan Medicine published a study finding that electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is a cost-effective treatment. In the TED Talk, I pretend to be one of the authors of the study, explaining why the results are important and attempting to debunk some of the misconceptions surrounding ECT.

Looking back on the past semester, I think Writing 220 made me a little confused (in a good way) about what kind of writer I am. Especially over the past few years, I’ve really only written in journalistically, academically, or scientifically, and I love these styles because they’re so straightforward. As I discuss in my narrative introduction, I really enjoy words and the actual mechanics of writing, so I tend to focus less on creative writing or storytelling. Writing 220 definitely pushed me out of my comfort zone, forcing me to experiment with genres that I don’t know well. Although I still wouldn’t say that I’m confident in my creative writing and personal storytelling abilities, trying out genres such as short fiction reminded me of how I used to enjoy writing creative, fictional pieces and poems. Also, the class made me think a little harder about genre, and I realized that some of the styles I’ve deemed “uncreative” — like scientific writing — actually do involve creativity, because the author needs to tell some kind of story (even if they’re writing about data) to show the reader why their topic is important.

To summarize, I guess I’ve realized that I can write in more ways than I thought I could coming into Writing 220. The Minor in Writing is a great way for me to explore genres that don’t feel so comfortable, so as I work towards the capstone, I want to keep experimenting. My goal is to figure out what I can do as a writer.

W2W Podcast

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend the Writer to Writer event, so instead I listened to a recording from the Sweetland site. The speaker I chose is Dr. Howard Markel, a pediatrician, writer, and medical historian who teaches here at the University of Michigan. He’s written and co-authored several books about medicine, and has contributed articles and opinions to a variety of publications. Most recently, he published a book about the Kellogg brothers.

Markel’s description jumped out to me because science writing (and scientific writing) are important to me. Not only do I need to be able to write about science to pursue a PhD in a technical field, but I’m interested in learning how to better communicate science to the public. Also, many other STEM majors I know “hate” writing, so I love hearing from other scientists who value writing as much as I do.

I found Markel’s comments on audience particularly interesting. Markel mostly writes for  NPR listeners and NYT readers, a generally well-educated crowd, so he said he can comfortably use a certain level of vocabulary. This made me wonder whether it’s “okay” for a writer, particularly someone writing about more niche, technical topics, to assume their writers have a certain level of education. Doesn’t that automatically make what the writer has to say inaccessible, or is the source (NPR, NYT) already inaccessible enough that the writer’s efforts won’t matter? Especially in the context of science writing, I think making information accessible is important, since scientific knowledge is often badly communicated to (or withheld from) the public.

Markel’s audience (I’ll just call them NPR listeners) was also present at the Moth showing. I remember feeling very inspired by the Moth show, but also sad that the crowd was so homogenous — I’m pretty confident that the majority of Moth listeners are white, liberal, and middle- to upper-class. After that event, I started wondering to what degree a writer, podcast host, storyteller, etc should tailor their work to a specific audience, particularly if that audience already receives criticism for being elitist and exclusive.

In addition to making me think about audience, Markel’s talk sparked some interesting dialogue about what makes science writing effective. He mentioned that to be a good narrator, a science writer should insert themselves into the story, but not so much that they become the main character. Markel said he feels that science writing is becoming too author-centic, although in his opinion, younger generations seem to prefer that type of science writing. I think inserting oneself into a science story can help to humanize the topic (as in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks), but actually, one of the best science articles I’ve ever read puts the spotlight on people affected by the topic, not on the author.

Community at The Moth

During the live event last night, I noticed that a major part of the live storytelling genre (and of Moth performances, more specifically) is community. The hosts tried to make the audience members feel part of a group, cracking “inside” jokes about NPR listeners and speaking familiarly with the crowd. Also, I think the inclusion of the mini stories built community, since the stories showed that  the audience members had their own interesting experiences to share. This created a sense of us all being there not just to hear the stories of a select few performers, but to share our stories too. In a similar vein, I found that the most emotionally impactful stories were those with relatable or sympathetic elements.

I think that the community-building aspect of the Moth is what makes people keep returning to shows — they feel like they’re part of something collective and constructive. This is also what keeps people telling their stories (I wouldn’t want to open up unless I had a familiar, supportive audience). Community is not only important to the Moth genre, but to storytelling in general. We tell stories to find commonalities, relate to one another, and learn from one another. If the audience isn’t willing to participate in the storytelling in some way, it’s not going to be as effective.

What is a science zine?

Zines are a flexible genre characterized by small-scale distribution, handmade design, and a close relationship between the creator and reader. There aren’t too many published zines about scientific topics, but the Small Science Collective has an online science zine collection, which I used for the bulk of my genre research. I also looked at the artwork and writing of Christine Liu, a neuroscientist who communicates her research through drawings and zines, for inspiration. I think zines are a great vehicle for breaking down scientific topics in an appealing, accessible way. Scroll down to check out my attempt at making a zine about the science behind ECT!

First, here are a few suggestions for creating a successful science zine:

  1. Break up your text. The majority of science zines include explanatory text, but in order to keep your zine easy to read, divide up text spatially on the page. Many creators choose to model their zines after comic books, dividing images into panels and speech bubbles. It’s really helpful to vary text size and font to keep the reader engaged and highlight the most important words.
  2. Keep drawings simple and cartoon-y. Illustrations of molecules, organisms, body systems, etc. can get complicated. To make the zine more aesthetically appealing to a wide audience, lean towards simpler drawings. Many science zine illustrators, like Christine Liu, use a drawing style that could almost be characterized as cutesy. The illustrations need to be approachable and attractive in order for people to pick up your zine.
  3. Humanize. If you’re trying to create interest in a scientific topic, it can be helpful to personify your subject (for instance, if you’re writing about a type of animal, you could have the animal narrate your zine). Otherwise, adding some human interest — adding emotion to your scientific topic in whatever way makes sense — is key to keeping readers interested. The Small Science Collection has some strong examples of humanization (check out I Have No Mouth and I Must Breed).
  4. Write enthusiastically. Most science zine creators take on a chipper, explanatory tone. This keeps readers engaged and sets a mood for the zine.

One illustration from my zine draft. Full document:

Field Guide: The Research-Based TED Talk

My origin piece, a Michigan Daily article on ECT, was inspired by an academic research paper. For Experiment 2, I’m writing a TED Talk presenting the results of that study, from the perspective of a researcher. I hope to take this experiment further by adding visual elements and actually recording the TED Talk.

In terms of genre exploration, I watched and read the transcripts of few recent TED Talks in which scientists present the results of their research. I watched one by Faith Osier, a researcher working on a malaria vaccine, another by Hasini Jayatilaka, who researches communication between cancer cells during metastasis, and a third by Greg Gage, a scientist looking into whether artificial intelligence can be used to recreate a subject’s thoughts. Comparing and contrasting these three lectures, I identified a few key characteristics of the genre, and put together guidelines for writing a successful research-based TED Talk .


  1. Establish importance

Researchers generally begin their TED Talks by explaining why their topic is important. I think the most successful TED Talks do this is a compelling or humanizing way. For instance, Osier provides startling statistics about the prevalence of malaria. Jayatilaka doesn’t use statistics, but establishes right off the bat that cancer is a devastating disease despite medical advances. Right after they demonstrate the relevance of their subject, all three lecturers have a sort of “thesis statement” explaining what their research is about.

  1. Be concise and straightforward

Looking at the transcripts, I noticed all three researchers kept their paragraphs short. There wasn’t much “fluff” − the lectures got straight to the point and really focused in on the science. Even though the TED Talks were packed with information, I could tell the speakers made an effort to simplify their research for a more general audience, emphasizing just a few key ideas and speaking clearly. Most TED Talks last only 5-15 minutes.

  1. Provide background

A successful TED Talk speaker gives some context for their research, briefly discussing the history of their subject and establishing why more research needs to be done. I think Osier and Jayatilaka did this particularly well by providing some information on past work against malaria/cancer. Giving context helps justify the “why now” aspect of the TED Talk.

  1. Use visuals

Both Oisier and Jayatilaka used background slides, but Gage really took advantage of the visual mode in his TED Talk. Gage described his research while playing a video of the experiment, helping the audience to follow along, step by step. Including visuals, like slides or a video, can make the TED Talk more engaging and can help clarify complicated topics. Also, all three speakers used hand gestures, another visual used to emphasize important points.

  1. Think big-picture

I think a key aspect of the research-based TED Talk is concluding with some forward-looking, big-picture thoughts. For instance, Gage ends his lecture by musing on the future of artificial intelligence, and Osier touches on what malaria research will look like going forward. This aspect of the TED Talk is critical because it shows the audience why they should be interested in the subject, and can even inspire them to get involved. Unlike a research paper, the TED Talk genre allows the researcher to provide a call to action.

Experiment 1 field guide — realistic fiction vignettes

My first experiment is a short, personal reflection on electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), narrated by an unnamed young person. In trying to assign a specific genre to my piece, I immediately think of Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street, a collection of realistic fiction vignettes. I believe my piece falls into a similar category, and also has a coming-of-age focus.

Each vignette in The House on Mango Street is around a few short paragraphs long. The writing is realistic fiction, but Cisneros uses figurative language and illustrative descriptions so that her vignettes are more poetic than they are plot-driven, concrete prose. Her language is beautiful, and the tone of The House on Mango Street is reflective and slightly sad. I admire Cisneros’ writing because she demonstrates one of the major affordances of short, realistic fiction – the ability to incorporate poetic and figurative language. My goal in Experiment 1 was to accomplish a similar tone using the “fog” metaphor (borrowed from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”). Like Cisneros, I tried to choose language and descriptions that produce a thoughtful, reflective tone.

I also think it’s appropriate to examine One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, since my original goal was to write something inspired by Ken Kesey’s novel using modern descriptions of ECT. I modeled my piece after a specific passage (page 102-103 of this PDF) where Chief, the main character, describes the “fog” – a metaphor for his isolation, complacency and trauma/electroshock-induced mental haziness. One thing I appreciate about Kesey’s writing is the way his descriptions reveal something about Chief’s past. For instance, Chief compares the fog to an attack he experienced during the war, reminding readers that Chief is still traumatized by his military experiences. Since my piece is much shorter and my character is unnamed, I don’t know if I can do this type of character development, but I do think it makes Kesey’s writing very effective.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is similar to Cisneros’ writing in its tone, genre and emphasis on figurative language, but it has much longer chapters and is more plot-driven. In that sense, I think the style of my piece aligns more with The House On Mango Street. Also, Kesey’s rhetorical goals are slightly different than those of Cisneros. In my opinion, Mango Street is more geared towards people who appreciate poetic language and beautifully written literature. Kesey’s writing is also wonderful, but I believe he wrote the book with the intention of making a statement about mental health care. Since I want my piece to communicate information about modern-day ECT, I suppose my rhetorical goal (and perhaps intended audience) is more similar to Kesey’s.

Lastly, in analyzing the genre of my first experiment, I want to look at Secret Stream, a short story by Hector Tobar. The realistic fiction piece focuses on a young man and young woman, who meet up and map out some of the hidden waterways under Los Angeles. The two strangers have a strong connection, but the tone of the story is sad, suggestive of the fact that the two will eventually lose touch. I like the way Tobar isolates their relationship – details about their upbringings and personal lives are limited, making the short story all about the emotional connection. I tried to achieve the same effect in my piece, limiting background information about my character so that the focus is on their emotional experience. I think the haziness of this style of writing also leaves space for the author to use poetic language and incorporate some figurative descriptions, both of which Tobar employs and which I tried to use as well.

Overall, the genre of realistic fiction vignettes is broad, leaving the author with a lot of creative freedom. One major affordance of the genre is that the author can incorporate poetic language, as Cisneros and Tobar do, making the short piece of writing more like a free-form poem. Realistic fiction also allows for figurative language and symbolism, something Kesey does well. The genre can also be used to communicate a message or call to action, as in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – since I’m writing my experiment with a purpose, I hope to achieve that as well. After looking at the three model pieces, I realize my piece is less plot-driven than other short realistic fiction, but that’s one of the affordances of such a broad genre.


Day-to-Day Multimodality

Out of the many texts I encountered this week, I chose four that qualify as very different types of media. The first text, a music video for Lawrence’s “Do You Wanna Do Nothing With Me?, uses all five modes. The linguistic mode is crucial to the music video because the words of the song convey specific meanings and emotions, and the aural mode, since the sounds experienced by the listener come from the musicians’ musical choices. The spatial and gestural modes encompass the artists’ movements, facial expressions, dancing and arrangement in the room, helping Lawrence create a relaxed, casual and welcoming ambiance. Lastly, the visual mode plays a major role in the music video, because the living room setting and the funky, casual outfits of the musicians contribute to the overall feel of the video and the message of the song.

Another text I selected is Julia Alvarez’ In the Time of the Butterflies, a fictional novel about the four Mirabal sisters, who opposed the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. Since it’s a novel and the author’s meaning is conveyed through words, the text relies heavily on the linguistic mode. It also employs the spatial mode because the arrangement of the text affects the reader’s experience; each chapter is written in the perspective of a different sister.

This week, I also encountered a text in the form of a speech by Professor Joan Greve at my initiation into Beta Mu Epsilon, a professional Biomedical Engineering fraternity. Professor Greve spoke very briefly, touching on the mission of the fraternity and of biomedical engineering in general. She encouraged us to work dedicatedly in our field of choice. Professor Greve used the linguistic mode, selecting vocabulary that made her speech inspiring and engaging, as well as the aural mode, since we were listening to the speech and she had to choose which words and phrases to emphasize volume-wise. I think Professor Greve’s speech also employed the gestural mode because her facial expressions, stance and hand motions helped communicate her excitement and seriousness at different parts of the speech.

Lastly, I decided to analyze the written directions for an EECS 215 problem set. This text uses the linguistic mode, since it’s written, and the visual mode, since it included visual diagrams and examples to help students understand the content. It also uses the spatial mode because the order of the questions and pictures follows the order in which class material was taught.

The four texts I chose are very different in terms of form and purpose. Overall, I think the problem set and music video are the most different from one another, since they have such different audiences and messages. The one similarity I can identify is that the music video, speech and homework set are all very recent texts, while the novel was published in 1994. The two written texts, the novel and the homework set, are alike in their reliance on the linguistic and spatial modes to get the majority of the information across. The other two texts, the music video and speech, incorporate other modes to create meaning and impact the audience.

I find it interesting how all four texts use the linguistic mode, but in very different ways. As in the music video and speech, the meaning behind spoken or sung language is often supported by visual and gestural components, whereas authors of written texts need to rely more heavily on the linguistic mode to evoke emotion or communicate a message.

I particularly appreciate how the music video uses every single mode to create an ambiance. All five modes play into the upbeat, relaxed, low-key feel of the video. I realize that music videos allow for a lot of creativity because they can benefit from the affordances of all five modes, although I don’t think using fewer modes necessarily stifles creativity.