Capstone Introduction: Broken Glass Fears

While brainstorming a list of discomforts for class at the start of the semester, I came up with one that continued to niggle at me—broken glass. It’s not a phobia or something that plagues me, but I have what might be considered an overreaction to the occasion of breaking glass. I identified it as a strange sort of fear in between discomfort and true fear. Both rational and irrational, physical and psychological. After examining it a bit more, I realized this fear was symbolic in the sense that the feared object (broken glass) represents something fundamentally disconnected from itself (my need for control). I’ve started calling these symbolic fears. After a bit of this mental gymnastics fit for a therapist’s office, I decided I wanted to explore these symbolic fears in myself and those around me. My project is going to explore my own symbolic fears, those of my friends and family, and the general science behind where our anxieties come from.

Initially, my project was meant to be a podcast. However, I quickly adjusted the form to be a series of linked essays. I wanted to try podcasting, and I felt I could get great interview clips of friends and family. But, at the end of the day, I wanted to craft a piece of written, not spoken, prose. I have been preoccupied with writing short stories in the minimal free time I have for pleasure writing. And while I don’t see a feasible way to disseminate this material into a short story, I felt a series of smaller essays would give me the freedom to use my voice in the same way. I have long enjoyed the works of essayists like David Sedaris, so I am excited to play with a new form I have largely admired but with which I haven’t had much experience.

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.

Writer’s Block

I am struggling to motivate myself to complete my project. Is my project even important right now? It feels ignorant and naive to continue with the project as if it were 13 days ago. I am facing a block. So, I guess I will do what all writers do, and write about it.

I thought I cried until I felt numb to my surroundings, but now, I am at home, in my childhood bed, crying again. Thirteen days ago, I was planning a 700 person conference, my birthday, a bucket list of everything I wanted to do in Ann Arbor and drafting ideas for an essay proposal. Thirteen days ago I was victorious. Twelve days ago, I was defeated. A virus that felt distant deteriorated the 700 person conference that, after a full year of sleepless nights, perseverance and every ounce of dedication that I had, was just 10 days away. I wept. I could not find the words to tell the 54 person team I co-led that it was not happening. I could not tell them that a virus so distant, so far away, was stopping us from gathering; that we were going to let it win. I stared at the floor unable to make eye contact. I could not let them see me cry. I thought that was going to be the worst day.

10 days ago I went numb. I do not remember the days but classes got moved online (we had so much free time for activities!), we were told to stay at school (it was going to the best semester ever!) … then suddenly two bullet points on an email: graduation is canceled, go home. The virus no longer felt distant. It was here. That day was my worst day. A week later I am now in my childhood bed, crying. I am not returning to school – this is it. I am not returning to school, but people are not returning to work; small businesses are closing, people are losing their jobs, people are getting sick. There are people who are having worse days. But that’s okay. We are all going to have our “worst days”, no one is immune to this. We all need to grieve. I need to grieve and that’s okay. That is how we keep going.

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?

Uncomfortable Conversation

I would like to to reach an audience that is not usually brought into the conversation nor abruptly enters, which means to do so means I will practice being the mediator between my field of study and the outside audience.

Everyone would like their writing to be good, if not excellent, but what is good writing? Is it good if enough people read it? Is it good if only a certain group are able to read it? What if writing was judged on what it represented, the ethic within the piece?

As I begin to interview people who I do not usually talk to, I am hesitant to do so because of the unpredictable outcome. Will this turn into good writing? Will my readers like it? But then I also consider the ethical questions, would this piece create more equality as it brings in more diverse voices?

As a writer, I am choosing to put the ethical question before others. Questioning, how would my piece impact the lives of others? This encouraged me to enter spaces and conversation that I am unfamiliar with, yet at the same time, my syntax and diction must be persuasive to the reader. So despite the question of ethics, the reader must be able to connect with the piece in order to be persuaded. A piece of good writing is not necessarily based on ethics, but who the readers are that are connecting to it, be it select audience or the mass.

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.

First Post! Reflective Draft

Last year in my Intro Class for the Sweetland Minor, I put together a zine based around the non-human, non-organic female characters featured in the 1960’s version of the Twilight Zone television show. The project grew out of an essay I had written in my Sexual Objects class examining a documentary about Real Doll Sex Dolls called “Guys and Dolls”. In the essay, I argued that the true appeal of these dolls were not just the customizable aesthetic features, but the ability for their (mostly male) owners to impress a kind of imagined autonomy on these dolls; that their ideal woman was the kind who could not have a life beyond the one their owners/partners created for them. I was interested in this idea of imagined autonomy being expanded from the idea of sex dolls to the idea of the robot/doll/mannequin/other non-human women that populated the original 1960’s run of The Twilight Zone: I wanted to pay tribute to these characters whose characters often hinged on the question of how real their own perceptions of their autonomy/humanity were. I also wanted to explore their characters and the implications of their lack of physical humanity in the worlds they inhabited beyond the confines of the (and I don’t think I’m being controversial here) sexist 1960’s television landscape. It was a good way for me to indulge in my love of white-knighting underrated/underwritten female characters, and it gave me a new way to think about the iconic characters and stories from a television show that I absolutely adored growing up.

For my project in my Capstone class, I want to return to the idea of the robot woman and how she exists in different capacities in other sci-fi stories/genres. I’m still figuring out how I want to engage with this subject in a different way, but I definitely know that the work I’ve done previously in exploring these character archetypes will lead the way in understanding how to unpack this subject in Capstone.

A Purpose for Descriptive Writing

In Art of the Essay, English 325, the main focus was on descriptive writing in order to make the reader believe that he or she is a part of the experience of the author. I took this course in the summer and at the time I was beginning to work on my senior thesis about Ancient Near Eastern galleries in university museums. It was in this class that I began to practice describing the designs of the galleries that I was visiting over the summer, practicing how to explain a display or object as if the reader was the visitor in place of myself. 

One of my essays explained, in ten pages or so, how the statue of the Lamassu Iraq was displayed in the Oriental Institute. I was able to bring the reader into a detailed analysis of it from describing its texture, shadowing, color, material, movement, posture, and then explained how these details might attribute to its original function and how its functioned has changed since being displayed at the Oriental Initiate. I then used this practice to incorporate a description about a wall relief into a conference paper that I recently presented to scholars in my field of study.            

 As my proposal for English 420 is about redesigning the Mesopotamian Gallery in the Kelsey Museum of Archeology, I will use what I learned from English 325 to incorporate detailed descriptions of my proposed design. The purpose will be to make the reader believe that he or she is standing in the gallery that I create, believing that it could exist