More than a student

I joined the minor in writing because I knew that I love to write, and I recognize how important and powerful good writing can be. But going into Gateway, I hadn’t yet figured out how to write without being a student. I hadn’t even realized that the way I’ve been taught to write was to fulfill such a narrow, boring purpose. As soon as this was made apparent to me, I noticed changes in my personal as well as academic writing. I took more risks. I used more rhetoric. In particular, I liked to spice up my conclusions.

The same semester as Gateway, I took a Medical Anthropology class (which I loved) that required me to write four papers analyzing medical cases using medical anthropology theory. For the third paper, I explained how all of the reactions to a sudden widespread development of ticks in teenage girls in a small New York community all stemmed from the mind-body dualism theory of Descartes, and therefore potential treatments coming from non-Western medicine were ignored. Here are the final two sentences:

“Whether the parents of the girls accepted certain diagnoses or not, each proposal was rooted entirely in a concept of mind-body dualism that emerged in the 17th century. Therefore, the answer to one of the parent’s vehement opposition to the diagnosis of “conversion disorder” and mass hysteria – “what are we, living in the 1600s?” – could be ‘in a way, yes’.”

I know, it is not ground-breaking prose, but it’s different from the dry summary of a conclusion I was used to, and even taught to do.

Also, here’s an example of where I wrote another paper for this class as a story, rather explicitly. In the paper, I offered an alternative narrative for an article about a kid named Richard who became addicted to ADHD medication.

“My story does not begin with a character named Richard. My story begins with a setting – the society in which Richard lives, where biopower constructs an image of an ideal individual who lives to serve as a productive citizen.”

 Since then, I’ve written papers beyond the goal of making my papers good. I want them to be enjoyable. And I thought that I had at least made some progress in cracking the academic code. I could write creative, fun papers with the same amount of intellectual rigor as something straightforward and dry. But then I started my capstone project, and I’ve had a really hard time jumping out of the mindset of a student.

I realized that even if I had come a ways in writing ‘not boring’ school papers, they have still always been for school. No matter how far I strayed, I had guidelines that kept me in line. Now, I’m in capstone and writing a thing with no greater purpose than to be written by me and read by someone else. It’s also really long. In a project as daunting and never-ending as this one, I find myself reverting back to the instincts of a student I’ve tried so hard to rid from my writing.

It’s especially hard because my project is rooted in scholarly thought, so I’ve struggled to find the correct line between necessary, interesting analysis for my audience and going way too in depth. The last thing I want is for it to come across as text-booky or preachy, so I’ve done my best to go back and edit any sections that could be written with a better tone, or explained in a more exciting way. I’ve definitely developed a stronger admiration for mainstream science writers. Pushing myself to write my capstone project not as a student has been one of the hardest parts of the entire semester. It’s also been the most rewarding.

Greatest missed opportunity

In my English 124 class freshman year, I wrote a personal essay about my understanding of ‘family’ via my experience growing up with divorced parents. It wasn’t a purely self-informed essay. I was supposed to incorporate countrywide statistics that related to my story. I was happy with what I wrote, but I think I could have produced something much more meaningful had I had thirteen weeks to write about it with consistent guidance from a professor.

Divorce is a huge issue in the United States, in regards to the number of people it affects. If I had thirteen weeks to write about it, I could imagine it turning it into a thought-provoking meditative analysis on divorce and family. Not only would I have had more time to reflect on my own experiences and therefore articulate them more thoughtfully, but I could have included more studies on the quantitative and qualitative effects of divorce to connect my experience more substantially to some sort of larger condition.

Also, this would have been an ideal time in my life to think and write about this topic. I had just moved out of my homes in my hometown and “started a new life” in Ann Arbor. Like most freshmen, I spent a lot of time reflecting on my upbringing. Having the opportunity to think deeply about at least one aspect of my childhood in this guided manner probably would have been quite enlightening for me.

This essay included several personal anecdotes that helped express how ‘family’ played a role in my life. One of my favorites is about a time I ran into my dad’s freshly ex-girlfriend at Starbucks:

“I got up from the table, hoping to make it to my car without getting into any type of conversation with the woman who was in the process of moving out of my home. But Susan saw me and got up too, making her way over with a beaming smile, espresso in hand.

“Hey, Shay.”

“Hi, Susan. I thought that was you”

“I just wanted to come over and say that I’m sorry things didn’t really work out.

Thank you for everything.”                                                                   

I formed a smile. “No, thank you.”

“You know, I love you.” Her glossed lips gave out a small quiver around her glaring white teeth.

I held the smile. “Yeah, I’m gonna miss you too. I’m sure I’ll see you around.” And then I turned toward my car and drove away without taking one glance back.”

For a capstone project, I think it would be fun to start off each section with a specific moment like this and then expand upon the greater implications and significance of that moment in the prose.

This English 124 class was one of the first times I was asked to write about myself, and I loved it. I feel like writing comes more naturally to me when it’s rooted in what I know and comes from a place of vulnerability and honesty. That sense of personal investment and subsequent growth is something that is missing from my capstone project simply because of the nature of the work. That’s made writing my capstone pretty challenging. In personal essays, like this one on family, I tend to assess whether a section of prose is working by the feeling that it provokes when I write it and read it. I can’t use that same intuition for my capstone project, so I’ve had to be more creative to make sure my writing delivers the intended effect.

 

What is the worst possible outcome?

Well, for a project centered on the issue of human-caused extinction, the worst possible outcome is rather bleak – Human beings will continue along the general trajectory of placing their own immediate well-being above all else. As a species, humans will always be too individually selfish. This will lead to the extinction of nearly every species, whether completely or just in the wild. Soon (evolutionarily speaking) after that, humans will face their own consequences of the destruction they caused, and may even cause their own extinction. Changing this would require a massive shift to understanding how inter-species cooperation is critical for our own survival. Sure, there are smaller movements to counteract this general trend, but when and how will they become large enough to actually change this outcome? Like, I said – bleak.

In light of this “worst possible outcome,” I think my project has the potential to come off as defeatist. It may inspire hopelessness and dread, as opposed to the meaningful critical thinking that I am hoping to elicit from readers. So, in my project, I attempt to counteract this trajectory myself by taking a pause to think about the types of questions humans need to be asking about ourselves in order to change our behavior. I discuss ways in which humans should be thinking about ourselves that are counter to the way that we think about ourselves right now. I hope that delivering the problem in this way will allow my readers something substantive and useful to contemplate.

This isn’t the first time I’ve chosen to write about something with no clear solution – especially one I’m not capable of offering. That Primate Conservation Bio term paper from last semester was about whether upholding indigenous rights while also achieving rainforest conservation goals in Indonesia is possible. It’s a complicated issue. In 22 pages I barely scratched the surface. I remember going in to talk to my professor toward the end of the semester struggling with how to conclude such a complicated topic. My prof helped me understand that wrapping it all up with a shiny red bow was not expected in a paper like this and that instead, I had to be honest about the limitations. I could acknowledge that there is no easy solution and instead leave the reader with a new way to think about this issue that they may not have considered before. This is what I came up with:

Indigenous peoples are not just stakeholders of their land. They are increasingly recognized as rights holders. While mutli-level partnerships among indigenous peoples and actors on the national and international level are considered more likely to succeed, conservationists may have to learn to accept the likely potential of failure if Western conservation methods do not align with the traditional culture in that place and time. Understanding what is important to the local indigenous peoples in their environment and rooting conservation strategies in those principles will most likely give the land the best chance, for forest and people alike.”

There are some things I would change about these final sentences, but I’m overall happy with how I urged this conversation in a different, more productive direction. I hope to do the same with my capstone, but even better.

 

Research overload

Web of Science is one of many online databases for scientific papers that Michigan students have full access to. When I choose to open Web of Science, I do so understanding that I am entering a bottomless cyber pit of scholarly papers and that within five minutes I will have so many tabs open my eyes will start spinning from inside my head. Eventually, I’ll choose to shut down Google Chrome altogether and start over. I’m lucky if I salvaged one useful title from the twenty tabs that are again lost in cyberspace waiting to be stumbled upon by my indiscriminate clicks. This cycle repeats until I finish my research.

This has been my process for nearly every research-focused paper I’ve written. I get lost in links, traveling so deep into the labyrinth that even the author is probably surprised when they get that notification that their paper was actually downloaded. I don’t know when to stop. I waste time chasing unhelpful leads. I click on things that have nothing to do with my topic just because they sound interesting when I should be focused on refining the relevant research I have done to produce an articulate paper. Then again, there have been a select few times when I have found pure gold hidden behind cobwebs in the depths of the black hole. It’s just hard to know what amount of chaos is worth it to get there.

The thing is, I actually do make use of a lot of this research. The longest research paper I’ve written in college was 22 pages. It was the term paper for my Primate Conservation Biology class and, similar to capstone, I was able to write it in any format of my choosing on literally anything under the sun (that related to Primate Conservation Biology). I used just over 53 sources in this paper, and I do believe every piece of information was necessary to propel my argument forward. I don’t think its necessary to include a snippet of that paper here, but as you can imagine a lot of the prose is broken up by random last names and years hugged by parentheses.

My capstone project is also heavily research-based, and I’m having a hard time figuring out how to incorporate the sources I used into the prose without it coming across as to science reportey. I’m turning to mainstream scientific news outlets who tend to cite academic papers for help on this one. I think at this point, I need to focus in on what research is absolutely necessary to get my point across to the general reader and not include too much information that clutters the argument. I don’t want my capstone project to become a web in and of itself.

Still trying to figure out voice

An essential element of answering the question of whether or not my “Why I Write” draft is in my voice is knowing what my voice is. To be completely honest I still have no idea what “my voice” is. When it comes to writing, voice is never really something I think about. As always, I try to answer whatever prompt I am given to the best of my ability, whether it be a prompt that was assigned to me or one I made up myself to guide my writing. Therefore, writing tends to be a highly meditative process for me, involving a lot of erasing and re-writing as I go along. When I think of voice I think of something that comes naturally, which leads me to believe that most of the writing I do is not in “my voice.”

However, when I re-read my first draft, I can’t say that it is not written in my voice – even though it is hard for me describe what my voice is. This leads me to believe that I wrote my “Why I Write” piece in one of many voices that I put on, varying based on the circumstance for the writing. I just spent a month engrossed in research to produce a literature review on evolutionary theories for grooming behavior in non-human primates. The result? A dry, scientific-paper primarily made up of other people’s ideas. However, I did paraphrase those ideas into “my own words.” While I wouldn’t necessarily want to claim the style of that paper as my voice, I think it would be fair to say that it is a voice of mine used in writing that has to be professional, clear, and succinct.

The voice in my “Why I Write” paper is very much a voice that comes out when I am thinking very in depth about a subject, and translating those thoughts onto paper as seamlessly as possible. This strategy often results in a stream of rather incoherent, superfluous sentences that I then have to edit to make sense. I believe the ultimate result is a mixture of writing that is both my voice and not my voice. So, is the rough draft in my voice? Yes and no. I do think that writing this blog and continuously going through my draft has helped me to pinpoint which parts of the draft are in fact my voice and which parts are not.

How I trick myself into enjoying reading

Whenever I have to read something for a class, whether it be an essay, paper, or novel, I try to find the most comfortable chair to read it in. Usually I choose one of the two black cushioned chairs on the third floor of the UGLI next to the elevator. I had never thought about it this way before, but I realized during our discussion on Tuesday that this is probably my attempt to make the act of reading for school more enjoyable. By settling down into a big, soft chair with wide arm rests and propping my feet up on the table in front of me, I can associate reading with relaxation. Of course, if I’m trying to go for comfort, the most comfortable place I could read would be my bed. But whenever I try to read in bed, I’m usually asleep by a couple pages in. That’s why I choose the arm chair in the library. It’s a happy medium between the hardwood tables in the library where I do the rest of my school work and my go-t0 netflix watching spot at home – the perfect combination of work and leisure to accomplish what I need to do in an enjoyable way.

Zeno’s Paradox

This is my understanding of Zeno’s paradox. In order to reach an endpoint, one must pass a midpoint between the start and the end. In order to reach that midpoint, one must pass the halfway line between the start and that midpoint. This continues, and with each smaller distance that there is, there will always be a midpoint a shorter distance between the start and that distance. This continuous halving exponentially decreases the distance that one is moving to a point in which one is not moving at all. Therefore, movement is an illusion.

Given that my understanding of Zeno’s Paradox is correct, I believe that the problem with the paradox is that it implies a necessary endpoint for movement. Movement is continuous, and therefore does not require an endpoint. If there is no endpoint, then there are no points in between that must be crossed. Movement occurs by passing a continuum of points in any direction with no particular end. When there is no endpoint to movement, you cannot reduce movement to a process of never reaching that endpoint.

Repurposing questions

  1. What did I learn from living with the Iban in Sui Utik?
  2. What are the main causes of deforestation in Indonesia?
  3. What are the effects of deforestation on the communities of people whose land was bought? Are there even documented studies of this?
  4. How do the Iban view their relationship with nature?
  5. In what ways does spirituality and religion play into that relationship?
  6. How do the Iban use eco tourism to help preserve the land around their community? Has it been successful?
  7. How can eco tourism be used as a strategy for conservation of ecosystems?
  8. What is the link between the conservation of the Iban cultures and the conservation of their environment?
  9. What are the greater environmental effects of deforestation?
  10. How many people need to care for the Iban efforts to be successful? Are the people in that community enough?

In order to help the reader engage with these questions, I first need to explain who the Iban people are and where Sui Utik is in terms of geography. I also need to describe my personal experiences of living in Sui Utik, and explain the role that I played in their eco tourism efforts. Along the same lines, I need to explain the current state of deforestation in Indonesia and what the Iban’s current efforts are to prevent the deforestation of their land. Lastly, it is important to explain the connection between culture, every day life, and the environment that I witnessed in Sui Utik.

It is guaranteed that the reader has already been exposed to the topic of deforestation in some for or another. The reader is likely to possess their own values when it comes to environmentalism and sustainability, as well as a at least a framework ideology shaped by what they believe to be the best way to preserve Earth’s resources are while still providing for the growing human population. In addition, the reader will possess any prior knowledge and assumptions that they have about indigenous people, whether that be from their own experiences, what they’ve learned in school, or from various media sources.

Online News Sources

An online news source that I would consider to be below me is Buzzfeed News. I am mainly basing this categorization off of the other types of content that is provided on the Buzzfeed website. With an entire tab dedicated to pictures of delicious food and another to arbitrary, yet mindlessly entertaining “quizzes”, Buzzfeed is the ultimate site for procrastination. However, I would never choose to spend my time on the website reading its news. Even if a news story is entirely legitimate, I find it hard to trust when it sits on the homepage next to a quiz titled “Can You Spot the Most Disappointed Grandmother?” Additionally, the font that is used for the headlines and subheads of its news story looks almost like bubble letters, giving the entire website a more juvenile look. Buzzfeed seems more concerned about getting more views than producing authentic and reliable content.

On the other hand, an online news source that I would consider above me is The Financial Times. The Financial Times addresses a niche category of financial and market-based news that I feel like I do not have the knowledge to fully appreciate. I would rather get my news on these subjects category from more general news sources first, and then move on to the Financial Times if I want a more in depth analysis of something I have read about.

Lastly, a news source that I would consider pitched to me is the Washington Post. The post offers an extensive array of world and national news as well as opinion pieces. Their content is credible and professionally written, yet easily understandable. For instance, the business section writers do not use niche business lingo to describe trends, even though they probably have the knowledge to do so if they wanted to. The Washington Post is catered to a more general public than say just business enthusiasts or technology savants, resulting in news that is easily accessible to anyone who wishes to be more informed. All of their stories are complemented with relevant photographs or videos, and I am not constantly baited to follow their newsfeed on different social media sources – something that Buzzfeed does by placing the links to these sources directly below the subheading of each story.

 

My voice

It’s a little mind boggling to me to realize that this is the first time that I’ve ever considered my voice as a writer. This question stumped me so much that I decided to contemplate it out loud and record my thoughts as a voice memo in my phone – a strategy I’ve never used before. What I’ve written below is a heavily edited version of that recording, leading me to realize that my voice as a writer is nowhere close to my voice as a casual speaker. Anyway, here you go:

Looking back at papers and articles I’ve written in the past, it could be fair to say that I don’t have much of a distinct voice. My writing has been wholly shaped by my academic life – with the goal of always producing clear, well-developed, and targeted responses to whatever prompt I am facing. While I could fairly say that this has resulted in academically considered well-written and “tasteful” pieces, there’s nothing stylistic about my writing, in my mind at least, that I think one could point to and think – “yep, that’s Shay.” Instead of drawing attention to my writing style, I always thought what I wrote about mattered more. As long as I am able to get my point across to the reader and tell the story I want to tell, I’ve accomplished my goal. Having said that, I do love to be descriptive when I have the opportunity to do so. I enjoy the challenge of conveying my felt experience through my writing to invoke similar feelings in the reader, without being cliché.

A major piece of my writing background, especially in terms of choosing what I want to write about myself, is print journalism. So while I did have more freedom with content and style, there were still certain conventions that I had to follow with my writing. The goal of journalism is to get one’s point across as clearly, and even more importantly, as efficiently as possible. In terms of composition, this has led to me often stripping down my writing to its bare bones, only including what is necessary. This contributed to my traditional direct and no bullshit personality of voice, which coincidentally aligns with my own personality. The way I structure my writing is representative of my practical way of thinking.

When I can write about whatever I want, I always write about what I know. I try to look at my own experiences and write about what I observe around me. Sometimes I like to extrapolate a bit to address a broader issue, but not too much because I try not to generalize. I hate to generalize. That’s one of my pet peeves actually – when I mistakenly make a generalization without the intent to do so for a directed purpose.

I actually think my voice as a writer is heavily influenced by the performance piece. I tend to write in a heightened sense of speech, where as I think that if I delivered this out loud it would sound great, and learned, and smart… but not necessarily interesting… or unique. When I write it feels like my thoughts flow more freely, probably because I have more time to think. I also know that when I’m writing there is always the option of dragging my pinky across the backspace key, or flipping my pencil around to the eraser, or even just scratching something out if I don’t like it. If I say something to someone, it’s hard to take back. I guess a lot of my voice has been developed in order to give people what I think they want to hear, or read. That’s a mindset that I hope to use this class to help me escape from – by being brutally honest about who I am and what I want to say.