The Why Question

June 27, 2011

I came across this quote this morning and thought it was worth passing along.

“The sciences teach us how. The humanities teach us why…You can’t continue to do the how without the why. If we ignore history, philosophy, and all of the other attempts to deal with the why, the how can become very dangerous.”

-George Lucas, on behalf of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ national Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences. (Read more…)

What do you think?


Literature for…Counseling

January 11, 2010

It all comes down to words.

Reading a book and counseling someone through a period of grief may seem to have little in common, but both practices depend on words.

Many works of literature — poetry like that of Dylan Thomas or Derek Walcott, novels like those by Arundati Roy or Toni Morrison or Don DeLillo, plays like Greek or Shakespearean tragedies — are built around a central trauma or psychological breaking point. The words that construct their narratives are concerned with how humans deal with traumatic experiences.

Even as the characters come to grips with their situation or are broken by it, the narrative structure — how the trauma is portrayed — is also a way for the author and reader to make sense of tragedy.

Just as individuals deal with trauma in different ways, literary works also vary. Some express the unspeakable nature of trauma. The source is never identified, and tragedy is evinced only in what is never said. Others use an effusion of sensation and words in an attempt to bury the source–to forget. Some lash out. Others internalize. Some pretend indifference. Some seek answers. Some choose despair.

While a counselor may offer coping mechanisms and encourage a healthier response, his or her tools are predominantly words. It is up to the individual to choose a course.

In a similar way, works of literature cannot replace or force change in a reader, but they can offer perspective. They can offer catharsis or hope. They can offer alternative models and paradigms.

This is not to say in any way that novels should replace a conversation with a caring and skilled counselor: literature can offer hope, but it is equally capable of feeding despair. However, I think the links between counseling and literature are worth considering for several reasons.

First, as a reminder that authors, readers, critics, and teachers can have a real impact on others through the words they choose, especially when dealing with the experience of trauma.

Second, as a reminder that dealing with tragedy (whether global or personal) involves deciding how to tell a story: it is a verbal process as well as an internal one, requiring a listener as much as a pharmacist.

Finally, to suggest that our stories are not meant to be told in isolation, and to recognize the need for relationship and community in dealing with our own and each other’s periods of darkness and grief.

Doctor, Patient, Poetry

September 15, 2009

Being sick has very few advantages that I can name. Literary enthusiast that I am, I would not subject myself to illness simply to come upon insight about literature. However, it can happen.

Having been sick recently, I was reminded today how much of medicine is reliant on, first, self-diagnosis, and second, the communication between doctor and patient. As a result, the doctor’s role is far less different from a literary scholar’s than you might think.

The doctor can rely on certain objective (if all equipment functions and is used and interpreted correctly) measurements like weight, heart rate, lung sounds, blood pressure, and temperature. Similarly, literati can note (with some discrepancies) the meter, rhyme scheme, rhetorical devices, and shape of a poem.

After that, though, unless the diagnosis is serious enough to merit more tests, much of the examination is based on the patient’s response to questions:

  • Are you in pain?
  • How much pain?
  • How often do you cough?
  • Have you noticed improvement since you started the medication?
  • Have you experienced any side effects?

Even I, a conscientious patient, notice the ambiguity in my conversations with the doctor. I ask clarifying questions, but I’m not always sure that we understand each other. I’m not sure if I’m describing my condition accurately or in the right terms.

Like it or not, some symptoms are subjective and not as “scientific” as medical personnel would like. It is the doctor’s job to take what I’m saying and try to translate that into what it means for my health. A poet does something similar, looking not simply at the words that are used, but how they relate to one another to produce meaning.

I am not making the argument that analyzing poetry is the same or as important as diagnosing illness. As much as I love literature, I go to see a doctor, not a scholar, when I’m sick.

What I am suggesting is that the broadest divide is one of knowledge, and to a lesser extent, purpose—not method. Both jobs require thoughtful consideration of words and the meanings they convey. Both require judgment skills. Both require the ability to synthesize individual pieces of information into a deeper understanding of the whole.

And in that respect, Pre-Med and English majors may have more in common than the initial diagnosis would indicate.

Literati versus the CEO

June 29, 2009

Last month, columnist David Brooks wrote an op-ed run by the Salt Lake Tribune called “Why people in literature, media, don’t understand business.” Unfortunately, the full text of the article is no longer available.

I’m a fan of Brooks’ writing, but the article bothered me a little. Brooks’ point was that the skills required of a CEO do not call for a well-rounded person, but rather someone with the ability to focus singly on the job.

He has a point. (The unwillingness of the literati to let go of the Oxford comma may also be a factor.)

This admission made me take a step back to reconsider my own views on the subject of literature and the workforce. I’ve always been a strong believer in the practical value of the liberal arts. But look where I am: working part time, getting ready to return to academia in pursuit of a job that will require me to divide my attention between those who love literature and those who just want to pass the class.

So is that it? Should academia and corporate America go their separate ways, each graciously conceding the theoretical significance of the other sector, but remaining largely disparate from it?

I have to say no.

At the risk of shooting myself in the foot, I’ll concede: reading Jane Eyre may do little for your day-to-day leadership skills. And yet learning has to start somewhere.

I was browing the Internet a few days ago when I found a blog post from the Acton Institute. The author begins by admitting, “I don’t read very fast.” He goes on:

…it’s amazing to me that with all the hope and change being discussed and voted on in Congress these days, that the laws being proposed and voted on — laws, some of which we can down load in massive pdf files — have been read and inwardly digested by the elected representatives who will vote on our behalf. […] some of these proposed laws are over a thousand pages long.

He then asks the challenging question,

…how did the Founders manage to get a country going with a document we can still read over a cup of coffee?

More words doesn’t mean better ideas. It does, however, make mindlessness easier, particularly if one has little experience decoding complex texts.

Reading, like any other skill, requires practice. Critical thinking requires even more. In “An Examination Into the Leading Principles of the Federal Constitution” (1787), Noah Webster wrote this:

In the formation of our constitution the wisdom of all ages is collected–the legislators of antiquity are consulted, as well as the opinions and interests of the millions who are concerned. It short, it is an empire of reason.

David Brooks may be right when he concludes that today’s CEO does not need literature. He may be right that people in literature fail to understand business. (I’ll be the first to raise my hand.)

Perhaps, though, the problem lies in the fact that both sides need to redefine their priorities. For the literati, that may involve a descent from the ivory tower. For the CEOs, that may involve an occasional step away from the bottom line. I dare say both parties, myself included, would find themselves better off for the experience.

Faith and Fiction

June 25, 2009

Author Mary E. DeMuth writes in BreakPoint magazine, “What flows to a thirsty world comes from what is inside our hearts. And our hearts are typically instructed through story, not bullet points.”

Concisely and poignantly, DeMuth reviews from a Christian perspective a handful of reasons why reading fiction has lasting value: it draws us into community; it reveals our own hiding places; it deepens our understanding of truth; it pulls us out of ourselves.

“I’ve better understood (and wept over) genocide after reading stories,” DeMuth says. “My prayers have deepened for those experiencing human trafficking. Why? Because a novel took me to places my visa wouldn’t take me; novels widened my American-centric view of the world.”

Christians and non-Christians alike can appreciate the novel’s ability to undercut even Priceline in making “travel,” or at least exposure to another culture, available to the masses. (Not to mention the fact that airplanes have yet to master time travel).

Empathy is often the first step toward inspiration to act or seek change, and stories are ideally suited to foster empathy.

In her conclusion, DeMuth again underlines the active nature of fiction, saying, “Some novels have destroyed lives, wreaked havoc. But there are novels that have instigated revolutions, restored hope, enacted life-giving legislation.”

It is true: humans, not books, effect change. However, it is equally true that what we read can have a profound impact on the kind of change we choose to effect.

DeMuth’s newest novel, Daisy Chain, is available from Amazon. (Also see Redeeming Fiction, from The Point.)

Dear Frustrated Student…

May 21, 2009

For most college students, the year is over or shortly to be over. K-12 students might have a little longer. That being said, I’m surprised views of my site have yet to plummet, and have in fact risen. 

I would venture a guess that many students have been assigned last-minute papers on The Great Gatsby, Hamlet, or A Christmas Carol. How do I know? Word Press tells me what search terms have been used to find this site. Many are surprisingly similar; clusters are very specific, and even identical. 

I’ve been there too, trying to write a paper when I didn’t fully understand the intent of the assignment or the work on which it was based. (For me, the killers were Derrida and postmodern literature). 

However frustrated you may be, however desperate, however eager just to turn something in — think very hard before you take the easy route and copy an article from Wikipedia, buy an essay online, or use my blog as a starting point for your thesis. (The last would be doubly unwise, because I don’t even have an advanced degree in the field.)

Plagiarism is “the unauthorized use or close imitation of the language and thoughts of another author and the representation of them as one’s own original work” (Random House, 2009).

It’s not just copy-and-paste; it’s taking someone’s idea and calling it your own. It’s paraphrasing without giving credit. It’s claiming something that is not your own work. It’s cheating.

I’m not your teacher, your parent, or your guidance counselor. But as a fellow writer and student, I urge you to think about a few things before you click “paste.” 

     1. The chances that you will get caught are very good. It’s not an insult to your intellect to say teachers can tell a difference between your writing style and the essay you’ve copied from the Internet. If you can find it, so can they.

     2. If you don’t get caught now, you may later. What then? As a former member of the student-based judiciary at my college, I can tell you that you would fail the assignment. You would probably fail the class, meaning you would have to retake it or keep an ‘F’ on your transcript. You could face mandatory tutoring sessions or punative writing assignments. And you thought you were too busy to write the first paper! 

     3. If you put enough effort into disguising your cheating, you’ve probably expended more effort than you would have used in writing the paper yourself. Is it really worth it?

     4. Even if you never pick up a work of literature again, you will have to use critical thinking to analyze a decision, a project, a report, or a budget. You will have to write clear, concise reports, e-mails, or cover letters. The life skills you’re developing do have value.

     5. To me, what is most important is that by doing your own work, you are developing an ethic of diligence and honesty. You’re learning to ask for help if you don’t understand an assignment or are afraid you can’t complete it in time. You’re learning to work hard and manage your time, even if failure is the most effective way to learn.

At a job, down the road, you may have a heavy workload that seems impossible. Will you borrow someone else’s work and call it your own? Will you take shortcuts that may cost the company or your co-workers later? Will you take the easy way out? Or will you do your best, seek help when you can, and create a result of which you can be proud?

I hope, even if it means my blog will get fewer hits a day, that you will choose the latter not only then, but now.

Literature for…Psychology

January 8, 2009

The community of famous literary characters (here’s one designation of the top 10 – incidentally written by a psychologist specializing in the arts) includes suicidal introverts, individuals disassociated from reality, incestuous fathers, and drug addicts. Most of them seem like prime candidates for the oft-stereotyped psychiatrist’s couch.

Psychology Today

The gap between literary studies and psychology should be thin. And yet  in psychology, the study of books may be entertaining, but it does not begin to approach the utility of psychological studies and research papers. So how can the literati emphasize the crossover skills literature has to offer?

HamletThe simplest route is for students to anyalyze literary characters as if they were real people. Hamlet has been used (and, some could say, abused) in this role for decades: this page offers a good overview. But I think another route exists, a subtler and more realistic meeting point of the two disciplines. 

One of the most basic premises of a book report is that the student (a reader, an individual) will like or dislike the assigned book. What makes writing the judgment element of the paper so difficult is the need to give a reason.

  • “Why did you hate reading Moby Dick and love reading Harry Potter? – they’re almost the same length!” 
  • “Why did you sympathize with Hester Prynne and not with Roger Chillingworth?”
  • “I thought you hated Brothers Karamazov!” … “I did – at first.”

In psychology (and communication studies), students learn to look beyond instinctive reactions to the triggers that cause or invite them.

A new way to approach literature would be to evaluate the motivators that inspire like or dislike on the part of readers.  One method would be to establish a scale for like/dislike (say 1-10, with one being strong dislike, 5 being apathy, and 10 being strong enjoyment).  At the end of each chapter, students would rate their impression of the book, without looking back to see previous rankings.

After finishing the book, students would look for chapters that marked turning points in their attitude toward the book, return to those chapters, and look for variables that changed – a new character, a shift in style, or the onset of action, for example. 

To make it more interesting, students could compare notes to see if any parts of the book inspired universal distaste or admiration among their classmates. Those sections would be excellent fodder for a discussion on shared preferences among people in the students’ demographics, or even on Jungian archetypes

As I have said in previous posts, if this topic swerves from traditional literary criticism, bear in mind that the skills or principles are the same, just framed in different vocabulary.  In order to learn the skills, the student may need to complete more traditional analysis of literature.  In order to instill the drive and enthusiasm, the teacher may need to be willing to speak in terms the student can appreciate.