When Toni Morrison died four years ago, on August 5, 2019, my colleague Dana Dudle sent out a sad email with, as an epigraph, a passage from Morrison’s novel Beloved: “She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in al the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind” (321). Honoring Morrison by quoting her confirms her legacy as a writer whose words will live on in readers’ minds long into the future.
As the first African American woman to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Morrison would have understood Li-Young Lee’s humble thought in his poem “Braiding,” “And though what's made does not abide, / my making is steadfast.” She would also have felt empathy for a builder in chapter 9, “Skill,” of Scott Russell Sanders’s Hunting for Hope:
The word skill rises from a root meaning to cut apart or separate, signifying the power of discernment. The seasoned carpenter knows not only how to use tools well, but which hammer or saw to choose for a given task, which board, which nails or screws, and knows also how to assess the results. One day while Icarried two-by-fours to a builder who was framing a new house, he told me he wouldn't let his worst dog sleep in a house put up by a rival contractor, a man known for cheap and shoddy work. "He ought to go apologize to the trees," the builder said, "for the way he mistreats wood” (101).
These evocative passages will probably mean more to you by the end of the semester than they may now. I have chosen them in the hope that they will speak to you about habits of perseverance and precision that good writers learn while they hone their skill as writers, readers, and thinkers. The skills you develop in English 120, College Writing I, should complement your first-year seminar and serve you well throughout your college career and beyond, for the rest of your life.
The metaphor in the unofficial title of our course, "Kindling the Fire," will explain my wish for you in English 120. I owe this title to two sources: a letter from my young friend Annie Glausser and an essay by Scott Russell Sanders. In writing to me about her intense summer training as a Junior Maine Guide, Annie wrote about the "wet-fire" test she had just passed. At the beginning of the summer, she did not think that she would ever be able to pass this timed test, which required that she light a fire—with only one match—from kindling soaked in water for half an hour. But when the time for the test came, Annie surprised herself by kindling her fire in a record time of 14:34 minutes. Annie called her success "luck"; I call it practice.
Similarly, the practice you will get in English 120 by writing and rewriting your seven papers-—— including a research paper—will give you the training you need develop your own voice and write articulate and cogent arguments in prose at once clear and precise. To write a good paper, you must have something worth saying, something you want your audience to know; and the more you learn, the more readily you will draw inspiration from your reading as you either agree with, or question, the ideas you read about. Your reading will thus offer you some kindling with which to spark the flame of your own ideas. And here I draw upon the second source for my title: Sanders’s own metaphor in chapter 3, “Leaping Up in Expectation," in Hunting for Hope, where he expresses his wish for al human beings:
The first condition of hope is to believe that you will have a future; the second is to believe that there will be a decent world in which to live it. ... When I held my newborn daughter, and later, my newborn son, I saw the eagerness for life burning in them. If that light—that fire—burns in every healthy infant, as surely it does, then how has it been extinguished in so many children, and how can it be rekindled? (21)
Sanders knows how difficult life is: "Anyone who outlives childhood must pass through spells when the inward singing stops" (19), he admits. Some children do not even have a childhood, as Naomi Shihab Nye attests in her poem "For the 500" Dead Palestinian, Ibtisam Bozieh." The research you will do for your paper on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will not only explain the genesis of this poem but also introduce you to facts not often exposed by the U.S. press in its reports on events in the Middle East. You will learn to sift through conflicting perspectives and to make up your own mind about what you read. In the process of doing so, you will discover that George Orwell's 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language" is as relevant as ever.
I would like this course to foster a spirit of inquiry as you learn about alternative views hidden by mainstream media and as you rethink assumptions you might never have thought to question. I also hope that you will push yourself to read texts on your own, so I would prefer that you not rely on ChatGPT, which happens to be often inaccurate anyway. If you do use it as a short cut, of course, you must—to avoid plagiarism—acknowledge your indebtedness in parenthetical references and an endnote.
Much of what you read in this course and others may make you, like Sanders and Nye, "grieve over” the world and its injustice, but I hope that you will also take heart from writers who offer a call to action as they dare to shed light on problems and challenges we tend to ignore only because we know so little about them.
We heard Sanders read from his work twice in recent years, and Craig Mullaney spoke on campus in the fall of 2012. Do take advantage of special events scheduled on campus throughout your college years. This fall I will announce events, with dates and times, as I hear about them. DePauw provides offers a variety of opportunities to appreciate literature, art, and music and to become informed and engaged citizens of the world. Naomi Shihab Nye, who gave a reading at DePauw in 2003, points the way to world citizenship in her poem about the death of a thirteen-year-old Palestinian girl when she asks,
How do we carry the endless surprise
of all our deaths? Becoming doctors
for one another, Arab, Jew,
instead of guarding tumors of pain
as if they hold us upright?
It is this faith in possibility and our tiny role in it that made me choose lines from Li- Young Lee's poem "Braiding"for both the subtitle of our course and my first epigraph. In describing the way Lee braids his wife's hair, he offers an image rich in resonance, for his braiding and unbraiding may help to explain our process of reading and thinking, writing and rewriting, which will ultimately lead to "a making which abides."
I could have chosen as epigraphs for this syllabus various other images and aphorisms drawn from texts we will read:
A country can be flawed as a marriage or a family or a person is flawed, but "Love it or leave it" is a coward's slogan. There's more honor in "Love it and get it right." Love it, love it. Love it and never shut up.
—Barbara Kingsolver, High Tide in Tucson (235)
It is extraordinary how a voice from our childhood, even one word spoken at a crucial moment, can bury itself inside only to reveal its simple wisdom in a crisis our adult minds cannot begin to fathom. Then our whole life is re-fashioned.
—Elias Chacour, Blood Brothers (34-35)
I wasn't ready to tell the midshipmen that they could "get it right" and still lose.
—Craig M. Mullaney, The Unforgiving Minute (362)
Three further quotations may serve to illustrate the premises of our semester:
“To read what one liked because one liked it, never to pretend to admire what one did not-- that was his only lesson in the art of reading. To write in the fewest possible words, as clearly as possible, exactly what one meant--that was his only lesson in the art of writing.” —Virginia Woolf, in tribute to her father, Leslie Stephen.
"Writing is the path that leads to the unknown." —Luisa Valenzuela
"Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can't exist without the other." —William Zinsser, "On Writing Well"
As these three passages suggest, I hope that you will enjoy reading the essays, research studies, reporting, poetry, and fiction on the syllabus; that you will find yourself exploring new ideas through your writing; and that you will thrill to the challenge of responsible research as you work on shaping your thoughts—even those you did not know you had—into clear and compelling prose.
I also hope that English 120 will spark your curiosity and help you to secure what Virginia Woolf would call a room of your own in the house of intellectual inquiry: honing your skills in writing will allow you to feel at home in the world of ideas and language. So too, gaining confidence as a reader and critical thinker will contribute to what novelist Barbara Kingsolver, DePauw '77, described in her Commencement address in 1994 as the value of her liberal arts education: its influence not only on what she does but on who she is:
"I learned how to be a scholar, and that "scholarship" is as much about asking questions as it is about knowing answers. I learned that good citizenship means being able to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate authority. I learned things that would eventually lead me to become a novelist, and a thoughtful participant in the world."
Not surprisingly, then, I want this course to serve you well not only during your college years but for the rest of your life so that you, too, can learn to ask questions, to “distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate authority,” and to participate thoughtfully in the world. Iwant you to gain confidence in your power asa thinker, reader, and writer: to do so, you will have to respect your own work, and so you will have to keep aiming to outdo your past achievements. You are competing not against your classmates but against yourself. This course gives you an opportunity to realize what a liberal arts education is all about: shaping not only what you will do in your life but also the person you want to be.
In building your fire of reflective inquiry, you can develop a lifetime habit even as you work on it little by little while writing your essays. Remember that an essay is literally a "trial," a "testing," an "experiment," a chance to try out ideas, to develop them, to modify them, to sharpen them. While you learn to refine an argument, to balance breadth with depth, assertion with evidence, I encourage you to take risks: don't be afraid to ask provocative questions or to pursue your ideas assiduously and imaginatively. In developing your critical and verbal skills, you will also, I hope, develop a personal voice in the spirit of Pascal's bracing aphorism: "When we see a natural style, we are surprised and delighted, for we expected to see an author, and we find a human being."
We all know that writing is not easy: in beginning an essay, you may not know what you want to argue, or you may think you know but will discover afterwards that your argument has developed in a completely different direction from the one you expected. No wonder E.M. Forster asked, "How do Iknow what Ithink until I see what I say?" Figuring out what you think is part of the challenge of writing; the pain of struggling with both ideas and words can lead to exhilaration when patient effort and revision prove rewarding, when you discover that you have built a genuinely persuasive argument. "To argue," as the OED reminds us, derives from a Latin verb that means "to make clear, prove, assert." We will aim, all semester, for clarity and concision as we hone expository skills such as narration and description, definition and example, comparison and contrast, cause and effect, classification and division, deduction and induction, analysis and synthesis.
My hope, always, is that you will find intellectual stimulation in the works we will read and that you will be engaged with the topics of your essays. I see myself not as a pontificator but as a supportive critic and friend who wants all of you to delight in your reading and to discover your own voice in your writing. I would like each of you to emerge from this course with a respect for language and to geel the exhilaration that comes from realizing that one has found exactly the right words to convey all that one thinks and feels, at the moment, about the subject at hand. As you hone your skills as perceptive readers and careful writers, you will, I trust, find rooms of your own and vindicate Emily Dickinson's quiet assurance that words are so powerful that they live:
A word is dead
When it is said,
I say it just
Begins to live
Or as Toni Morrison put it so eloquently in accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993,
"Word-work is sublime ..because it is generative; it makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference—the way in which we are like no other life. We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives."
May this course either kindle or rekindle your passion for “doing language" and for “running the distance,” as I put it in my allusion to Craig Mullaney’s epigraph to his memoir, The Unforgiving Minute, itself an allusion to Rudyard Kipling's poem "If—" as the speaker urges his audience to “fill the unforgiving minute/ With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run.”
I can't resist ending my own introductory essay by quoting from a Baccalaureate address I heard years ago at Mount Holyoke College. Sarah Youngblood, the speaker, died of cancer four years later, but her words live on--they hang on the wall of the English department where she taught during her final years, and now they appear in your syllabus. Here's her opening paragraph:
"If I could have for you three wishes, | would wish for you the three gifts of the Shaker song: "the gift to be simple, the gift to be free, the gift to come down to where you ought to be." Each is a gift of purified consciousness: of lucidity. Each describes away of being, and a way of perceiving, that is cleaned of the trivial, released from the constraints of vanity and will, They are all, perhaps, forms of grace: ideals of being that cannot be continuously realized in the fret and clutter, the general wear-and-tear of our daily human lives; but none the less real for that; none the less to be wished for; none the less possible."
Youngblood acknowledges the challenges implicit in reaching for the stars: "All of our metaphors for aspiration and self-transcendence are vertical: variations upon the same figure: per aspera ad astra" [Latin: through hardships to the stars], but she ends her speech on an inspiring note, quoting the poet T.S. Eliot in her final three words:
"And yet the Shaker song reminds us—quietly, purely—that it is a gift to come down: to come down to where we ought to be. For whatever "the rights, privileges, and responsibilities" that are vested in US, as signs of our acculturation, we are creatures of the earth, still. To remember this, to accept it, is not to debase the self but to honor it in its essential being. The earth is our first home; life is our first gift. That you should remember this—simply, freely—is what I wish for you: here, now, always."
Sununu, Andrea, "ENG 120 Kindling the Fire Sununu Fall 2023" (2023). Course Syllabi. 5, Scholarly and Creative Work from DePauw University.