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We’re almost to the mid-point of Nelson’s The Argonauts. Eighty pages in, I’ve had the students spend time in the computer lab drafting and then publishing “interpretive footnotes” in order to explore one of Nelson’s many references and see where the exploration leads. As with the interpretive definition assignment, I publish an example for them to read before they get started. 

There are no images in Nelson’s text; but she returns often to the work of Catherine Opie. We’ve discussed the images in class and I’ve had the students write about the experience of looking at Opie’s self-portraits. But, like all discussions, there’s been a lot left unsaid and there have been paths left to pursue. And that’s what I want to happen in the interpretive footnote—for the pursuit to continue, for the connections to keep sparking.

Here’s what I published prior to having the students enter the computer lab: 


Each time I passed the sign stuck into the blameless mountain, I thought about Catherine Opie's Self-Portrait/Cutting from 1993, in which Opie photographed her back with a drawing of a house and two stick-figure women holding hands (two triangled skirts!) carved into it, along with a sun, a cloud and two birds. She took the photo while the drawing was still dripping with blood.


The pacing of Nelson's description here is timed for maximum shock. If you don't know the image ahead of time, what you experience over these two sentences is a crescendo that starts with the word "blameless" and then moves from "cutting" to "carved" to "dripping with blood." The mountains that Nelson passes are blameless because they can't control what other people stick into them; they are the passive recipients of the pro-Prop 8 signs calling for the end to gay marriage.


Like the blameless mountains, has Opie's blameless back, too, been defaced? vandalized? made into a site for a political struggle? It's hard to quite know what verb to use here. The one most ready-to-hand is the one Opie provides herself--cut. But, how? Cutting, as a form of ritualistic self-harm, tends to be done on the arms or the legs. How does one cut a childlike picture of friendship or love into one's own back? So, from cutting to carving to drawing, the latter two verbs allowing the knife to turn, to shape, to compose, to redesign the act of mortification. Did Opie do this to herself? That would require fixing the knife and moving her back to create the shapes. It's more likely she had someone carve the picture for her. And then, she took the picture herself, with the blood still dripping.


The written description slows the experience of Opie's work down and it asks the reader to construct the image herself. The actual image, though, arrives immediately.


Harry and Nelson disagree about what the image means. Or rather, Nelson argues that the image means something troubling and Harry, without commenting on the image, isn't troubled by the possibility that Opie might be grieving the fact that she can't have a "homonormative" family. In this instance, Nelson settles for engaging with the art object via hermeneutics; she interprets it and extracts a stable meaning from it. And then she further locks the meaning down by citing personal information about Opie that confirms that the image is one of grieving.



This stabilizing is only temporary, however. Having introduced Opie's work on page 11, Nelson returns to it on page 64, immediately after recounting all the negative reactions her friends had to Community Action Center, a film that gave Nelson a glimpse of freedom. Ugh, one of Nelson's friends says, why did we have to stare at so many hairy pussies? As if in answer to that question, Nelson returns to Opie and observes that Self-Portrait/Cutting is "in conversation" with another of Opie's self-portraits, Pervert. The childlike picture on Opie's back is "in conversation" with "the ornate script of the word Pervert, which Opie had carved into the front of her chest and photographed a year later." And this image is in conversation with Opie's Self-Portrait/Nursing, taken a decade later, where the scars from the chest-carving remain, leaving a "ghosted" trace of the word "pervert" above the nursing child Opie cradles in her arms.

Here, it's clearer that Opie has had the word "pervert" and the ornamentation beneath it carved into her chest by another person. There are other details about the portrait that Nelson elects not to mention, details the unsuspecting viewer may well find difficult to behold: Opie is seated in this image; her head is encased in a dark black leather mask, with a brass ring at the neck; both of her arms have matching rows of flesh piercing needles running up them; she is topless; she is wearing leather pants with a leather belt; the fingers of her hands are interlaced; the posed figure seems relaxed and calm; the figure faces the camera head-on, but can see nothing.

This description also slows down the experience of beholding the image.


What is this image saying to the Cutting image?

It's the same body in both images. The self in both portraits has a face that can't be seen; it is a self that presents her body for others to see. One facet of that self entertains or entertained childlike visions of coupledom. Another facet takes pleasure in receiving pain, in submission, in being at the mercy of another. It's the same body, but visually, the desire for a partner and the desire for pleasure can't be united in a single image.



Which bring us to the third self-portrait: Nursing.


Here, in the definitively maternal act of nursing, Opie reveals her face. She looks into her child's eyes; her child looks at her. The child is too young to know what scars are, let alone how to understand their meaning. The child's sex is not revealed.


The ghosted scar offers a rebus of sodomitical maternity: the pervert need not die or even go into hiding per se, but nor is adult sexuality foisted upon the child, made its burden.


Is this image the place where Opie's identity is secured and stabilized? The one that brings her safely back within the perceived societal norms? I think it would be a mistake to force such a reading on the image either in isolation or in context of the series. The "sodomitical mother" encrypted in this image is a many-faceted self: Opie can show her face in this image because it is the image of Woman that all women are expected to fulfill. And, if the image is looked at quickly or carelessly, the scratches on Opie's chest might be missed altogether or misinterpreted as a skin condition, signs of aging, unfortunate lighting.


The three images together allow the viewer to see some facets of Opie's self, facets that sink beneath the surface when she removes the leather mask, picks up her hungry child, and turns her face to the camera. She's had non-reproductive sex and she's reproduced; she grieves, has a fantasy life, has sexual desires, has maternal desires. Doesn't that make her, in the end, a "normal" human being?

That's not the conclusion Nelson wants us to reach or that Opie thinks is true. When Nelson returns to Opie on page 74, she quotes Opie, laughing, as she says, "becoming homogenized and part of mainstream domesticity is transgressive for somebody like me." While Nelson isn't laughing along with Opie, she emphasizes the insight at the heart of the laughter: "it's the binary of normative/transgressive that's unsustainable, along with the demand that anyone live a life that's all one thing." Opie moves between the poles of that binary; engaging with her work requires that the viewer resist the pull to sap the images of their power via norm-driven acts of interpretation. Here, again, we find the call to an erotics of art, rather than a hermeneutics, as a practice for self-definition.

For previous posts on teaching The Argonauts, click below:

“I now understand her point better”: Reflections on Empty Narratives of Research 

What Does Interpretation Look Like? A Play in Three Acts 


As we’ve been making our way through The Argonauts, my students and I have encountered words drawn from writers of philosophy, psychoanalysis, queer theory, political history, poetry, manifestos and more. When the students look up the unfamiliar terms that populate Nelson’s text, the online dictionaries only offer them so much assistance in illuminating whatever passage they are struggling with.

How, I ask them, can a definition drawn from a normative text like a dictionary be expected to make sense when it is plopped down into Nelson’s queer text? (The same question can be asked of any definition dropped into any text where the writer’s work is interpretive; in this instance, the normative responsibilities of the dictionary simply get thrown into high relief when the destination text is Nelson’s genre-bending memoir.)

So, as a corrective, I sent the students off to explore the digital Oxford English Dictionary. I wanted them to watch the word they were researching enter the English language, to track its appearance backwards in time and then forward into the present. I wanted to highlight that the meaning of a word alters over time. And then, once the students had done that work, I wanted them to return to Nelson’s text and write up an account on how Nelson was using the word or phrase they chose to explore. To help the students along, I posted my own response to the assignment on our WordPress site.
What I received in response has amazed me. This assignment paid dividends beyond my wildest imagination. I really recommend it!

Here’s the example I posted:

Before we met, I had spent a lifetime devoted to Wittgenstein's idea that the inexpressible is contained--inexpressibly!--in the expressed.

The OED defines the adjectival form of inexpressible to mean: "That cannot be expressed in words; unutterable, unspeakable, indescribable," which isn't terribly surprising. What's interesting is that they credit John Donne, metaphysical poet and Anglican priest, with first putting the word into print in a 1631 sermon delivered on Easter Sunday:


"Thou shalt feele the joy of his third birth in thy soul, most inexpressible this day."

How can Christ be born three times? First, in the miracle of Mary's virgin birth. Then, when he is resurrected after his crucifixion. And, a third time, when he is re-born in the soul of the Christian believer. When that happens, Donne preaches, the joy the believer feels will be "inexpressible."


So, the original context for the term is religious. When the term surfaces in Nelson's prose nearly 400 years later, it is not in relation to a devotion to Christ, but in an idea of Wittgenstein's that Nelson "had spent a lifetime devoted to." The term, in other words, has traveled from the realm of the divine to the secular realm of philosophy.


This observation remains true even after I discovered a yet earlier use of the term than the one recorded in the 2nd edition of the OED (published before the digitization of print made global searches of lexical history something anyone could do). It turns out that Donne used "inexpressible" in Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, his extended meditation on the meaning of death and sinfulness, composed in 1623 and published in 1624, after he recovered from an unknown illness that almost cost him his life. The context this time is Donne's XIX Expostulation, where he maintains that God is a "direct God, may I not say a literal God, a God that wouldst be understood literally and according to the plain sense of all" and, at the same time, a "metaphorical God too," one whose use of metaphors, allegories, and hyperbole is without equal. Addressing his God, Donne rejoices:


"O, what words but thine express the inexpressible texture and composition of thy word, in which, to one man, that argument that binds his faith to believe that to be the word of God, is the reverent simplicity of the word, and, to another, the majesty of the word."

Here, Donne, Wittgenstein, and Nelson converge: Donne's first use of the term "inexpressible" occurs in a discussion of how God's language, as recorded in the Bible, works its transformative magic; Nelson is not devoted to that God, but to Wittgenstein's idea about language's power to express the inexpressible. Donne and Wittgenstein are struck by the same thing. The difference is that Donne credits the Christian God with the power to make the Bible work as it does while Wittgenstein locates that power in the structure of language itself.


Right next door to "inexpressible," one finds the plural: "inexpressibles," a euphemism for "unmentionables" that arose in the late 1800s. Edward Gibbon, author of The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, used the euphemism in a letter to Lord Sheffield on November 11, 1793, in relation to his visit to a surgeon. "Have you never observed," Gibbons writes, "through my inexpressibles, a large prominency which, as it was not at all painful and very little troublesome, I had strangely neglected for many years?"

Gibbons went on to report on the surgical efforts to drain the large prominency of the water that was collected in it. These drainings were carried out every fourteen days, because the prominency refilled with water. Gibbons never recovered and died on January 16, 1794.

Here, the inexpressibles cover over the unmentionables, placing the discussion of sexual health out of bounds. So, inexpressible goes from the divine to the venal, flipping its meaning during its voyage from the sermon to the mundane.



In this way you can have your empty church with a dirt floor swept clean of dirt and your spectacular stained glass gleaming by the cathedral rafters, both. Because nothing you say can fuck up the space for God.

What is this space for God? I think it is the inexpressible. No matter how you choose to use language--to celebrate simplicity or complexity--there's no way to exercise complete control over how words say and mean. Put the profane ("fuck up") right next to the sacred ("God") and the inexpressible space remains.

In The Argonauts, the sole text in my writing seminar, Maggie Nelson bids her readers to think about Roland Barthes’ interest in the Argo—which remained the Argo, even after all of the original parts of the ship were swapped out over time. This idea resonates throughout Nelson’s memoir and, as it echoes, one is led to wonder: does it apply to people as well? The name is applied at birth, the child grows into an adult, the cells keep changing the whole time. The Argo remains the Argo, but what about the Argonauts? Do they? Are they, too, interchangeable? Replaceable?


While we’ve been slowly making our way through The Argonauts (it’s week four and we’ve made it to page thirty-two), I wanted my students to directly experience this puzzle at the heart of Nelson’s memoir: what can objects teach us about how language works? The Argo stands in as one such object: take it apart; put it back together; it’s still the Argo. Barthes later explains that this doesn’t work with language. “I love you” does not remain the fresh, thrilling phrase it is when first expressed. For that to happen, the phrase would need to be reinvented every time.


To help my students sneak up on this idea, I asked them, without explanation, to bring an object to class. They would be donating the object to the class and wouldn’t get it back, I told them, so it shouldn’t be worth more than $10 and it should be something portable. (This entire assignment sequence is inspired by Kate McIntosh’s Worktable, which I saw/participated in last fall at the Philly Fringe.) This is what they brought in:

It’s an appropriately mixed bag of stuff, some selected with more apparent care than other stuff (I was vexed by the submission of a single paper clip, a pen cap, a single earring), and some stuff provided by me in order to make sure that there was some range of choice for the next part of the performance/exercise.


At the end of class, students were instructed to select one of the objects to take home with them. They then had a week, outside of class, to disassemble or otherwise render unusable their selected objects. They could use hand tools, but I asked that no fire or chemicals be used. And so, the students went to work on this in private, all the while reading five pages or so of Nelson’s book for each session. And then, a week later, this is what they brought back:




What are we looking at, I asked them.


Trash, one student said.

Art, another student said.


Some people didn’t follow the instructions, another said.


As the conversation continued, I had the students reflect on the results as evidence of how the act of dismantling was interpreted. Were there patterns?


And what were we to make of the submission of the small piece of paper with the word “her” written on it? What was the original object? (No one could say.) How did the appearance of this gendered pronoun makes sense as an act of dismantling?



Next step: selected one of the dismantled objects to take home for a week, instructions, as before, to follow. These instructions were even more straightforward: reassemble the object. They could use tape, glue, rubber bands, paper clips, but not blow torches or hammers or other similarly sized hand tools. Another week, more talking about Nelson, how she puts her memoir together, what she chooses to work with, and how she chooses to work with it.


Here’s a sampling of the submissions (I’ll post a collective shot by the end of the week):



The hand juicer.



The Calendar.



"her" reassembled as "them"



The students brought in their reassembled objects and they were on display for a week in the computer lab we’d decamped to for their work on another assignment (more on that one next time).


And then, this week, the quiz asked them to reflect on what they’d learned from the experience of performing in McIntosh’s Worktable. At first, some students thought I’d handed out the wrong quiz. Performance? Worktable? But, when they’d read the entire prompt, they all settled into putting their (perhaps just then forming) reflections down on paper. Here’s one response:


The Worktable is a play about ourselves, in the way that our brains are the actors and the assemblage and disassemblage are the ways the actors are performing. The actors take objects, create creative chaos, then recreate order in different ways (in the way that we all see fit and can bring to our aesthetic, as disassembling an object results in stress and stress relief, and reassembling results in new life and the resolution of stress). The surprise came ultimately from the destruction of the earring to “her,” then the reassembly to “them.” An object, like the Argo, was completely swapped of all parts and left to a singular word to represent it, then the word itself was swapped out, like an Argo of “the Argo.”


That irritating earring? It turns out to have been the catalyst for a number of insights into the creative process. What is “her”? It’s a dissembled version of “them.” What is “her”? It turns out it’s also a palimpsest rubbing converted into an invented Chinese character/gendered stick figure then translated into a gendered pronoun.



In their quiz responses, some students focus on the significance of the original object choice, how it constrains, how it determines what can follow. Others focus on how, at each stage, some members of the class were able to respond to the assignment in some previously unimaginable way. They could well be describing what happens via the act of citation.

"It is idle to fault a net for having holes"I’m using Maggie Nelson’s award-winning memoir, The Argonauts, as the central text in an essay course I’m teaching this semester. We’re reading five to ten pages a week, moving slowly through Nelson’s genre-bending reflections on gender-bending relationships. The ostensible subject of the memoir is Nelson’s evolving relationship with Harry Dodge, an artist undergoing gender reassignment, but The Argonauts is actually a 140-page meditation on language and whether “words are good enough” to capture the complexities and the impermanence of human experience.


So far, it’s safe to say that the students are baffled by Nelson’s prose and by the practice of reading I’m asking them to try. They are used to reading assignments that are much longer; they know how to find credible online summaries; they’re good enough at the gist. But reading five pages twice? Three times? Five times? Tracking down what Nelson’s referring to when she describes her ambivalent response to Prop. 8; going from her citations back to the original sources; trying to make sense of her use of italics—which sometimes signify a direct quotation from a published work, sometimes a rough gloss of what was said, sometimes a passing remark by an artist or friend: these are not ways of reading familiar to my students. Indeed, one of them has already declared—twice!—that Nelson’s not a good writer.


It’s a little early to come to that decision, I say. And besides, this isn’t a course about whether or not Nelson is a good writer; this is a course in learning how to use writing to have a big thought.


I’m starting each class with a quiz. Right out of the gate, I made a mistake. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say I made the mistake teachers are prone to make when teaching a new group of students: I made unwarranted assumptions about what the students knew how to do as readers. If I told you these were honors students, what assumptions would you make?


The first quiz, composed on the assumption that the students had read and re-read the first eight-page assignment with care and that they’d stopped to look up unfamiliar terms, figures, authors, and texts, was a bust. Most hadn’t paused to find out about Wittgenstein or Barthes or to track down Dodge’s film, By Hook or By Crook, or to look up Catherine Opie’s Self-Portrait/Cutting, or to seek out definitions of unfamiliar terms. Those who did no meaningful research had no credible way of describing what their research illuminated and so they defaulted to some variation of this empty claim: “I now understand her point better.”


Clearly not.


It is idle to fault a net for having holes, my encyclopedia notes.”


So says Nelson.


I’ve searched in vain for the source of this quote. There’s something about it that just seems, well, fishy to me. Nelson doesn’t tell her readers which encyclopedia she’s using. And it’s hard to imagine under what entry these words appear. Snappy aphorisms? Sayings found in fortune cookies?


This quote or “quote” appears on the first page of The Argonauts. Is Nelson telling us language is a net with holes? Is she showing us how her mind works? I’ll have to get back to you on this. For the moment, I’m stuck. I haven’t figured out the right question to ask that will take me to Nelson’s source. (I thought—The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy! But, no.)


Not one student had a tale of research that led to a dead end or research that confounded things, making Nelson harder to understand than before. Even though these, surely, are the experiences at the center of curiosity-driven research.


Because of the quiz, I’ve got a better idea, now, of what my students don’t know how to do as readers or as writers. I know because you can’t fake intellectual experiences you haven’t had. So, the quiz, though technically a failure, has helped me to see how to start over tomorrow, which is what writers do.

If you read past today’s folderol about the Tweeter-in-Chief, you’ll get to an article about the first day of school for the new curriculum in Turkey. From this point forward, students will be spared learning about Darwin. At university, those who opt-in will have a chance to learn about the man credited with first formulating and then working out in detail the theory that species evolve. And those who opt out will be spared the whole messy business.


We are surrounded by light, and yet we live in darkness.


I can safely say that today is the first day I’ve ever given any thought to what the Turkish national curriculum is. I don’t say this with pride; I’m just conceding my parochialism. I have spent considerable time thinking about curricular issues at my home university, though. Here, one could encounter Darwin or not; it would really depend on the route one chose to take through the labyrinth of “core” requirements. Do students in the U.S. graduate from high school able to articulate the gist of Darwin’s theory of evolution? Are they able to say why it matters, one way or the other, whether Darwin is taught or not? Do the answers to those questions change if we make them about college students in the U.S.?


In the classes I teach, it is not uncommon for students to say to me: “I am not a Christian, so I know nothing about the religion.” Some are embarrassed by this; some are not. Yesterday, in my office hours, I had a student offer a version of the Annunciation to me that was wrapped around Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, and conflated the Virgin Mary with Mary Magdalene. As far as I can tell, the ignorance in the student population about the general tenets of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism is only slightly greater. Of course, there’s no required course in World Religions, either at the high school level or in the “core” requirements at my home institution, so what most students know about religious belief extends no further than the edge of their personal experience.


Of course, we’ve reached a point where the difference between education and advocacy has been so blurred that it is now understood that to teach anything is to advocate for that thing. My students express this general attitude when they apologize to me for not being a believer: they assume that, by assigning Genesis and reading it with care, I am expressing my belief in the text at hand, rather than my modeling what it means to have a trained mind. I won’t speculate here about the root cause of this conflation of education and advocacy. I’ll note only that one direct consequence of the confusion is a deadening of curiosity. In a tsunami of digital information, students elect not to use search engines to seek out what they do not know. It is as if they thought their search histories might someday become public and they would be called to account for having an interest not only in their own educations, but in education in general.



If the digital age has, in fact, plunged us into darkness, it has also provided us with a foundational infrastructure for mounting a Re-Enlightenment. If we use our classrooms to cultivate curiosity-driven research; if we allow for open-ended explorations; if we reward individual efforts to venture into what defines “the unknown” for students individually, we will be creating spaces where students acquire the skills necessary to become lifelong learners.

We are surrounded by light, yet we live in darkness.


With internet access, we all have the opportunity to wander in a global library that dwarfs the collections at any of the schools or universities where we happen to teach. We can pursue our own versions of independent research; listen to lectures by the world’s greatest thinkers; wander the Louvre and the Uffizi; visit Jane Goodall’s research lab in Tanzania; study the devastation in Syria from a drone’s eye view; read reports on the melting in Antarctica; learn more about the history of relations between North Korea, South Korea, China, Russia, and Japan. We can drill down to information at the sub-atomic level and dolly all the way back to take in the view of our troubled, little planet as it appears from the space station.


We can do this, but as we kick off another school year, our students find themselves swimming to class through a pestilent sea of misinformation, foolishness, and principled idiocy. Houston is underwater in a brew of toxic waste, but how much do our students know about the consequences of this disaster? Is any part of their education preparing them to think about multi-variant problems that have no solutions? North Korea has just detonated a hydrogen bomb more powerful than the ones we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What do our students know about nuclear warfare’s past? Is any part of their required curriculum preparing them to think about history as unsettled? In some places, as our students move across the quad, driverless cars pass in the distance. Will any of the classes our students take explore the possibility of a jobless future?


In our writing classrooms, we have the means at our disposal to bridge the gap between what education has traditionally offered students and what kind of thinking it will take to address the most pressing problems of our time. We live in a sloganeering time under a broken political system that is defined by an antagonism towards expertise. We can work against the zeitgeist’s idealization of the simpleton by cultivating the engagement with complexity in our classrooms. We can eschew assignments that require students to argue first and think later. We can slow things down so that our students can practice attentiveness, so that they can begin to see details that are invisible to the distracted, so that they have time to reflect, to rethink, to reimagine.


“I don’t know enough to say.” “I’d need to do some more research before I could hazard an opinion.” When my students start making statements of this kind in class and in their writing, I know that we’re making progress. Real learning begins with the recognition of one’s own ignorance. We help our students most when we help them practice responding to this recognition with curiosity, when we help them to see that “I don’t know” is the beginning of an exploration into what can be known for certain and what can only ever be known in a qualified way.


Next: On the Re-enlightenment.

Much ado of late in response to one Scottie Nell Hughes, “News” Director of the Tea Party “News” Network: “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.” From all the online chatter in response to Hughes’s “jaw-dropping statement,” you’d think that

  1. this is a new idea;
  2. Hughes is a force to be reckoned with; and
  3. reckoning with her word stream is a good way to spend your time.

My responses, in order: it isn’t; she isn’t; it isn’t.


After the election, Ann and I were doing the kind of joking around you do when the world is ending. The search-for-a-way-to-make-the-present-bearable kind of joking. That’s the magical thing about laughter: it can help one gather strength and find community again; it can make what seems certain, pliable and what seems central, peripheral.


For some, Comedy Central’s The Daily Show performed this function on a nightly basis. Plenty of laughing there, for sure. Did you see Stewart last night? my students would ask. (Less so now, with Noah.) And now, after the election, one can even be lectured to by the show’s former host about the hypocrisy of liberals labeling everyone who voted for the president-elect a racist. In a discursive environment where one side contends there are no longer facts, arguing is a fool’s errand; so, too, is arguing with an icon of political comedy, now resting in comfortable retirement, about the significance of the fact that his neighbors think the most pressing problem at present is the prospect of higher insurance premiums. These are not arguments that can be won. [1]


Our students have long found refuge in the claim that everything is just a matter of opinion, and its corollary, opinions are something everyone has a right to. You can call that stance “post-fact” or “no-fact,” but those labels conceal what’s most important about claims of this kind: they are all founded on ignorance. You can’t argue someone out of a state of ignorance, but we can, as teachers, get our students to write their way out the foggy world of self-stupefaction by getting them to write their way into a world where facts exist and must be contended with.


What Ann and I argue in Habits is that creativity emerges out of deep engagement with facts. There is no way to assign this deep engagement: it emerges when we craft a sequence of assignments that gets students to experience what it feels like to think seriously about issues of genuine import. These experiences aren’t scalable; they arise when, as writers, we come up against a reality that is simultaneously incontrovertible and incomprehensible. When we give our students a chance to have this experience, we create a space where writing ceases to be a mere tool for arguing what one thought all along and becomes, instead, a technology for thinking new thoughts.


In my classes, my students always know what hard facts I’m writing about; I tell them so they will see that writing is so hard because it is always about encountering the limits of your own understanding; it is always about confronting your own ignorance.


Currently, I’m deep into a research project on Abu Ghraib. Here’s a fact I can’t escape:


Nine of the eleven soldiers who were eventually court martialed for abusing Iraqi detainees at the prison in Abu Ghraib were members of the Army reserves. Weekend warriors. One minute you’re a cashier at the local grocery store in Cumberland, Maryland, the next you’re stationed just outside of Baghdad, assisting in the effort to police and control a prison population whose proportions are distressingly amorphous. These reservists didn’t speak Arabic. They claim never to have been taught about the Geneva Conventions. They gave the detainees nicknames. Gomer Pyle. Mr. Burns. Big Bird. Gilligan. The nicknames came from their shared storehouse of cultural references—from what might be called their “collective unconscious” or their “imagined community.” What they shared, the reservists and enlisted alike, was the experience of watching TV.


This last fact interests me. What to make of it? It is incontrovertibly true and, at the same time, incomprehensible. It is, in short, an invitation to write.


[1] El Burro, who never listens to a word I say, did exactly this. You can read his effort to pin his tail of disapproval on Jon Stewart here.

In light of recent events, I’ve taken to my bed, hanky across my forehead, a delicate buttercup, as the victors would have it.


Fortunately, my dear friend and colleague, El Burro de Fromage, has agreed to share his reflections on recent discussions of the future of the humanities at my university.


I’ll be back in two weeks, smelling salts in hand.




Education as Experience


As part of the celebration of Rutgers University's 250th anniversary, the powers that be decided to host an all-day discussion entitled, "Why the Humanities Matter." There was an Ivy-league keynoter and a panel of thoughtful respondents, including Habits co-author Ann Jurecic.


It came near the end of a year-long celebration of the university’s birthday, a year-long on the hortatory, on the eternal cheese cube, and short on cake and presents. Oddly, although there were also all-day discussions over those twelve months about the other major areas in the university, those sessions weren't entitled, "Why the Hard Sciences Matter," "Why the Social Sciences Matter," "Why the Biological Sciences Matter," or even “Why Being in the Big Ten Matters.” This was no mistake on the organizers’ part, as the university’s CEO made clear at the humanities event: he was there to be convinced - and, by the end of the day, there was no evidence he had been.


I think framing the question in this way, though, is a category error. We’re not dealing with an issue that yields to the provision of evidence and counter-evidence. Really, it's a matter of experience, so we’d be better off right away if we posed the question rather differently: "Does human experience matter? Does the experience of self-reflection matter? Does the experience of beauty matter? Does the experience of hopelessness and despair matter?"


This past week, the year-long birthday party ended in a hail of fireworks, with well-heeled insiders mingling gaily in a glorious circus tent. And a few days after that, the Chancellor’s Office hosted Scarlet and Black: Slavery and Dispossession in Rutgers History, a presentation of the findings of the Committee on Enslaved and Disenfranchised Populations in Rutgers History. Simultaneously, the RU Press released a volume of the same name, edited by the Committee’s chair, Deborah Gray White and Marisa Fuentes, both professors from the History Department. It’s an extraordinary volume that speaks to the historical realities of being an institution that is 250 years old—an institution older than the US, an institution whose history overlaps, intersects and commingles with the history of slavery in this country.


You’d never know from the coverage in the local press that professors, graduate students, and undergraduate students were involved in this project—because, well, we live in an age of miracles! But if you venture into the comment section below the local coverage, you will find it populated by remarks from people who have not experienced either self-reflection or thoughtfulness, though they've had a virtual lifetime of experience being enraged. To them, all this stuff about slavery is ancient history, irrelevant, more blather from the libtards and the buttercups.


El Burro says the humanities matter because they allow us to get beyond the childish need to separate the world into what's "great" and what "sucks." The achievement of Scarlet and Black is one of those instances that shows the vital importance of the humanities—when done correctly, the humanities train you to look fearlessly at the facts, even when all the powers that be tell you to look away.


If you’d like to learn more about El Burro’s reflections on the humanities, friend the old donkey on Facebook.

I’m writing this the weekend before the election. So much has already been written about the candidates, the process, the scandals, the lies, the cheating, the intimidation, the vitriol, the ignorance, the racism, the misogyny, the failures of the press, media bias, confirmation bias, the polls and the pollsters, the pundits and their punditry that it’s hard to imagine having anything new or important to add to this tsunami of text that continues to crash, in wave after wave, on the increasingly polluted remnants of what little time we have left on Earth here together.


And it’s even harder for me to imagine what words I could compose just prior to November 8th that will be worth your time when they go live on November 11th.  Whatever happens this coming week, you will have gone to work in one world on Monday morning and you will have finished up teaching in a very different world by Friday.


I just want to draw attention to one data point before I get on to the challenge of imagining what teaching post 11/9 (the day after the day after the election) is likely to entail. When I checked Nate Silver’s this morning, beginning the day as I have every day for the past many months, and found that Clinton’s chances of prevailing on Election Day had continued their decline, I dropped down further on Silver’s page to look at the graph of how his polling numbers had changed, day-by-day, since his first report on June 8th.  (Silver, recall, skyrocketed to fame following the 2008 election by predicting the results in 49 out of 50 states, practically down to the county-level. He experienced immediate Internet fame afterwards, via the hashtag #natesilverknows followed by something impossible—i.e., what you’re eating for breakfast tomorrow.)


Silver’s method grabs all reputable and semi-reputable polls, then models various ways of correcting for bias and reliability to come up with a prediction that has aspirations of neutrality. Silver strives to separate the signal from the noise, aims to provide a constantly updated, clear-eyed vision of what’s more likely to happen than not. And what I saw this morning is that, while the odds of who will win the election has waxed and waned for the past four months, as we slouch towards Election Day, Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning have declined .6% since early June. All the money, all the rage and hatred, all the debates, all the airtime, all the sleepless nights, and all the worry—and that’s it: .6%.


That says a lot to me about rhetoric and about the many industries that thrive on political and social dysfunction.  Does it make sense to talk about persuasion in what is, essentially, a binary system? It seems that very, very few people have changed their minds over the course of this ghastly, grueling crawl through the sausage factory. The maps are red and blue and then shades of each, but when it comes to voting, there’s no gray area, no possibility of registering a qualified, complex, nuanced, contextual, or contingent response; there’s no way to go gray.


And yet, all of the attributes that the act of voting doesn’t allow are attributes of the creative mind, attributes that education is meant to cultivate, encourage, and nourish. They are all attributes that we’ll need after the election is over, regardless of who we voted for, if we are going to be able to promote ways of working together across, around, and through our differences.


Teaching Post-11/9

Ann and I have an essay in Habits of the Creative Mind entitled, “On the Three Most Important Words in the English Language,” where we discuss different ways of making connections between thoughts and observations. “And” is one of the three most important words. It allows us to connect like to like: Clinton is this, that, and the other thing; Trump is this, that, and the other thing. (I was playing with this kind of connecting in the first paragraph of this post.) This is paratactic thinking. It’s our most primal way of making sense of the world: this and this and this and this. It’s the thinking that children do when they’re telling stories about their days: we went here and we went there and I fell asleep and Mommy woke me up and . . . .


The other two most important words in the English language allow us to escape from the flattening sameness of paratactic thought. “But” allows us to qualify; “or” allows us to imagine alternative possibilities. These ways of connecting ring in worlds

  • Of contingency: X won the election, but Y refused to concede.
  • Of uncertainty: Neither X nor Y won the election; they tied (this actually is possible!).
  • Of opportunity: If X wins the election, we’ll have a Constitutional crisis or cooler heads will prevail and we’ll find a way to reclaim the virtues of compromise.

Teaching after 11/9, we need to make sure we’re helping our students—and ourselves—to remember that the future is ours for the making and that, at the mico-level of the individual mind, we prepare ourselves to participate in future-making by practicing complexity, practicing nuance, practicing qualification, and, practicing kindness. I’ve added the last term on this list to my thoughts about the habits of the creative mind after reading Beth Boquet’s new book, Nowhere Near the Line, where she elaborates on the necessity of practicing this way of being in relation to one another:

"Too often we think of kindness as a quality someone either possesses or does not. We admire a kind person as a rare object. We speak of kindness as a random act, something that surprises us precisely because it is unusual, unexpected. Kindness, however, is really a habit, an orientation, something we practice and, indeed, can get better at."

Finally, post 11/9, I think we also need to refamiliarize ourselves with the original texts that have shaped and structured the democratic ideal—as we should have done post 9/11. Ann thinks we should all hit the pause button and spend the next week having our students read and discuss the Constitution. That sounds to me like a really good place to start.

Six or seven years ago, I threw in the towel on academic publishing. The precipitating event was a ridiculous argument I had with an editor over an article I had been invited to write that I ended up withdrawing from consideration. This debacle happened to coincide with equally ridiculous developments in my home department. It wasn’t a particularly well thought out decision. I was tired of all the emptiness and I needed to head in a different direction if I was going to keep on writing at all.


What I didn’t realize at the time I made this decision was that I was also tired of me—the author-function me, the me who thought X, argued X, wrote about X, could be counted on to say X. If I found the academic arguments I got predictably pulled into boring, I had to admit it was because I already knew what I was going to say and what the critique of what I was going to say was. I didn’t want to give up writing, but I also didn’t want to keep on writing the same thing, making the same argument, pounding my head against the same wall. Moving to writing exclusively for the screen solved this problem for me, but not in the ways I had expected.


I wanted to move beyond what I can now call the paper-based world, its institutions, its commonplaces, and to see what writing full-time in the screen-centric world entailed. When I would speak about this decision publicly, invariably someone would say, “Fine for you—with the luxury of tenure. But what about for everyone else?” And, like that, the conversation would move back into its familiar ruts. For me, this wasn’t a question of getting published or going on a busman’s holiday; it was a question of survival. I had always written about issues that were vitally important to me—trendiness or tenure be damned. And then I found myself feeling that none of it mattered very much. If you’re just publishing so as not to perish, my feeling was you’d been conned into sacrificing what is most important about having a job with writing at its center: the opportunity to think new thoughts.


I knew nothing about how to begin writing online: how to get a web address; how to get a hosting service (or what that service did); how to code in html (or whether that was even necessary); or pretty much anything else about the technical side of writing in and for the screen-centric world. I figured, though, that these things had to be learnable. After all, by the time I was entering the game, there were already a gazillion websites in existence, a fact that suggested to me that the learning curve couldn’t be that steep.


I stumbled along, starting a Google blog with the address critical_optimist. Back then, though, a Google blog couldn’t accommodate more than text and images and all the blogs looked pretty much the same on the screen, so I graduated to getting my own address and committed myself to learning how to think outside the template. As I was coming to understand it, as I sat at the keyboard, I didn’t just have the alphabet to compose with anymore; I had everything that was available on the web: music, videos, interviews, lectures, libraries around the world, image banks, maps. It was more like sitting at a giant pipe organ than at a typewriter; and more like producing an illuminated manuscript than typing out my thoughts as they made their way into language.


It turned out, though, that for me the most momentous part of changing venues really had nothing to do with the shift from paper to screen; it had to do with assuming a new writing personae, an option that had been available all along in the paper-centered world. In my previous writing life, I was Richard E. Miller; in my new writing life, I was text2cloud. Putting some distance between myself and my history, text2cloud became a way for me to think new thoughts, to try on new sentences, to call on a different vocabulary, to explore a world of concerns that fell outside the frame of my other writing life. And text2cloud gave rise to Professor Pawn, the central figure in a graphic narrative I composed about the absurdities of working in a world where the university had become an afterthought of the athletic program. The pseudonyms proliferated: Hieronymous Paunch, a big data humanist and founder of Sadness Studies; and most recently, the anonymous voice for the Tales of the White Knight, a Facebook page diary about the three presidential debates that ended up being a mashup of Don Quixote, King Arthur, King Lear, Monty Python, and the Marx Brothers.


Somewhere along the line, the liberating effect of writing pseudonymously also led to writing a book, with Ann Jurecic, on how to make creativity a habit. In that book, there’s a collaborative pseudonym that made it possible for us both to re-think our futures as teachers of writing: “we” became a way of allowing the sentences’ authors to write not as a unified, coherent entity, but as dialogic energy, animated by the desire to get beyond the template, the formula, the step-by-step approach to making sense of the world.

Currently, I’m rerouting the screen-centered writing I did as text2cloud on the end of privacy to a text-only manuscript that I hope to get into print. And I see myself returning to the classroom after my sabbatical is over with an open invitation to students to write under a pseudonym, one that allows them to escape, for a moment, writing and thinking as they always have, writing as if—as if they could be passionate about ideas without embarrassment; as if they could follow their thoughts wherever they might lead, instead of guiding them ever safely back home; as if their very lives depended on it.

In the last post, I discussed our “Be Interested” assignment and I argued for the value of giving assignments titles. So, what comes after an assignment entitled, “Be Interested”? “Be Interesting!”


This particular sequence emerged in a class Ann and I were team-teaching to work out the ideas in Habits of the Creative Mind. We’ve both had the not uncommon experience of thinking things were going well in a writing class because of the quality and tone of the class discussions and then finding ourselves with a stack of boring papers written on auto-pilot. With this assignment, we hoped to accomplish two things:


  1. To establish that you can’t be interesting, if you’re not yourself interested.
  2. To initiate a discussion of what “being interesting” looks like on the page.


Here’s the assignment:


Engaging with the sources you’ve found, use your writing to show your mind at work on the question, problem, or mystery that has emerged from your encounter with your sources. Begin with your interests and then be interesting: use your writing to create an experience for your readers that is designed to generate interest in what you’ve discovered.


We invite you to use any of our common readings as a model of how to move from being interested in a given question to creating writing that makes that question interesting to others.

This assignment generates in its wake further discussions about whether it really is possible to determine if a writer is interested or a work is interesting. And this is exactly as it should be: for our students to succeed in producing writing that is interesting to others, they need to spend time thinking in concrete terms about what interesting writing does.


An example will help to clarify what we value in interested and interesting student writing.


Let’s look at the first page of a breakthrough piece of writing by Donald, a sophomore communications major. Donald switched topics between the “Be Interested” and “Be Interesting” assignments because, in the act of completing the first assignment, he found that he wasn’t actually interested in what he had chosen to write about. (We view this as a way of successfully completing the first part of the project: creativity always proceeds via experimentation, and experimentation, by definition, always includes the possibility of failure.) Having pursued a dead end in the first assignment, in the “Be Interesting” assignment Donald turned to an experience that was haunting him.


I had just recently come back from what I was telling people was “the best experience of my life.” Over my winter break at Rutgers University, I decided to try something different and embarked on a ten-day trip sponsored by a Korean organization called the Good News Corps that eventually brought me to Monterrey, Mexico, where I participated in the IYF (International Youth Fellowship) English Camp. The camp aimed to teach English to Mexican students of all ages over the course of three days. The whole trip only cost $300.


The memories were still fresh in my mind: the laughing, the dancing, the singing, the half-dozen girls holding me crying, thanking me for coming. Except now all these warm fuzzy feelings were being replaced with something else, something much more unsettling. I was having trouble processing what I was reading on my computer screen.


It was an article about the trip that made the front page of, titled “Traveling to Teach English; Getting Sermons Instead.” [It was] sent to me by another student who went on the trip. The article details the account of two students who went home early in the trip while we were still in Dallas, Texas, for four days of “training” in preparation for teaching in Mexico. They felt they were victims of a scam, and were unhappy with how much of the camp centered on religion and the “Mind Lectures” of the program’s leader, Ock Soo Park. This wasn’t surprising, as I had met plenty of kids there who were upset for the same reasons, myself included, but most of us toughed it out for the sake of being able to go to Mexico. It was the comments section that was causing my state of disbelief.


“Evil. Creepy and Evil.”

“Sounds an awful lot like the bad parts of Jonestown.”

“While editorial concerns must have precluded Mr. Dwyer from calling a duck a duck, we all know these unwitting students got trapped in a recruitment session for a cult.”

“Typical cult strategies.”

“This sounds like the Moonie cult from years ago.”

“This organization is essentially considered a cult in South Korea, known as ‘Saviorists.’”


And they went on.


“This can’t be right,” was all I could think. Different flashes of my trip started replaying in my head. The mass baptisms in the hotel pool. The two-hour mind lectures. The lack of sleep. My moment of revelation. Could it be true? Did I willingly drink the Kool-Aid? Did I become part of a cult recruitment session for ten days?

When we have students read each other’s work (which is something we do constantly), we don’t ask them to say what they liked or didn’t like about what they’ve read. Rather, we ask them to use our rubrics to guide their assessment of the work the writer has done.


In this instance, they’d read Donald’s draft and considered the following questions:

  • Does it ask a genuine question or pose a genuine problem?
  • Does it work with thought-provoking sources?
  • Does it show the writer’s mind at work making compelling connections and developing ideas, arguments, or thoughts that are new to the writer?
  • Does it pursue complications (per perhaps by using words like but and or)?
  • Is it presented and organized to engage smart, attentive readers?
  • Does it make each word count?


Although we’ve only provided you with the first page of Donald’s essay, we think there’s enough in this sample to suggest that he is on his way to producing work that meets the criteria for being interesting, as we define the term.


The writer is trying to figure out whether he, an ordinary guy who is well grounded and content with his life, came close to getting caught in a cult. While Donald doesn’t present much research on this first page, you can definitely see his mind at work on a problem. He actively pursues complications in the shift he makes from his unsurprised response to the newspaper article to his shock at reading the readers’ comments. We don’t have enough to go on from this sample to say much about how he works with sources, and we can’t say that every last word counts, but there’s no doubt in our minds that Donald has done a great job of drawing readers into his predicament.


You can read the rest of Donald’s paper here.

We’ll return to this paper in the next post. But if, in the meantime, to read Donald’s paper online, you’ll see that it has garnered over 50 extended comments from readers around the world. It is one of the most visited pages on Donald has cleared the bar for producing interesting writing: he has attracted readers who aren’t paid to read his work (like his teachers).


Next up: How to evaluate whether a work is interesting or not.

Ann and I like our assignments to have titles that tell students exactly what we expect from them. So, our syllabi don’t say, “Paper #1 due . . . ,” and “Persuasive Essay due . . .”  Who could get excited about anything so formulaic?


Our “Be Interested” assignment, for example, which is the first step in a longer project, asks our students to demonstrate their interest in anything that touches on the world of ideas. Pursuing their interest should ideally involve going someplace that’s new to them: they can attend a scholarly lecture or an artistic event on campus, or they can go to a city planning meeting or sit in on a court trial. What they choose doesn’t matter to us; what does matter is that they are actively interested in what they’ve chosen. Being interested is a habit and we want them to get in the habit of having new experiences and encountering new ideas.


The assignment explains how we want our students to make their interest visible to others:

In advance of attending the event you’ve chosen, do preliminary research that puts you in a position to ask a good question once you get there. After the event, write up an intellectually engaging account that introduces the event’s central problem, concern, or question. Write your way to a question that the event raised for you, one that can’t be answered with basic information alone but that requires thought and research beyond the time you put in before the event.


Then begin to do the research required to address the question the event raised for you. We expect you to begin with informational sources and to keep digging until you find two sources that advance your thinking in significant ways. We are interested in the two sources that you find after you’ve moved beyond the basic background information.

All the students we’ve had do this assignment have experienced some level of difficulty completing it. Most of our beginning students have never voluntarily attended a lecture or gone to a gallery or attended a civic meeting; most don’t know where the university publicizes events that are free and open to the public. Some students haven’t found any of the available options to be of interest and have asked to be allowed to watch a lecture on the Internet or visit a Web site. And we’ve had more than one student come to class empty-handed, saying they’ve been unable to find anything out there that interests them.


Being interested, it turns out, is a lot harder than it seems at first. To get our students practicing, we begin by teaching them how to exhibit the habits of the interested mind: ask questions, do research that drills down past the first link, ask more questions, follow details, and locate original sources. Being interested is not the same as being entertained; it’s an active endeavor and to get there, you have to work at it.


In one of our classes, we had a graduating senior who declared that she couldn’t do the assignment. This wasn’t an act of resistance; she had spent all of her time at the university preparing for future employment, she explained, and was focused on her internship and building her resume. She had tried her best. She’d gone to a lecture about mass incarceration; she’d poked around on the Web. Nothing clicked.


All those classes, all those credits stacked up, standing at the threshold of her college education’s conclusion, this student was telling us, “Be interested? I don’t have the time . . . or the interest.” There are many ways to respond to such news: as a depressive, despair is my first sensation, but that isn’t pedagogically useful.


A better response is to see that students, in general, struggle with being actively interested in their own educations because their own educations don’t teach them how to be interested. They’ve written research papers; they’ve generated arguments and they’ve tried to be persuasive; they’ve had topics and topic sentences: they’ve produced the outer trappings of interest, but most have never actually had the inner experience of being interested as a habit of mind. This is different from being into rock climbing or being a news junky or being obsessed with gaming: interest as a habit of mind is question-driven; it is the lived practice of being curious. Teaching them that being interested is a practice and getting them to engage in that practice is our job. Then, when they’re faced with a more traditional writing assignment, they’ll be prepared to make themselves interested because they’ll have learned how to use writing as a technology for thinking new thoughts.


Where to begin, then? By looking at how writers show interest on the page.  Our students come to class expecting to discuss the argument in the assigned reading; they attend lectures and seeking out the speaker’s main point. We want them to learn to ask: what is the question that drives this work? Without the animating question, arguments and main points are just context-free factoids. What motivates a research project? A question that nags, that haunts, that refuses to be settled or dismissed. 


What’s the question that drives Habits of the Creative Mind? In its most general form: what is creativity and can it be taught? These are questions without definitive answers, but that’s as it should be: the practice of engaging with the unanswerable is the essence of humanistic education.


Next: The follow-up assignment: Be Interesting!

When Ann and I started writing Habits of the Creative Mind, we were motivated by a desire to represent writing as creative engagement with the world. There’s no best place to start and there’s no predetermined end point when it comes to making sense of the world; you just dive in. But, it’s in the nature of textbooks to impose linear order on their contents: any subject is made to appear to have a beginning, middle, and an end. This isn’t a problem when the subject at hand is best taught in a linear fashion. But the thing about creativity is that it’s not the result of a linear process. There’s no equation A+B+C that, when followed in order, produces creative output.


When we say creativity is a habit of mind, we mean that it only comes about through regular, deliberate practice. And that practice has many different forms, such as paying attention, exploring, connecting, revising, and so on. One doesn’t practice paying attention exclusively; nor does paying attention always precede exploring, despite what the layout of our Table of Contents suggests. Even beginning doesn’t necessarily come first! All the habits wrap around one another; they refer to one another recursively; each one pulls, dialectically, towards a sense of a coherent whole, on the one hand, and a focus on the smallest of details, on the other.


Imagine, instead, a circular book where you could enter at any point.




You start somewhere. You keep moving. You return and start again. You practice and practice, but you are never done. (Ann has written at length about how she started one course using Habits. That essay starts on page 4 of a pdf that may be found here.)


A course syllabus reproduces the linear distortion of what creative engagement with the world (i.e., writing) entails.  Before our students are even seated, before we have any idea who they are, university policy requires that we have a document for them with deadlines and peer review days, a document that makes it look like all that lies ahead for them is the drafting and revising of papers.


But a syllabus, like a pre-draft outline, is best understood as a provisional itinerary.


SO, if a course is a journey, what do we put on our syllabi?


In our classes, attendance is required. You can’t practice if you’re not there.

You have to bring the book and the required readings to class with you. Every class.


You have to check the class website and your email regularly: plans change, assignments get revised, alternate routes emerge. Class meets twice a week, but your education takes place 24/7.


We have our students hand in their papers in digital form in folders that are shared with all the other members of the class. (You can do this pretty easily with Dropbox or Google Docs.)


Grading Policy

Our essay, “On Evaluating Student Writing,” is devoted to the discussing how to assess the work students produce in response to assignments drawn from Habits. We recommend making the grading criteria explicit on the syllabus. We tell our students that we are looking for work that:

  • asks genuine questions or poses genuine problems;
  • works with thought-provoking sources;
  • shows the writer’s mind at work making compelling connections and developing ideas, arguments, or thoughts that are new to the writer;
  • explores complications (perhaps by using words like: “but,” “and,” “or”);
  • is presented and organized to engage bright, attentive readers;
  • and makes each word count.


Grading Percentages

We think that it’s important to have the syllabus convey the fact that the achievement of intellectual creativity requires steady, sustained practice and that progress in this realm is not necessarily uniform or linear.


So, we take into account:

  • Attendance and participation in class discussion;
  • Timely submission of drafts and revisions.


And, for each student, we weigh these with:

  • The best work each student has submitted.


This means that all assignments are recorded and that the final grade for the course represents an assessment of each student’s sustained level of achievement.


Paper Assignments

You’re likely to have these prescribed by your program or department. So, you can say that there will be X number of papers required and produce a calendar with dates. But we recommend describing this work in relation to the overarching goal of Habits: by the end of the semester, we want our students to have produced their best writing to date and for them to leave the class with evidence that they can ask a real question and that they can follow that question wherever it leads.



We think that the idea of plagiarism is best handled as an object of inquiry so, in our syllabi, we direct our students to our essay, “On Working with the Words of Others,” which considers citation and creativity together.


And then, as the semester unfolds, we spend our time together exploring what is entailed in using writing as a technology for thinking new thoughts.

Richard E. Miller

Into the Thicket

Posted by Richard E. Miller Expert Sep 2, 2016

When offered the opportunity to have a sustained encounter with the limits of one’s own understanding, most people would politely decline. But, if you think about it, that’s what the act of writing really is—an open invitation to be dragged off into the thicket of the unknown, where hours disappear in a haze, the blank screen concealing sentences half-started, half-revised, then abandoned. Experienced writers learn how to keep at it and even come to enjoy the struggle that precedes any new insight. Most other folks run screaming in the other direction.


When Ann and I set out to write Habits of the Creative Mind, we were motivated, in part, by the desire to help our students unlearn their fear of the thicket. We wanted to give them the chance to see writing not as a tool for keeping the unknown at bay, but rather as a technology for thinking new thoughts.


Why do our students fear the thicket? Our students—and yours—are the most tested generation in human history. They have spent over a decade filling in bubbles, providing short factual answers, and writing formulaic “arguments” that prove that doing A is better than doing B. In such a world, one doesn’t say, “I don’t know” or “I don’t think doing A or B really addresses the root of the problem.” One learns, instead, to avoid questions and ideas that resist conversion to readily-understood bullet points. So trained, our students stick to clichés and allow their thoughts to be contained by the sluicegates of the commonplace.


We see ourselves working against this test-driven vision of learning and the incurious culture of checklists and clickbait it leaves in its wake. And we propose, instead, that it is the teacher’s job to model a version of intellectual curiosity that delights in questions and complex problems.  The rallying cry for our pedagogy could well be, “To the thicket!”


For beginning students, the thicket is never far off.  So, they don’t so much need help getting there as they need help learning how to stay there, so they can develop a greater tolerance for the encounter with the unknown, the unfamiliar, the ambiguous.


Take a simple problem: you assign an online reading and the students come to class saying they couldn’t do the reading because they couldn’t find it on the web. They’ve “tried” and failed and now they look to you for guidance. What to do?


We understand that the natural response in such a situation is to revert to what is familiar and manageable—to print out copies of the reading in advance, say, or to stick with assigning the readings included at the back of the book. But teaching Habits is about teaching students how to improvise in a world overrun with information and teeming with possibilities. And we believe that the only way to do this is for the teacher to model, in matters big and small, an openness to the inevitability of having to revise, rethink, redirect, and refocus all semester long.


If your students say they can’t do a Google search to find the reading online, what are they telling you about their creative resources? If this hurdle is too high for them, how well has their past education prepared them to survive in our information-rich economy? Curiosity is a habit and it’s acquired through practice; so, too, is learned-helplessness.


And this, to our way of thinking, is precisely what makes teaching writing so intellectually stimulating and emotionally rewarding: you get to help students come to see thinking and writing as lifelong activities whose value extends well beyond the walls of the classroom and the confines of a college transcript. To get our students to make thinking creatively a habit, to make being curious a habit, to make improvising a habit, we self-consciously design our classrooms to be learning environments that promote creativity, curiosity, and improvisation.  So, while our goals as writing teachers remain constant, the details of our syllabi are always implicitly provisional; they’re just sketches of how the course might go and are subject to revision as soon as the journey into the thicket begins.

What does it mean to think? And how do you know you’re doing it?


Let’s consider the question in three different scenarios: listening to a lecture; driving; writing a college essay. Is thought necessary in any of these scenarios? 


When I discuss these questions with my students, a consensus emerges that the mental activity in the three scenarios differs. In a lecture, one is passive, receiving the auditory data and processing it as best one can. Behind the wheel, the monitoring of the inbound data requires constant attention, so that one can react as the unfolding situations demand.  While thinking is possible in each situation, it is also possible to do each without actively making decisions. This is clearly the case with listening, as one can’t stop the sounds from entering one’s ears, but one need not attend to them. And, while it may seem that driving is of a different order altogether, the inability to recall huge chunks of a long drive suggests that, whatever mental activity turning the steering wheel and hitting the brakes requires, the vast majority of the experience is defined by routine. So routine, in fact, that drivers feel they can drive and text, drive and carry on phone conversations, drive and shave, etc.


Writing seems a different beast, doesn’t it?


When my students tell me that writing requires a different kind of thinking, I’m skeptical. With twenty-five years’ experience reading and responding to student work, I have plenty of evidence to the contrary. Sure, you can’t write while shaving, but it sure seems like I receive a lot of writing that has been completed while watching streaming video or chatting or skyping. Writing that has emerged during the defining experience of our time: multi-tasking.


I press the point and a distinction emerges. Sure, driving involves a multitude of micro-decisions that leave no trace in memory, barring something cataclysmic, but writing seems to require a different kind of mental activity, as is evidenced by the fact that the micro-decisions that result in writing leave behind their traces for us to consider—as words on the screen or scratches on the notepad. We can use those traces to get a glimpse of what is going on in the writer’s mind.



In the final scene of Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s loving evocation of the experience of aging, the film’s main character, Mason, is sitting with Nicole, a girl he’s just met on his first day at college. They’ve skipped freshman orientation, ingested some pot brownies, and driven out to Big Bend National Park to watch the sun set.


Nicole, leaning towards Mason, asks rhetorically, “You know how everyone’s always saying, ‘Seize the moment’?” Once Mason avers, Nicole says, “I don’t know, I’m kinda thinking it’s the other way around. You know, like the moment seizes us.”


In standard Hollywood fare, the scene would end with the two kissing.


But, that’s not how the movie ends.


Mason agrees: “Yeah. Yeah . . . I know. It’s constant, the moments, it’s just . . . it’s like always right now, you know?”


And Nicole says, “Yeah.”


Then there’s a few more awkward seconds of silence and the screen goes black. Credits.



On the threshold of adulthood, Mason is experiencing time as: now and now and now, ad infinitum. Those who haven’t seen the movie might be tempted to argue, based on the dialogue alone, that Mason is experiencing a version of enlightenment, but there’s nothing in the film to support this reading. Mason hasn’t been on a spiritual journey and he’s an especially thoughtful or remarkable young man. He’s just older than he was when the film started—twelve years older, in fact. His life as a thinking person, if he’s going to have one, lies ahead, on the other side of the rolling credits.


I asked students in my 21st Century Narrative class to reflect on the representation of time in Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood and any of the other texts we’d worked with in the course so far.


To a one, the in-class written responses connected Linklater’s film to one of the other texts via the word “and.”


This, despite the fact that Boyhood: is the only film we’ve watched in the class so far; was filmed with the same actors over a twelve year period, so as to visibly document the passage of time on screen; and has no sustained narrative action, but rather is a series of vignettes.


Somehow, the task of writing obliterated all the differences between Boyhood and the other texts we’ve encountered so far in the course, leaving behind a pile of responses showing that Boyhood and text X were both about time.


Is writing of this kind evidence of thought?



Instead of grading these responses, I came to class and wrote on the board:


Boyhood + text X = time


And then I said, “Having said this, what do we know that we didn’t already know?”

Not much, the students had to admit. Indeed, since the writing wasn’t going to be graded, we were free to wonder: could text X be any text at all and still support the observation that both were connected “because of time”? As long as the connection is kept at that level of generality, sure.

Is this thinking? In its most rudimentary form, yes. Like to like to like, ad infinitum.

It’s not the kind of thinking I am interested in, though. I’m looking for thinking that makes connections via distinction, qualification, nuance. I’m looking for thinking that delights in subtleties and complexity. And, although the initial written responses my students handed in didn’t evidence this, they know how to do this kind of thinking. They just don’t have much practice at it.


So, I start over.  Is the flow of time in Boyhood like the flow of time in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad? The short stories in George Saunders’ Tenth of December? The second season of Sarah Koenig’s Serial podcast?  Not really.


To move beyond this observation, the students need to get into the habit of making connections that qualify and connections that offer alternatives. They need to start using “but” and “or” as the hinges of thought, so that they can move from thinking exclusively through similarity and begin to think through difference. And, as they practice making connections that qualify and that consider alternatives, they will be acquiring the habit of self-reflection—the habit of seeing that the way one first sees the world is not necessarily the only way to see it.