Saturday, February 20, 2016

This passage (and the whole book, really) from Jedediah Purdy's For Common Things: Irony, Trust, and Commitment in America Today really resonates with our conversation of engagement in LAR 112. 

We are at liberty to be entirely self-concerned. Our freedom, though, does not prohibit seriousness of purpose; it may be that it can come to maturity only by undertaking such seriousness. With a free, reflective choice to accept responsibility for some place, to take a role in a political and geographic community, and to answer to some tradition, we take full responsibility for our lives. We relinquish boundlessness to acquire form. (107)

Monday, December 21, 2015

Christmas Break Reading List

I love making reading lists.  Those lists don't always translate to actually getting things read, but so be it.  As the end of the fall semester arrives, I am naively and optimistically anticipating a couple weeks of non-course-related reading.  I'll never get all of these works read, but here's the list I'm contemplating.

  • Breslin, James E. B.  Mark Rothko: A Biography.  I've been a casual fan of Rothko since encountering a few of his paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago Museum.  I've got a notion for a poem or essay that works with Rothko's paintings as a thread.  I'm not sure the biography is necessary for my own writing, but I hope to find out.
  • Karr, Mary.  The Liar's Club. 
  • Purdy, Jedediah.  For Common Things: Irony, Trust, and Commitment in America Today.  I originally encountered W. E. B. DuBois's The Souls of Black Folk by watching the old TV show Spenser for Hire, where it was quoted by Hawk (played by Avery Brooks).  For Common Things was quoted a couple of time in the HBO series The Newsroom, and I'm planning to take the bait.
  • Robinson, Marilynne.  Lila.
Of course, I'll also be planning a new syllabus for ENG 200 in January, which means I'll be reading The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, by Alan Jacobs

And, or course, I'll probably be napping a lot. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Wrecked, Chapter Two: "You Won't Find Yourself Where You're Looking"

I'm trying to extract the essence of what Goins is asserting in this book and to minimize the impact of the manner by which the ideas are asserted. (But it's hard.[1]) One part of my frustration with the "manner" of the book may be a concern with audience. I'm still not quite sure to whom he's writing. Christian? Non-Christian? Those who want to be wrecked? Those who are wrecked? Those who should be wrecked, whether they want to be or not? At various points in the book, any or all of these audiences seem to be in play. As a result, the book seems to send contradictory messages. 

For example, Goins attempts to distinguish his book from "self-help books" by noting that they hold different basic assumptions. Self-help books function on the assumption that "life is supposed to be comfortable" (45), whereas Wrecked posits as different approach:

You can't grow without pain; you can't find your life's purpose if you aren't willing to embrace discomfort and join others in their suffering. Simply reading this book won't help. You need to act, too--to do something hard, even dangerous. Because it will change you, .... (53)

Just as chapter one had a nugget that one wants to embrace while getting rid of what surrounds it, this brief passage is the most direct, succinct, and powerful statement in chapter two. Unfortunately, it is once again linked back to the romantic, essentialist mindset of chapter one:

... and you will find that piece of you lost in the process of growing up, of becoming wise and aware of how the world works. You will become a child again. (53)

If possible, my children tend to avoid anything painful.  They will endure discomfort in order to be obedient, but left to their own devices, they would just as soon do what they deem comfortable at any given moment of the day.  So, I have a difficult time understanding why the choice to "embrace discomfort and join others in their suffering" is not dependent upon the wisdom and insight we gain as we mature.  I don’t understand what Goins seeks to achieve through enticing us with an idealized notion of childhood.  It’s this kind of stuff that makes it seem like he’s selling something.

There are other aspects of this chapter that I found problematic, also.  In describing the tendencies of our culture, Goins notes that “We think it’s about self-actualization, about becoming the best version of ourselves.  It’s not.  It’s about losing ourselves” (48).  Well, yes.  As a Christian seeking to decrease so that Christ-in-me might increase, I agree.  But then, about five pages later, we’re told that “Even if we get turned around in the process [of journeying beyond what is comfortable] and end up on our own doorstep, it will have been worth it, because we will have changed” (52-53).  Well, that risks sounding a lot like prioritizing self-actualization.

Then, of course, there’s the sentence following what I’ve quoted in the last paragraph: “That’s why I don’t believe in books and programs” (53).  Check out Goins’s website (  and let me know if you find that assertion slightly problematic.

I like what Goins is getting at—or, at least, what I understand Goins to be getting at.  Let’s combine our chapter-one nugget with our chapter-two nugget.

If we are to follow the Jesus who suffered with us and bled for us, we too must suffer. We must hold the dying in our arms. We must shed tears for hungry stomachs, trafficked children, and wandering souls. This is what He wants for us. It’s the reason we are called to lay down our nets and take up our crosses to pursue the Suffering Servant. And it’s the one thing we will avoid at all costs. It is not enough to feel bad. […] We must act. (40)

You can't grow without pain; you can't find your life's purpose if you aren't willing to embrace discomfort and join others in their suffering. Simply reading this book won't help. You need to act, too--to do something hard, even dangerous. Because it will change you, .... (53)

My issue with Goins continues to be the manner in which these points and conveyed.  I guess this brings me back to the question of audience.  Perhaps I’m simply not part of his.

[1] This chapter, we’ve traded in John Mayer for Jason Bourne and Yoda.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Diving Into Wrecked

In connection with a group at my church, I've been asked to read Wrecked: When a Broken World Slams Into Your Comfortable Life, by Jeff Goins.  Given the gravitas of the group reading the book and the discussions that will be generated through our reading, this felt like a text I wanted to respond to a bit more formally--a text for which I wanted to articulate my thinking rather than merely scribble notes and comments in the margins. So, I'll try to respond chapter by chapter and see where it takes me.

Chapter 1: You Must Get Wrecked

Well, the chapter starts off with a John Mayer quotation, so I'm not sure what to think about that.  I assume that the quotation--"Something's missing, and I don't know what it is"--is a lyric from one of Mayer's songs.  I will say that it aligns with this first chapter pretty well.  Like Mayer, Goins is also asserting that something is missing, some unknown "it" that get referred to again and again but not quite identified.

I should say that Goins and I got off on the wrong foot, as his opening chapter makes—or at least begins with—the same sort of simplistic, essentialist assertions found in the Eldredge books (e.g., Wild at Heart).  For instance, he asserts, “We begin life with a simple understanding—that our lives are tales worth telling and we have an important part to play” (27).  Well, no.  We don’t begin life which this understanding.  This perspective is something that is cultivated--to varying degrees--within us as we grow.  Goins even undercuts his own point—this very point—in his next paragraph.  Like Eldredge, Goins presents our lives in romanticized terms.  In this case, all children are imaginative and uninhibited by a concern with “trivial things” like money, sex, and recognition.  “Without prompting, kids know how to dream up adventures and slay dragons.  To embark on epic voyages and live out idyllic scenes.  To spend hours in the backyard with nothing but their imaginations” (28).  Well, that’s crap.  Kids are raised and encouraged to “embark” on such voyages, just as men and women are raised and encouraged to embrace the roles and perspectives that Eldredge presents as being intrinsic to our nature. 
Eventually, chapter one got a little better, but I could never really escape the feeling that Goins was pushing too hard, that he was selling something—namely discontent and the promise of contentment.

Something is missing. Something important. Something necessary to making a difference in the world. And most of us are afraid to find out what it is. Because we know. It’s the secret we’re afraid to admit: this will cost us our lives. (29)

Well, sure.  Many of us do have the sense that something is missing.  On the other hand, we live in a culture that operates largely by seeking to cultivate discontentment in order to market things to us.  Marketers assure us that our lives are empty, so we should pursue thrill and independence by purchasing a new car.  Or our lives are provincial and dull, so we should travel.  Or our lives are filled with unnecessary burdens, so we should by a robotic vacuum.   

To be clear, I should say that I don’t think Goins is merely trying to “sell us something,” but his tone and rhetoric just feel too…unexamined…too consistent with the very status quo he’s attempting to help us see beyond.  Because of this, he risks seeming disingenuous.  When introducing the title of the book, he writes: “…they all sang a similar song: wherever there is pain without explanation, hope amidst despair, redemption in spite of tragedy, that’s where they wanted to be.  Walking away from each experience, people would tell me how they felt, and they all used the same interesting word: wrecked” (29-30).  On this point, I simply don’t believe him.  All of these folks with their various experiences all used the word wrecked to describe their experience.  The word doesn’t strike me as that common.  I recognize this may say more about my mindset as I read the chapter than it does about Goins and/or his argument, but the presentation of this anecdote leads me to feel like Goins is trying to create a buzzword rather than being honest.  

Certainly, Goins presents moments and perspectives that challenge and encourage in meaningful ways.  I really like the definition of wrecked as being “disabused of the status quo “ (32), and I really like the acknowledgment that compassion “means literally ‘to suffer with’” (37).  I think the best articulation of what he’s getting at is found on page 40: 

If we are to follow the Jesus who suffered with us and bled for us, we too must suffer. We must hold the dying in our arms. We must shed tears for hungry stomachs, trafficked children, and wandering souls. This is what He wants for us. It’s the reason we are called to lay down our nets and take up our crosses to pursue the Suffering Servant. And it’s the one thing we will avoid at all costs. It is not enough to feel bad. […] We must act. (40)

 Yes.  Go with that.  Help us explore and pursue that calling.  But do so without resorting to a romanticized and essentialist ideal of youth that presents adulthood as the problem.  Do so without the hyperbole that seems to turn this whole concern into a decidedly First World problem.[1]  And, for the sake of all that is holy, do so without mangling Emily Dickinson.

[1] The whole paragraph with Jimmy set me off a bit.  Says Jimmy (from Peru!), “Traveling helps me realize what my preferences are, who my true friends and family are, and where my home is.  It gives me a clearer understanding of the need to have an anchor in this uncertain, steady life”(36).  This is all fine for folks like Jimmy who can travel to Peru.  I’m hoping there are avenues to a deeper life for those of us who can’t travel in search of self-definition, for those who are working multiple jobs just to put food on the table.  I pray there is hope when wrecked is not merely a metaphor, hope for those who are suffering and not just for those (who seem to be the audience of this book) who are trying to find ways to “suffer with.”  I’m reminded of a recent article in Slate titled “In the Name of Love: Elites Embrace the ‘Do What You Love’ Mantra.  But It Devalues Work and Hurts Workers.”  The article critiques the now clich├ęd advice that each of us should “Do What You Love” (  This first chapter of Goins’s book seems tinted with a similar sort of privilege. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

BAE12: Anastas's "The Foul Reign of 'Self-Reliance'"

I'm always amazed when an unintended theme seems to pop up in a class.  And, so far, these early weeks of ENG 360 have included an unintended concern with Emerson and self-reliance.  I suppose this is probably as much a theme of David Brooks's (the BAE editor for 2012) and not merely my own, but, nevertheless....  

I have to say, first of all, that I really like Emerson--what I teach of him, anyway.   In my sections of American Literature: Survey I, I usually assign "The American Scholar" and "Nature."  There are problems/issues with each of these, but, as a whole, I find myself drawn to some of the key themes and the most memorable passages.  I don't teach "Self-Reliance," and I'm not entirely sure why.  But I'm pretty sure, now, that I'll be recalling--and perhaps addressing--some of Anastas's perspectives when Emerson comes up again next spring, particularly since Anastas hits some concerns that I already address--the tension between the American ideals of individual autonomy and opportunity (CF: John Smith), on the one hand, and the still-oft-quoted emphasis on community (CF: John Winthrop) on the other hand.  

I was particularly struck by the following passage from Emerson that Anastas quotes:  “Most men have bound their eyes with one or another handkerchief and attached themselves to … communities of opinion” (3).  I was reminded of another essay—an essay that series editor Robert Atwan quotes in his preface: David Foster Wallace’s “Deciderization2007—a Special Report,” which was the introduction to the Best American Essays: 2007.  Wallace asserts that in our current  culture we’re surrounded by “Total Noise”:

“[…] a culture and volume of info and spin and rhetoric and context that I know I’m not alone in finding too much to even absorb, much less try to make and sense of or organize into any kind of triage of saliency or value.  Such basic absorption, organization, and triage used to be what was required of an educated adult, a.k.a. and informed citizen—at least that’s what I got taught.  Suffice it here to say that the requirements now seem different.”

Between the two of these essays, one gets the sense of a perfect storm; we’re both living in a culture that inundates us with so much information that we tend to just pick a voice to listen to—a “decider,” in Wallace’s terms—and living in a cultural tradition, derived from Emerson, that inclines us to simply embrace our own self-serving worldview and shut out any voices that might challenge us.

A couple of final notes….  I really enjoyed the snark/humor that Anastas uses in the essay.  Also, for those of you enrolled in ENG 360U, keep this essay in mind when we get around to talking about the rhetorical analysis essay.  Anastas is essentially doing a bit of rhetorical analysis when he discusses the “Think Different”commercial for Apple in 1997.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

BAE12: Edmundson's "Who Are You and What Are You Doing Here?"


First, let me say that I want to read more of Mark Edmundson's writing.  While I will quibble with some of his assertions, I mostly found myself cheering along.  While reading “Who Are You and What Are You Doing Here?” one appreciates Mark Edmundson’s willingness to share—well, not his experiences in higher education, really, but the conclusions he’s drawn from those experiences.  For the most part, his conclusions align with my own experiences, as well.  There are places where I think he overstates things a bit, but these may simply be the differing experiences we’ve accumulated—Edmundson as a high-profile professor at one of the nation’s most prestigious universities, and me at a Christian liberal arts college on the northern plains.  For example, he asserts:

The work they [faculty] are compelled to do to advance—get tenure, promotion, raises, outside offers—is, broadly speaking, scholarly work.  No matter what anyone says, this work has precious little to do with the fundamentals of teaching. (91)

There is truth in this, particularly for academics in the “big leagues,” I suspect.  However, my own experience is that the research and scholarly work required or encouraged feeds the teaching, and the teaching generally sparks the possibilities for research.  Much of Edmundson’s essay admonishes the undergraduate student to understand that whether he or she gets an education is largely up to the individual student.  I think the same is true of the role research and scholarly work plays for faculty.  If a faculty member prioritizes teaching, then the research will be more likely to be relevant.  If the faculty member sees teaching and research as two distinct concerns, then then, yes, it’s easiest for the faculty member to prioritize the concern that is recognized and privileged by the institution.  

While I could nit-pick the particulars of Edmundson’s essay, I think the foundations of it are pretty accurate.  At the center of his assertions is a distinction between schooling/credentialing and education: “Education has one salient enemy in present-day America, and that enemy is education—university education in particular.  To almost everyone, university education is a means to and end” (91).  And, as a result of this, “The students and professors have made a deal: neither of them has to throw himself heart and soul into what happens in the classroom” (92).  Edmundson has a pretty compelling take on the reasons for this unwillingness to engage in really meaningful, personal ways.  There are legal issues; there are market-based factors; there are political demands that diminish our collective understanding and ideal for education to percentiles on standardized tests.  

The irony, however, is that much of the reason for the lack of engagement—and all the factors that contribute to that lack—might also be the Emersonian self-reliance that Edmundson touts as an ideal.  It is a version of this self-reliance that generates our litigiousness and the lingering concern with legal issues, that leads universities and colleges to appeal to individual students as consumers, that leads us to prioritize “objective” forms of assessment (e.g., standardized tests).  In order to throw ourselves “heart and soul into what happens in the classroom” (92), in order to explore questions about whether “the books contain truths you could live your lives by” (99), we all have to be willing to enter into a meaningful level of community that enables and allows us to share our lives with one another.  We have to be willing to be subject to one another, to forgive perceived slights, to entertain alternative (and sometimes ignorant or distasteful) perspectives.  This sort of community is messy, sometimes dangerous, and certainly at odds with both the size and the market-driven motivations of the contemporary university or college.

So, yes, Edmundson is right to tell today’s students that receiving an education, rather than merely a degree, will be their responsibility.  However, receiving the type of education that Edmundson nobly envisions will require community.  The challenge for students is not simply one of asserting their own identity and relying on themselves.  The challenge is finding, perhaps creating, and caring for pockets of community within the institution, because the size and shape of contemporary education doesn’t lend itself well to forming such communities.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Yellow Lines

I'm all for symbolic acts of civil disobedience, but the increasingly common practice of extending any given parking lot by one unmarked space is beginning to drive me batty. The following pictures were all taken in a two-day span.