The books we need are the kind that act upon us like a misfortune … a book should serve as the axe for the frozen sea within us. -Franz Kafka
Enlivening reading, lively writing. That’s our aim, our measure of student success this quarter. The right reading and good writing are sure antidotes to the deadeningess of our hyper-busyness, to our device-mediated alienation, to the flattening abstractions of officialese, to anxiety (both the more or less well-grounded sort and the free-floating varieties), and to other social and psychological snares of our times.
Our starting point is Reading with Patrick , Michelle Kuo’s recollection of her Teach for America assignment in an devastatingly impoverished county in Alabama. One student, Patrick, shows sparks of life in response to Kuo’s reading and writing assignments. Kuo’s story continues through her time tutoring Patrick while he was in jail for murder, separated from his wife and new baby. By reading Frederick Douglas, James Baldwin, C. S. Lewis, Bashō, and by “copying” a sentence’s or poem’s syntactical structure to make his own writing, Patrick begins to experience signs of life he’d never felt before. He felt free even in jail. Kuo writes, “This was what reading could do: It could make you unpredictable, … a person for whom nothing is predetermined.” It can make you free.
We’ll read Kuo, some of her supporting writers, perhaps others like Tracy K. Smith (U.S. Poet Laureate) and Layli Long Soldier, Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? and Fran Kiss Stein: A Love Story , John Kaag’s book on William James, Sick Souls, Healthy Minds , maybe even a non-boring history of reading. We’ll also learn to describe the syntactical structure of sentences to see how good writers create the effects they have on their readers, and, like Patrick, we’ll steal those structures to craft good sentences of our own.
In addition to our common readings, every student will pursue, freely, an independent study of an author or a theme of their choice. Students will devote 10 hours each week to their independent work. Jointly authored projects are welcome.
humanities, education, writing