From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Assignments—Mountains Seminar Letter (Autumn 2013)

Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series "Assignments"
One year ago on Round and Square (9 September 2012)—The Cortex Chronicles: Long Synapse Punting
Two years ago on Round and Square (9 September 2011)—Styling Culture: Chicago Style Citation

[a] Building RF
HIST 310 / ANTH 375
Autumn 2013 

Preliminary Writing Assignment 
Mountains: The Letter
By choosing the letter format for your first writing assignment, I am asking you to build upon the skills you have already begun to develop in analyzing (and providing examples for) the mountains in our midst.  You have already reached a point where you have some experience with thinking about "mountains" (both as rock underfoot and metaphors for big things around us). Your job will be to explain some of this to an intelligent non-specialist.
Letters from “the field” (or our modified “archive” of mountain texts) are a good way to refine your thoughts about ethnographic and historical study, and they are a useful medium for beginning the intellectual “framing process” that will accelerate as we move through the next two-thirds of the seminar. The letter writing exercise is especially useful while studying mountain materials. The nonfiction writer John McPhee explains to his students that a letter is often precisely the solution to problems of interpretation or clarity—when in doubt, write to mother, he says. In this case, it is not a plea of “send money” that the letter contains, but a reworking, rethinking, and contextualization of your work. You need not limit yourself to kinfolk, but you need to think about who the recipient will be (ideally someone who will welcome a letter about “studying mountains”).

You owe it to yourself to listen to this long interview with McPhee. At the very least, listen to the first two minutes. It is the very purpose behind this assignment.

Now start writing. Toward that end, you should pay attention to the following issues.

1. The letter needs to be “long enough” to get you deeply into several issues regarding mountain travel, thinking, and study itself. You will also want to provide your reader with some particular examples that are resonant for  you. There is no absolute upper limit, but I am going to make a lower limit of 3,000 words (about ten pages). Even if you are a very efficient writer, you will need this much “space” to give your reader a good picture of your work. Somewhere between 3,000 and 3,500 words (ten to twelve pages) is just about right. Include a word count at the end of our paper (e.g. “3,377 words” or Word Count: 3,377).
2. I am asking you to connect with a very specific reader, and to explain “mountains” in a level of detail that she will find satisfying.  You are the expert, and your “audience” is the person who will be reading your letter (I will, of course, be reading over her shoulder).  I have found that this kind of assignment helps students to explain even abstruse matters, because the personal relationship they have with their readers demands an attention to patient explanation that is often lacking in more “academic” forms of writing, in which they assume that a professor already knows what they are writing about.

3. You may approach your materials from any angle that you like, but you will need to “cover” at least the following items, no matter what order you choose.

          a. You must discuss the “what is a mountain question"—what is a mountain? 
               Provide your reader with at least a few ways of thinking about it, from "I have
               mountains of work" to "Climbing K2."

          b. Give your reader a sense of what you have learned up to this point about 
              how to think about mountains. Use examples, either from the course or your 
              own experience.

          c. Finally, give your reader some sense of what it is like to “study mountains”
              by discussing the literary and historical dimensions of some of our texts.  It 
              might be useful to think of the pragmatic (climbing) and metaphorical
              (mountains in our midst) dimensions that are explained on the syllabus.
4. The best way to approach the writing process is in three parts (this is a friendly suggestion). First, jot down some notes for each of the “sections” of your letter. Second, using those notes as a guide, write a rough draft of the whole letter. Third, revise, polish, and refine. Voilà you will have something not unlike what Alexis de Tocqueville might have written about understanding a complex, foreign culture that baffled and enticed him 180 years ago. While your letter won’t be as long as Democracy in America, it is likely—if it is done well—to be much like Tocqueville’s rich and evocative letters back to his family about encountering people, texts, and institutions in a strange land called the United States. 

You get the idea. If you don't, just raise your hand and ask me (or send me an e-mail message). I'll be happy to help.

Letters are due (in hard copy form) outside my door 
by 10:00 p.m. on Sunday, September 29.

Add the word count and your box number to all papers!
[e] Balancing (not climbing) RF

No comments:

Post a Comment