Body of WritingBack in 1989, Professor Robert F. Dalzell told my college class that “the impact of computers on student writing has been disastrous.” I was inclined to disagree–it seemed like anecdote, or correlation without causation. However, these days–especially after reading the chapter on Ways of Mind-Walking in Tim Ingold’s Being Alive, I’m much more sympathetic.

Writing seems to have become almost completely disembodied–it’s thought to be all about ideas, screens, and keyboards. Writing, and reading, have become even further removed from the bodily practice that Ingold points to as a way of “walking through the scriptures” and of “reading and writing as modalities of travel” (2011:198).

I was especially thinking about this as I reflected on comments from professors who teach writing as part of the Writing Competency Requirement at Hartwick College. Hartwick’s model is rather unique–we seek to advance students to competent college-level writing which is evaluated separately from a course grade. It can be frustrating. As one professor asked, “Why is it that the coaches can get such hard work and dedication from their athletes, but we can’t get that for writing?”

It’s an interesting question, but I would guess that if we compared the top-level elite athletes with the best writers, there would be a similar level of hard work, internal motivation, plus coached guidance. But that is not really the best comparison. A better comparison is between the writing competency requirement and another of Hartwick’s requirements, two credits in physical education.

My guess would be that in many ways students exhibit the same kinds of behaviors with the physical education requirement as they do with the writing requirement: they postpone to the end, even sometimes after graduation ceremonies. “Why do we need to do that?” “What difference does it make?” “I’ll never use it again!”

And here’s the rub: how many times as an advisor have I aided and abetted those sentiments? “Physical education, you can ‘get that out of the way’ later.” “Yeah, I know it’s silly, but you have to do it.”

Very rarely have I talked about the connections of body-mind, how physical exercise and mental exercise go hand-in-hand, that “the mental and the material, or the terrains of the imagination and the physical environment, run into one another to the extent of being barely distinguishable” (Ingold 2011:198). In other words, I’ve probably been as blasé and dismissive of the physical education requirement, perhaps even more so, as I imagine some others are of a writing competency requirement.

So, just like a coach urges the athletes to “get your head in the game!” it is time to “get your body in the writing!” This may even help with one of my biggest pet peeves about so-called academic writing: the idea that there should be no subject, no “I”, no-one who seems to actually be writing or doing anything at all. The screen, the keyboard, and a near-complete disembodiment. Instead:

To walk is to journey in the mind as much as on the land: it is a deeply meditative practice. And to read is to journey on the page as much as in the mind. Far from being rigidly partitioned, there is constant traffic between these terrains, respectively mental and material, through the gateways of the senses. (Ingold 2011:202)

shape of the earthCollege’s Identity Crisis, Frank Bruni’s October 2013 essay in the New York Times, is a perfect example of not what is wrong with college, but what is wrong with the way people think about college. Bruni’s essay is one more exhibit in what Kevin R. McClure correctly pegs as Higher Education’s Reform-Industrial Complex:

Dominating the higher-education-reform conversation are those whose livelihoods are tied to the idea that the system is failing or in need of some “innovative” solution. Take, for example, the myriad policy centers and think tanks that have popped up recently to give opinions on higher education’s future. It is the job of these organizations to write papers and convene meetings about the problems colleges and universities face, meaning there is work (and employment) only so long as problems can be identified.

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College is a PlaceI’ve been intrigued by Andrew Delbanco’s College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be. A post by Aaron Jonas Stutz, What is College For? quotes from Delbanco and takes us to the heart of the matter:

At its core, a college should be a place where young people find help for navigating the territory between adolescence and adulthood. It should provide guidance, but not coercion, for students trying to cross that treacherous terrain on their way toward self-knowledge. It should help them develop certain qualities of mind and heart requisite for reflective citizenship. Here is my own attempt at reducing these qualities to a list, in no particular order of priority, since they are inseparable from one another:
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William Starna - From Homeland to New LandRetractions are painful, but it appears that in my faithful re-copying of documents about Oyaron and Hartwick College, I have participated in perpetuating an account that is almost entirely fictional.

My thanks to Professor Robert R. Bensen for pointing to the research of the late Professor Richard L. Haan, and for putting me in contact with William A. Starna, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at SUNY Oneonta and who will be NEH visiting professor in history for 2014-2015 at Hartwick.

Here’s Professor Starna on the matter:
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All buildings are predictions; all predictions are wrong. . . .

OyaronThe product of skilled scenario work is not a plan but a strategy. Where a plan is based on prediction, a strategy is designed to encompass unforeseeably changing conditions. A good strategy ensures that, no matter what happens, you always have maneuvering room.

–Stewart Brand, How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built (1994:178) as cited in Tim Ingold, Being Alive (2011:75) and from the Herb Childress review.

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