Monday, April 7, 2014

Vetting Prospective Venues for Student Research Papers

It is my belief that student research papers can and should find authentic audiences. This is why I require my students to conduct social discovery. During their writing process, they reach out to a variety of types of individuals to obtain social proof for their developing ideas. As they formalize their research, they target specific presentation or publication venues. When my students submit their final papers to me, they are required to document the process of their paper's development and to indicate they have submitted their paper to one of those venues.

As an interim step prior to that final submission report, I am now requiring my students to vet their prospective venues. In short, I want to be certain that they have investigated the conference or the publication outlet with respect to topic, timeliness, length, tone, formatting and any other submission requirements. In short, I don't want their submission to be an academic exercise; I want them to have a serious shot at getting their work accepted.

To this end, I am making the following assignment for my students.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Awe by Design

Design theory provides new opportunities for considering the art of wonder. That is to say, it is possible to take the very romanticized and subjective notion of awe and subject this to a process by way of design theory.

Design is a diverse and cross-disciplinary field, inheriting and combining the pragmatic and aesthetic from fields like engineering and graphic design. Design overlaps with the fields of psychology and cognition, rhetoric, marketing, and entrepreneurialism. Design is informed by a growing body of theory about creativity which conceives of it in terms of processes of discovery, communication, and collaborative problem-solving.

Design Thinking
As shown in the five-step process of design thinking in this graphic, design follows an iterative strategy by which ideas are proposed and tested. This involves a combination of divergent and convergent thinking processes, using various methods to "think outside the box" before proposing and testing specific models.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Awe of the Deep

creative commons 2.0 license
edenpictures / flickr
Among the types of awe associated with the ocean is a kind of terror lurking within those unfathomable fathoms. This is evident in Melville's Moby Dick.

Poor Pip, a child on one of the whaling boats, is thrown into the ocean by accident and is only found sometime later once the sailors returned from chasing a whale. It wasn't the expectation of drowning that got to him, it was the terror of the deep. In Chapter 93, Melville gives us the perspective of the abandoned boy. The image of the calm, infinite sea is contrasted with Pip's sudden sense of isolation:
When the whale started to run Pip was left behind on the sea, like a hurried traveller's trunk. It was a beautiful, bounteous, blue day; the spangled sea calm and cool, and flatly stretching away, all round, to the horizon, like gold-beater's skin hammered out to the extremest. Bobbing up and down in that sea, Pip's ebon head showed like a head of cloves. In three minutes, a whole mile of shoreless ocean was between Pip and Stubb. Out from the centre of the sea, poor Pip turned his crisp, curling, black head to the sun, another lonely castaway.... The intense concentration of self in the middle of such a heartless immensity, my God! who can tell it?
Once rescued, Pip was thereafter a mute idiot. Why? The narrator explains that Pip was terrorized by what appeared to him below the surface:
The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul. Not drowned entirely, though. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God's foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad. 
Melville evokes a wonder-world of alien creatures and abstractions, and we see poor Pip the passive, astounded audience to a primal world for which he, and we, are not fit. "Gobsmacked" or perhaps "god smacked," Pip answered the inscrutable he viewed with a permanent silence.

Isolation can lead to terror, but so can sights for which our eyes or minds are unprepared, wondrous though they may be. (This seems to me to be relevant to the idea of the sublime and terror that my student, Erin McMullin, is exploring. I note she recently found a sea-related example of someone else overwhelmed upon being rescued, Captain Phillips in the recent movie of the same name...)

Friday, January 10, 2014

Keeping a Wonder Journal

I am asking my students to keep a "wonder journal." This is to be a place to record and reflect upon experiences of wonder, and a means to consciously cultivate their sense of awe. Ultimately this will be a source of ideas for their academic projects, but before the wonder journal takes on that prosaic role, it needs to play a more subjective one.

If my students keep a wonder journal, they will experience wonders.

What kind of logic is that? This is completely artificial, I will admit. To keep a wonder journal does not give orders to the universe to arrange marvels. One might as well plan spontaneity! So, what's the point?

The point is that by making a routine of expectation, by keeping the door open for things sublime, that that faith will be rewarded. If you look for wonders, you tend to find them.

Travelers know this. They go to places -- whether that's the Great Wall of China or the Corn Palace of South Dakota -- expecting to be amazed, hoping to encounter things that will change the way they view the world. So use your wonder journal to be a traveler, whether or not there is actual travel involved.

Specific suggested entries:
  • Report an Experience
    Report specific, personal experiences with wonder, the sublime, or awe. Some could be from the past, and some should be from the present.
  • Identify awe-inspiring works of literature or art
    Focus on specific works that have proven powerfully meaningful to you in terms of creating moments of awe or wonder.
  • Explore one of the Terms of Awe
    Seek examples from one's own life, or as recorded in literature or other media. Choose something with which you've had a personal connection. 
  • Go on a Field Trip
    Go someplace where you are likely to experience the sublime. Tell the story in your wonder journal 
  • Make a Gratitude List
    This can be a bit of a cliche, but the act of listing a great number of things for which you are grateful can take you to a place of spiritual awe.
  • Draw a Picture
    Whether or not you're an artist, try to give some kind of visual rendering of something awe-inspiring. You might accompany this with an explanation.
Specific instructions for the assignment are posted here.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Terms of Awe

I've designed this course in order for us to come to terms with awe, to know it for what it is, where it is potent and active in life, in nature, and in life.

Sometimes, in order to come to terms, you need terms -- a vocabulary to scaffold experience and wireframe understanding. So here is a first stab at exploring awe as a set of terms. These are words that name movements and feelings and a great many things. They will be the first handles we grab onto as we language our way toward awe. So, to begin with, a triad of terms: awe, wonder, and the sublime...

Welcome to the Literature of Awe

This blog is devoted to investigating the concept of awe and the ways that awe, wonder, and associated concepts are elicited by, documented in, and investigated through literature and other media. While associated with a specific senior course offered at Brigham Young University from January - April, 2014, this blog is nevertheless intended as a general and permanent resource for any interested in investigating these same topics.

Course Description:
ENGL 495: The Literature of Awe (Gideon Burton)In this senior course, we will trace the literary theme of awe across multiple periods and genres of literature. Reverence for something greater than ourselves as well as fear of the unknown and inscrutable are complementary concepts that permeate our entire literary tradition and which pose profound questions regarding the psychology of experience and how time, distance, complexity, and alterity are mediated to us aesthetically. We will study the liminal nature of wonder: poised at the threshold of oceans, or eons, or the puzzling unconscious, there is something compelling and breathtaking about being on the frontier or at the edges of what can be known or expressed. Like Petrarch atop Mount Ventoux, we will scan horizons in order to examine the workings of wonder.
We will study the rhetoric of awe (tropes and conventions that invoke wonder) and the aesthetics of awe (styles and genres sympathetic to this theme). Representative genres include epic, metaphysical, and devotional poetry, utopian literature, travel narratives, occult literature, gothic fiction, science fiction, and the literature of the frontier. We will also touch on cultural practices and media for constructing and experiencing awe: architecture, museums, spectacles, and the rise of film and technological wonders.
A Challenge
As with concepts of the sacred, the power of awe may correlate with its subjectivity: one person's source of awe may seem sentimental or even blasphemous to another. Moreover, awe can be counterfeited or cheapened-- even in the very act of describing it or attempting its preservation. As Wordsworth said, "we murder to dissect," meaning that as we turn to analyze, to anatomize something so subjective and evocative, we deflate and deflower. It almost seems that you cannot have and know awe; you can experience it, or you can analyze it, but the one precludes the other.

I challenge my students and readers to push past these dangers and to be open to awe as a transformative and perhaps transcendent mode of experience. I challenge you to withstand the cynicism that is all too possible and to stay open to awe and wonder in a childlike way. I further challenge myself and my readers to be open to the risks required of submitting to the awesome. Since awe can border on the terrors of unknown things, that is asking quite a bit. But I think it will be worth it.

Your Experiences of Awe
What about you? What have been sources of awe and wonder in your life? Can you attribute such experiences to works of art, literature, or media? Have the moments of wonder been inherent in such works, or in the particular way that you experienced them? Is awe a rare experience for you, a familiar place? Can you separate awe from religious experience or from artistic experience? Is modern-day awe so linked to technology, spectacle, and entertainment that you have not had experiences of wonder separate from those influences? What have been moments of awe in your life? Did you record these or return to these in any way? Have you been able to rekindle wonder or cultivate awe? Or are these concepts a part of your life?