(In progress, be gentle.)
Students who are baffled by the theater of the term paper might look to Ralph Waldo Emerson for an alternative conception which more sensitively accounts for writing’s diverse processes and objectives. I call the term paper here a form of theater as its successful execution requires mastery over several fictive techniques. While arguably necessary for the production of a publicly-consumable form, these techniques contribute to the general culture of shame and disregard which surrounds the private process of writing. In this paper I will draw upon what Lawrence Rosenwald calls Emerson’s “literary system” to argue that we must develop new respect and attention towards process in order to design writing tools which better support its key activity of reflection.
Let us start with a general account of the techniques used to transform private thought into the public form of the term paper. The first technique involves the theatrical production of the narratorial consciousness, by which I mean the perceived personality and mind which constructs the text and arguments from the paper’s beginning to its end. This consciousness is particular in that it is singular and static; its convictions and ordering principles do not fluctuate throughout the paper; at the very first sentence it has foreseen all of the material which it will treat and the entirety of the plot which will constitute the paper’s unfolding. It need not fear the disruption of its plan by unexpected spirits which might force it to reconsider its assumptions, to change and adapt. Likewise, this narratorial consciousness must not reflect on its own production, for this too can introduce new thoughts which may threaten to topple its direction altogether. If the narratorial consciousness performs dialogic activity within the bounds of the paper, it is just that, a performance, such as is also the case in Plato’s dialogues for its outcome, unlike an authentic dialogue, is predetermined from the get-go. The second fictive technique of the term paper is the presentation of thought ordered according to the paper’s logical structure rather than its chronological unfolding. Every element within a paper has a unique history of its particular emergence in both the writer’s mind and the writer’s writing medium. In the age of copy and paste, the gap between an element’s birthplace and the location in which it is at last frozen for the public, expands. However, this reordering and culling of thought into a legible and logical order represents one of the primary labors of the term paper’s material production. The third fictive technique is the erasure of any trace of the techniques themselves; the labor required to produce the performance of a confident and authoritative narratorial consciousness must not be seen. Any sign of imperfection, such as a typo or logical fallacy, unveils the perfect (and almost divinely-given) authority of the narratorial consciousness as a mere production made possible by the slavish labor of an inferior student.
These three techniques arguably play an important role in the production of writing that is legible and publicly valuable. Indeed, writing that ignores these three techniques will be hard pressed to find an appreciative audience; only on exceptional occasions do we find a market for the artifacts of labor which produce the final, written work. However, the third technique which I outlined above, that is the erasure of the techniques themselves, inadvertently creates a culture of exclusion within academics whose effects transcend the activity of writing itself. Just as the ideal academic term paper gives no sign of the struggle which brought its final form into being, the graduate student classroom and graduate student culture at large is ashamed of letting on to any such difficulty due to its perception as a sign of intellectual weakness rather than a condition which deserves our interest and respect. Thus the eager newcomer, who wishes to join the academic community by learning any one of its multiple discourses, will grope blindly in their efforts of emulation as a novice might attempt to reproduce a cake solely after tasting it. Unfortunately, the alleged transparency of language supports the myth that everything that goes into the production of a paper, indeed the activity of the writer’s mind itself, is visible and therefore available for emulation by the reader worthy in intelligence and vision. Thus, students who struggle to emulate the perfected form without adequate instruction in the complex social and linguistic code which directs its production blame only their own intelligence when they find that they cannot. As a result, the writing skills of students are unnecessarily frustrated as is often their self worth. Such a failure, however, reflects not a lack of intelligence in the student, but a lack of committed inclusiveness in the academic culture in which they operate. In this respect, against claims of meritocracy, one might argue that academic culture reproduces in the same ways a guild, which welcomes only but an elite few into its ranks by a technique which moderates both the skill and the self esteem of aspiring members.
And so, this paper seeks to expose the weaknesses, fallacies, and injustices of this particular model of academic acculturation by contrasting it with the model of writing and thinking offered by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Unlike the academic model, Emerson’s practice of writing and thinking privileges the process of writing over its final products. Though Emerson has famously declared that his thinking has “no system,” Lawrence Rosenwald persuasively demonstrates the ways that Emerson systematically directed his intellectual, technical, social, and professional practices to carrying out the life-long process of what Rosenwald calls Emerson’s “literary system.” In what follows I will give a brief account of these activities and contrast them with current practices, objectives, and expectations in the activity of student writing. Additionally, this paper will explore the process aspects of its own production by both reflecting on its emergence at multiple stages of its production, and by literally making visible the entire written process of its production. Interested readers will be able to use the “Timeslider” feature of the Etherpad document editor with which this paper was composed to watch for themselves the production of this paper from start to finish. Readers can not only observe how the final paper weaves together authorial and editorial activity from across a chronological spectrum, but will also note that the paper began with an entirely different motive than the one that is now present. At the end of this paper, I will more fully describe the rationale and experience of this process, and reflect on its significance for the activity of student writing at large.
Of all the activities that go into Emerson’s process of writing and thinking, it is his intellectual method for which he is most famous. Readers of Emerson will recognize his signature philosophy in the following passage from his essay “Intellect”:
All our progress is an unfolding, like the vegetable bud. You have first an instinct, then an opinion, then a knowledge, as the plant has root, bud and fruit. Trust the instinct to the end, though you can render no reason. It is vain to hurry it. By trusting it to the end, it shall ripen into truth, and you shall know why you believe.
We see a similar notion at play in one of his journal entries:
There is a process in the mind very analogous to crystallization in the mineral kingdom. I think of a particular fact of singular beauty & interest. In thinking of it I am led to many more thoughts which show themselves first partially and afterwards more fully. But in the multitude of them I see no order. When I would present them to others they have no beginning. There is no method. Leave them now, & return to them again. Domesticate them in your mind, do not force them into arrangement too hastily & presently you shall find they will take their own order. And the order they assume is divine. It is God’s architecture. (204 Liebman)
From both of these excerpts we can observe several interesting aspects of Emerson’s philosophy of knowledge. First, rather than being received through a divine or institutional authority, knowledge is developed within the subject herself by reflecting on the process of her own thought. We should note then, that to a certain degree, the development of this knowledge is independent of the subject herself. As we see in the first excerpt, the subject thinks of a “particular fact” and is then “led to many more thoughts.” To be “led,” of course, is to passively comply to the guidance of the will of something else; in this respect the subject is only a passive witness, or perhaps even object, of the unfolding of thought which she must then “trust” to its “end.” From this excerpt we can better understand why Emerson might assert that there is no “method” or “system” to his intellectual activity. Compared to epistemologies which require the subject to actively enforce logic upon their thoughts, Emerson’s thinker appears relatively passive. However, we perhaps may more usefully consider Emerson’s approach as a method in itself in order to more carefully consider the activities and choices of which it consists. From this perspective, we can see that Emerson’s method emphasizes positive attributes such as creativity, confidence, open-endedness, and open-mindedness. These are qualities which may remind us of the various processes that go into brainstorming and drafting term papers; it is less clear, however, how they apply to the process of formalizing one’s thoughts, whether for public expression or personal certainty.
Indeed, Emerson anticipates the reluctance that some might feel at the prospect of surrendering all mental activity to almost its own private whim, rather than directing according to logic received by church, state, culture or kin. In his essay “Self Reliance,” Emerson addresses the concern that the “impulses” that guide such unfettered thinking, may be “from below, not from above” with a particular ontological defense. For Emerson, the mind is no different than the plant or any other organic creation; it too develops according to the laws of nature. This sentiment is expressed throughout his writings such as in his essay “Thoughts on Art”: “There is but one Reason. The mind that made the world is not one mind, but the mind. Every man is an inlet to the same, and to all of the same.”Or in his essay,”Swedenborg” he writes that “Nature is self-similar.” It creates everything through the same process, even something as ambiguous and abstract as the mind. In this way, the mind is no different than any of Nature’s other creations, such as the plant he frequently compares it to, except that it is “a finer body, and resumes its functions of feeding, digesting, absorbing, excluding, and generating, in a new and ethereal element.” Letting one’s thoughts flow, therefore, is a reception of truth.
However, this is not to say that the subject has virtually no agency in the process of reception. As the excerpts at the beginning of this section make clear, it is the agency of the subject in the first place which threatens to obstruct the natural unfolding of thought. The first action of the subject then is to not interrupt this process, at least not “too hastily.” One must “leave them” as he says. But, as he says in the very same breath, one must also “return to them,”upon which, the subject will find that they have taken their own order. This “returning” we might understand as the act of reflection. It is as if the mind is capable of one conscious activity at a time; it generates thoughts, pauses, and then reflecting upon those thoughts, is able to see their relationship which was hidden from view in their generation. This particular mental pattern should not appear too radical. What I want to draw attention to is how for Emerson, it’s this process, not any individual intellectual product which it produces, that becomes the overriding ambition of his intellectual activities. It is interesting to note how this idea of leaving and returning, plays out in multiple frequencies and modalities in his writing, speaking and publishing practice.
In his book “Emerson and The Art of The Diary,” Rosenwald describes how Emerson transformed his already-impressive journaling practice into what Rosenwald calls “the form of the mature journal.” Previously, the form of his journal was largely influenced by the Puritanical practice of “monitoring the health of the soul” through written, self inspection (Rosenwald 92) and also John Locke’s method of the “commonplace book,” which systematized a reader’s collection of excerpts which they might later use for “public argument and public advancement” (32). Additionally, we should note that the journal had a sort of semi-private social life; Emerson and his Aunt Mary Moody Emerson often commented in one another’s journals and he also occasionally exchanged it with friends, perhaps as a method of extending and deepening conversation. However, while these qualities alone have much to offer to our consideration of student writing, I want to draw attention to the “mature journal” as it explicitly formalized his process-oriented approach, and indeed extended the scope and possibility of process itself. Rosenwald gives 1833 as the year of the transition, marked first by Emerson’s change in tools as he shifts from using homemade books to professionally-made, standardized blank books. Secondly, Rosenwald turns to the opening declaration of the journal, which signals in itself a sense of embarking on a serious practice. “This Book is my Savings Bank. I grow richer because I have somewhere to deposit my earnings; and fractions are worth more to me because corresponding fractions are waiting here that shall be made integers by their addition” (Rosenwald 54).
While this orientation towards the journal is in line with the purpose of the “commonplace book,” Rosenwald notes that Emerson develops a strikingly different method of indexing than the one devised by Locke which he had employed in his prior journal-keeping practice. Unlike Locke’s method, which directed the reader to catalog their excerpts under fixed predetermined categories, Emerson developed a system of indexing which allowed the reader to develop the categories as they read. Additionally, whereas Locke’s method only allowed an excerpt to be associated with a single category, excerpts in Emerson’s system could potentially be indexed under an indefinite number of categories. Using this system, Emerson developed a practice of rereading his own entries, and continually associating these entries with new categories, allowing him to make unexpected connections between entries that varied dramatically in subject and chronology. This practice not only allowed him to easily make use of and generate value out of old “deposits,” but also stimulated the generation of new new thought and new “deposits” through the surprising connections that came about in reflection upon such a broad amount of material. In all, Emerson produced seven hundred pages of index material, demonstrating that this practice of reflection was perhaps as important as the journal writing itself. And while many scholars have claimed that this process was for the purpose of producing finalized works for the public, Rosenwald persuasively argues that this indeed was not the case. “Of the Emersonian literary system as a whole, then,” he writes, “we can say that no passage is ever restricted to its initial context; that any passage can be reused; that no passage, by being reused, is ever exhausted. The distinction between raw material–or rough draft–and finished product is worse than useless in understanding Emerson’s system of production, in which texts we normally regard as ancillary to creation, instrumental to creation, subordinate to and thus other than creation, are in fact forms and modes of creation” (68). Finally, Rosenwald also argues that his even Emerson’s professional transition from that of a minister to that of a lecturer was in a sense stimulated by his search for a career that would allow him to flourish as a diarist (52). And so, as we can see, Emerson essentially directs his entire life to the service of process-oriented thinking and writing, which allows him to make it much richer and expansive activity than it would be if the process consisted in merely the daily production of isolated journal entries.
A savings bank for student writing
Of what value then is Emerson’s particular process-oriented method to our consideration of student writing? First, I’d like to point out that just by virtue of contrast, his method reveals the stark lack of attention towards process within graduate education. As I noted in the beginning, the process of writing in graduate education is largely suppressed from public view, both within the “finished” product of the final paper and in graduate culture at large. When process is given attention, it is usually only for the purpose of disciplining the process so as to produce a product in a more timely and efficient manner. While undergraduate composition courses will often implement process-based techniques to help novice writers, this interest and attention to process immediately evaporates in graduate student settings. It is also significant to note that Emerson describes the activity of process in near ecstatic terms. “See how nature has secured the communication of knowledge.” he writes in his essay “Clubs.” He continues shortly afterwards: “Every new perception is attended with the thrill of passing it on to others. Thought is the child of the intellect and conceived with pleasure and joy!” By contrast, in graduate education, the process of writing is just as much, if not more, an object to be judged rather than an object of communication. The end of the semester is typically not one of ebullient typing. Now, as I stressed in my introduction, there are arguably valid reasons behind many of these trends in the practice and culture of graduate student writing. However, I’d like to argue that these trends have become, if they haven’t always been, insensitive to the needs of a practice which supports a coherent, purposeful, and reflective intellectual life.What Emerson can teach us is that by giving new attention and respect to the aspect of process in our intellectual activities and institutions, we might create a structure or a practice or a culture so to speak that might enable us to enrich and expand the power and possibility of process.
This I believe then is the supreme value of Emerson’s metaphor that describes his journal system as a “savings bank.” Instead of viewing his journal entries merely as raw material to be disposed of after the completion of some final work, he considers them as investments which will accrue value over time as he returns to them again and again. However, we should note that this accruement of value is only possible because, like a bank, the formalized journal system provides an organized and durable structure which allows Emerson to easily “leave” his thoughts and then to “return” to them time and time again. In light of this, we should ask ourselves, what sort of home and what sort of dignity have we granted process in graduate student writing? If my personal experience reflects any general trends, then I would guess that the writing of most graduate students is scattered widely across a hundred different files, platforms, devices, notebooks, and scrap pieces of paper. Such disorder, which verges almost on pure loss, only increases as the expansion of our writing tools and mediums continues to accelerate. While the publishing affordances of the web have in one sense enabled graduate student to more fully consider and explore the social dimension of their thought, they have simultaneously been devastating to the ability to reflect coherently on past intellectual labor. It is not enough to enable public and peer pedagogy for in addition to their important positive contributions, they also unfortunately further deligitimize thought which is not shared. Instead, we must put process-oriented thought at the very center of our intellectual practice, whose right to choose publicity or privacy is as important as its right to review at any time the many twists and turns of its own long term development. And so, in order to grant thought these affordances, we must design an Emersonian “savings bank” fit for our own age.
It is tricky, however, to argue that the waste product of academic training, by which I mean the thousands of unread pages that students write on their way to that long last publication, deserves to be treated and protected as gold. Surely, there are better ways to spend our resources. I hope, however, that I have persuasively demonstrated that the structure in which one houses their intellectual process, can dramatically transform the possibility of thought. But in order to rally the political will necessary for demanding a durable and dignified home for our writing (rather than the hundred proprietary, siloed, or manipulative platforms on which we now compose), we must change the culture of shame surrounding process; we must begin to look at our own process with great interest and respect. I am not arguing that this require that we all expose our processes to one another; indeed, what I am arguing for is an investment in digital technology which, like Emerson’s journal, gives the writer herself the choice of when her thought should be shared and with whom. However, in order to confront my own deep discomfort regarding my own process, I have decided to produce this paper in a document editor which will allow the reader to replay the entire composition process. In this way, readers can literally watch me type out the entirety of this paper, with all of my mistakes, fits and starts, and rambly notes to self, most of which, by this paper’s end, I hope to have deleted.It has also allowed to fruitfully return to the thought’s at play in this paper’s origins.
Returning to the bank
Some of us write as if creating a small island of coherence amidst a tossing sea of rushing thought. We jot down all spontaneous material into little word piles throughout our document to which we may never return after the completion of our work. Emerson said that the first and thirds thoughts often agree, meaning that the marks of one’s early, jostled thinking can actually reveal a renewed value after one has gained a critical distance. And so, I’d like to now discuss this paper’s “first thoughts,” in order to see how they might grant further insight to this paper’s subject. First, let me remark briefly on the paper’s context. For reasons that I won’t go into, it was necessary that I produce a paper in an extremely limited amount of time. All I knew was that I wanted to write about Emerson’s journal system to explore some of my questions regarding the effect of infrastructure on thought. I was (and still am) facing multiple large scale deadlines and new success at meeting them would require that I somehow combine tasks. In the middle of reading for my orals exam, at thought struck me and so I pulled out my phone which was, at the moment, the most convenient writing tool. I will here display this content exactly as I wrote it:
this is a paper written in haste which will include in its expression the conditions of its making. it is not an exercise for preparing for an academic article or any other scholarly form, but rather an exercise in reflecting on my experiences of writing as a graduate student and how these experiences have become the very center of my research and political vision. simultaneously, in the spirit of squeezing all possible value from this exercise (while maintaining the conditions of haste) i will use this paper as an opportunity to rehearse some of the points i wish to make in my all-too-quickly approaching orals exam, as the set of tasks before me require that i combine as many activities as possible. i am currently writing this on my iphone using the notes application, and will have to comb over later to put cap letters in where they belong though this strikes me as somewhat unfortunate and dishonest. as i near the end of my first paragraph i begin to wonder, is it possible to finish this one incomplete paper that i must finish in the next 30 days in between things, such as i am in now in between two chapters of a book i am reading. is sustained, generative thought possible in such haphazard spaces? i confess, i did not know this would be my aim when i first began to type (instead of, i proudly declare, check my email or social media accounts). what possible intellectual value could i create for myself by using these spare moments of escape normally absorbed by the numbing stream of communications for quick bursts of writing. this will be the true search of the paper. i think of the agonizing hours i’ve spent writing terrible papers. surely, this could not go worse?
There is a lot in the paragraph above that I would prefer to leave out, but I will leave it as it a good example of why I prefer that my process is private. For example, “my experiences of writing as a graduate student” is not the “very center” of my “political vision,” but I think I understand the general idea which I wanted to more carefully express in a later rewrite. At any rate, I continued writing, and then suddenly had another thought. I decided to transfer my writing from my phone’s note application to the Etherpad web application hosted by Mozilla, which, as I’ve already explained, allows anyone viewing the document to playback its entire history. At this point in the process, I had already decided to further formalize my “paper written in haste” experiment with the rule that I could only compose on my phone. Etherpad turned out not to the easiest to use on one’s phone. However, I persisted. After copying my content from the note application to Etherpad, I wrote:
i have now tranferred the text from my iphone note application to this etherpad application which will allow me to track the development of this paper over time. following through on this impulse is leaving me slightly hesitant — will the knowledge that my original draft will be revealed slow me down? it already is. i am the sloppiest writer, at least in certain contexts. i have a sense of what i want to say, and the desire to continue moving towards that almost realized but still ungrasped goal, and due to the speed necessary for the chase, i am often lazy or vague with word choice. of course, to be honest, i know that even when polishing drafts there is a strong sense that i have not put it correctly, as i try to imitate some version of proper discourse that i still don’t really feel in my own living. there are numerous explanations for this. i habe thought many times it is something particular to my being, in conversation as well i often easily mistake words, phrases, etc. whether a weakness or a quality that assists in creative endeavors, i do not know. nonetheless, the squeeze in my chest has some relation to fear. my tongue already feels tied, my phrases twisted. no matter. this is an exploration into the insecurities of writing, not only its curiousities. i will strive to write unself consciously and observe with interest the challenges that are set before me. it strikes me presently that there is a paradox in writing, it both wants and does not want to be read.
Let me emphasize the fact that I was writing as quickly as possible in order to keep up with the flow of thought, however, in the rush, I found that it was taking me much too long to get to my alleged subject matter, i.e. Emerson, using his process-oriented method. After then writing about this concern I either ran out of steam or returned to other pressing tasks. It took me a good while to return to the paper but when I did, I awkwardly attempted to introduce Emerson at the end of ramble I had last written. It was a move that I then intervened upon several days later, inserting new text within the text of the previous writing session. Troubles began to multiply. I had indeed let my thoughts expand on their own accord as Emerson seems to have instructed but to no apparent order, much less value. I began to lose faith in the enterprise. I wrote:
I confess, that the challenge of sustaining this project became almost immediately apparent. When inspiration and enthusiasm strikes, it can be both easy and pleasurable to generate ideas if paying little mind to their order or legibility. Such, at least, has always been the case for me, particularly in the optimistic moment of brainstorming an idea for a piece of writing. In the privacy of one’s own thoughts and one’s own word processor, one might let ideas flow how they please without minding whether they’ll indeed ever amount to something, or how they’ll appear before the public, which, lacking the subjectivity of the writer herself, are bound to misinterpret or completely miss the point of the writing itself. Thus marks one clear distinction between writing for oneself versus writing for a public; the latter activity requires the additional labor of generating a linguistic film that attempts to guide the reader into the proper understanding. Of course, it must be said that writing for a public does not serve solely the public themselves, but forces the writer the reckon with their inconsistencies and gaps, or, even more importantly, demands that the writer synthesize their flurry of thoughts and experiences into evidence for an argument or concept which adds to our ability to understand either ourselves or the world around us. Indeed, this is the single biggest challenge for my own writing. Thoughts rush in with their urgency and promise, but it is as if the concept which binds them together is hidden from me, it is experience in that moment rather as a vague intimation that is somehow both coporeal and intellectual. I have often approached this moment of the writing process as the task of collecting as many of the thoughts that begin to flow forth when onefeels a hidden concept tremble. I begin to feel the potential power of the idea but I cannot quite grasp it, only know it through the association of thoughts it puts into movement. The thrill of receiving evermore thoughts, each one with some slight difference or variation that contains another hint towards the idea, further delays the necessary labor of putting forth the idea. This is a transition I am always most reluctant to make; it is always much more difficult to produce the idea which is worth more than the sum of its thoughts and I am always disappointed by its execution. This in itself isn’t a new challenge however. What is new in this particular excersise is the doubled difficulty of performing this synthesizing activity across the fragments of spare time and the device at hand.
I began to see, and indeed see now even more clearly, at this very moment in reviewing these excerpts for the second time, that the infrastructure I had allowed myself — my phone and short shreds of time — may have enabled the free association of thought, “deposits,” as Emerson would say, but did not allow for the easy return to them for the sake of reflection. In this moment, it became clear how I might draw upon Emerson’s journal system and process-oriented approach to talk about student writing, however, I realized that from this point forward, the writing process would require a proper computer and writing periods that lasted at least an hour or two. Furthermore, I needed to decide if I would explore these ideas from where I left off, or if, given that I finally a executable “order” in mind, I should start anew and create a very conventional paper. However reasonable this latter option seemed, I was reluctant to to completely trash the original intentions and original material of the paper. This is all documented in the paper’s history. With this question in mind, I went to bed. In the morning, I woke up and decided I would somehow do both. What emerged, then, was a plan that seems quite Emersonian. I let my thoughts unfold on their own accord. At a certain point a new ordering of these thoughts became apparent. This was perhaps expedited by the need to produce order! The paper itself has become what Emerson called the third thought, a weaving together of the seemingly incompatible first and second and it announces that the writer must write her system, for her system will write her. There is much more to be said on this topic, indeed much I have already jotted in text to be deleted below, but to that I will have to return in the future when there is more time to expend. It remains to be seen how it will survive the wait.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo.”Clubs.” Society and Solitude. Boston (USA): Houghton Mifflin, 1904. Web. <http://www.bartleby.com/90/0709.html>
—. “Intellect.” Emerson Central. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2015. <http://www.emersoncentral.com/intellect.htm>
—. “Self-Reliance.” Emerson Central. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2015. <http://www.emersoncentral.com/selfreliance.htm>
—. “Swedenborg; Or, the Mystic.” Emerson Central. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2015. <http://www.emersoncentral.com/swedenborg.htm>
—.”Thoughts on Art.” Society and Solitude. Boston (USA): Houghton Mifflin, 1904. Web. <http://www.bartleby.com/90/0703.html>
Liebman, Sheldon W. “The Development of Emerson’s Theory of Rhetoric, 1821-1836.” American Literature 41.2 (1969): 178. Web.
Rosenwald, Lawrence Alan. Emerson and the Art of the Diary. New York: Oxford UP, 1988. Print.